E. O. Wilson on how we got to be this way

Distinguished evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term consilience as it was used at the conference I attended last weekend, gave the keynote address. His talk was based on his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.

Wilson began his talk with three haunting questions that Gauguin wrote on a painting he made toward the end of his life: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? These questions are central to philosophy, religion, and science. However, academic philosophy no longer attempts to answer these big questions, by and large. About religious creation stories and explanations, he noted, quite correctly, that no two agree, and that each story was specific to a particular time and place, typically an era when people knew far less than we do now. This leaves science to answer these questions. I was struck by his statement that science gives us a single creation story that is true. I caught an echo of what must have motivated him to propose the idea of consilience in the first place: the belief that the human story can be placed within a single, reality-based, empirically tested, entirely secular epic. (More on this in a later post about the concept of consilience.)

His argument regarding how we got to be the way we are is that genetic relatedness is not the best way to explain the development of eusociality, the most complex level of social organization (found in social insects such as some ants and bees, and also in humans). Instead, eusociality evolved because of certain evolutionary pressures; under these pressures, it would be advantageous even to non-related animals to learn to cooperate. Eusociality is interesting because it is simultaneously highly successful and very rare; it evolved relatively few times, but eusocial species dominate the planet. Humans, of course, have transformed the planet in important and not always desirable ways, but ants are also dominant in that they outmass all the other insects combined.

In his talk, Wilson discussed the threshold that a species has to cross to reach eusociality; he pinpointed the circumstances in which it is useful to construct a valuable, defensible nest or den in which to rear the young. This makes cooperation and a division of labor possible if not inevitable, along with communication, and in our case, our obsessive preoccupation with our fellow humans and our attempts to understand what they are thinking and why they act as they do. According to him, it is one of the great questions of biology why so few species pass through this bottleneck to eusociality, and which genes are associated with the transformation.

Wilson claimed that group selection was almost certainly what pushed humans over that threshold. (Group selection is highly controversial among evolutionary biologists, as you will find if you read bloggers such as Jerry Coyne on this topic.) Certainly Wilson did not seem to be saying that group selection alone made us what we are; multi-level selection is a better label for what he was describing. In fact, the other thing he said that really struck me was that individual selection and group selection pull us in opposite directions: individual selection fosters what we think of as sin, whereas group selection fosters virtue. (If we were shaped entirely by group selection, we would be “angelic robots,” he said, i.e., ants!)

He has said elsewhere that this is an oversimplification, and I certainly wouldn’t agree with it entirely. However, he presented an intriguing view of human nature perpetually caught between these two extremes. I wrote in my notes, “the human condition is an internal and eternal state of conflict and turmoil”; I didn’t put that in quotes when I wrote it down, but it certainly reads more like Wilson’s beautiful style than like my own cryptic, terse note-taking lingo. Maybe, he said, there is no good solution for us as a species; we need to “shuffle along” and work things out generation by generation. I couldn’t help thinking about Alexander Pope’s description of man: “He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest; In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast.” Somehow, the idea of facing this great conundrum by shuffling along and doing our best, rather than imagining some heroic decision or solution that puts us on one side or the other, seems very human to me.

You can read more about Wilson’s latest work in this article from the Atlantic. The March 5, 2012 issue of the New Yorker has a good article by Jonah Lehrer that talks about the context of Wilson’s recent highly controversial paper, co-written with two mathematicians, about group selection. (Online it’s available free only to subscribers.)