In his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, the biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson attempts to answer the three questions posed by Paul Gauguin in the title of what is arguably his most famous work: “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?). According to Wilson, these “central problems of religion and philosophy” cannot be solved by those disciplines, and until the three questions are answered, humankind will continue to be “terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”
How, then, does Wilson (professor emeritus at Harvard University, discoverer of pheromones, author of the seminal work Sociobiology) propose to answer these questions? Through an examination of the evolution (in both the metaphorical and Darwinian meanings) of humanity into what biologist call “eusocial” – truly social – creatures.
As might be expected, such an undertaking has stirred up considerable debate, not only because of Wilson’s final conclusions (more on those later) but also because of the evolutionary theory of natural selection underpinning his attempt to formulate a “theory of everything” (à la quantum physics) that explains all of human nature and behavior, at least in the aggregate. Wilson dismisses the field’s prevailing theory, kin selection, or inclusive-fitness theory (proposed by William D. Hamilton), in favor of multi-level (or group) selection theory. He first did so, with co-authors Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, in a 2010 article published in the journal Nature. This article, “The Evolution of Eusociality,” claimed that the dominant interpretation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection – that living beings evolve in such a way so as to help each individual propagate its own genes and those of other individuals most closely related to it (hence, the “kin” in kin selection), and that a by-product of this is the continuation of behavior that is good for the group as a whole – is incorrect, and that the older, long-dismissed group selection theory – where genes evolve in ways that specifically benefit one group’s existence over another’s – provides a better way of understanding where humankind came from and what we are.
The reaction was swift and, in large part, negative. Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) and more than 100 others wrote to Nature claiming that Wilson and his colleagues were wrong, that their methodology was flawed and their interpretation of data incorrect. When Wilson published The Social Conquest of Earth two years later, Dawkins wrote a scathing review (“The Descent of Edward Wilson”) in Prospect magazine accusing Wilson of, among other things, publishing his flawed theory in a book to gain popular acceptance when it became apparent that it would not be accepted within the scientific community. Wilson has given interviews refuting Dawkins’s assertions, other scientists have weighed in, and the debate continues.
How, then, does Wilson attempt to answer Gauguin’s questions?
Writing in a clear, engaging voice (as befits an author twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize), Wilson traces the evolution of humankind from when the first species of Homo split off from our common ancestral line to “The Sprint to Civilization” and the Neolithic revolution. Drawing on a number of theories from anthropology, biology and sociology, Wilson weaves together a compelling timeline for the emergence of human beings as eusocial animals. From fingers, fire and (cooked) food through the development of language to the crucial component, the establishing of a defensible “nest” or campsite, Wilson proposes that both genetics (the human hand, with its spatulate fingers and opposable thumb) and environment (lightning strikes sparking fires that our ancestors then took advantage of) helped drive later evolutionary changes that eventually resulted in the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens. The campsite, as a location where a group establishes a permanent home, is particularly important in the development of eusociality, which Wilson defines as a group “containing multiple generations and prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor.” This means that offspring stay at the campsite with their parents, at least until such time as they need to find mates (and then, generally only one of the two sexes will look outside the group for partners), and the group members generally act in ways that promote the well-being of the group. The basic definition of this altruism is that non-reproductive members of the group will assist parents in the care and feeding of their offspring, but in a more general way it means that individuals will more often than not behave in ways that benefit the group as a whole, even if such behavior does not benefit the individual.
What this means, in terms of Wilson’s thesis, is that there is “multi-level selection” occurring, with some “forces of selection” targeting individual traits and others targeting traits of the group; thus, the “evolutionary dynamics” of each group “is driven by both individual and group selection.” In order for groups to survive, they must work together; those groups that work together best thrive, while those that do not cooperate within the group fade away.
Wilson then turns to the insect world, examining the ways in which ants (his specialty), termites and other invertebrates became social insects, a precursor to true eusociality. He provides examples of natural selection, altruism, and evolutionary innovations that helped these insects form lasting, even thriving, colonies. (This is not to say that eusociality is common. Wilson states that of the 2,600 “taxonomic families of insects and other arthropods,” only 15 of those families have been found to include eusocial species. It is even rarer in vertebrates.) He then discusses the ways in which insect altruism and social instincts developed through group selection, and ends this first half of the book discussing the ways in which kin selection theory is flawed, and why multi-level selection is a better explanation for how eusociality arises.
Having laid the groundwork by answering the question “Where do we come from?” in the first nearly-two-thirds of The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson now moves on to the more difficult question, “What Are We?” He begins with the question, “What Is Human Nature?” He contends that economists, philosophers, theologians and others have tried in vain to define human nature, and that the “very existence of human nature was denied during the last century by most social scientists.” Wilson states that his belief is that joining “multiple branches of learning in the sciences and humanities. . .allows a clear definition of human nature.” For Wilson, “[h]uman nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species. They are the ‘epigenetic rules,’ which evolved by the interaction of genetic and cultural evolution that occurred over a long period in deep prehistory.” Humankind, then, has been formed by both nature and nurture working together, what Wilson and Charles J. Lumsden termed (in 1980) “gene-culture coevolution.” Wilson states that psychologists and anthropologists have found many examples of gene-culture coevolution, and these are what “make up much of what is intuitively called ‘human nature.’” Cultural mores, language and cultural variation are all influenced by this coevolution – it is what makes us who we are.
Wilson then tackles one of humankind’s thorniest issues, “The Origins of Morality and Honor.” In his formulation, the “dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection,” where individual selection and group selection are both acting upon each group member. Individual selection “shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish with reference to other members,” while group selection works to “[shape] instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic to one another within the group.” This comes dangerously close to assigning a presupposed morality upon each type of natural selection – when we say a gene is “good” or “bad,” it is generally understood to mean that the gene either helps the individual perpetuate its own genome or does something to prevent that perpetuation (i.e. early death from disease, sterility, stillbirth due to mutation), not that it promotes good or bad behavior. Wilson does not stop there, however. He then goes on to explicitly assign what seems to be a moral “choice” (albeit one determined by genetic natural selection): “Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.” This is particularly troublesome given an earlier chapter, “War as Humanity’s Hereditary Curse,” where he states that, “Our bloody nature, it can now be argued, in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principal driving force that made us what we are. In prehistory, group selection lifted the hominids that became territorial carnivores to heights of solidarity, to genius, to enterprise. And to fear,” a fear which led to warfare. In this instance, at least, group selection seems to have come down upon the side of the poorer angels of humankind’s nature.
After brief chapters on the origins (and dangers) of religion and the origins of the creative arts, Wilson ends his book by addressing the question, “Where Are We Going?” In the eleven-page chapter, “A New Enlightenment,” he makes the case for studying not only history, but prehistory and, by extension, biology in order to come to an understanding of where we should be going. “Humanity is a biological species in a biological world,” and as such has a responsibility to be good (in both senses of the word) and careful stewards of that world. People must heed the genetic-cultural “pull of conscience, of heroism. . .of truth. . .of commitment.” We must, in Wilson’s view, set aside religion, its sacred myths and godheads, because “they are stultifying and divisive” and foster bigotry. We must turn to science and its rational explanations of how the world works, of the reality in which we live. We must understand that the Earth is our home, and that climate change and the “obliteration of biodiversity” pose real threats to both the planet and all her inhabitants. We must abandon any thoughts of manned space travel and its concomitant “dangerous delusion” of colonizing other planets as a way to escape a dying Earth, an Earth we human beings are killing through our actions.
There are places throughout the book where Wilson discusses the ways in which the rapid rise of human beings has strained, to put it mildly, our world’s natural resources. Here, in his conclusion, he points the way toward what he believes is the direction humankind’s journey must take if we are to continue to evolve upon the planet Earth.
- Wendy Galgan
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