E. O. Wilson gives soccer moms a bum rap

The naturalist savages them as enemies of a "proper biological education" but he's firing his artillery at the wrong target.

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 2, 2008 10:08PM (EDT)

Let us count the stupidities in the following quote from biologist E. O. Wilson at the Aspen Environmental Forum, promoted by Grist as an example of his "wit and wisdom."

The worst thing you can do to a child, in my opinion, is take them on a hike through a botanical garden where there are the names of the trees on the side. Rachel Carson once said, so true, take the child to the seashore, turn her loose with a pail, and tell her to go explore the tidepools. Don't tell her the names of any of these things. Let her find them, let her touch them, let her bring them to you, talk about them, and then you give her the name.

These squeezed-in lives of children who are taken occasionally to a park like that or a zoo to see the labels is all part of what I like to call -- I hope I'm not offending anyone -- the "soccer mom syndrome." I believe that soccer moms are the greatest enemy in modern life of natural history and proper biological education.

The worst thing you can do? As the parent of two children, I can assure E.O. Wilson that there are many things you can do to a child that are quite a bit more awful than taking them to a botanical garden where the trees are, gasp, named. I'm all for letting kids run wild at the seashore, but aquariums, zoos and museums of natural history are hardly intellectual torture chambers.

Then there's the passive aggressiveness of prefacing a sweeping denunciation of an entirely made-up category of people -- the dreaded soccer mom -- with the mealy-mouthed formulation "I hope I'm not offending anyone." If you're going to classify a group of women (and what about the soccer dads, huh, where's their ring of hell?) as "the greatest enemy" of anything, then you might as well take full pleasure in your offensiveness. Because anyone who gets upset isn't going to be assuaged by hearing that you "hope" you're not being an insufferable twit.

Finally, there's the gross factual inaccuracy of his denunciation. Are "soccer moms" really more of a threat to a "proper biological education" than fundamentalist zealots who take over school boards in order to mandate the teaching of "intelligent design" flimflam in public schools as an alternative to evolutionary theory?

I don't think so.

Wilson, who was raised a creationist but is no fan of intelligent design, should know better. He is well aware of the true identity of biology's enemies, and they aren't the women, or men, driving minivans full of children to soccer games on Saturday afternoon, in between trips to the local botanical garden.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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