Among names like “Oprah” and “Bono,” E.O. Wilson was relatively unknown to students on the commencement speaker advisory committee.
But months ago, when students voiced concerns with the Harvard University professor’s notoriety — or lack thereof — their criticism was assuaged after learning of his contributions to the field of biology, particularly sociobiology.
Now, only weeks away from delivering that address, Wilson is facing criticism yet again, this time from the scientific community.
Wilson rejected the traditional theory of altruism — the same theory he helped bring to mainstream acceptance by the scientific community in the 1970s. His move provoked a collection of critical letters to Nature magazine, which more than 100 scientists signed.
In an article in Nature, Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, reversed his position on the long-standing theory that animals help each other because of kinship, arguing that the theory has many limitations and that the standard natural selection theory is more accurate.
One of the letters stated that Wilson’s disagreement with the kin selection theory is “based upon a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and a misrepresentation of the empirical literature.”
But administrators, professors and students alike are standing behind their May commencement speaker, saying the more controversy, the better.
“Do we want somebody to come to this campus who is not fully engaged with his ideas and afraid of controversy? No way,” said Dr. Ron Strauss, executive associate provost and chairman of the speaker advisory committee.
“We want people here who are deeply involved with ideas and can convey to our students the value of engaging in intellectual discourse and research,” he said.
Strauss said he thinks the willingness to challenge traditional norms is an ideal quality for a speaker.
“You really want somebody who is willing to tell it how they see it, both as a scientist and as a human,” he said. “I would be only proud if he were able to express how he came to new ideas and what ideas he’s holding. That they’re controversial is not a problem from my vantage point.”
Haven Wiley, a biology professor, said Wilson has incited controversy ever since the 1970s, when he published his book “Sociobiology.”
Wiley said he is not surprised to see Wilson receiving criticism once again, and that the controversy won’t harm Wilson’s legacy.
“I doubt that anything will tarnish his reputation,” Wiley said. “His reputation is made.”
Senior class co-presidents Liz Deane and Justin Tyler, both members of the speaker advisory committee, said they look forward to the voice Wilson will bring to the ceremony, regardless of controversy.
“There will be more people who are aware of his theory, but I don’t think that’s going to take away from him being able to talk about whatever he wants to talk about and actually be inspirational to UNC students,” Tyler said.
Strauss said student groups have expressed interest in meeting him, and that the experience will be educational for graduating seniors.
“I know one thing — being a good scientist would be a great thing for our students to be exposed to,” Strauss said.
Contact the University Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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