“Edward O. Wilson and the Organicist Tradition”

Journal of the History of Biology 46 (2013): 599-630

In 2010, Edward O. Wilson decided to abandon the theory of kin selection, sending shockwaves throughout the biological sciences. In response, more than a hundred biologists signed letters protesting his reversal. Making sense of Wilson’s decision and the controversy it spawned requires familiarity with the historical record. This entails not only examining the conditions under which kin selection theory first emerged, but also the organicist tradition against which it rebelled. In similar fashion, one must not only examine Wilson’s long career, but also those thinkers who influenced him most, especially his intellectual grandfather, William Morton Wheeler (1865–1937). Wilson belongs to a long line of organicists, biologists whose research highlighted integration and coordination, many of whom struggled over the exact same biological riddles that have long defined Wilson’s career. Drawing inspiration (and sometimes ideas) from these intellectual forebears, Wilson is confident that he has finally identified the origin of the social impulse.