Eusociality, Multilevel Selection, and my Smartphone

Harvard Emeritus Professor E. O. Wilson posted an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times over the weekend, entitled “The Riddle of the Species.” (I subsequently found/remembered another piece written last year, conveying similar information with more religious language.)Wilson is one of the few scientists I like to read because he writes accessibly and is conversant with the other side of the aisle, i.e., the humanities.

The article opens with the idea that the humanities (history, philosophy, art, religion, etc.) cannot give us the full picture of humanity and that science must contribute to this endeavor. I appreciate this approach because science is often presented by both sides as being an exclusive harbinger of truth, one that cannot or doesn’t know how to share. It can contribute a valuable piece of the puzzle, Wilson says, in helping to determine why we are the way we are.

He continues, “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.” There’s a lot to comment on, just in this one sentence. First, it is in one sense astonishing that the majority of people on earth “prefer” a supernatural explanation to the reason things are than a non-supernatural one, scientific or not. I’ve never thought about it quite this way, but perhaps one reason is that supernatural explanations are great equalizers in that they require, on their surface, no specialized knowledge. On the one hand, you have a complex explanation of the evolution of the human species as in part a result of eusocial behavior and multilevel selection, and on the other, “God made the world.” The latter is more immediately accessible.

I might make a comparison with my smartphone. I have very little idea of how it works. If someone asked, I might offer up lame suggestions of electricity and microprocessors, but I don’t know how it all fits together. One could argue that I treat it as supernatural. It just works, and when it doesn’t, I don’t know why and my lack of knowledge makes me extremely frustrated because it should just work. Its lack of functionality exposes my severe lack of understanding. If I knew just a little bit more, I might be able to deal with problems—at least smaller ones—myself, and I would likely be less frustrated or dogmatic about its reliability. But most of the time, I am satisfied to treat it like magic. This is not to say, necessarily, that a detailed knowledge of how electricity works with the components of the phone is equivalent to an objective knowledge of how it works, but it is a more justifiable and reliable understanding than, “It just works.”

Wilson attributes some of the success of humanity to euscociality, “cooperatively rear[ing] the young across multiple generations.” This requires protection, creating a “home base” in which to harbor the weakest and watch over them with a smaller number while others venture forth to forage. This transition, in turn, may have been enabled by a transition to meat-eating, which allowed less work by less people for more energy gain.

These elements required alliances and group formation in order for some to go out and hunt while others stayed behind. The alliances, in turn, require constant negotiation and inference, staying up to date on the feelings and associations of others and being aware of one’s own. Wilson identifies these group formations as based in part on individual competition and cooperation within groups and in part on the same across groups.

This background provides a lead-up to the last three paragraphs of the article, which are the most interesting to me. Wilson comments that although violence—as a result of competition in and across groups—has been a part of society as long as we have record, we do not have to conclude that they are part of our nature. “Instead,” he claims, “they are among the idiosyncratic hereditary traits that define our species.” What’s the difference? Rather than explaining our violence by man’s sinful nature, or the secular equivalent of there existing intrinsically good and bad people, we can locate the reasons for competition in meaningful explanation in order to look for alternatives to the kinds of violence we collectively believe cause more harm than good. We are the way we are because we became that way, not because we were made that way.

For Wilson, this biological genealogy means a couple things. First, as people begin to process the connections between science and the humanities, it will make a substantial difference in the way we understand our history, which will include pre-history as well. We may also take better care neither to treat the world as a temporary home that will soon be abandoned, according to traditional Christian theology, or an object we can control at our will, according to certain earnest scientific communities.

The moral of the story for me is that science doesn’t have to be pitted against the humanities in a life-and-death competition for the explanation of the universe. Both offer necessary avenues to the fullest explanation of the human species. Religion is an intricate part of the development of human understanding as well, but it is gradually losing its influence as an explanatory value. For Wilson, it has no place left; for most, it will take more time. Even if its explicit value disappears from the scene, however, its legacy will live on its cultural influence for many years.

Leave a Reply