E.O. Wilson is often a fount of common-sense bordering on wisdom; I don’t have to fully agree with a thinker to consider him sane and insightful. Wilson is a bit of a biological Calvinist but Jean Calvin and Jonathon Edwards were certainly sane if, in my opinion, quite wrong about some important matters. Oddly enough, in On Human Nature, Wilson disturbs the flow of sane words and opinions, in spurts, when he comes to the chapter titled Sex. He knows that no species can survive, let alone prosper, if it begins to act in ways at odds with the genetic heritage of that species and, yet, in a few scattered paragraphs shows himself to be carrying one of those strange fevers of modern academia when he chants some strange odes to the modern belief that women can be happier and more fulfilled if they become more like their fathers and less like their mothers, at least as fathers and mothers were a generation or two ago. Maybe he has moved on but I’ll continue to review On Human Nature as originally published in 1978.
Over the three decades or so since On Nature was first published, the scientific content has held up very well, the general (almost philosophical) comments nearly as well, and the paragraphs where he seems to pander to modern American feminism date the book, though those ideas are still set in the rock-like minds of many politicians and activists and more than a few academics.
The story seems to be:
No, we aren’t absolutely bound by our biological heritage but we are bound by the most fundamental parts of that heritage, especially those aspects of human reproduction which are the foundation of our social forms.
However, we should nevertheless contort ourselves in the interests of helping women to take on roles at odds with their role in reproduction.
And, no, the truer traditionalist position on the roles of men and women doesn’t entail that women are restricted only to mainstream women’s roles as captured on television in the 1950s and 1960s, those roles being themselves a product of the Industrial Revolution, rather than a heritage from traditions properly understood. At their best, traditions reflect human nature and should guide general expectations, where I understand traditions to be the result of the responses of ancestors to their situations. Traditions are better the more they develop to be themselves responsive to changes within some spectrum of morally well-ordered human communities.
For a better understanding of the non-traditional nature of the 1950s American family, see From Cottage to Work Station by Allan C. Carlson which tells of the way in which the roles of women from adequately prosperous families were restricted to the home in response to the social and moral problems of the Industrial Revolution. These changes were largely led by women from families of newly prosperous American and British Evangelical Protestants.
If we were a race of more open-minded creatures, those smart women who wish to become mathematicians or historians or lawyers could do so and could have done so in all societies past the stage where nearly every woman had to be bearing and raising children for the survival of her family lines. More recently, public institutions, medical systems and schools and public playgrounds and so on, have expanded so that, in the early stages of expansion, women remained in homes no longer the center of care of the young and the old and the sick or the incompetent. Such thinkers as Betty Friedan have testified that, at least in prosperous families, the resulting homes and the resulting lives of women were barren in various ways. That seems right to me. My maternal grandmother was an old-fashioned housewife and my paternal grandmother was a farm-wife on a family farm. Most of their daily work—making clothes and repairing clothes, managing food in an era when they had at best simple iceboxes, growing fresh vegetables, raising chickens, feeding the temporary workers during harvest-time, and so on—aren’t part of the economy of the modern household. (I didn’t distinguish between tasks of my mill-town grandmother and my Oklahoma family farm grandmother.) The changes to a more barren home-life for women were partly caused by the bloating of the welfare state, encouraged by Christian leaders, which had various effects, one of which was that, by at least the late 1960s, the large family became socially and economically nonviable for most, perhaps economically nonviable in farm-country because the family farm was itself becoming unenviable.
With children old enough to be in school and little league and at the Boys’ or Girls’ clubs, some women, by the 1950s or so, seemed to be stuck at home as bored and restless decorations, not equipped to even properly entertain themselves. There are also undoubtedly some legitimate complaints on the part of individual women in fields where their talents weren’t recognized or rewarded. Modern politicians are good at promising to fix various problems with their governmental hammers. And they carried through as best they could; our moral and social structures were pounded by those and other hammers forged in the modern world and that pounding came on top of social and moral structures already weakening for various reasons.
Wilson admits that feminism has sometimes not been at all attractive to its purported beneficiaries when he acknowledges that the daughters and granddaughters of truly radical feminists on Israeli kibbutzim willingly adopted very traditional roles for themselves. Wilson even tells us that efforts to engineer human beings, as individuals or communities, to forms contradictory to our basic genetic traits will result in very bad things happening. Some bad things were happening as a result of the re-formation of the family in response to the Industrial Revolution—see the novels of Charles Dickens or Benjamin Disraeli to get some idea of why it was that those Evangelical Protestants wished to protect children from the social horrors of that period and why it was that women felt it necessary to retreat from devastated regions of the social landscape so they could better care for the children.
So it was that, when feminism went `mainstream’ in the 1960s, some bad things were happening already. The 1960s were, in various ways, loaded with problems caused by the inevitable breakdown of the moral order of American life starting from at least World War I and not some sort of fresh revolution from out of nowhere. There were legitimate questions to be answered and the type of facts and partially refined knowledge to be found in books such as On Nature could have helped, and will eventually help, to find good answers. Feminism as supported by our corrupt political parties and academic centers isn’t one of those good answers.
If we push too hard, we’re more likely to destroy the human race than to `perfect’ it. In a slightly less extreme situation, we’re more likely to badly damage a country, such as Russia, than we are to turn it into a workers’ paradise, where the workers have been perfected to a state suited to the paradise as designed by their betters. In a still less extreme situation, we’ve delayed the age of marriage and child-bearing for many, partly as a result of our mandatory school attendance laws, only to find a number of teenaged women having babies in very imprudent situations and other women perhaps having too few babies to keep their family lines going. Of course, we’ve rendered ourselves stupid enough to consider this an excuse for more social programs, by government or churches or other agents of knee-jerk responses, rather than a serious reason to rethink matters before we destroy more lives or even finish destroying Western Civilization. The motto of our do-gooders seems to be: if it hasn’t worked so far, then let’s do more of it.
One problem we have is the inability of most human beings, whether a product of nature or nurture or more likely both, to distinguish between class characteristics and individual variations. This is one of the problems which could be eliminated, in principle, by a proper theory of created being, one which recognizes that each complex entity, and perhaps each particle or other `simple’ entity, is a mixture of being from different levels of relatively more concrete and relatively more abstract forms of created being. As it is, most human beings, feminists and evolutionary biologists and politicians, need to be able to slot each entity in a category from some preferred scheme set by occult processes of some sort. It seems impossible, and we can pray appearances are deceiving in this regard, to hold an overall view of human females which protects the vast majority of girls and women and at the same time treats those women wishing to hold down one of those unconventional roles as respectable individuals. We’re dealing here with a problem I addressed with respect to a horrible event in the history of colonial New England. See The Need for Abstractions in Moral Self-understanding. Unfortunately, as I noted above, human beings seem to have, at best, rudimentary skills for dealing with the totality of being, abstract to concrete.
In fact, if we remember Jacques Barzun’s distinction between (individual) intelligence and (communal and capitalized) intellect, it would seem that a true intellect of the sort which begins to emerge as a civilization develops is simply a better way to allow most men and women, boys and girls, to participate in a more complex civilization or more complex form of religious belief without using their individual intelligences in realms which are perhaps beyond their reach—at some point, each one of us goes beyond the capacity of our intelligence. See Intelligence vs. Intellect for a discussion of the distinction between individual intelligence and communal intellect as found in Barzun’s book, The House of Intellect.
One of the problems with the Enlightenment distortion of human thought, a distortion seemingly congenial to Americans—Joe Six-pack as well as Lefty Chapbook, is that we imagine that since we have strong and living intelligences capable of dealing well with metal-work or understanding the writings of established novelists or philosophers or putting together political coalitions, then that means we can move right on to understand the American role in Afghanistan or the revelations in the Bible or the nature of truth or time or space or whatever. So far as I can tell there are many who have minds competent at dealing with specific domains of concrete being, often more than one such domain. It also seems that there are few who have the native talent, fewer still with the developed talent, to deal with those more abstract realms of being, fewer than that who can deal with complex mixtures of concrete and abstract realms of being. One reason for some not developing such talents is the time factor mentioned above, especially in our busy-work era. Little more than a century ago, smalltown lawyers or country parsons or the non-idle rich could sometimes produce modest or more than modest works in biology or history or mathematics. Nowadays, we’re far more limited in the development of our human natures, a complex issue beyond the scope of this essay.
It’s disturbing when Wilson goes into tizzies approaching psychosis in the chapter entitled Sex. After arguing that we and other creatures are our bodies, a statement I’d agree with so long as bodies are understood as part of created being as I understand it, Wilson works himself up into his tizzies after discussing the justice of a fairly radical sexual equality, which mostly seems to mean that the traditional and pseudo-traditional feminine roles are to be jettisoned as much as possible because they’re yucky and not very admirable. Then we can admit women to the status of true human being; they can fill the roles more suited to many men—but far from all men—and a few women. Yeah! What about all the common-sense statements that we can only do great damage to ourselves, our children, and our communities by trying to make ourselves into creatures having characteristics inconsistent with our DNA, inconsistent with the history of the human race?
Liberalism, in its varied manifestations, has replaced the idea of the human being with that of radical individuals filling roles in liberal society, bipedal hairless apes being stuff to be shaped to fill those biologically implausible roles in sociobiologically implausible societies.
The various forms of traditionalism are the result of sociobiological processes in which family lines of human beings developed social, political, economic, and religious structures which allowed them to sustain and reproduce their individual and communal selves under particular conditions (which, to be sure, sometimes go out of existence before those structures). A lot can happen in such a complex process and much of that `a lot’ is undesirable in some meaningful sense. Some of that which may be undesirable, at least to our Western eyes, is also inevitable in a sense. Take Afghanistan. Most men lead very harsh lives as nomadic herders or farmers of unpromising soil. The wives of the men have even less fulfilling lives. Be realistic. That’s what Afghanistan allows. The type of men we consider brutal and exploitive are the types who can survive in a harsh environment. To be sure, better is possible but better doesn’t come with do-gooders imposing American middle-class life-styles upon poppy farmers and nomadic herdsmen or bandits. Nor does it come at the points of American guns. Stay in Afghanistan or move there and those descendants who survive will tend to be like those Afghans who don’t quite meet our standards. So far as I know, even the Macedonians and Greeks that Alexander the Great left to guard the trade routes merged into the native population. The same seems to have happened with the Mongolians left by the Khans to fill the same role.
So, some traditions are generally what they are because their setting allows the human residents a limited range of options. Some traditions allow more freedom to take advantage of new opportunities, but perhaps the members of that tradition don’t find those new opportunities to be attractive.
We can take this away: traditions, living and always—ideally—being modified by talented thinkers and insightful spiritual guides and clearheaded men of action, are our guides for building upon our biological natures to achieve higher levels of community lives, lives reflecting higher moral order and also higher cognitive understandings of ourselves and other entities and aspects of Creation.
We can also take this away: we had a pretty good group of traditions in Western Civilization. They were far from perfect, and, as I noted above, we had problems living by those parts of the traditions which reflected legitimate group differences while also treating members of groups as individuals. Yet, we have lost a lot with our immoral efforts to impose dreams upon biological creatures and their communities. I think we’ll gain still more if we respond properly to our problems and opportunities. The usual story told by traditionalists is that the Enlightenment thinkers did their damage by stepping outside of their own traditions, outside of their own moral communities. Supporters of the Englightenment way of thinking will claim the traditionalists were inflexible and had become mere bigots. There’s a lot of truth in both views and that situation leads to the conjecture that Western Civilization, at least in its Modern or post-Medieval phase, has run its course. We’re entering a new phase of that story being told by God, which story is this world. The legitimate scientific knowledge and general commentary of E.O. Wilson and other clearheaded sociobiological thinkers can help us to tell our version of this phase of God’s story and, by so doing, we better enter into this story as God’s servants and friends.