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Edward O. Wilson, the eminent Harvard biologist, died last month at age 92. His groundbreaking ideas can help us understand the fissures in our society, the fracturing in our relationships and what can be done.

Wilson showed us that we are apes with feet in the mud, not angels on wings. We have a distinct human nature based in biology. As much as we might like to, we can't change that by exhorting others to do the right thing.

But crucially, Wilson believed that if we could better understand our biological blueprint, we could create conditions that make people more likely to do the right thing on their own.

Wilson warned that since 99% of our evolutionary development took place in small groups on the African savanna, human nature was molded for intense contact with a few clansmen in a rich natural environment. We imagine we should all get along, but in mass industrial societies we are like the stepsister's foot trying to squeeze into the glass slipper.

Most scientists now accept that genetic evolution has produced an unmistakable human nature. We want to hold on to the myth that humans make rational choices from an infinite range of possible behavior, but we would be better off if we looked at how humans actually conduct themselves.

Want to increase vaccination rates? Stop citing statistics about the reduced probability of serious illness or death. Start showing videos of COVID patients breathlessly saying goodbye to their loved ones as they embark on what might be a one-way journey with a respirator. On the African savanna there was no need to learn statistics. What mattered was paying attention to what happened to the unlucky clansman who ate a bad mushroom or startled a tiger.

Do you want to decrease polarization in Congress? Stop just fighting over legislation. Instead, start providing individual legislators opportunities to talk with adversaries about their families, their hobbies and their upbringings. Invite them over for a chat around the campfire. Our small group history designed us to cooperate with those we know personally; unfortunately, it also predisposed us to put an arrow through those we don't.

It makes sense that Wilson was the world's foremost expert on ants. In the last chapter of "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis," published in 1975, he made an unprecedented scientific leap — he extended the principles used to understand ants and other social animals to humans.

Wilson theorized that the human mind is not a blank slate which learning, culture and the environment can write on with impunity, but comes already inscribed with instincts, emotions and predispositions. And he endeavored to investigate that human nature as dispassionately as would a zoologist from Mars.

As our present politics shows, Wilson concluded that we are creatures in deep turmoil. Virtuous impulses battle evil desires. An internal struggle is always underway between genes that promote the altruism that helps the group survive and genes that flourish through individual selfishness.

There are often no perfect evolutionary choices available to us. No wonder we suffer from painful, confused emotions, when any action that benefits the individual might damage the family or the group, and vice versa.

Our social behavior is equally knotty. Humans can cooperate quite closely but more often compete. Humans are "absurdly easy" to indoctrinate — they seek it. People are great at getting along within groups, but we have a hard time with folks not in our crowd. We instinctively size each other up when we meet, and frankly, readily lie and posture to put ourselves in the best possible light.

Wilson's portrait may not be pretty, but it is helpful, presenting ample opportunities for promoting good behavior. We need to trigger instincts for cooperation rather than competition. Make people feel like members of the same group. Let people show themselves in a good light by doing good things.

Yes, human nature is stubborn and difficult. Just look at how it underlies the biggest challenges we face — an internet full of lies and hate, violent political conflict even in the world's most successful democracy, selfish nation-states refusing to cooperate to combat climate change.

In all these destructive situations our task is to try to create conditions that elicit the cooperation, caring and altruism that are as much a part of our genetic nature as selfishness. We want to be watering the flowers in our nature, not the thorns.

Sadly, Wilson was the target of vicious criticism and harassment because people don't want to hear that we are just another species of social animal. In particular, his ideas threatened the utopian vision. We can't just rearrange institutions and culture to create nirvana. Human nature is sure to get in the way. Just think of the bloodbaths triggered by the French, Russian and Chinese revolutionary utopians. They were not aberrations.

After the publication of "Sociobiology," Wilson's critics demonstrated at his speeches, disrupted his classes, leafleted, and issued an open letter of condemnation. At one scientific meeting protesters stormed the stage, and one dumped a pitcher of water on his head.

But Wilson doubled down. In 1979 he expanded his single chapter on the biological basis of human behavior to a full book, "On Human Nature," which won his first Pulitzer Prize. And he kept spreading good ideas on many subjects for the next 40 years, eventually producing dozens of books and over 430 scientific papers and championing wide-ranging conservation efforts.

So long, Edward Osborn Wilson. It was not an easy journey, but you left us ideas we really need right now.

Bruce Peterson is a senior district judge and teaches a class on lawyers as peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.