From the most celebrated heir to Darwin comes a groundbreaking book on evolution, the summa work of Edward O. Wilson's legendary career. Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” ( Discover magazine). Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere. 90 illustrations
Edward Osborne Wilson, sometimes credited as E.O. Wilson, was an American biologist, researcher, theorist, and author. His biological specialty is myrmecology, a branch of entomology. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters. He was the Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.
Previously I had read books on ants, the only other species on earth that can challenge us in aggression, self-confidence, engineering, cities, armed struggle, farming and communication - ants come closer to forming sentences for communication than any other species. But they have done this instinctively, we have done it by intelligence. How have we both reached this place of dominance on the earth (ants biomass is equal to humans) and why is one not superior to the other?
The key, according to this book, lies in the type of skeleton we have. Insects have a chitinous exoskeleton which needs to be shed and regrown whenever there is growth. This can only work on a very miniature level. The biggest insect on earth, fist-sized, is the Goliath beetle. Bodies with exoskeletons are restricted in size and can never grow the brain size needed for the development of the intelligence we possess.
For ants and other eusocial species, it is the social 'brain' rather than the individual one that directs their lives. I want to know how we diverged yet came to be equals in our different ways. I'm interested in the development, the evolution of eusocial species.
When I was a teenager, I read Gilgamesh. One of my parents had a battered paperback copy from college. It was revelatory. From my mother, I had absorbed the notion that Death was the great Evil: Satan, the Lord of the Flies, Hitler, Doctor Strangelove, Darth Vader. Gilgamesh opened my eyes to the fact that it was her fear of death that made her assign it the role of The Evil One. It made me grok that death isn’t The Adversary. Death is an agent of change, of evolution, of growth, of ethical opportunities. Later, from Terry Pratchett, I learned he rides a pale horse named Binky. And he is good.
Death over the millennia made us human. Death, Wilson suggests, works as an evolutionary agent on the group level as well as the individual, at least for the social animals. Evolution, he suggests, is multilevel. If we want to understand ourselves, posits Wilson, we need to know where we come from. And it’s not just, he says, just from selfish genes competing, though that is a part of it. An important part, worth honoring. “For the entire course of evolution leading from our primitive mammalian forebears of a hundred million years ago to the single lineage that threaded its way to become the first Homo sapiens, the total number of individuals it required might have been one hundred billion. Unknowingly, they all lived and died for us.” (21-22). I raise my (metaphorical) beer to you, one hundred billion individuals who died for me.
This book is an attempt to explain how evolution works in social animals, like humans, ants, wasps, bees and termites. It gives humanity’s divided nature, selfless and selfish, primacy of place, and says we are the product of both. It repudiates both the selfish gene and kin selection theory based on math. More on that later. Parts of this book are awesome. For example, from the first chapter:
“The creation stories gave the members of each tribe an explanation for their existence. It made them feel loved and protected above all other tribes. . . . and offered meaning to the cycles of life and death. No tribe could long survive without the meaning of its existence defined by a creation story. The option was to weaken, dissolve, and die. In the early history of each tribe, the myth therefore had to be set in stone.
“The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival. Tribal conflict, where believers on the inside were pitted against infidels on the outside, was a principal driving force that shaped biological human nature. The truth of each myth lived in the heart, not the rational mind. By itself, mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity. But the reverse order is possible. The discovery of the origin and meaning of humanity might explain the origin and meaning of myths, hence, the core of organized religion.
“Can these two worldviews ever be reconciled? The answer, to put the matter honestly and simply, is no. They cannot be reconciled. Their opposition defines the difference between science and religion, between trust in empiricism and belief in the supernatural.
“If the great riddle of the human condition cannot be solved by recourse to the mythic foundations of religion, neither will it be solved by introspection . . . Most of the activities of the brain are not even perceived by the conscious mind. The brain is a citadel, as Darwin once put it, that cannot be taken by direct assault.
“Thinking about thinking is the core process of the creative arts, but it tells us very little about how we think the way we do, and nothing of why the creative arts originated in the first place. Consciousness *9, having evolved over millions of years of life-and-death struggle, and moreover because of that struggle, was not designated for self-examination. It was designed for survival and reproduction. Conscious thought is driven by emotion: to the purpose of survival and reproduction, it is ultimately and wholly committed. The intricate distortions of the mind may be transmitted by the creative arts in fine detail, but they are constructed as though human nature never had an evolutionary history.” (8-9).
I love that. Just weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a dear friend about the uses of philosophy in a world where any philosophy that starts producing testable hypotheses gets calved off into its own science or, at least, specialty. Wilson goes beyond Bertrand Russell (if I remember aright) and starts asking the big questions of life in terms of evolutionary biology. Hark:
“[W]e look in vain to philosophy for the answer to the great riddle. Despite its noble purpose and history, pure philosophy long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence. The question itself is a reputation killer. It has become a Gorgon for philosophers, upon whose visage even the best thinkers fear to gaze. They have good reason for their aversion. Most of the history of philosophy consists of failed models of the mind. The field of discourse is strewn with the wreckage of theories of consciousness. After the decline of logical positivism in the middle of the twentieth century, and the attempt of this movement to blend science and logic into a closed system, professional philosophers dispersed in an intellectual diaspora. They emigrated into the more tractable disciplines not yet colonized by science – intellectual history, semantics, *10 logic, foundational mathematics, ethics, theology, and, most lucratively, problems of personal life adjustment.
“Philosophers flourish in these various endeavors, but for the time being, at least, and by a process of elimination, the solution of the riddle has been left to science. What science promises, and has already supplied in part, is the following. There is a real creation story of humanity, and one only, and it is not a myth. It is being worked out and tested, and enriched and strengthened, step by step.” “Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will be forever unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides.
“The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual but largely in opposition to each other. Individual selection is the result of competition for survival and reproduction among members of the same group. It shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish with reference to other members. In contrast, group selection consists of competition between societies, through both direct conflict and differential competence in exploiting the environment. Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another (but not toward members of other groups). 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.”
“Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will be forever unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides." (241)
Better than philosophy.
The difficulty with this book is that it is a very beautiful attempt to communicate a hypothesis in a scientific paper that has a whole lot of math in it. This paper, written by Wilson and two mathematicians, attempted to show that the math of the selfish gene and kinship selection to explain human evolution does not work; that there is a better hypothesis that fits the facts and makes useful predictions: inclusive fitness. He published this paper and many evolutionary biologists, including Richard Dawkins (who I occasionally adore and occasionally cringe from) had kittens. Probably metaphorically. Hopefully metaphorically. Dawkins wrote at least one brutal review: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/mag....
Wilson’s response is attached to the end of the review, and it’s fascinating. He throws down the gauntlet and says – show me the problem with my math, young man who has not published any scientific work for decades. Show me the problem.
I don’t know if Dawkins did. I am dimly aware of how to get hold of the paper, but I am acutely aware that I would not understand it, would not be able to critique it. On the one hand, AWESOME, I just got a briefing on an important, evolving (snicker) question of science. On the other hand, judging it is beyond my lawyerly skills. We’re strongly encouraged to hire other people to do our math for us, after all, and I’m a math wiz in my world because I can usually figure out the appropriate tip in my head.
So. I loved reading the book. Glad I did. It gave me a wonderful feeling of being a part of something, like I was back in law school jousting with libertarians. I so would have quoted this passage had I had it:
“Our species is not Homo oeconomicus. At the end of the day, it emerges as something more complicated and interesting. We are Homo sapiens, imperfect beings, soldering on with conflicted impulses through an unpredictable, implacably threatening world, doing our best with what we have.
“And beyond the ordinary instincts of altruism, there is something more, delicate and ephemeral in character but, when experienced, transformative. It is honor, a feeling born of innate empathy and cooperativeness. It is the final reserve of altruism that may yet save our race.” (251).
I’m looking at you, Jeff Barr, who announced grandly in Sid Delong’s jurisprudence class one day (April 21, 1999), “we are all homo economists, whether we like to admit it or not.” I didn’t think he was right, and so I said. I do not think the libertarian notion of what it means to be human was right. I still don’t, and this book makes me feel good, because it tells me that E. O. Wilson doesn’t believe it is right either. And because E. O. Wilson, Alabama boy raised in the Baptist church believes, as I do, that “A society that condemns homosexuality harms itself.” (254).
This book is beautiful. Really wish I understood Wilson’s actual thesis, and the evidence for it, better. But I don’t understand the Higgs-Boson either.
11/13/2022 reread it this weekend in the wake of Trump, Biden's election, the January 6 insurrection, and the midterms. Man. Society. Cooperation and competition. Constantly struggling. Evolution, social and biological, marches on.
I am a fan of E.O. Wilson's writings, but this book is not quite as good as some of his others. I learned a few interesting things, but not as much as would be expected from a book of this type.
The central concept in the book is "eusociality", which is the cooperative care of offspring and the cooperative division of labor. Among the animal kingdom, there are only several species of ants, bees, and termites that are truly eusocial. And, there are humans. Quite a chunk of the book goes into the behavior patterns of the eusocial insects. This is understandable, as Wilson is a recognized expert in these types of insects. The central question in the book, is how did eusocial behavior evolve in insects, as well as in humans.
Wilson describes the theory that was prevalent until about ten years ago, called "kin selection", also known as the "inclusive fitness theory". Hamilton developed this theory in 1963. The theory says that social behavior evolved not only as a direct linkage between an individual's genes and fitness for reproduction, but also through an indirect linkage between an individual and relatives that share some fraction of his/her genes. Thus, the theory attempts to explain altruistic behavior, especially between close relatives.
But, Wilson disagrees with this theory, as he describes reasons for its failing. In the past ten years, evidence has grown that the mathematics developed by Hamilton to support his theory may be faulty. Wilson replaces the theory with what he calls standard genetics applied to multiple levels of natural selection. By multiple levels, he means that there is a competition between selection for individual survival within a group, and cooperation between individuals to advance group survival. This is the basis of so many moral dilemmas that face people. It is the source, for example, of the competition between heroism and cowardice.
Wilson also tackles the evolution of language. I thought it was fascinating, how languages with few words for colors, distribute their meager selection of words. For example, all languages with just two color words, have "black" and "white". All languages with three words also include "red". Those with four words add either "yellow" or "green". Those with five words have "yellow" and "green". Those with six words add "blue", and those with seven words add "brown". Note that other color words, like purple, orange, and pink, are not used in these languages.
And, in regard to language evolution of course, Wilson had to mention the writings of Steven Pinker, which are very readable, and those of Chomsky, which are not. Wilson writes,
For a long time, Chomsky succeeded because, if for no other reason, he seldom suffered the indignity of being understood.
Wilson also made an interesting observation about the quality of life in various countries. The wealthiest countries with the highest average quality of life are those with the narrowest differential between the wealthiest and poorest citizens. These include Japan and the Nordic countries, and the U.S. state of New Hampshire. The countries with the lowest quality of life have the biggest differential in wealth, and include the United Kingdom, Portugal, and the remainder of the United States.
Although it is well-written, this book is not easy reading. I had to re-read many sections to really understand the main points. A second reading might clarify some of my remaining confusions. There isn't much technical jargon, but it is written by a scientist, seemingly for other scientists.
On Human Nature Redux. More ants and bees this time. Better constructed but not as readable and thought-provoking as the earlier book. The stages of eusociality evolution are better explained here. Readers would do well to read On Human Nature first and complement that reading with Part III of this book, which discusses these stages in detail.
The Invention of Eusociality
E. O. Wilson postulates that the invention/Evolution of Eusociality in any species will consist, broadly, of a series of stages:
1. The formation of groups or social arrangements. In the earliest stages of eusocial evolution, in species with already existing predispositions, this leads to superficial dominance hierarchies and crude division of labor.
2. The occurrence of a valuable and defensible nest, which aids survival and hence provides and incentive to increase and improve the crude social cohesion. The nest (early campsites in the case of humans) is the single most important step for Wilson. This is where the future course of the eusocial organism is fixed. The nest guides further evolution and is itself guided by existing predispositions. Much of the book focuses on how human condition changed forever around the earliest campsites.
3. The appearance of mutations that prescribe the persistence of the group, most likely by the knockout of dispersal behavior. Evidently, a durable nest remains the key element in maintaining the prevalence. Primitive eusociality may emerge immediately due to spring-loaded preadaptations—those evolved in earlier stages that by chance cause groups to behave in a eusocial manner.
4. Emergent traits caused by either the genesis of specialized workers or the interaction and division of labour, altruistic behavior, etc, of group members are shaped through group-level selection by environmental forces. Group selection ensures that group-fitness determines survival and not only individual fitness.
5. Group-level selection drives changes in the colony/group life cycle, social structures and social technologies (such as communication, recognition, etc.) often to bizarre extremes, producing elaborate superorganisms, and civilizations!
Description: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover magazine). Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere.
This book opens out with a potted biography of Gauguin with a view to his privitism.
A bit underwhelmed, considering the quality of Wilson's other books. The main thesis is that human evolution proceeded through a combination of individual selection and group selection - the former in the classical mode of evolution, and the latter through competition between groups based on the degree to which they encourage altruism, cooperation and unity for the social good. Parts of the book are an extended polemic against the prevailing orthodoxy of kin selection or inclusive fitness, which theory argues that individuals sacrifice themselves (reducing their own reproductive fitness) because it increases the chances of their kin's survival and procreation, and therefore their own chances of passing down their genes indirectly. It is not however clear (to me at least) why that theory is flawed, though Wilson says there are complicated reasons (which we the lay readers will not understand) why the theory has been found to no longer work.
The best part of the book is -- and Wilson is most authoritative -- when he talks about his own specialty of myrmecology (the study of ants). The evolution of eusociality, defined as the tendency of species to form multigenerational societies of cooperative individuals who divide labor and defend a common nesting site, is at the root of the social insects' conquest of the earth. In a remarkable twist, Wilson argues that social insects cooperate not because they are related, but they are related because they cooperate. The order of evolution is this: normal individuals of a non-social species begin to nest together for defense against parasites or predators; division of labor emerges; if the gene causing offspring to disperse gets mutated (turned off) through random chance, the nesting site becomes multi-generational; group selection takes over as neighboring groups begin to compete for resources; those groups with the genes that promote cooperation and altruism succeed, making eusociality the norm in the species. In extreme cases, individuals surrender their reproductive rights so totally to the group that only one breeding individual (the queen) procreates with everyone else becoming a genetic clone of the queen. The fact that many separate preadaptations have to evolve in order is why we have so few eusocial species -- Wilson says, if I recall correctly, that there are 20-odd, among the millions of animal species.
That does not happen in humans because we, unlike the social insects, have balanced individual and group selection. This explains humans' tendencies to support both cooperative (group oriented) characteristics such as self-sacrifice, obedience, discipline, humility etc., as well as the characteristics that contribute to individual fitness (competitiveness, cheating, etc).
Edward O Wilson – A Conquista da Terra Neste seu livro, Edward O Wilson retoma o tema da evolução humana, tentando explicar e justificar, sem recurso a argumentos místicos ou a uma panspermia porque pôde o homem desenvolver-se neste planeta com um conjuntos de características que lhe permitiram dominar a terra. Mas será que a domina mesmo? Vamos deixar este particular para o final. Há muitos anos, numa conferencia a que assisti perguntei aos oradores, todos eles reputados cientistas, se colocássemos toda a vida na terra num gráfico de complexidade desde as formas mais simples até ao homo sapiens, o expoente da complexidade, iriamos observar este último com capacidades muito acima das dos outros seres vivos. Este posicionamento dos humanos fora do gráfico parecia-me difícil de conceptualizar de uma forma que não dependesse do criacionismo divino, ou então resultaria de um erro de observação por ainda não terem sido descobertas outras formas de biologia que colmatassem aquele lapso na evolução. Hoje, bem vejo que esta minha questão era uma perfeita idiotice e se na altura não obtive resposta por parte dos a quem interpelei, seguramente o foi para me pouparem. A minha interrogação podia resumir-se no quadro de Paul Gauguin: D’où Venons Nous, Que Sommes Nous, Où Allons Nous, e que Edward Wilson utilizou como linha mestre deste livro. E ao longo das suas três centenas de páginas o autor responde-nos a estas questões, ainda que em alguns aspectos a clareza das explicações parece ter-se perdido, algures por entre a mente fervilhante do autor ou eventualmente como resultado de uma tradução menos conseguida. Voltando à questão que coloquei há duas décadas naquele painel de “cientistas”, e que a mim me parecia uma consiliência – o enorme distanciamento biológico dos humanos em relação aos outros seres vivos, apenas resultou da minha ignorância. Hoje em dia sei, e já o tinha intuído antes da leitura deste livro, que a diversidade de vida resulta por um lado da disponibilidade genética de determinadas características, mas também de um conjunto de outros atributos disponibilizados pelo meio que quando articulados entre si têm o mérito de selecionar o que se adapta e rejeitar o que se não encaixa. É assim que a evolução surge, é assim que ela se sustenta num ciclo perpétuo de desequilíbrio dinâmico em que o que ocupa um lugar, num nicho, influencia sempre esse mesmo nicho levando a um novo desequilíbrio e dessa forma criando as condições para que outras características que até aí não tinham tido condições de poderem vingar o poderem fazer. A biosfera está sempre em evolução, não há conservadorismo (só na cabeça de alguns políticos), e tudo o que nela se instá-la modifica o nicho em que se insere. Mas aqui há uma característica importante, que, há décadas me tinha escapado, é que a evolução só funciona num sistema fechado. A minha ideia antiga de procurar noutros “locais” formas de vida que colmatassem o distanciamento entre humanos e outras formas de vida era e é um autêntico disparte. O outro aspecto em que me enganava redondamente era o meu convencimento da supremacia do ser humano. Pura pesporrência. Se efectivamente temos atributos que nos distanciam das outras formas de vida, parece-me hoje muito provável que as características que nos distanciam sejam as mesmas palas com as quais vamos perecer num futuro que poderá não estar tão distante quanto supomos. Os humanos desenvolveram cérebros que lhes permitem capacidades intelectuais muito superiores às dos outros animais, mas ao ler o livro de Edward Wilson, não pude deixar de me maravilhar como outros serem vivos desenvolveram comportamentos e capacidades cognitivas que vão desde a forma como os nossos parentes mais próximos usam o logro para atingirem um dado objectivo, ou a “actividade agrícola” de algumas formigas para poderem manter próximos outros insectos de cuja biologia dependem. Estas formigas em boa verdade, em pouco diferem dos nossos agricultores que têm pastos para alimentar o gado que lhes fornece o leite. Somos mais evoluídos, mas a natureza não perde uma oportunidade para nos remeter para os nossos “chinelos”. E se nos diferenciamos, desenvolvendo um cérebro com as capacidades que possuímos, porque não observamos isso noutros seres vivos. Edward Wilson responde-nos a esta questão dando dois tipos de justificações. Em primeiro somos o resultado de uma linha de evolução de primatas que foi divergindo desde há 1 milhão de anos e que nesse processo derivou noutros ramos da evolução que por variados motivos se foram extinguindo. Desde que o macaco antropoide divergiu há cerca de 10 milhões de anos dando origem ao Australopithecus africanus, muitas foram as derivações ocorridas na linha dos humanoides que não deixaram uma descendência apta a partilhar o planeta com o sapiens moderno. Desde o Homo habilis com volume encefálico suficiente para encerrar um conjunto de aptidões e desempenhos que eventualmente o distinguiriam dos outros seres vivos de então, ao Homo erectus igualmente dotado, mas sem as capacidades necessárias e suficientes à sua preservação. Outras derivações como o Homo neanderethalensis ou o Homo florensis não resistiram à última evasão dos sapiens de áfrica ocorrida algures há 50.000 anos que eventualmente, directa ou indirectamente terá contribuído para a sua extinção. Foi assim que o Homo conquistou a terra, uma conquista que começou há 150.000 anos com a saída do Homo erectus de África. Espalha-se pelo globo e deixa descendentes, dos quais o Homo florensis é o mais conhecido. O Homo neanderthal que poderá ter tido uma origem semelhante e ter migrado da África sub-sariana disseminando-se pela Europa e Sibéria há 100.000 anos. Entretanto África entra em seca e desta resulta uma redução da população por diminuição do habitat viável, enquanto o deserto a norte do continente africano fica intransponível. Com a cessação deste fluxo migratório Homo do continente euro-asiático e africano ficam isolados e têm evolução diferentes. Há 90.000 quando a seca abrandou permitiu que novas levas do fluxo migratório pudessem ocorrer, e os Sapiens darem início à conquista definitiva da terra. Fê-lo por levas, em grupos, e presumivelmente terá dizimado todas as espécies irmãs que foi encontrando. As nossas origens estão em África e este continente foi e é ainda o maior reservatório genético da humanidade (há mais variedade genética entre tribos africanas que entre as várias raças do globo). É assim falso que sempre tenha existido um hiato abissal entre os sapiens e os outros animais no que concerne às capacidades intelectuais. Mesmo que esse hiato agora exista, ele só acontece porque nas outras espécies que nos acompanharam neste processo evolutivo, ou foram vítimas de extinções naturais ou provocadas pelos sapiens. Não tivessem estas ocorrido e hoje teríamos um planeta povoado de várias espécies mais ou menos afastadas, mas em que era possível traçar um degradê das capacidades intelectuais desde os símios até ao sapiens. Não somos únicos, ficamos sim é isolados. Mas as capacidade intelectuais que se reconhecem aos sapiens poder-se-iam ter desenvolvido noutras espécies? A esta questão, Edward O Wilson responde que não! Segundo ele, o desenvolvimento das nossas capacidades intelectuais deveu-se muito ao facto da nossa espécie, os sapiens ser uma espécie social – a anos-luz do bom selvagem de Jean Jaques Rosseau, mas isso são contas de outro rosário. Segundo o autor, é esta característica de “eussocialidade” que fez com que as nosso intelecto vivesse assumido as capacidades e características que hoje lhes reconhecemos. E esta é para o autor a segunda ordem de factores que faz com que os sapiens tenham capacidades que não se observam noutras espécies. Das espécies conhecidas, poucas são consideradas “eussociais”. Para se ser eurossocial implica que a vida seja realizada em grupo, que o grupo ocupe um nicho comum, cuidem desse mesmo nicho, cuidem dos descendentes e tenham uma divisão de tarefas entre as várias castas do grupo. Nos insectos este fenómeno terá surgido há 300.000 milhões de anos e as espécies que evoluíram para e com essa forma de organização (formigas, abelhas, etc) permitiu-lhes o sucesso e longevidade (enquanto espécie) que lhes reconhecemos. Foi assim que nos insectos a “eussociabilidade”, desapontou, tendo evoluído para as seguintes características: formação de grupos herméticos essencialmente baseada na descendencia; valorização das mutações que favoreceram a permanência no grupo; rejeição das mutações que não favoreceram a formação de grupos; divisão de tarefas moldadas pela seleção natural; e com a eussocialidade, nos insectos a seleção passa a instalar-se ao nível do grupo e não ao nível individual. Nos insectos a eussociabilidade foi adquirida pela seleção natural do grupo. A individualidade para nada contava. A única individualidade importante era a da rainha que depois de nascer e do voo nupcial podiam fundar uma nova colónia. As rainhas vivem em média 12 anos (formigas) e tem uma descendência de 150 M de elementos. O sucesso do grupo depende da rainha. As restantes são obreiras ou soldados e não têm variabilidade entre si. O Homo sapiens é também um animal eussocial . Vive em grupos compostos de múltiplas gerações, assume a divisão do trabalho, individualmente balanceia entre as atitudes altruístas e as egoistas. Enquanto animal eussocial é semelhante aos insectos, mas adquiriu esta eussociabilidade de forma diferente. Ao contrário dos insetos as progenitoras não se afastam para uma nova colónia e cada progenitora é fertilizada a cada gestação. A eussociabilização assim desenvolvida depende da acção de cada indivíduo dentro do grupo. Ao contrário dos insetos que se eussociabilisaram pelo instinto, os sapiens fizeram-no pela inteligência. Foi com base no equilíbrio entre altruísmo, cooperação, competição, domínio, reciprocidade, defecção e ludíbrio que a eussocialização foi estabelecida. Não é uma eussociabilisação dominada pelo instinto (genética). Tem factores genéticos mas depende do indivíduo e da reciprocidade com o grupo. A reciprocidade estabelece-se com base na cooperação e na forma como indivíduos e grupos são capazes de distribuir recursos e estatuto. Nos sapiens o caminho para a sociabilidade veio da sua biologia - pequenos, indefesos e incapazes de se defenderem individualmente. Neste território genético actuaram as capacidades intelectuais e a função desta através das formas como as cumplicidades entre elementos e entre grupos se estabeleceram.
O desenvolvimento que o homem teve, nomeadamente o das capacidades intelectuais ficou-se a dever a uma série de factores: disponibilidade de tempo necessário para a evolução; o bipedantismo; um maior consumo de proteína animal, carne; o fogo; o desenvolvimento nas mãos da capacidade de preensão; o volume do corpo adequado; e a eussocialização. Não há um factor isolado, mas uma constelação de factores que se conjugaram. E uma constelação que implica dimensões do corpo para ter um cérebros grande, poderem controlar o fogo. Nem animais marinhos nem insectos alguma vez podiam ter evoluído desta forma (os insectos devido ao seu exoesqueleto nunca poderão atingir dimensões suficientes para terem um cérebro grande). Nos mamíferos e nos humanos, a eussocialização tem de lidar com pulsões individualistas e altruístas. Se as individualistas dominarem numa sociedade ela tende a desagregar-se e a deixar de existir enquanto comunidade. Mesmo personalidades mais individualistas há a sempre a necessidade de reconhecimento o que leva sempre de retorno ao grupo. Só que neste caso o retorno é assimétrico uma vez que não abdica da sua individualidade mas tende a apropriar-se da liberdade alheia (conhecemos algumas pessoas assim, não é?). Há assim nas sociedades humanas uma diversidade individual e uma outra de grupo. As características do grupo resultam do equilíbrio entre indivíduos que valorizam a honra, a virtude e o dever, e os que promovem o egoísmo, a cobardia e a hipocrisia. Nos humanos os alelos que codificam a sobrevivência individual estão sempre em conflito com os que são responsáveis pela sobrevivência do grupo. O c��digo genético humano regula a expressão do indivíduo dentro do grupo e a forma como ele se relaciona com os restantes, mas há também outra parte do genoma que codifica a expressão do indivíduo enquanto elemento do grupo. Enquanto elemento do grupo as características determinantes são: dimensão; união; qualidade de comunicação; divisão de tarefas. Quando uma identidade pessoal está em alta (vitória de um clube de futebol) faz muito pela identidade individual - seratonina - ocitocina – dopamina. Quando assiste a um filme de guerra, tem-se prazer com as atrocidades e a vitória do grupo que integramos. Enquanto a amígdala estiver satisfeita temos prazer - filmes de guerra (como se sentem os russos a ver os filmes americanos em que entram russos?). A seleção individual tende a promover o egoísmo e a competitividade. Na seleção de grupo os valores individuais são sacrificados em nome do grupo. Dizer se são valores altruístas ou não depende do que o grupo entender como o pretendido. Numa sociedade democrática e livre a bondade e a compaixão a compreensão e tolerância podem ser esse bem comum. Numa sociedade marcial e totalitária esse bem pode transitar para a esfera do nacionalismo e da intolerância para com o não nacional. O altruísmo do grupo depende como é canalizado. A sociedade está organizada em subgrupos com dinâmica de grupo e entre grupos. Assim, a sociedade evoluiu de uma interligação simples para formas mais complexas de cumplicidades a que damos o nome de sistemas sociais, mas que mais não são do que um nicho onde os novos membros se inserem ou não. Nas sociedades humanas, ao contrário dos insectos, existe individualismo e ele é importante para a evolução do grupo. O indivíduo individualmente tende a ser individualista e batoteiro. Com isso tira vantagem nessa sociedade. Mas a sociedade enquanto todo tira vantagem se for altruísta. Uma sociedade altruísta tem vantagem sobre outra individualista. Há assim um número de individualistas que uma sociedade consegue suportar. Acima desse número a sociedade modifica-se e perde o altruísmo e a capacidade de sobreviver. Perde a colaboração grupo, a cooperação, o controlo da informação, da comunicação, e a divisão de tarefas. Para além destas características de grupo, as sociedades de sapiens têm uma grande flexibilidade fenotípica, e desenvolveu a cultura ter uma eurossociabilidade evoluída facultada por um sistema nervoso central e uma memória de longo prazo que lhe permite aprender e imitar para disseminar o que aprendeu. A cultura é nos nossos dias o conjunto de traços que permite distinguir um grupo de outro grupo. Uma sociedade para se manter viável tem de crescer continuadamente. Se não crescer vai entrar em contradição e sucumbir. A presença de hierarquias dentro do sistema permite que ele resista durante períodos de estagnação ao conferir-lhe uma dinâmica interna própria. E estas são as características genéticas que nos definem pelo menos há cerca de 100.000. Foram estas características genética que permitiram a variabilidade fenotípica que habitualmente reconhecemos como cultura e que provavelmente nos irá empurrar para o abismo. Oxalá esteja enganado!
*A full executive-style summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief.wordpress.com
Since the dawn of self-awareness we human beings have struggled to understand ourselves. This struggle has found form in religion, philosophy, art and, most recently, science. The most pivotal turning point in science's quest to understand humanity came with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection in the mid 19th century. While the application of this theory to understand human behaviour has taken time (and engendered a great deal of controversy), enough progress has now been made to outline the story in full, and to fill in several of the details. It is just this task that legendary biologist E.O. Wilson takes up in his new book `The Social Conquest of Earth'.
For Wilson, understanding humanity must begin with an understanding of how we came to be the ultrasocial species that we are. Drawing upon evidence from other eusocial species (such as bees, wasps, termites and ants--the latter of which Wilson has spent much of his career studying), as well as numerous sciences focused in on humanity and its past, Wilson recreates this story. According to the author, the story reaches its first major turning point when our ancestors began establishing home-bases at which they raised their young, and near which they foraged and scavenged for food. This development itself was largely a result of a genetic modification that led our ancestors to rely more and more on meat in their diet (and was greatly spurred on by, if not entirely dependent upon, the ability to control fire, which fire was used to establish more lasting campsites).
Once human beings had established nests, environmental pressures began selecting for traits that increasingly drew group members into cooperative relationships with one another (which cooperation was beneficial in such enterprises as hunting expeditions). This added cooperation not only contributed to the extent to which these early humans could reap resources from the environment, but also helped them in competition with other groups--especially in warfare. The benefits of cooperation and cohesion in allowing groups to out-compete other groups eventually allowed group-level selection to add a layer of tribalist sentiment to the members of our species (which tribalist sentiment draws from us a deep attachment to our in-groups, and a corresponding mistrust and contempt for members of out-groups). This tribalist sentiment eventually set the stage for the development of the first religions. The cooperative and tribalist sentiments that evolved during this time ultimately explains why our psyches are torn between selflessness and selfishness, virtue and vice. (On the topic of group-level selection, it turns out that this theory has been out of favour in the scientific community for over 40 years, and a big part of Wilson's purpose here is to resurrect the theory, and reestablish its credibility.)
Backing up in our story just a bit, for our in-group cooperation to occur, added mental equipment was needed (and evolved) that allowed humans to understand each others' intentions and work together to achieve goals. This added mental ability drew upon earlier increases in brain capacity that our ancestors had used first for life in the trees, and later for life on the ground, to fashion rudimentary tools. Eventually, the added mental capacity evolved into the ability to understand abstraction, and to use arbitrary symbols for communication, thus leading to the evolution of language.
Once the capacity for abstraction and language were established, the capacity for culture exploded and our ancestors were set on the fast track that led to our current way of life. Specifically, the onset of language led to the development of religion, art and music, and all of the other trappings of culture that we know and enjoy today. Wilson takes us through each of them one by one, and the process of gene-culture co-evolution that acted upon them, in order to help us understand how this process unfolded. Later, the explosion of culture led to technology that eventually gave rise to agriculture, and then to the rise of chiefdoms, and finally states and the first true civilizations.
Wilson's work is well geared to a general audience and he very rarely goes outside of what might reasonably be expected from such an audience. On the rare occasions when he does, he is sure to follow this up with a simplified summary of his line of thought. Also, Wilson occasionally strays outside of his story to moralize and (at the end) prognosticate on the future, and at times these efforts seem awkward and out of place. Again, though, these forays are few and far between, and many will no doubt enjoy them. A full and comprehensive summary of the main argument of the book is available on the website newbooksinbrief.wordpress.com; the information in the article will also be available in a condensed version as a podcast soon.
He uses his beloved ants to argue for his view of group selection by pointing out that ant colonies maybe shouldn't even be viewed as superorganisms of multiple individuals but that all the worker- and soldier-ants are merely an extended phenotype of their queen, robots without much of an own interest (how ironic, given that he also argues against robots & AI in the book). Reviewers have pointed out that this description of the non-queen ants probably isn't true and that Wilson cherry-picked his citations to make it fit his view (e.g. it is known that worker/soldier ants can start a rebellion against their queen).
But even if we consider the extended phenotype-hypothesis it becomes clear that this view eliminates the problem of eusocial behavior all together: If there is no social superorganism we neither need inclusive fitness nor group selection to explain the allegedly altruistic behavior because there is no eusociality at all. So I don't feel convinced that his "alternative" is much of an improvement.
Given his cherry-picking of facts I'm also not sure how well good his descriptions of early humans really are. Often it feels like those just-so stories which can often be found in Evolutionary Psychology, but maybe an anthropologist could help me out on this… Oh, and did I mention that Wilson doesn't also opposes robots, but also manned space travel?
Wonderful book. No matter which evolutionary process you agree with, kin selection versus group selection, Wilson's ideas of competing ethical drives within man are terrifically insightful in a way that Plato, Aristotle, and everyone down their line have yet to explain as clearly.
If you just read the first and last chapter of this book, you'll gain a valuable new perspective on what it means to be human.
The following are some passages from E.O. Wilson's "The Social Conquest of Earth" that will give a general impression of the book:
"The necessity for fine-graded evaluation by alliance members meant that the prehuman ancestors had to achieve eusociality in a radically different way from the instinct-driven insects. The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups. The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit....Thus was born the human condition, selfish at one time, selfless at another, the two impulses often conflicted."
"Tribalism Is a Fundamental Human Trait"
"The social world of each modern human is not a single tribe, but rather a system of interlocking tribes, among which it is often difficult to find a single compass. People savor the company of like-minded friends, and they yearn to be in one of the best—a combat marine regiment, perhaps, an elite college, the executive committee of a company, a religious sect, a fraternity, a garden club—any collectivity that can be compared favorably with other, competing groups of the same category."
"The expected consequences of this evolutionary process in humans are the following: • Intense competition occurs between groups, in many circumstances including territorial aggression. • Group composition is unstable, because of the advantage of increasing group size accruing from immigration, ideological proselytization, and conquest, pitted against the opportunities to gain advantage by usurpation within the group and fission to create new groups. • An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side. • The perfecting of quick and expert reading of intention in others has been paramount in the evolution of human social behavior. • Much of culture, including especially the content of the creative arts, has arisen from the inevitable clash of individual selection and group selection. In summary, the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be. To scrub it out, if such were possible, would make us less than human."
"There is no grail more elusive or precious in the life of the mind than the key to understanding the human condition"
"We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology"
"No tribe could long survive without the meaning of its existence defined by a creation story. The option was to weaken, dissolve, and die. In the early history of each tribe, the myth therefore had to be set in stone. The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival. Tribal conflict, where believers on the inside were pitted against infidels on the outside, was a principal driving force that shaped biological human nature."
"Consciousness, having evolved over millions of years of life-and-death struggle, and moreover because of that struggle, was not designed for self-examination. It was designed for survival and reproduction."
"Moreover, we look in vain to philosophy for the answer to the great riddle. Despite its noble purpose and history, pure philosophy long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence. The query itself is a reputation killer. It has become a Gorgon for philosophers, upon whose visage even the best thinkers fear to gaze. They have good reason for their aversion. Most of the history of philosophy consists of failed models of the mind. The field of discourse is strewn with the wreckage of theories of consciousness."
This is one of the most important books I've read in a long time. It lays out the fundamentals of humanity's biological and social evolution on this planet. Wilson states that humans are "by any conceivable standard...life's greatest achievement...are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and--who can say?--perhaps the galaxy." But we are creatures who have at once "...created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life."
In the beginning of the book, Wilson discusses eusociality, a stage of social evolution in which "group members are made up of multiple generations and are prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor." Humans are among the relatively few species on the planet ever to have evolved to a level of eusociality. (So are ants and bees, which are not given short shrift in the book.)
The main argument Wilson proposes is that eusociality has evolved by "group selection" and NOT by "inclusive fitness" (kin selection). Inclusive fitness was the accepted wisdom from around the 60s to the 90s. It says that, "kinship plays a central role in the origin of social behavior. In essence, it says that the more closely related individuals in a group are, the more likely they are to be altruistic and cooperative, hence the more likely are the species that formed such groups to evolve into eusociality." Inclusive fitness has "powerful intuitive appeal" but does not hold up to scientific scrutiny and mathematical evaluation, he argues.
Group selection, on the other hand, proposes that it is hereditary altruists forming "groups so cooperative and well-organized as to outcompete nonaltruist groups."
In the end, Wilson argues that human eusociality is a product of multilevel natural selection. "At the higher level of the two relevant levels of biological organization, groups compete with groups, favoring cooperative social traits among members of the same group. A the lower level, members of the same group compete with one another in a manner that leads to self-serving behavior. The opposition between the two levels of natural selection has resulted in a chimeric genotype in each person. It renders each of us part saint and part sinner." (p. 289)
The other important concept that is covered is that of "gene-culture coevolution," which deals with the causal relation between the evolution of genes and the evolution of culture--briefly, that "many properties of human social behavior are affected by heredity... and that the innate properties of human nature must have evolved as adaptations."
I've used mostly quotes from the book in writing this review because I didn't want to get it wrong. A couple of the chapters were difficult reading for me, so I read and re-read and looked stuff up on the Web to get a better understanding. It was definitely worth the effort.
This book should be one of the basic starting points for everyone who is interested in how humanity might understand itself better in order to leave aside some of the beliefs that are causing us to do so much damage.
I have a lot of respect for Wilson, but I felt this book spent unduly too much time on group selection, which happens to be Wilson’s new conviction in evolutionary theory. Group selection was in vogue for some time, then was replaced by kin selection compatible with the selfish gene theory, but now it’s back.
Wilson starts the book with Paul Gaugin’s painting titled: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Religions offer only tribal myths to answer these questions. Philosophy and introspection, in the form of unaided rational inquiry, can lead to conclusions that are not anchored in reality. Ultimately, we’re a biological species living in a biological world. Our body is subject to the laws of physics and chemistry, and our mind is a product of biological/cultural evolution. We cannot understand ourselves without the aid of science. This is where group selection (multilevel natural selection) takes a prominent role. Wilson spends a lot of time on group selection so that he can explain human condition based on that concept.
This book offers the best definition of human nature that I’ve seen: Human nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species.
Wow -- what a cool book! A fascinating read, start to finish.
Relates the conflict we perceive within human nature as a development in evolution of the conflict between group selection and individual selection. Individuals with selfish motives and actions are more successful than those who are altruistic, but groups of altruists are much more successful than groups of selfish individuals.
Touches on questions of consciousness, the development of language, art and religion. Useful for understanding the impulse to storytelling, the means by which we empathize and sympathize with others, and how humans managed to come to dominate despite the appearance of other eusocial creatures -- primarily insects like ants and bees -- millions of years earlier. Hint: it involves our ability to control and use fire.
Also explains why humans the world over have a similar aesthetic when it comes to landscaping -- roughly, the aesthetic of a beautiful public park, with open spaces punctuated by trees and, preferably, some water as in a stream or fountain. Reason: such an aesthetic recalls our primal birthplace in Africa -- the Serengeti.
Evolution confuses me. A woman wondered aloud last weekend if we really descended from chimpanzees, why are there still chimpanzees? And another person thought a better question is why aren't we still evolving into another genus? We could ask the Denisova Hominidae, but they left the planet 30,000 years ago. I saw Dr. Wilson speak at MSU a couple years ago. He's engaging and smart as any five people I know, and he writes, not quite down to my level, but enough that I can glean a little of the genius work he's accomplished. He loves ants. He likes all eusocial groups which include bees and wasps, and one particular gang of shrimp. He'd like to make a case for humans being a eusocial group, too, but when was the last time a despot ant queen made a decision to make you a drone or a breeding sister queen? When was the last time you sacrificed a long-held personal goal in favor of the group's success? Altruistic reciprocity is in our future perhaps. All I can think of is Spock in Star Trek changing his mind that the good of the many outweighs the good of the one. Humans have a few genes that select in the direction of group behavior; and a fistful that lean toward independence. That's why we're not likely to sort it out before we consume our nest completely. Wilson changed his mind in the face of newer research. He and Spock have my utmost respect.
Wilson is such a poetic guy that you almost hate to disagree with him based on prose style alone. Seriously, his sentences have the sorts of graceful rhythms that you associate with British authors that have had an expensive classical education, which makes reading him enjoyable even if, as many seem to feel, he's completely wrong. This book is a typically Wilsonian exploration of the human need to find meaning in our lives that's based on biology but aims at culture. He's never liked C. P. Snow's famous division between hard science and "soft studies", so in his introduction, he used Paul Gaugin's famous painting "D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous" ("Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?") as an example of the type of questioning that occupies most philosophy, art, and culture, and, while acknowledging the power of the fruits of these artistic labors, dismissed them as being unable, on their own, to answer those questions. As he's famously said in the past, in one of those imperious statements that tend to polarize readers, most historical philosophy is essentially worthless, being based on "failed models of the brain", and in his view only the techniques of modern science, with their tradition of rigor, empiricism, and dismantling dogma, can deliver even partially true answers to the Big Questions.
The most controversial aspect of the book, from a scientific standpoint, is that after a lifetime of championing kin selection, the current mainstream view of how evolution operates, Wilson has now decided that group selection is the way to go. Essentially he's arguing that eusociality, the collective, collaborative interactions characteristic of humans and ants among very few other species, is the key to understanding ourselves, and that requires understanding where it came from along with a new understanding of evolution. So there are very thought-provoking discussions of humans and ants wrapped in a troubling heresy. In humans, he traced our current dominance to the lucky confluence of a few necessary preadaptations that separate us from our protohuman ancestors and relatives. These are: dwelling on land (even brilliant cetaceans can't develop fire); large body size (tiny creatures just can't get brains large enough for general-purpose intelligence); grasping hands (far superior to claws and fangs for manipulating tools); bipedalism (freeing up our hands to interact with the world more); diet (meat, though hard to hunt, is rich in energy); fire (duh); and division of labor (this is a fascinating link that deserves a book of its own - is Adam Smith-style division of labor itself a source of intelligence, or merely a product of it?).
You may have noticed that very few of those attributes are true of ants; hold that thought. He immediately pivoted towards declaring kin selection a failure and declaring that group selection was a necessary component of a multi-level theory of evolution. I confess that at first I simply didn't understand how he was able to reach that conclusion. As discussed by writers like Richard Dawkins in his excellent The Extended Phenotype, a huge amount of incredibly complicated behavior that reaches all the way up to the level of an organism's interaction with its peers can be explained by the interactions of genes and only genes; there simply is no group-level counterpart of a gene that can be inherited or replicated, and though epigenetic artifacts like memes seem to behave in analogous ways on a "higher" level, they are merely the products of combinations of genes and don't necessarily have a "real" existence independent of the individuals that create them. Cultural markers like religious affiliation, language, sexual practices, sporting traditions, economic arrangements, or conventions on which side of the road to drive on may look like they are the group-level equivalent to genes because they get passed on to succeeding generations, seem to have an effect on the fitness of the groups that practice them, and undergo gene-like mutations and alterations, but they are at base mere phenotypes, and no appeal to "top-down" processes like group selection or "superior culture" are needed to explain them.
The "centrifugal force" of between-group conflict and "centripetal force" of in-group altruism that Wilson devotes much of the book to discussing are, in the mainstream view, no different, and so I had some trouble enjoying the (very interesting and well-written) Out-of-Africa chapters thereof because I was constantly wondering when Wilson was going to circle back around and fully explain his bombshell. There were many points where he brings up evidence that seems like trouble for his group-selection theory, such as when he uses the example of the full competence of Australian aboriginal children brought up by white families - if the 45,000 genetic divergence of native Australians and modern white Australians is able to be so easily overcome by upbringing in a particular culture, how does that disprove the theory that cultural differences are essentially interchangeable epiphenomena of our overwhelmingly similar genes? He cited an insight from the great cybernetician Herbert Simon about the fact that human societies are decomposable into nearly discrete sub-systems shows the advantages of division of labor to a hierarchical society, but mere complexity is not in itself a sign of a qualitatively different type of evolution; Simon himself had a bit in his pioneering The Sciences of the Artificial where he discussed how complex behavior can be merely the result of complexities in the environment, and not in the system directly. For example, Modern France is much more complex than the France of 1500 AD, but any kind of group evolution would have to work on what seems to be implausibly fast levels to have any role in this, and the fact that groups can descend to much lower levels of complexity (e.g. post-Fall Romans, Easter Islanders, the Mayans) without any noticeable changes in the genetic makeup of the populations made me skeptical that group selection is anything other than the interface of genetic epiphenomena with the outside world.
It took until the ant chapters for me to really come to terms with his thesis, maybe because I had fewer preconceived notions and was more open to his theory when it was put in terms of ants rather than people. He explained two criteria for eusociality: first, every eusocial species typically has large investments in nests, with the corollary that some percentage of individuals never leave the nest; second, each eusocial species also has a division of labor, with the corollary that some individuals labor for the good of the collective instead of for direct personal gain. Thus bees have their hives with attendant workers and soldiers, while humans have cities with the same, and this kind of multi-generational investment and specialization ("capital accumulation" and "career paths", in human terms) give individual members of the collective/polity more advantages than if they were simply fending for themselves and had to begin each generation from scratch. This reframing of traditional Adam Smith-style economics is both banal and pretty clever, and it reminded me of Paul Krugman's short essay "What Economists Can Learn from Evolutionary Theorists" on the similarities between neoclassical economic models and their biological counterparts in population simulations and so forth, in that it showed the interesting conclusions you can get by broadening your scope to include other disciplines.
The ant sections are also where Wilson made the clearest preparatory arguments for his group selection thesis by going over the analogous preadaptations that insect species went through in order to develop eusociality: fortified nest sites, protection against predators, and the presence of some incremental advantage to being in a hive versus being solitary. The one bright line appears to be the emergence of a distinct worker caste. With that discussion of the nature of eusociality, Wilson then turned to why individual selection seemed unable to explain it. The distinction between the gene as a unit of heredity and the gene or individual as the unit of selection, phenotype plasticity (the tendency for identical genes to have different phenotypes depending on environmental circumstances, such as humans having distinct fingerprints even though we all have the same finger genes), and the puzzle of why some eusocial species are diploid versus haplodiploid formed the main platform for the discussion of Hamilton's inequality, which is at the heart of kin selection theory. Stated briefly, "rb > c, meaning that an allele prescribing altruism will increase in frequency in a population if the benefit, b, to the recipient of the altruism, times r, the degree of kinship to the altruist, is greater than the cost to the altruist." This had always seemed very reasonable to me, and it still does, though Wilson spent a great deal of time going over its theoretical and empirical shortcomings.
As a layman I'm obviously not qualified enough to fully judge his conclusions, but I did not see a real falsifiable prediction in the book: is it actually impossible for something like a sterile worker caste to evolve using the principle of kin selection? There was a lot of talk about the failings of kin selection in simulations, yet it seemed like the actual proof was left to an appendix that never arrived. Furthermore, it seemed like he was only interested in the question of which type of selection was correct as a way to talk about eusociality, which seemed like putting the cart before the horse. The way he discussed it, eusociality is to individualism roughly as multicellularism is to unicellularism, which makes sense on an analogical level, yet the book just plain needed more about group selection to back that up. However, his discussion of eusociality was awesome, and seemed full of good insights. Much much more could be written about group and individual forces, and the sections that talked about how they interacted in terms of culture were really good, especially when he mentioned art or religion. His insights on how much of art is merely patterns that excite the pattern-recognition systems of the human brain are not new, but the argument gains new meaning in the context of the social purposes of art and what artistic endeavors do for group solidarity.
His closing contention that space travel is a harmful, expensive mirage annoyed me as a science fiction fan and as someone who thinks that space travel is a logical next step in the long-term evolution of Earth life, but that ending aberrance shouldn't detract from the fascinating meditation on the true nature of our species and its ultimate destination. These sentences in particular touch on a very important theme in all politics: "[A]n iron rule exists in genetic social evolution. It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme. If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve. If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies." Wilson may not have definitively answered the question of Where Are We Going?, but I would love for some further discussion from him, and from the other geneticists who oppose group selection, yet have not given eusociality the kind of treatment it gets here.
In this book Dr. Wilson has created an incredibly positive portrait of the human family: we have prospered because we have learned to work together.
E. O. Wilson is an expert on ants, and in the 1970s popularized the theory of kin selection in his book Sociobiology. This theory was an attempt to explain why certain organisms form social groups at the cost to an individual’s survival. Why do worker bees give up the ability to reproduce, for example? This seems to fly in the face of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The kinship theory stated that if, by not having offspring yourself, you could help more of your sister’s offspring survive, that would still be a survival strategy because your sister shares many of your genes.
Dr. Wilson shows in The Social Conquest of Earth that, in fact, this is an incredibly effective survival strategy. The creatures who have learned to form cooperative societies are the masters of their ecological niche: “The twenty thousand known species of eusocial insects, mostly ants, bees, wasps, and termites, account for only 2 percent of the approximately one million known species of insects. Yet this tiny minority of species dominates the rest of the insects in their numbers, their weight, and their impact on the environment.”
Kinship theory seemed to explain insect cooperative societies very well, but over time it became clear that it was unsatisfactory to explain human society. Humans will help non-relatives to survive; we will even risk our lives to save a stranger. This required a different explanation, and this book is Wilson’s popular exposition of his new theory of group selection.
Most of the book is about establishing the evidence for this new theory, including that this is the best way to explain the evolution of social groups among humans.
What really sets humans apart is that our cooperation makes us more successful as individuals. Unlike insects that diminish their individual survival through cooperation (unless you happen to be the queen), humans maximize their individual survival.
In fact, this is what makes humans so dynamic: we are a delicate balance of selfishness and cooperation. That is our strength, but also the source of conflict. Unlike the insects, in the midst of our cooperative societies we also compete with each other for mates and resources.
Studies show young children will help a stranger without second thought, unlike chimpanzees who show no interest in helping. Humans don’t have to be trained to be kind and helpful.
Tens of thousands of years of evolution has give us as many cooperative instincts as selfish ones, yet modern American society acts as if the only true instincts are the selfish ones, and that altruism is some aberrant behavior. When reporting on a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, reporters love to pull out the stories of sacrifice and selfless aid to strangers, and speak with wonder as if this is uncommon. It’s not uncommon; it’s part of our nature. Being helpful to our neighbor is part of who we are.
In terms of the political, you could say conservatives act as if we were all selfishness, and liberals act as if we are only cooperators. The truth is we’re both. But in this country the conservative worldview has mostly prevailed. We’re taught that cooperation is unnatural; that our biological nature is purely and solely selfish. My hope is that this new theory will eventually bring a balance to our understanding of society—cooperation is as natural a part of us as competition.
Dr. Wilson asserts that the first step in the progression to sociality in a species is the creation of a communal nest. I loved his image of early humans learning to control fire: fire became our nest, our gathering place. This in turn could have been the spur to develop language—when it’s dark and there’s nothing else to do, early peoples could talk about the day.
Does this explain why we still love to sit around campfires and tell stories and sing songs together? Why the fireplace is the heart (hearth) of the home?
In this book, Wilson attempts two somewhat different tasks, and generally succeeds at both, but is not perfect at either. First, he draws a broad outline of the evolution of humanity, and specifically of the evolution of human culture and social traits. Secondly, he presents an argument for the rejection of kin selection and inclusive fitness theory in favor of group selection. Below, I'll briefly outline the structure of the book, then comment on where I thought the book succeeded and where it was lacking.
After an introductory section laying out his central questions, Wilson embarks on a lengthy section describing the basics of human evolution. If you've already read extensively on this topic, Wilson does not add much here in the way of new ideas -- which was one of the reasons this book was slow to grab me. He does lay some groundwork here for his argument about group selection, but for the most part this section covers ground that is pretty well-trodden.
He follows with a section on the evolution of eusocial insects. This was somewhat less familiar territory for me, and therefore the point where the book started to suck me in. Insects are Wilson's specialty, and the insights here do not disappoint.
But ultimately, the descriptions of eusocial insects are more groundwork for the fourth section, in which Wilson establishes the central claim of the work: that inclusive fitness theory and kin selection have failed to match real-world observations of eusocial animals, and that natural selection operating on the group level (as opposed to the organism level) successfully explains the evolution of altruism, culture, and social behavior.
Finally, Wilson spends a fifth section addressing the role of biological evolution in the development of specific aspects of humanity: culture, language, religion, morality, and the creative arts.
As I stated above, the central argument in this book is an argument about the merits of group selection versus kin selection theory. This is a fascinating and important argument in evolutionary biology, but I think it is also a fairly technical -- even esoteric -- argument. I don't know to what extent the general reader will be invested in this argument. Perhaps Wilson succeeded in bringing this question to a general readership -- but in doing so, I feel like he omitted some of the details of the experimental evidence that would be desired by the more knowledgeable reader. Not that he ignores experimental evidence, but I would have appreciated a more thorough treatment.
I appreciated the broad scope of the book's last section, but this scope carries with it inherent weaknesses. The questions that Wilson addresses here -- the evolutionary and biological origins of language, culture, religion, and morality -- are far from settled science. Wilson makes his case -- sometimes a strong case -- for group selection pressures as driving forces in each of these areas, but much of this work is necessarily speculative. The ideas are intriguing and provocative, but certainly not conclusive. (The religiously-oriented will likely take particular issue with some of Wilson's conclusions about the origins and nature of religious faith, but I will leave that debate to others.)
For whatever flaws it may have, I still gave this book five stars, and I would still recommend it highly to anyone interested in evolution or the origins of humanity. Wilson pioneered the integration of biology and the social sciences, and his ideas in this arena continue to resonate. For the reader who has a bit of background in evolutionary bio, Wilson provides a strong counterpoint to the ideas of gene-level selection advocated by Richard Dawkins (not that gene-level, organism-level, and group-level selection are mutually exclusive, but Wilson and Dawkins take strongly diverging views on the relative importance of each). For the reader who has little or no background on human evolution, I would add this to my short-list for "Books to choose from if you read only one book about evolution."
There is one interesting and unique point made in this book: Eusocial organisms arise when there is a common, group "nest". Wilson champions the theory of "multiple level" or "group" selection. Group selection is a fine way of looking at colonies/tribes.
There's a lot of info about human and ant/termite history. Cool stuff, that.
1. But, in this book, Wilson goes on to put down another fine theory. He takes every opportunity to trash "kin selection" and "inclusive fitness". His criticism of kin selection is fair because of its limited use. But he profoundly misrepresents and incorrectly rejects inclusive fitness. Hamilton's theory is a mathematical model which works well in many cases. It is not disproved, debunked, wrong, or incorrect. Wilson would have the reader believe the contrary, and take his word for it. And he does so over, and over, as though saying it enough will make it true! He seems not to have read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Though he does call worker bees a "phenotypic extension" of the queen. Of course, no credit is given to Dawkins for coining the term! Wilson comes across as a total ass-hat, obsessed with crushing others. This is flagrant dishonesty so abhorrent that I give only 1-star. For those curious about this argument, read more here: http://richarddawkins.net/articles/64...
There are other serious deal breakers between me and this book:
2. Wilson calls selecting embryo to avoid genetic disease "eugenics". He expresses his hope that it will never become common place. By this reasoning, would he deny live-saving care to premature babies? It is clearly an evil, incorrect moral assessment.
3. He claims organisms living in water can ever develop technology. His argument is that they cannot possess fire, metal, etc. This seems like a very weak argument. It reminds me of the Gw'oth from Larry Niven's novels.
4. Another of Wilson's unmerited personal opinions is about AI. He claims computers can never have human emotions. He justifies this by pointing out our special biological origins. Computers may not share our direct origins, but programmers makes the rules. The trick to a human-like AI is to simulate the various of the brain. These parts have their function thanks to evolution. There is nothing to stop a computational model from replicating ANY function!
5. Another moment in the book that made me vomit and shit at the same time: Wilson argues that we should ABANDON MANNED SPACE TRAVEL! If this doesn't convince you Wilson is an ass-hat, I don't know what will. He says its cheaper and safer to stay on Earth, FOREVER! I don't know what compels Wilson to throw in his stupid beliefs around. But they certainly don't belong in a non-fiction book like this. I wish he would stick to talking about ants!
There are any number of lively debates within evolutionary circles, such as the pace of evolutionary change (gradualism versus punctuated equilibrium) or the level at which evolution takes place (individual versus group versus multiple levels).
One of these issues is joined in this volume.
Wilson says that group selection was quite prominent in human evolution from 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. In his words (2012, p. 91):
"Bands and communities of bands with better combinations of cultural innovations became more productive and better equipped for competition and war. Their rivals either copied them or else were displaced and their territories taken. Thus group selection drove the evolution of culture."
A key concept in Wilson's book is "eusociality," which refers to (2012, p. 17) "group members containing multiple generations and prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor." He notes that humans and a number of social insects manifest this trait. Eusocial behavior is a product of both individual and group selection; since more eusocial groups would be likelier to survive, this introduces an element of group selection to the process.
This volume has created considerable debate among evolutionary theorists. The volume is well written and worthy of discussion.
I've been reading a bit about the huge controversy over kin selection vs. group selection. Wilson is receiving harsh criticism over his apparent defection from his own previous ideas about kin selection, which are endorsed by nearly all evolutionary biologists. At this point, I am not entirely sure that Wilson's ideas about group selection are completely incompatible with orthodox kin selection theory.
Here's a nice brief discussion of the problem: Science Creative Quarterly. An excerpt: "The debate among biologists on the legitimacy of group selection theory continues unabated today, (Wilson, 2005 and Foster et al., 2005), and the ongoing struggle to resolve interpretations of how selection acts at the ‘organismal’ or ‘superorganismal’ (or even cellular or molecular) level is certain to challenge the limits of human perspective for a long time to come. This struggle to find a resolution, a seamlessly ‘unified’ selection theory that bridges the gap from the smallest nucleic acid to the largest populations, is essentially at the heart of smaller controversial issues like group selection, and is part of the reason why these heated topics have persisted since Darwin started it all."
There are two main takeaways from this book for me. First is that humans have evolved extraordinarily complex cooperation & collaboration strategies that include both self-ish behavior and altruistic behavior. And this conflicting mix of motivations and intentions are a result of natural selection at both the individual and group level. So are we selfish or are we altruistic? We’re both.
The second takeaway is that our altruistic behavior can be director at those we consider to be in our group, and for humans the definition of “our group” is extraordinarily flexible and ever-changing. This gives me hope that, over time, we may be able to actually apply the ancient wisdom that we are all connected. Further, as he alluded to I. The final chapter, we may someday realize that the Earth is our shared home - our “nest to be protected” which is a foundation of eusocial behavior - and our natural tendencies for tribalism and group-level selection can be extended to a much wider population Han is currently the case for almost all of us.
I could not comprehend a good deal of the complex biology concepts.
What I did learn and enjoyed was the theory of group selection replacing the previous theory of kin selection. In simplistic terms, humans are left with contradictory traits from genes evolved through both group selection and individual selection. This results in forever conflicting impulses and drives: heroism, altruism, seeking justice etc. on one hand and cowardice, deception, betrayal etc on the other.
What blew my mind was results of a study on societies with limited number of distinct words for colors. Societies with two words for color have words for white and blank only. Those with three words have: white, black and red. Four words: white, black, red and green or yellow and so on.
I found this theory so thrilling that I would love to read more books on origins of language and linguistics.
I'm also very much inspired to read more from Edward Wilson and also the "Silent Hands" which was referenced in the book.
Çok keyifli bir okuma oldu. Wilson sosyal yaşamın dünyayı fethini insan ve karıncalar üzerinden iki farklı yoldan anlatmış. İnsan olma durumunu anlamak için güzel bir eser. İnsanın özellikle sosyal evriminde bireysel ve grup seçiliminin çok katmanlı bileşimiden bugüne geldiğimizi söylüyor. Bireyselliğimiz rekabet bencillik ve aldatmayı getirirken; sosyalliğimiz özgeciliği, erdemleri ve fedakarlığı ortaya çıkarıyor. İnsan da bu iki başlı canavarın mücadelesinin ürünü. İçimizdeki dürüstlük ve hilekarlığın bitmez mücadelesinin biyolojik kökenine dair güzel bir eser olmuş. İnsan olma durumu-halini daha iyi anlamak isteyenlere tavsiye ederim.
Two thirds of "The Social Conquest of Earth" is devoted to the social behaviors of ants, termites, and bees as examples of the adaptive power of group selection to shape the characteristics of individual group members. For me, the last third of the book was gripping. In particular, the examination of multi-level selection and the adaptive superiority of selfishness in competition between individuals and of altruism within groups was fascinating. Religion is explained as adaptive for groups inasmuch as it creates and sustains shared identity and altruistic behavior by group members.
The fact that Man has been searching to understand the Human condition for ages is the question this book delves into. Wilson’s biology specialization on social insects is the background from where he peeks into Mankind’s own evolution to the point where we stand today, for good or bad Man is the supreme conqueror of Earth. He posits that there are a few special characteristics which, when acquired through preadaptation, animals become social. A very unique dynamic consisting of the rise of bipedalism, tool making, control of fire, hunting in groups, a grasping hand, speech/language, an increasingly larger brain for a rapidly developing intelligence, among many, all arising at one or another stage of our evolution. But Wilson highlights the advent of eusociality as a key adaptation that defined the distinct path that humans would take and would make them what we are today. Eusociality means tribalism, the identification with a group of whatever kind. It also means owning a habitat, a home to protect and defend. Social insects build those homes, their nests, and defend them against aggresors. The success of those insect colonies, or superorganisms, is the distribution of labour among specialized variants of the insect units. Humans did not acquire such a trait, and so all humans are basically equal (thus our Human Rights). In our history there are abundant examples of attempts at establishing organizations similar to those of insects, slavery in one form or another, but thankfully most of us have realized it is not human. The instinct is there, but we cannot create workers, and soldiers or other by silencing some genes through what we feed our progeny. Leadership is the human way to make up for it. Not so much in the book but the question does arise: when did intelligence undergo that special singularity or leap that made it so different to its existing cousins, the Neanderthals, Denisovans or Floresians? How come Man is so curious and intelligent that it has been able to develop a Science through which to try and unravel its own nature? All of the above --and yes that of eusociality which very many had not so much considered until recently, perhaps focusing on the rise of agriculture …and cooking thanks to fire-- but in my view the latter characteristic, that of an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding and the capacity to gradually develop it, has been the most important human trait. "We are an evolutionary chimera, living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct" (p.13). "There is a real creation story of humanity and it is not a myth. Science is it, and it is continuously tested, enriched and strengthened in time" (p.10).
Wilson examines and compares the evolution of eusocial behaviour in insects with that in humans. This is a fascinating subject. The book is interesting, though the language used in some sections was overly verbose and/or clunky, which I found detracted from the hypothesis that group selection is a greater driver of human evolution than kin selection.
I haven't read Wilson before this although he is a prolific writer and scientist. I love the subject of the development of humanity and culture and was thrilled to find this new publication at the airport when I had a 5 hour layover followed by a 6 hour flight! Wilson writes clearly and for the most part in layman's terms comparing the development of eusociality in ants and bugs and humans. He delves into the reason that the bugs never went further in their development, evolving into the creative, independent beings that humans are. I found this book to be very interesting. It is a bit repetitive in places, but I think that is because he is very much aware of his scientific mind and he wants his readers to fully grasp his explanations and comparisons. With my limited knowledge of his field, I can say what he posits makes sense. Wilson believes that eusociality evolved from his clunky term of "gene-culture coevolution." Our genes and cultures evolved from the dual drives of group selection and individual selection. Humanity relates to each other and the world in ways wholly different than even the next-in-line most intelligent creatures, like chimpanzees or dolphins. Our ability to be both altruistic and selfish is what created our deeply divided human nature, and our struggles with good versus evil. As humans struggled to understand the world around them and their selves, they invented gods, creation myths, rituals, etc. to explain everything. Now that we have evolved so much, and are always evolving, science needs to displace religion as the chief explanation for the natural world, and our physiological and psychological meaning. He makes some claims against religious personages, declaring that they falsely give comfort and knowledge to their respective followers that I at first felt affronted by, but as I kept reading I found it hard to deny his points. I don't believe as Marx did that religion has no value, deep faith is a comfort for many people and should never be taken from them. However, science should not continue to be relegated to the back seat, especially in politics. There is so much in-fighting and religiosity in the world today that climate change, animal and plant extinction, the loss of rain forests and savannas,the development of truly better than oil technologies, are falling by the wayside to promote one belief system above another, or polticians' pride above these important realities. Wilson is concerned and so should we be.
The theme of Wilson's book is expressed by the title of one of Gauguin's last Tahitian masterpieces: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Wilson brings a lifetime of study, research, and reflection to bear on these questions.
Much of the early part of the book is devoted to Wilson's passion, ants, as well as other social insects. He shows how through natural selection these social insects came to dominate the invertebrate species on land, that there is a biological advantage to eusociality--the presence of two or more generations that evolved to establish and protect nests, and to nurture new generations.
When he switches his focus to humanity, he demonstrates, based on what is currently known about the path of human evolution, how eusociality emerged as the social pattern that resulted in the domination of Earth by homo sapiens.
The bulk of the story he tells is about where we came from, and some of his arguments raised a dust storm of controversy. Decades ago he was on of the most important proponents of what's become know as the the selfish gene account of human evolution, which focuses on humans acting to preserve and transmit their own genes and those of their closest kin. Wilson no longer accepts that account, and now urges that a more accurate picture of human evolution must also include group selection. He points out that the kinship theory, in which an individual promotes the transmission of his own genes, is individualistic, selfish, and promotes some of the darker aspects of human behavior. Group selection, on the other hand, explains more readily the more angelic nature of humankind, namely our tendency to act altruistically, especially when it comes to protecting our own tribe, many of whose members are not kin.
As to where we are going, he is very optimistic despite the path humans have taken and the destructive forces we have unleashed in the last few decades, especially with respect to global warming. He believes we will be able to ultimately save ourselves from the total disaster of engineering our own extinction.
Wilson writing is relatively free of jargon, and given his advanced age may be his final great work. If you don't like the chapters about the insects, they can be easily skipped, though I found his descriptions of the insect world fascinating.
Im actually still reading, but I’m going out on a limb to expose my ignorance and pick out problems I have with this book. After all, it must be I who is wrong as I am not a world renown scholar. One thing I just encountered: He states unequivocally that incest is universally abhorrent to man (but mentions known political exceptions) and animal alike. This scientist was born in Alabama, but he must have immediately donned those rose colored glasses and entered that ivory tower. Is he unaware that the south is a proverbial hot bed of incest? This stuff isn’t made up. My mother is from the Appalachian south and a case in point. My grandpa loved his own teenage girls a little too much, which if you ask me is more abhorrent than brother/sister incest as the girls had no power to say no. Not that either is RIGHT. I know others with similar family history. Does he not read newspapers or have any understanding of crime? Why does he make ill informed sweeping statements? Besides these “facts” he makes about sexual urges, he also makes some wackadoo leaps of logic.
The parts I have the most problem with, if I can find a unifying theme, are places where it feels like he’s trying to appeal to the layperson by means of metaphor and conventional wisdom. Ugh. And that feels so condescending and paternalistic.
Another place he says mankind’s genes are coded to have two parent families. I beg to differ. Our laws and conventions are coded towards two parent families. Not that I’m in any way endorsing polygamy, but I think he’s so superficial, ignoring polyamory, asexually, and who knows what else. I’m not an expert. His ignorance or exclusions of reality makes this book feel very white-washy and preachy.