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
The Social Conquest of Earth
Edward O Wilson
Liveright, New York
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?”
Religions – that is to say myths – were important contributors to human social evolution, and still meet great human needs, but Wilson is sure they will not solve our large dilemmas. Religions are two a penny. He has estimated that we have invented about 100,000 of them, roughly one for every separate prehistoric human group. Religions were valuable “Darwinian devices for survival”, but they represent a phase in our social evolution that we would have left behind had we all taken in what science has discovered so far about our world.
He regards them as “stultifying and divisive” distractions, which often lead to disastrous results. For Wilson, philosophers too have given up trying to answer the fundamental questions, and that leaves the questions for science, as Bertrand Russell expected more than 50 years ago, though not without the close support of the imaginative arts and rational humanities.
“I will propose that scientific advances, especially those made during the last two decades, are now sufficient for us to address, in a coherent manner, the questions of where we came from and what we are.”
The key to understanding ourselves is to understand the biological basis of behaviour, both personal and social. Although we are “exalted” by Wilson as much as anyone, he knows we are animals; our atoms must obey the laws of physics and chemistry, and every human quality has arisen through evolution by natural selection.
Evolution affects everything in human nature: all behaviour, culture, language, morality, religion, the creative arts, consciousness, everything. Wilson writes beautifully on the evolution of music; he is sure it has a genetic basis and a fundamental social value. For Wilson free will “is ultimately biological”.
Cultural evolution is now extraordinarily powerful and proceeds much faster than biological evolution in the narrow sense of changes in genes, but it cannot be separated from the underlying biology. We are eusocial, but we have gone further than the robotic ants.
The first section of the book is a well-told story of evolution from anthropoid ape to human. We evolved as one of several species of human in Africa about 180,000 years ago. Our ancestors were large-brained upright walkers with grasping hands. They were tool-making hunter-gatherers who lived in small groups of about 20 or 30 and could speak, make music, paint and bury their dead. These people had all the innate talents to succeed in the 21st century – there have been few genetical changes, most of them to do with new food, such as cow’s milk, and disease. We know that other quite distinct human species (or subspecies) – Neanderthals, Denisovans and possibly Flores Man – did interbreed with us to a small extent, but they became extinct.
In the next section he describes how eusocial insects evolved and conquered the world of small animals. There is a technical section on some recent controversies, to which he has been making important contributions: on how natural selection acts, firstly in the appearance of eusocial species and, secondly, in the evolution of eusocial species after they first appear.
The key questions are whether natural selection acts on the individual, the group or both, and, if it happens on several levels, which he favours, how do the forces acting at the different levels combine to shape evolution? Are the genes for behaviour that make an individual successful within a group the same as those that make a group successful in competing against other groups? Think of natural selection acting on the behaviour of people within a small group of hunter-gatherers in which there is competition as to who will have most offspring, with some accepting their subsidiary, supportive, nonbreeding roles within that group. If a group is to succeed, the members, who compete among themselves, must co-operate (be altruistic) in caring for children, gathering food, and protecting against predators and human competitors.
Part saint, part sinner
Wilson concludes that we have a chimeric collection of genes – some for altruism, strengthening the group; some for aggression, strengthening the individual – rendering “each of us part saint and part sinner”.
Humans display remarkable group affinity, with great capacity for empathy, and Wilson says there is a genetic basis for this: “Human beings are prone to be moral.”
Now think of what has been happening. We do not live in groups of 20-30, nor even in tribes of a few hundred or a few thousand, and nations are giving way to internations. Groupings are vastly bigger and more widely dispersed. We each belong to many interdigitated groups, and our capacity for empathy is extending so rapidly that we can look forward to the time when we all feel we are members of one group: humanity.
Wilson welcomes the broadening of the feelings of group membership brought about by globalisation and the social media, and the growth in frequency of “hybridisation” between races. He enthuses at the impact of the new genetic make-up of humanity and the “the prospect of an immense increase in different kinds of . . . newly created beauty and artistic and intellectual genius”.
He is optimistic that “out of an ethic of simple decency to each other, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams (a permanent paradise for human beings) will finally come home to stay”.
He yearns for an alliance between rational analysis and art, between science and the humanities. He sees this as an opportunity for “the New Enlightenment”. For most of the people, even of the developed world, sad to say, it will be their first. There is a lot to be done.