Beautiful Souls and Richard Dawkins on “The Descent of Edward Wilson”
by Adam Robbert
In my M.A. thesis I devoted a whole chapter to the history of evolution and ecology. The former started with Carl Linnaeus and went right up to the present day. The latter started with Ernst Haeckel’s coining of the term ”oekologie” in 1866 and likewise took the reader right into contemporary issues in ecological science. It’s an interesting story to trace particularly since both ideas are the cornerstones of contemporary biology, and both have interesting relationships to various religious, metaphysical, and political structures of belief (beliefs that influence but don’t determine the validity of the sciences; problematic statements abound!)
Haeckel, for example, was very influenced by Romanticism, as evidenced by his organic monism. Monism, holism, and romanticism have deep connections with ecology (connections that stay alive, though reformed, in today’s popular understanding of ecology, which is still primarily centered on monistic, holistic, and romantic ideas). In a similar vein, the relationship of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (and Darwin’s impressionable reading of Thomas Malthus) has led to some troubling historical links between capitalism, neoliberalism, and certain skewed readings of evolutionary theory (e.g., eugenics, theories of race, Enron’s usage of “selfish gene” metaphors to justify its greedy behavior etc.)
The links between evolution, ecology, romanticism, and capitalism are some of the finest insights that Tim Morton excavates in Ecology Without Nature. In many ways, contemporary culture is still struggling to understand its relation to what evolution, capitalism, and romanticism means. Indeed, as Morton suggests, one of the key markers that “we” (the industrialized North Atlantic Nations, and perhaps other cultures as well) are still in the romantic period is precisely that we deny that there are links between capitalism, evolution, and romanticism, and that these links have anything to do with how we respond — aesthetically, politically, philosophically — to ecological issues.
Morton calls this “beautiful soul syndrome.” (“The beautiful soul maintains a critical position about everything except for its own position” (EwN, p. 121). Beautiful soul syndrome makes ecological issues a question of transforming identity — of raising consciousness, transforming worldviews, trading faces in the shopping mall of subjectivity — without asking the question: is this attempt to transform subjectivity without making structural change itself the standpoint that needs to be critiqued? Morton is wise to point out that critiquing beautiful soul syndrome is itself a kind of double romanticism; it performs many of the behaviors it looks to critique while critiquing it. What a mess!
When I wrote my history of evolution and ecology I followed it up with a discussion of contemporary views on ecology and evolution. At the time (this was late 2009 early 2010) there were some fairly straightforward party lines that could be drawn. Among the people I selected to study were Dawkins, Wilson, Gould, Lewontin, and the Odum brothers — all of whom will take permanent places in the history of science. I wanted to show that there was a trend in evolutionary thinking towards integrating natural selection with ecology, a trend that can be justified by looking at how ecosystems ecology (driven by cybernetics and systems thinking) began to merge with evolutionary biology (driven be natural selection).
In different ways we can see this occurring in the most recent textbooks on ecology (Cf. Odum’s introductory textbook The Fundamentals of Ecology 5th edition) where there is discussion of mereology — of part/whole relations, or what the authors call a “holological” approach. That there are some fundamentally ontological issues in these discussions is apparent to any philosopher who peers into these debates, ontological issues that are not necessarily dealt with the sophistication they deserve (Stuart Kaufman is a great example of a scientist dealing with the genuine problem of ontological emergence in his more recent writings). It’s here we can consider Dawkins recent critique of Wilson’s new book The Social Conquest of Earth.
The research I did for my history chapter indicated that Dawkins and Wilson were close allies in terms of their biology. Both favored a strong reductionism, and both wanted to understand the behavior of individuals, groups, and species in terms of their smallest parts: genes. But reading Dawkins’ review of Wilson’s new book seems to indicate a break in that marriage. You can read the full review HERE. Wilson’s latest book (which I have yet to read) puts forth a theory of multileveled selection operative at the level of genes, organisms, groups, species, and ecosystems. Dawkins sticks to his guns and disparages Wilson for advocating group selection, “the poorly defined and incoherent view that evolution is driven by the differential survival of whole groups of organisms.”
Now, I’m a trained philosopher and only an amateur biology enthusiast, so I won’t pretend my opinion on the biological debate is relevant to these two heavy weights. Nevertheless, as a philosopher, I do feel inclined to point out what is occurring between Dawkins and Wilson — whether they want to discuss it in these terms or not — is primarily an ontological issue. Both scientists understand perhaps better than anyone on the planet what is at stake biologically when talking about genes, organisms, and ecosystems. However, we can make the case that they are having a mereological (i.e., ontological) dispute about what gets to count as a real actor in evolutionary dynamics. Wilson’s change of heart thus seems to be as much a philosophical move away from ontological reductionism as it is a change based on empirical data (though which came first is anyone’s guess).
The point is that we can read this argument as one that is baked into the very history of ecology and evolution from the beginning, and both positions — individualism and collectivism — and their accompanying methods — reductionism and holism — still leave us trapped within the tensions that emerge in the matrix of capitalism, romanticism, and evolutionary or ecological thinking. In other words, it’s still modernity trying to work itself out. The way forward seems to be a serious infusion of ontological thinking into our conceptions of ecology and evolutionary theory, and the recent “ontological,” “nonhuman,” or “speculative” turns in philosophy couldn’t have come soon enough.