What are we, and where are we going?

The Pulitzer-winning scientist Edward O Wilson uses his knowledge of arthropods to illuminate the way that humans behave

Big questions: part of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin. Photograph: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY

Big questions: part of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin. Photograph: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 01:00

   
 

Book Title:
The Social Conquest of Earth

ISBN-13:
978-0871403636

Author:
Edward O Wilson

Publisher:
Liveright, New York

Guideline Price:
£18.99

Some of the best writers of the past century have been scientists, and of these Edward Wilson, born in 1929, is one of the greatest. The Social Conquest of Earth is his 27th big book; two have won Pulitzer Prizes. He writes for everyone, but much of what he writes is difficult, and what is easy to read is uncomfortable.

He shows that we can learn a lot about human behaviour and society by studying insects. We are social animals, programmed by genes, who also speak. We are now a society with a culture, and some have a rational understanding of Earth. We have conquered Earth, and some are now destroying it.

Wilson’s great knowledge of the behaviour of arthropods (insects and their relatives) tells us important things about people’s personal and social behaviour. Truly social organisms, known as eusocial, form complex groups in which “members across two or more generations stay together, cooperate, care for young, and divide labour in a way favouring reproduction of some individuals over that in others”.

Such organisms are rare. They include a few mammals (humans and two mole rats), a few lines of insects and a species of shrimp – less than two dozen lines of animals in all. They dominate our planet.

We humans dominate the planet in one sense, but a million species in a few lines of eusocial insects are more significant in number, weight and environmental impact than all other organisms.

Eusociality has been as powerful an evolutionary strategy for people and our ape-like relatives as it has been for insects. It has been the mechanism by which evolution has produced humanity, its “magnificent but fragile achievement”.

Wilson loves humanity but is fearful of the power of genetic predispositions to certain kinds of behaviour selected in our biological ancestors by evolutionary forces millions of years ago.

Political philosophers from John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith, and others since, know the problem: how can personal greed be harnessed for social good? At root there may be a genetic predisposition, “instinctive empathy”, varying in intensity between people, favouring the golden rule, “the only precept found in all organised religions”.

“Do unto others . . .” is all very well, but it has had to be harnessed by habit, custom, democracy and law, informed and modified by rational knowledge.

Wilson’s work had made little impact outside academia until he dared to write a chapter in Sociobiology (1975; 2000) which argued that human societies have evolved under similar evolutionary pressures, and obey similar biological rules, to eusocial insects. The essence was that genes have been selected which affect both individual and social behaviour in both insects and humans.

The scientific left in the US and elsewhere, especially psychologists, took serious exception. For some of them, behaviour, both personal and social, is not genetically determined, not innate, but taught and learned. The brain is a blank slate.

This is a false dichotomy: behaviour is both genetic and, in higher animals, especially humans, learned. Genetic factors interact with environmental and cultural factors. The controversy, which rumbles on, had the benefit of bringing Wilson to wider public attention. Now in his 80s, Wilson applies his erudition to the biggest questions, borrowing from Paul Gauguin: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”