Philosophy Class Dismissed?

by Carol Iannone

We know that E. O. Wilson has no use for religion (the Book of Revelation was written by “a paranoid schizophrenic who was allowed to write down everything that came to him”), and now he is dismissing philosophy as well. In an article in the November Atlantic based on interviews with Wilson, Howard W. French explains: ”Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to ‘puzzle out’ what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on ‘failed models of the brain.’”

Wilson believes that the answers to the mysteries of human existence lie in genetics and evolution, which made us and a few other species, such as ants, capable of highly structured social life. ”Eusociality” is what mainly constitutes our higher nature. Unfortunately, there is no physical evidence of this yet, but Wilson says that it is up to the geneticists “to determine how many genes are involved in crossing the eusociality threshold, and to go find those genes.” (Maybe generations of geneticists will suffer trying to do that.)

The human condition is made up of conflict between two genetic drives: “group selection,” in which the genes for eusociality are selected and passed on, produces virtue; “individual selection,” which is competition among individual organisms to pass on their genes, creates sin.

Wilson professes optimism about the human condition and French parses out why. If the social traits are deeply written into our genetic codes, “we might hope that we can find ways to emphasize and reinforce them, to build problem-solving coalitions that can endure, and to identify with progressively larger and more-inclusive groups over time.”  

Isn’t that always the way with Darwinism. Everything is random and motiveless and purposelessly and unintelligently evolved through eons of evolution, and then suddenly we’re taking thought and taking charge and solving problems and becoming masters of our fate once again. But leaving that aside, if we’re going to start deliberating about our actions and deciding which of our drives are worth reinforcing, philosophy might well come in handy, along with Socrates, Plato, and the rest of those boys.