How Science is Perverted to Build Fascism:
A Marxist Critique of E.O. Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
by: Steve Rosenthal Department of Sociology, Hampton University, Hampton VA, presented at 1998 at the Southern Sociological Society meeting
For twenty-five years Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson has put forward the idea that it is human nature to be fascist. In his latest book Consilience (an archaic word that means combining), Wilson insists that sociobiology must be imposed on all academic disciplines.
E.O. Wilson is a Harvard professor emeritus of entomology, the study of insects. In the 1970s he updated the old social Darwinist ideology that human societies are shaped by the biological nature of humans. Just as the nature of ants creates colonies of queens, drones, workers, and slaves, the nature of humans creates racism, sexism, patriotism, wars, religion, and class exploitation. Wilson used this "revelation" to argue that efforts to fight against racism, sexism, and imperialism go against human nature and are thus exceedingly difficult, and to claim that communism is unscientific and cannot work. Wilson proudly says of himself, "At my core, I am a social conservative, a loyalist. I cherish traditional institutions, the more venerable and ritual-laden the better."
Wilson put these arguments into Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, published in 1975 by Harvard University Press and widely promoted by the popular media. Many natural and social scientists exposed human sociobiology as an unscientific attempt to defend the capitalist status quo as natural and unchangeable.
Because of these sharp critiques, Wilson reinvented himself as an environmentalist concerned about bio-diversity. A quarter century and five books later, Wilson today poses as a reasonable advocate of genetic and cultural "co-evolution" and as a proponent of genetic/environmental interaction. He pretends to reject biological determinism, social Darwinism, and eugenics. The ruling class has extolled Consilience as the crowning achievement of a visionary elder statesman of capitalist science. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal lavishly praised his call for the subjugation of the social sciences and the humanities to the natural sciences, and for the elevation of his pseudo-science to state religion. The Atlantic Monthly interviewed Wilson and published excerpts of Consilience.
The unifying concept of Consilience is human nature. According to Wilson, human nature "is the_hereditary regularities of mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction_and thus connect the genes to culture" (p. 164). Therefore, in all human societies we favor our own family, ethnic and religious group, impose male dominance, create hierarchies of status, rank, and wealth and rules for inheritance, promote the territorial expansion and defense of our society, and enter into contractual agreements (pp. 168-172). Recycling the main ideological assertions of Sociobiology, Wilson claims that racism, religious hatred, sexism, and war are not inevitable features of capitalism, but universal traits of our genetically evolved human nature.
The natural sciences, Wilson claims, have discovered these truths, and the social sciences and the humanities must adopt them in order to achieve "consilience." Cognitive neuroscience, human behavioral genetics, evolutionary biology, and the environmental sciences are the four "bridges of consilience" from the natural sciences to the social sciences and humanities. Only "consilience" can rescue social scientists and humanists from "the pits of Marxism" and postmodernist relativism.
To illustrate "consilience," Wilson interprets the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He writes that it was partly an example of "ethnic rivalry run amuck," reflecting our genetically based tribal instincts. It also had a "deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography."
Population growth outstripped the carrying capacity of the land. "The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi then set out to solve the population problem in the most direct possible way." And, Wilson concludes, "Rwanda is a microcosm of the world" (pp. 287-88).
Consider what Wilson omits from his analysis. Hutus and Tutsis intermarried centuries ago, and there is no biological distinction between them. European colonialists arbitrarily created an ethnic distinction and used the Tutsi minority to impose indirect rule on the Hutu majority. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank imposed agricultural and financial reforms that shifted land use from subsistence food production to export crops such as coffee.
Environmental scientists and demographers (specialists on population) have shown that famines and wars in Africa are the result of imperialism, not overpopulation. France, Egypt, South Africa, Russia, and other imperialists armed rival factions in Rwanda. Nationalist leaders in Rwanda recruited, incited, and armed the "teenage soldiers." Pres. Clinton prevented the US Government and the UN from intervening to halt the genocide. Wilson blames genocide on human nature and overpopulation to let imperialists and local nationalists off the hook. Under the banner of "consilience" Wilson excludes from his analysis knowledge provided by history, anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, demography, and environmental science.
Wilson similarly perverts the humanities. Consider his analysis of ethics. Ethical behavior for Wilson is patriotic behavior. Therefore, religion is "a necessary device of survival," because it promotes submission to the group. Religion "is also empowered mightily by its principal ally, tribalism." Moreover, humans by nature are easily indoctrinated and manipulated (pp. 245-260). The human brain, Wilson asserts, "is a stone-age organ." It makes people "intuitive and dogmatic," emotional and unscientific. These "preliterate traits are commonplace in citizens of modern industrial societies" (p. 208). Revealing a despicable elitist contempt for most of humanity, Wilson laments that human nature creates genocidal Nazis, who are easily indoctrinated with religious and nationalistic ideologies to become mass murderers, yet he urges us "to discipline the old ways of thought but never to abandon them" (p. 208).
Wilson also applied his sociobiological ideological framework to the US/NATO war in Yugoslavia. Speaking to a large audience at Emory University Medical School last spring (personal communication from a faculty member who was present) while the war in Yugoslavia was going on, Wilson explained ethnic cleansing as an expression of natural human religious dogmatism and tribalism, thereby justifying Western military intervention as a humanitarian effort. Wilson did not mention that United States and Western European leaders ruined the economy of Yugoslavia by the imposition of free market structural adjustment programs and promoted the breakup and division of Yugoslavia into small dependent neo-colonial states. Wilson did not explain that the US/NATO alliance wanted to assert strategic domination of the Balkans in order to remove the region from Russian influence and safeguard future oil pipelines to be built from the Caspian region into Western Europe. Wilson did not explain that Balkan rulers are fascist demagogues who diverted the anger of workers by making scapegoats of members of other Balkan nationalities and religions. Wilson ignored the multiethnic unity that was achieved by the Yugoslav partisans against fascism during World War II, because for him such multiethnic unity is a genetically impossibility.
If we recognize Wilson's approach to human nature as an atrocious example of reification, how should we as sociologists analyze human nature? Humans create our nature through our history, our labor, and through our interaction with each other and with our environment. Although our brain is a product of evolution, there is no such thing as a fixed human nature. Before the invention of agriculture, our human ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years in small communal societies that had no state, private wealth, or contracts.
There is no genetic basis for tribalism, racism, sexism, or other features of present societies. These ideologies and behaviors in the world today reflect the class interests of capitalist rulers, and millions of workers throughout the world have fought against them.
We can develop a scientific outlook toward human nature, only if we have no ideological need to justify or perpetuate any aspect of class exploitation and social inequality.
What is a Marxist approach to ethics? Wilson's sociobiological approach to ethics evades the concrete reality of workers' subordination to capitalist rule by focusing on the relationship between the individual and society. Marxist ethics recognizes that what is good for the exploiting class is bad for the working class. Egalitarianism and internationalism are the ethical precepts of the working class. Patriotism, religion, racism, and sexism benefit the exploiting class. They enrich capitalists, blur class lines, and promote divisions within the working class. That is why Wilson wants to "discipline but never abandon" them.
How should we view the "unification of knowledge?" We should oppose "consilience" not to defend academic disciplines developed historically under capitalism, or to defend the postmodernist view that everything is relative. We should oppose Wilson's "consilience," because it is an attempt to unify the academic world under a fascist pseudo-science. Marxists strive to unify and expand our understanding of the world. In contrast to Wilson's reductionist, mechanical materialist approach to science, dialectical materialism is the Marxist scientific method based on the reality that everything in the world is interconnected and in the process of changing.
In universities today capitalist control over science has been tightened up. Biotech, pharmaceutical, and military interests control public and private research funding, and pressures to obtain grants preoccupy most scientists. In the social sciences and the humanities, however, there are more minority and women faculty and students, and there is more critical and Marxist oriented thinking about society.
Wilson wants to use "consilience" to whip the rest of the academic world into line for the ruling class. His sharpest ideological attacks are directed at Marxists.
Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci, writing about the rise of fascism in Italy during the 1920s, called those who played a major role in helping the ruling class build ideological support for fascism "organic intellectuals." E.O. Wilson is an organic intellectual, a "loyalist" who has dedicated his career to assisting the growth of fascism in the United States. Marxists led the anti-fascist struggle to defeat the engenics movement that was the "crown jewel" of fascist pseudo-science during the first half of this century. Today we must organize to defeat Wilson's attempts to make "sociobiological consilience" the academic centerpiece of a new period of fascism.