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The anthill society
on 10 May 2012
"The Social Conquest of Earth" is Edward O. Wilson's latest book, published this year. Wilson is a leading myrmecologist who went on to become the grand old man of sociobiology.
In my opinion, Wilson's book is over-hyped by the publisher. It's interesting, to be sure - you can take it from me, I'm a critic of sociobiology, while being somewhat fond of ants! However, the book is to a large extent simply a summary of Wilson's earlier books and scientific papers (which he often references). I consider it to be an introduction to Wilson, rather than some kind of dramatic, super-genial work on par with Darwin's "The Origin of Species".
[GROUP SELECTION AMONG INSECTS]
The main point of the book is to rehabilitate the concept of group selection, 36 years after "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins made the public aware of its burial by the Neo-Darwinists. Wilson no longer claims that W. D. Hamilton's ideas about kin selection can explain the evolution of eusociality among insects. Instead, he believes that complex insect societies (e.g. among hymenopterans) are a product of individual selection of queens, with the worker-castes being a kind of robotic extension of the queen's phenotype. There's also group selection targeting the entire colony. The chapters on insects are rather technical, but if Wilson is right, I wonder why inclusive-fitness selection was upheld for so long. Apparently, the concept never worked for termites, which evolved eusociality independently of the hymenopterans. According to Wilson, the concept didn't work very well for hymenopterans either, to the point where "kin" was defined in a completely arbitrary manner. Kin selection among social insects turned out to be a theoretical, arm-chair construct which simply didn't square with realities on the ground. Wilson was an early defender of Hamilton, but now believes the theory is erroneous. Personally, I'm not surprised: what makes us think that nature can be reduced to an exact mathematical formula of genetic kinship? (Here's a clue: reductionist materialism, which Wilson still upholds.)
[GROUP SELECTION AMONG HUMANS]
But, of course, nobody really cares about ants or termites anyway. The really contentious point of "The Social Conquest of Earth" concerns us humans. Traditionally, sociobiologists have emphasized kin selection as the mechanism behind much of human evolution. By contrast, Wilson proposes a combination of individual selection and group selection.
I admit that this makes a lot of intuitive sense. Once again, I wonder what took the Neo-Darwinists so long to revise their theories? Marshall Sahlins pointed out long ago in "The use and abuse of biology" that many human kinship systems aren't based on genetics at all. They might pit siblings against each other, while counting second cousins or completely unrelated persons as close kin. Since Sahlins was a Marxist constructivist, he was duly mocked by the sociobiologists, who preferred to remain oblivious to these basic anthropological facts.
And what about Malinowski, hailed by sociobiologists as a precursor to their own theories due to his "functionalism"? Malinowski described how men among the Trobriand Islanders are (voluntarily?) cuckolded into adopting and rearing children of unfaithful wives, something incomprehensible from a kin selection viewpoint. The religion of the Trobrianders claim that sexual intercourse has nothing to do with procreation - instead, babies are born when free-floating spirits enter the womb of women. Thus, men would gladly adopt even children who couldn't possibly have been their own. Similar notions also exist among some groups of Aborigines. Group selection would explain all this rather neatly.
Wilson points out that individual selection would tend to promote selfish behaviour, while group selection tends in the opposite direction. Selfish individuals usually win out over altruistic individuals in a group, but groups of altruists always outcompete groups of egoists. Since humans are targets of both forms of selection, we are eternally split between egotistic and altruistic impulses. This is Wilson's explanation for the constant conflict within each human being between virtue and vice, between our desire to help others (including non-kin who can't pay back) and our "sinful" attempts to use others to our advantage. In a sense, group selection is responsible for what we call morals or morality. However, Wilson also believes that group selection has a dark side. Humans are tribal by nature, and competition between tribes has frequently taken aggressive forms throughout human history. Basing himself on Le Blanc's and Register's book "Constant battles", Wilson argues that war is a constant condition of mankind. So is genocide. Indeed, the roots of war go all the way back to our primate ancestors, since chimpanzees (our closest evolutionary cousins) also wage territorial "wars".
[SOME CRITICISMS OF WILSON]
As you might imagine, this is where I tend to part company with the author. It's not at all clear that war has been a perennial companion of Homo sapiens. Many Neolithic cultures were peaceful, including the famous culture at Catalhöyük, which lasted for 1,400 years. Even peaceful high cultures have existed: the Indus Valley Civilization, the Norte Chico culture in Peru and (arguably) Minoan Crete. And what about the Semai in Malaysia, a culture Wilson and other sociobiologists (absurdly) attempted to use as evidence *for* warfare being a human universal during the 1970's? The comparison between humans and chimpanzees is striking only if we decide already before we start that humans really are perennially war-prone. Bonobos, who are mostly peaceful, are also close evolutionary cousins to humans. Besides, chimpanzees become more peaceful in captivity, and even change their "gender roles", suggesting that their genes have a certain flexibility presumably lacking among, say, Hamadryas baboons. The implications for humans are obvious.
Wilson believes in gene-culture co-evolution, and is thus a "moderate interactionist", as I believe Ullica Segerstråle called him in her book on the sociobioloy controversy. My problem with the author is that, in practice, he seems to be a very moderate interactionist indeed! In effect, Wilson is always veering towards genetic determinism (in the vernacular sense of that term). In fact, he complains about his co-evolution theory being misused by people who want to place heavier emphasis on culture. Now, I don't deny that there are "human universals" - I'm not a pure constructivist. But which are they? At one point, Wilson reprints a list of purported universals which include government, private property rights, law, inheritance rules and status differentiation. However, it's almost too easy to demonstrate that these, of course, are *not* human universals at all. Government? Law? Nor is patriarchy a universal, for that matter. The interactionist hypothesis needs to take the actual cultural variation into account, or be replaced with something else entirely.
[THE PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEM]
This brings me to the more philosophical parts of "The Social Conquest of Earth". Wilson is a reductionist materialist and atheist, and several chapters of the book attacks religion in a very forthright manner. (Unless I'm mistaken, Wilson actually claims to be a deist in "Consilience", but if God is simply a prime mover who creates a reductionist-materialist world, it's difficult to see the difference between deism and outright atheism. God and Elvis have left the building!) At the same time, Wilson clearly believes in objectively valid morality. However, without a transcendent dimension, it's difficult to see how he can coherently believe in morality at all.
Thus, Wilson writes that virtue, honour and altruism are "moral", while selfishness is "immoral". But why? Ayn Rand or Max Stirner would say the opposite. Besides, Wilson believes that warfare and genocide are immoral, yet they are obviously connected to virtue, honour and altruism. They are all products of group selection. There is virtue even among thieves! Why is one product of group selection (e.g. genocide) immoral, while another product (e.g. helping the poor) moral? At one point (p. 252), Wilson actually extols the virtue of individuals who refuse to bow to immoral peer pressure, but why is *that* moral? Note also that this kind of behaviour seems to go against the grain of both individual selection and group selection. Imagine a soldier who under peer pressure participates in the gang rape of a female captive. If a product of individual selection, he should participate in the gang rape for selfish reasons, perhaps to save his own neck. If a product of group selection, he should also participate out of loyalty to the group or the group leader. But if he refuses and is court-martialled, what selection pressure is he under? A cynic might simply argue that the soldier is maladaptive (if executed, his genetic line will be extinguished) but Wilson clearly regards such a person as a hero. But what is the basis for seeing his actions as moral or as heroic?
Wilson, of course, regards religion as grossly immoral. He mentions Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae and religious opposition to homosexuality as two examples of such immorality. He also expresses support for the West European welfare state (thank you, Eddie!), thereby suggesting that "free" market politics are somehow immoral, as well. But once again I wonder what the basis is for his moral decision? Presumably, religion is a product of group selection, since it gives cohesion to the tribe. Thus, it enhances the altruism and survival value of the group, yet Wilson sees it as a potentially evil force. In the last chapter, Wilson expresses the hope that humanity will one day lay aside its petty differences, unite in peace and save the environment. However, if the rest of "The Social Conquest of Earth" is something to go by, there is absolutely no ground whatever for such a hope. One also wonders what selection pressure created this vain hope in the first place!
[THE ANTHILL SOCIETY]
By the author's own logic, his hopes are maladaptive. Indeed, in most of the book, he strikes a decidedly more pessimistic note. But this, too, is illogical - if humans will be forever torn between egotism and brutal altruism, why not embrace the world as it actually looks like? Why not become a fascistic Neo-Pagan? Or something along the lines of Oswald Spengler? Wilson wants to avoid this conclusion, and in that he's surely right, but there's little or nothing in his worldview to militate against a misanthropic pessimism. I have an involuntary sympathy for pessimists, but the fact that egalitarian, peaceful or "matriarchal" cultures have existed, shows that Homo sapiens isn't doomed to remain a brutal, altruistic anthill society...