The Dangerous Life of an Anthropologist

Matthew Blackwell:

Limping in crutches, his broken leg shielded in plaster following a jogging accident, the distinguished biologist Edward O. Wilson made his way slowly toward the stage at a convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1978. Climbing the stairs, taking his seat, and shuffling his notes, a sudden burst of activity punctuated the silence as the entire front row of the audience leapt onto the stage hurling insults. They jostled Wilson and then poured iced water over his head. The protesters would turn out to be Marxists, incensed by the publication of Wilson’s book Sociobiology.

This story has become a familiar feature of the nature/nurture debate, used to illustrate the vitriolic hostility expressed by ideological groups scrambling to silence what most people already take to be an incontrovertible fact: that humans, just like every other species on earth, have a nature. As crowds abandoned Wilson to evacuate the auditorium that day, one man at the back of the room tried to push his way forward against the multitude heading towards the exits. “It was the most hateful, frightening, and disgusting behavior I’ve ever witnessed at an academic assembly,” the famed anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon would later recall. He didn’t know it then, but the events of that day were an omen of things to come for Chagnon himself, whose Wilsonian worldview would help to bring about one of anthropology’s greatest controversies.