The task of understanding humanity is too important and too daunting to leave to the humanities. Their many branches, from philosophy to law to history and the creative arts, have described the particularities of human nature with genius and exquisite detail, back and forth in endless permutations. But they have not explained why we possess our special nature and not some other out of a vast number of conceivable possibilities. In that sense, the humanities have not accounted for a full understanding of our species’ existence.
So, just what are we? The key to the great riddle lies in the circumstance and process that created our species. The human condition is a product of history, not just the six millenniums of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millenniums. The whole of it, biological and cultural evolution, in seamless unity, must be explored for an answer to the mystery. When thus viewed across its entire traverse, the history of humanity also becomes the key to learning how and why our species survived.
A majority of people prefer to interpret history as the unfolding of a supernatural design, to whose author we owe obedience. But that comforting interpretation has grown less supportable as knowledge of the real world has expanded. Scientific knowledge (measured by numbers of scientists and scientific journals) in particular has been doubling every 10 to 20 years for over a century. In traditional explanations of the past, religious creation stories have been blended with the humanities to attribute meaning to our species’s existence. It is time to consider what science might give to the humanities and the humanities to science in a common search for a more solidly grounded answer to the great riddle.
To begin, biologists have found that the biological origin of advanced social behavior in humans was similar to that occurring elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Using comparative studies of thousands of animal species, from insects to mammals, they have concluded that the most complex societies have arisen through eusociality — roughly, “true” social condition. The members of a eusocial group cooperatively rear the young across multiple generations. They also divide labor through the surrender by some members of at least some of their personal reproduction in a way that increases the “reproductive success” (lifetime reproduction) of other members.
Eusociality stands out as an oddity in a couple of ways. One is its extreme rarity. Out of hundreds of thousands of evolving lines of animals on the land during the past 400 million years, the condition, so far as we can determine, has arisen only about two dozen times. This is likely to be an underestimate, due to sampling error. Nevertheless, we can be certain that the number of originations was very small.
Furthermore, the known eusocial species arose very late in the history of life. It appears to have occurred not at all during the great Paleozoic diversification of insects, 350 to 250 million years before the present, during which the variety of insects approached that of today. Nor is there as yet any evidence of eusocial species during the Mesozoic Era until the appearance of the earliest termites and ants between 200 and 150 million years ago. Humans at the Homo level appeared only very recently, following tens of millions of years of evolution among the primates.
Once attained, advanced social behavior at the eusocial grade has proved a major ecological success. Of the two dozen independent lines, just two within the insects — ants and termites — globally dominate invertebrates on the land. Although they are represented by fewer than 20 thousand of the million known living insect species, ants and termites compose more than half of the world’s insect body weight.
The history of eusociality raises a question: given the enormous advantage it confers, why was this advanced form of social behavior so rare and long delayed? The answer appears to be the special sequence of preliminary evolutionary changes that must occur before the final step to eusociality can be taken. In all of the eusocial species analyzed to date, the final step before eusociality is the construction of a protected nest, from which foraging trips begin and within which the young are raised to maturity. The original nest builders can be a lone female, a mated pair, or a small and weakly organized group. When this final preliminary step is attained, all that is needed to create a eusocial colony is for the parents and offspring to stay at the nest and cooperate in raising additional generations of young. Such primitive assemblages then divide easily into risk-prone foragers and risk-averse parents and nurses.
What brought one primate line to the rare level of eusociality? Paleontologists have found that the circumstances were humble. In Africa about two million years ago, one species of the primarily vegetarian australopithecine evidently shifted its diet to include a much higher reliance on meat. For a group to harvest such a high-energy, widely dispersed source of food, it did not pay to roam about as a loosely organized pack of adults and young like present-day chimpanzees and bonobos. It was more efficient to occupy a campsite (thus, the nest) and send out hunters who could bring home meat, either killed or scavenged, to share with others. In exchange, the hunters received protection of the campsite and their own young offspring kept there.
From studies of modern humans, including hunter-gatherers, whose lives tell us so much about human origins, social psychologists have deduced the mental growth that began with hunting and campsites. A premium was placed on personal relationships geared to both competition and cooperation among the members. The process was ceaselessly dynamic and demanding. It far exceeded in intensity anything similar experienced by the roaming, loosely organized bands of most animal societies. It required a memory good enough to assess the intentions of fellow members, to predict their responses, from one moment to the next; and it resulted in the ability to invent and inwardly rehearse competing scenarios of future interactions.
The social intelligence of the campsite-anchored prehumans evolved as a kind of non-stop game of chess. Today, at the terminus of this evolutionary process, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated across the past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences variously of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty and betrayal. We instinctively delight in the telling of countless stories about others as players upon the inner stage. The best of it is expressed in the creative arts, political theory, and other higher-level activities we have come to call the humanities.
The definitive part of the long creation story evidently began with the primitive Homo habilis (or a species closely related to it) two million years ago. Prior to the habilines the prehumans had been animals. Largely vegetarians, they had human-like bodies, but their cranial capacity remained chimpanzee-size, at or below 500 cubic centimeters. Starting with the habiline period the capacity grew precipitously: to 680 cubic centimeters in Homo habilis, 900 in Homo erectus, and about 1,400 in Homo sapiens. The expansion of the human brain was one of the most rapid episodes of evolution of complex organs in the history of life.
Still, to recognize the rare coming together of cooperating primates is not enough to account for the full potential of modern humans that brain capacity provides. Evolutionary biologists have searched for the grandmaster of advanced social evolution, the combination of forces and environmental circumstances that bestowed greater longevity and more successful reproduction on the possession of high social intelligence. At present there are two competing theories of the principal force. The first is kin selection: individuals favor collateral kin (relatives other than offspring) making it easier for altruism to evolve among members of the same group. Altruism in turn engenders complex social organization, and, in the one case that involves big mammals, human-level intelligence.
The second, more recently argued theory (full disclosure: I am one of the modern version’s authors), the grandmaster is multilevel selection. This formulation recognizes two levels at which natural selection operates: individual selection based on competition and cooperation among members of the same group, and group selection, which arises from competition and cooperation between groups. Multilevel selection is gaining in favor among evolutionary biologists because of a recent mathematical proof that kin selection can arise only under special conditions that demonstrably do not exist, and the better fit of multilevel selection to all of the two dozen known animal cases of eusocial evolution.
The roles of both individual and group selection are indelibly stamped (to borrow a phrase from Charles Darwin) upon our social behavior. As expected, we are intensely interested in the minutiae of behavior of those around us. Gossip is a prevailing subject of conversation, everywhere from hunter-gatherer campsites to royal courts. The mind is a kaleidoscopically shifting map of others, each of whom is drawn emotionally in shades of trust, love, hatred, suspicion, admiration, envy and sociability. We are compulsively driven to create and belong to groups, variously nested, overlapping or separate, and large or small. Almost all groups compete with those of similar kind in some manner or other. We tend to think of our own as superior, and we find our identity within them.
The existence of competition and conflict, the latter often violent, has been a hallmark of societies as far back as archaeological evidence is able to offer. These and other traits we call human nature are so deeply resident in our emotions and habits of thought as to seem just part of some greater nature, like the air we all breathe, and the molecular machinery that drives all of life. But they are not. Instead, they are among the idiosyncratic hereditary traits that define our species.
The major features of the biological origins of our species are coming into focus, and with this clarification the potential of a more fruitful contact between science and the humanities. The convergence between these two great branches of learning will matter hugely when enough people have thought it through. On the science side, genetics, the brain sciences, evolutionary biology, and paleontology will be seen in a different light. Students will be taught prehistory as well as conventional history, the whole presented as the living world’s greatest epic.
We will also, I believe, take a more serious look at our place in nature. Exalted we are indeed, risen to be the mind of the biosphere without a doubt, our spirits capable of awe and ever more breathtaking leaps of imagination. But we are still part of earth’s fauna and flora. We are bound to it by emotion, physiology, and not least, deep history. It is dangerous to think of this planet as a way station to a better world, or continue to convert it into a literal, human-engineered spaceship. Contrary to general opinion, demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. We are self-made, independent, alone and fragile. Self-understanding is what counts for long-term survival, both for individuals and for the species.
Edward O. Wilson is Honorary Curator in Entomology and University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University. He has received more than 100 awards for his research and writing, including the U. S. National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize and two Pulitzer Prizes in non-fiction. His most recent book is “The Social Conquest of Earth.”
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Interview with Edward O. Wilson: The Origin of Morals (Spiegel)
February 26, 2013 – 01:23 PM
By Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle
Edward O. Wilson doesn’t come across as the kind of man who’s looking to pick a fight. With his shoulders upright and his head tilting slightly to the side, he shuffles through the halls of Harvard University. His right eye, which has given him trouble since his childhood, is halfway closed. The other is fixed on the ground. As an ant researcher, Wilson has made a career out of things that live on the earth’s surface.
There’s also much more to Wilson. Some consider him to be the world’s most important living biologist, with some placing him on a level with Charles Darwin.
In addition to discovering and describing hundreds of species of ants, Wilson’s book on this incomparably successful group of insects is the only non-fiction biology tome ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. Another achievement was decoding the chemical communication of ants, whose vocabulary is composed of pheromones. His study of the ant colonization of islands helped to establish one of the most fruitful branches of ecology. And when it comes to the battle against the loss of biodiversity, Wilson is one of the movement’s most eloquent voices.
‘Blessed with Brilliant Enemies’
But Wilson’s fame isn’t solely the product of his scientific achievements. His enemies have also helped him to establish a name. “I have been blessed with brilliant enemies,” he says. In fact, the multitude of scholars with whom Wilson has skirmished academically is illustrious. James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix in DNA is among them, as is essayist Stephen Jay Gould.
At 83 years of age, Wilson is still at work making a few new enemies. The latest source of uproar is a book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” published last April in the United States and this month in a German-language edition. In the tome, Wilson attempts to describe the triumphal advance of humans in evolutionary terms.
It is not uncommon for Wilson to look to ants for inspiration in his writings — and that proves true here, as well. When, for example, he recalls beholding two 90-million-year-old worker ants that were trapped in a piece of fossil metasequoia amber as being “among the most exciting moments in my life,” a discovery that “ranked in scientific importance withArchaeopteryx, the first fossil intermediary between birds and dinosaurs, and Australopithecus, the first ‘missing link’ discovered between modern humans and the ancestral apes.”
But that’s all just foreplay to the real controversy at the book’s core. Ultimately, Wilson uses ants to explain humans’ social behavior and, by doing so, breaks with current convention. The key question is the level at which Darwinian selection of human characteristics takes place. Did individuals enter into a fight for survival against each other, or did groups battle it out against competing groups?
Prior to this book, Wilson had been an influential champion of the theory of kin selection. He has now rejected his previous teachings, literally demolishing them. “The beautiful theory never worked well anyway, and now it has collapsed,” he writes. Today, he argues that human nature can only be understood if it is perceived as being the product of “group selection” — a view that Wilson’s fellow academics equate with sacrilege. They literally lined up to express their scientific dissent in a joint letter.
Some of the most vociferous criticism has come from Richard Dawkins, whose bestselling 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” first introduced the theory of kin selection to a mass audience. In a withering review of Wilson’s book in Britain’s Prospect magazine, Dawkins accuses a man he describes as his “lifelong hero” of “wanton arrogance” and “perverse misunderstandings”. “To borrow from Dorothy Parker,” he writes, “this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force.”
SPIEGEL recently sat down with sociobiologist Wilson to discuss his book and the controversy surrounding it.
SPIEGEL: Professor Wilson, lets assume that 10 million years ago some alien spacecraft had landed on this planet. Which organisms would they find particularly intriguing?
Wilson: Their interest, I believe, would not have been our ancestors. Primarily, they would have focused on ants, bees, wasps, and termites. Their discovery is what the aliens would report back to headquarters.
SPIEGEL: And you think those insects would be more interesting to them than, for example, elephants, flocks of birds or intelligent primates?
Wilson: They would be, because, at that time, ants and termites would be the most abundant creatures on the land and the most highly social creatures with very advanced division of labor and caste. We call them “eusocial,” and this phenomenon seems to be extremely rare.
SPIEGEL: What else might the aliens consider particularly interesting about ants?
Wilson: Ants engage in farming and animal husbandry. For example, some of them cultivate fungi. Others herd aphids and literally milk them by stroking them with their antennae. And the other thing the aliens would find extremely interesting would be the degree to which these insects organize their societies by pheromones, by chemical communication. Ants and termites have taken this form of communication to extremes.
SPIEGEL: So the aliens would cable back home: “We have found ants. They are the most promising candidates for a future evolution towards intelligent beings on earth?”
Wilson: No, they wouldn’t. They would see that these creatures were encased in exoskeletons and therefore had to remain very small. They would conclude that there was little chance for individual ants or termites to develop much reasoning power, nor, as a result, the capacity for culture. But at least on this planet, you have to be big in order to have sufficient cerebral cortex. And you probably have to be bipedal and develop hands with pulpy fingers, because those give you the capacity to start creating objects and to manipulate the environment.
SPIEGEL: Would our ancestors not have caught their eye?
Wilson: Ten million years ago, our ancestors indeed had developed a somewhat larger brain and versatile hands already. But the crucial step had yet to come.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Wilson: Let me go back to the social insects for a moment. Why did social insects start to form colonies? Across hundreds of millions of years, insects had been proliferating as solitary forms. Some of them stayed with their young for a while, guided them and protected them. You find that widespread but far from universal in the animal kingdom. However, out of those species came a much smaller number of species who didn’t just protect their young, but started building nests that they defended …
SPIEGEL: … similar to birds.
Wilson: Yes. And I think that birds are right at the threshold of eusocial behaviour. But looking at the evolution of ants and termites again, there is another crucial step. In an even smaller group, the young don’t only grow up in their nest, but they also stay and care for the next generation. Now you have a group staying together with a division of labor. That is evidently the narrow channel of evolution that you have to pass through in order to become eusocial.
SPIEGEL: And our ancestors followed the same path?
Wilson: Yes. I argue that Homo habilis, the first humans, also went through these stages. In particular, Homo habilis was unique in that they already had shifted to eating meat.
SPIEGEL: What difference would that make?
Wilson: When animals start eating meat, they tend to form packs and to divide labor. We know that the immediate descendants of Homo habilis, Homo erectus, gathered around camp sites and that they actually had begun to use fire. These camp sites are equivalent to nests. That’s where they gathered in a tightly knit group, and then individuals went out searching for food.
SPIEGEL: And this development of groups drives evolution even further?
Wilson: Exactly. And, for example, if it now comes to staking out the hunting grounds, then group stands against group.
SPIEGEL: Meaning that this is the origin of warfare?
Wilson: Yes. But it doesn’t take necessarily the forming of an army or a battalion and meeting on the field and fighting. It was mostly what you call “vengeance raids”. One group attacks another, maybe captures a female or kills one or two males. The other group then counterraids, and this will go back and forth, group against group.
SPIEGEL: You say that this so called group selection is vital for the evolution of humans. Yet traditionally, scientists explain the emergence of social behavior in humans by kin selection.
Wilson: That, for a number of reasons, isn’t much good as an explanation.
SPIEGEL: But you yourself have long been a proponent of this theory. Why did you change your mind?
Wilson: You are right. During the 1970s, I was one of the main proponents of kin selection theory. And at first the idea sounds very reasonable. So for example, if I favored you because you were my brother and therefore we share one half of our genes, then I could sacrifice a lot for you. I could give up my chance to have children in order to get you through college and have a big family. The problem is: If you think it through, kin selection doesn’t explain anything. Instead, I came to the conclusion that selection operates on multiple levels. On one hand, you have normal Darwinian selection going on all the time, where individuals compete with each other. In addition, however, these individuals now form groups. They are staying together, and consequently it is group versus group.
SPIEGEL: Turning away from kin selection provoked a rather fierce reaction from many of your colleagues.
Wilson: No, it didn’t. The reaction was strong, but it came from a relatively small group of people whose careers are based upon studies of kin selection.
SPIEGEL: Isn’t that too easy? After all, 137 scientists signed a response to your claims. They accuse you of a “misunderstanding of evolutionary theory”.
Wilson: You know, most scientists are tribalists. Their lives are so tied up in certain theories that they can’t let go.
SPIEGEL: Does it even make a substantial difference if humans evolved through kin selection or group selection?
Wilson: Oh, it changes everything. Only the understanding of evolution offers a chance to get a real understanding of the human species. We are determined by the interplay between individual and group selection where individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. We’re all in constant conflict between self-sacrifice for the group on the one hand and egoism and selfishness on the other. I go so far as to say that all the subjects of humanities, from law to the creative arts are based upon this play of individual versus group selection.
SPIEGEL: Is this Janus-faced nature of humans our greatest strength at the end of the day?
Wilson: Exactly. This inner conflict between altruism and selfishness is the human condition. And it is very creative and probably the source of our striving, our inventiveness and imagination. It’s that eternal conflict that makes us unique.
SPIEGEL: So how do we negotiate this conflict?
Wilson: We don’t. We have to live with it.
SPIEGEL: Which element of this human condition is stronger?
Wilson: Let’s put it this way: If we would be mainly influenced by group selection, we would be living in kind of an ant society.
SPIEGEL: … the ultimate form of communism?
Wilson: Yes. Once in a while, humans form societies that emphasize the group, for example societies with Marxist ideology. But the opposite is also true. In other societies the individual is everything. Politically, that would be the Republican far right.
SPIEGEL: What determines which ideology is predominant in a society?
Wilson: If your territory is invaded, then cooperation within the group will be extreme. That’s a human instinct. If you are in a frontier area, however, then we tend to move towards the extreme individual level. That seems to be a good part of the problem still with America. We still think we’re on the frontier, so we constantly try to put forward individual initiative and individual rights and rewards based upon individual achievement.
SPIEGEL: Earlier, you differentiated between the “virtue” of altruism and the “sin” of individualism. In your book you talk about the “poorer and the better angels” of human nature. Is it helpful to use this kind of terminology?
Wilson: I will admit that using the terminology of “virtue” and “sin” is what poets call a “trope”. That is to say, I wanted the idea in crude form to take hold. Still, a lot of what we call “virtue” has to do with propensities to behave well toward others. What we call “sin” are things that people do mainly out of self-interest.
SPIEGEL: However, our virtues towards others go only so far. Outside groups are mainly greeted with hostility.
Wilson: You are right. People have to belong to a group. That’s one of the strongest propensities in the human psyche and you won’t be able to change that. However, I think we are evolving, so as to avoid war — but without giving up the joy of competition between groups. Take soccer …
SPIEGEL: … or American football.
Wilson: Oh, yes, American football, it’s a blood sport. And people live by team sports and national or regional pride connected with team sports. And that’s what we should be aiming for, because, again, that spirit is one of the most creative. It landed us on the moon, and people get so much pleasure from it. I don’t want to see any of that disturbed. That is a part of being human. We need our big games, our team sports, our competition, our Olympics.
SPIEGEL: “Humans,” the saying goes, “have Paleolithic emotions” …
Wilson: … “Medieval institutions and god-like technology”. That’s our situation, yeah. And we really have to handle that.
Wilson: So often it happens that we don’t know how, also in situations of public policy and governance, because we don’t have enough understanding of human nature. We simply haven’t looked at human nature in the best way that science might provide. I think what we need is a new Enlightenment. During the 18th century, when the original Enlightenment took place, science wasn’t up to the job. But I think science is now up to the job. We need to be harnessing our scientific knowledge now to get a better, science-based self-understanding.
SPIEGEL: It seems that, in this process, you would like to throw religions overboard altogether?
Wilson: No. That’s a misunderstanding. I don’t want to see the Catholic Church with all of its magnificent art and rituals and music disappear. I just want to have them give up their creation stories, including especially the resurrection of Christ.
SPIEGEL: That might well be a futile endeavour …
Wilson: There was this American physiologist who was asked if Mary’s bodily ascent from Earth to Heaven was possible. He said, “I wasn’t there; therefore, I’m not positive that it happened or didn’t happen; but of one thing I’m certain: She passed out at 10,000 meters.” That’s where science comes in. Seriously, I think we’re better off with no creation stories.
SPIEGEL: With this new Enlightenment, will we reach a higher state of humanity?
Wilson: Do we really want to improve ourselves? Humans are a very young species, in geologic terms, and that’s probably why we’re such a mess. We’re still living with all this aggression and ability to go to war. But do we really want to change ourselves? We’re right on the edge of an era of being able to actually alter the human genome. But do we want that? Do we want to create a race that’s more rational and free of many of these emotions? My response is no, because the only thing that distinguishes us from super-intelligent robots are our imperfect, sloppy, maybe even dangerous emotions. They are what makes us human.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Wilson, we thank you for this conversation.
Interview conducted by Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle