An Open Letter to E.O. Wilson

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

An Open Letter to E.O. Wilson

by Doris O’Donell

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 9, No. 5, September-October 1977, p. 26

Dr. E.O. Wilson
Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dear Dr. Wilson:

I am a graduate student in anthropology at New York University. I purchased a copy of your text, Sociobiology, because I was anxious to study Homo sapiens from the standpoint of so eminent a scientist as yourself. 

This is my problem. Although I scored 760 in the verbal portion of the graduate record examination, I cannot seem to get past paragraph four of Chapter 27, “Man: from sociobiology to sociology,” (pp. 547-548). 

“The reproductive physiology and behavior of Homo sapiens have also undergone extraordinary evolution. In particular, the estrus cycle of the female has changed in two ways that affect sexual and social behavior. Menstruation has been intensified. The females of some other primate species experience slight bleeding, but only in women is there a heavy sloughing of the wall of the ‘disappointed womb’ with consequent heavy bleeding.” 

Now you must have had good reasons for putting the words “disappointed womb” in quotation marks. Whether or not you personally sympathize with that sulky organ I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that you have drawn my attention to the plight of billions upon billions of “disappointed sperm” dying like so many teensy-weensy beached whales on the sands of a bedsheet. Honestly, I couldn’t sleep a wink all night for thinking about them.

“The estrus, or period of female ‘heat’ has been replaced by virtually continuous sexual activity.”

Professor, if I were to tell you how little sexual activity has taken place in my life over, say, the past six months you would weep. However, if the department of zoology at Harvard tells me that continuous sex is the norm for my species, it’s going to be that way for me or by God I will know the reason why. Accordingly, I am going to poll a dozen of my prettiest women friends on their sexual activity over the same six month period using the questionnaire method. Sample query: “Do you think you would get more less action if you were in ‘heat’?” (It occurs to me that we may wish to bring back estrus.)

“The traits of physical attraction are, moreover, fixed in nature. They include the pubic hair of both sexes and the protuberant breasts and buttocks of women.” 

Clearly, you as a scholar have been reading Playboy magazine for a clue to our culture and have noticed that the air brush has been phased out of the tool kit. 

If protuberant breasts and buttocks were fixed in nature as the sine qua non of sexual attraction, where does that leave Jacqueline Onassis? Vanessa Redgrave? Jane Fonda? Or, to be brutal about it, Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller? 

“The flattened sexual cycle and continuous female attractiveness cement the close marriage bonds that are basic to human social life.” 

I do not wish to burden you with tiresome statistics relating to the American divorce rate, its underlying causes, and the consequent dire effects on the quality of American family life. My own case is typical: 

I divorced my husband after two years of warm, mature heterosexual relations of the deeply meaningful kind that bring much-needed children into the world. I did so because the cement cracked in the socio-economic sphere. 

The points which I have raised in this letter may seem trivial to you. I assure you that a textbook bearing the imprimatur of Harvard which substitutes folklore for fact in such a way as to degrade and insult women raises questions which are of paramount concern to me. 

Doris O’Donnell
New York City

>>  Back to Vol. 9, No. 5  <<