Saturday, October 22, 2011

Long live the nerd patriarch

A former student recently sent me a link to a piece in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Nothing warms my heart as much as receiving this kind of poke. The article describes the unceasing quest of biologist E. O. Wilson for a “theory of everything.” Seven decades ago, he started out as a boy hobbyist collecting with much excitement ants and other insects. Now in his early 80s, he doesn’t seem to have changed much. Only his intellectual ambition has grown. He now thinks the kind of science he pursues (dressed up in mathematical formulas and equations) is poised to finally resolve “the great questions of man’s nature” – the same questions that have bugged misty-headed philosophers for a couple of millennia.
For starters, Wilson hopes biologists will soon identify the “trigger” genes that have enabled “eusocial” species like his beloved ants and us humans to establish complex patterns of social cooperation. I often point out to my students the need to develop a conceptual framework which can help them organize and make relevant the swirl of factoids and concepts thrown at them in various courses and online. I am now thinking overconceptualization may also pose a peril. Defining both ants and humans as “eusocial” species and assuming that “cooperation” within their respective colonies is “triggered” by the same biological mechanism may be a bit delusional. I was also going to say: how ironic that Wilson’s “scientific” theory still hinges on a fuzzy metaphor. But I then realized that he probably used “trigger” in the most literal sense – to designate a mechanical causal chain with one moving part pressing upon another, to produce a palpable change. It is a well known scientific fact that nerds don’t do metaphors well. A case in point is James M. Buchanan who in the mid-1980s received the Nobel-branded prize in economics. His towering achievement was his theory of “public choice” which rationalized his complete inability to imagine the existence of a “common good.” The self-evident absurdity of that notion led Buchanan to conclude that politicians and government bureaucrats, like all human beings, are – and should be – motivated by pure self-interest. In a similar way, Wilson has a hard time imagining the existence of genuine altruism. He recently recruited two smart mathematicians to help him prove that what looks like altruistic sacrifice in different species is in fact motivated by the opportunistic pursuit of group advantage.