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E. O. Wilson Stumbles on His Conscience

EOWilson.jpgIn his new book, E. O. Wilson can't avoid moralizing. But if everything in life is produced by evolution, what's there to care about?

Raised a Christian boy, Wilson abandoned the creation story of Genesis in college for another creation story: Darwin's all-encompassing theory of evolution. To him, our social habits as well as our bodies rose from the crucible of natural selection.

Social evolution (avoiding the now-d�class� term "Social Darwinism") is the theme of his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. It was reviewed favorably by Rudolph Griss in the August 31 issue of Science, where Griss promoted it as "the creation story of humanity." Any creation story must ask big questions, and this one is no exception:

Edward O. Wilson is not afraid to ask big questions -- questions that religions, the creative arts, and philosophy have wrestled with for centuries. What is it that makes humans what they are? How did our human condition develop? How did nature give rise to something so unusual as ourselves--a species that feels empathy and guilt, cares for the old and sick, and tries to intellectually understand itself and its origins -- with our languages, religions, arts, and cultures? With The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson endeavors to uncover the creation story of humanity. (Emphasis added.)
Griss seems to have missed the logical contradiction at the end of the book. But first, he reviews the history of Wilson's flip-flop on kin selection theory. With a long, distinguished pedigree, kin selection was the leading neo-Darwinian way to explain the intuitively non-Darwinian phenomenon of altruism:
Generally speaking, animals are selfish. Evolution disfavors genes that promote altruism while reducing an individual's own fitness. Yet, there are ants and bees in whose colonies workers sacrifice their chance to have offspring in order to serve the queen. There are humans who risk their lives to save others--whether millennia ago on the hunt or today at war. Kin selection theory has been generally accepted as the best explanation for such counterintuitive behavior in these and other species.
We note in passing that Wilson is including himself and you and me as biological entities not fundamentally different from ants and bees; that's why a theory that explains their social behavior explains ours. Griss continues, summarizing kin selection theory:
Close relatives share a large part of their DNA; genes of an individual can therefore be passed on to the next generation not only directly but also indirectly through a relative. The spread and survival of a gene may be better achieved if it leads its host to help a relative, so long as the benefits for the relative outweigh the costs for the host as well as the risk that this relative does not share the gene after all.

In 2010, Wilson--a renowned evolutionary biologist, ecologist, and student of social insects--and colleagues stirred up the field and sparked a heated debate by claiming that the firmly established theory of kin selection was flawed. Instead, they argued, group selection is the key to solving the riddle of altruism. Regardless of relatedness, genes can be favored by evolution even if they are not of advantage to an individual itself so long as they provide an advantage to a group to which the individual belongs. To simplify, in the case of two competing groups, cooperation among members of one can give it an advantage over the other. So it will be favored by natural selection -- along with its members and the genes prescribing the cooperation.

The stage is set: Wilson is explaining social behavior by natural selection acting on genes. Trying to be a consistent Darwinist, he has restricted himself to a reductionist, materialistic explanatory toolkit for any and all behavior, whether among bees, ants, or human beings:
Seeing The Social Conquest of Earth as simply one side of a scientific argument would greatly underestimate the book's value. Regardless of whether Wilson's theories lead to a paradigm shift in evolutionary biology -- and even if one disagrees with various of his conclusions -- the book certainly accomplishes one thing: it gets the reader thinking. Why do we follow religions or sports teams? Why are we racist? Why do we go to war? Why do we feel empathy and honor? Why do we prefer to live close to rivers or lakes and enjoy having a view? Wilson tries to answer these and many other questions.
Hints of a disconnect have appeared: the book "gets the reader thinking." To be consistent, Griss and Wilson must view thinking as a mere illusion of what the aimless, mindless process of natural selection brought forth without a purpose. What, then, could possibly be the purpose of thinking about these questions? Is Wilson reaching outside the material world, perhaps grasping at some long-lost memory of his childhood worldview? Out of those childhood ghosts emerges a sermon:
After many stimulating insights and "aha" moments, one cannot avoid wondering how far self-understanding can go. Will we ever fully fathom the human mind when it is the only tool at our disposal to do so? But achieving such comprehension may not be the author's primary goal. As intriguing as self-understanding may be from an intellectual point of view, Wilson sees it as a means to an end: something that must be achieved if humans are to bring their unsustainable and destructive lifestyle to a halt. He laments, "We are needlessly turning the gold we inherited from our forebears into straw, and for that we will be despised by our descendants." We are not only polluting our planet beyond recognition, we are also bidding good-bye forever to species after species. Wilson tells us to grow up, to stop making excuses and shuffling off responsibility onto deities. We alone are responsible for the future of our planet. The sooner we understand who we are and where we come from, the sooner we will know where we need to go.
Let's unpack this statement to see if it is consistent within Wilson's own worldview. (Note that it doesn't matter whether Wilson claims to be a deist or atheist. As a neo-Darwinian, he would agree that whatever "deity" might exist had no involvement in the outcome of natural selection. Certainly he did not resort to a deity to explain altruism; neither would he for anything else.)

First, we see references to understanding, comprehension, and intellect -- capacities that allow us to "fathom" something. Is this in the same category of ability that a chimpanzee might have to "fathom" that if it flakes a stone, it can carve a carcass? Chimps do, after all, accomplish such things, especially when trained by a human (read about Kanzi the bonobo on PhysOrg). New Caledonian crows are even better at tool-making than chimps (see here for another reference on PhysOrg). Dolphins, too, are highly intelligent animals. But do they understand their intelligence? Do they seek to fathom, to comprehend, what they learn? Reaching into their explanatory toolkit, Wilson and Griss would have to find genes that were group-selected or multilevel-selected to generate those abilities.

Now, while it's perfectly legitimate to use an eye to study the eye, or use a brain to study the brain, there seems to be some question-begging about claiming a materialist can use a brain to study comprehension. If comprehension emerged by group selection, how would one measure it? The existence of comprehension presupposes a standard of comprehension outside of the emergent property.

But there's more: Wilson has preached a sermon. He conceived of his book as a means to an end: to tell other humans something that must be achieved. He can distinguish gold from straw. He desires that we be praised, not despised, by our descendants. He sees pollution and extinction as wrongs that humans must repent of and correct. He tells us to grow up, to be responsible. To him, "deities" are non-existent excuses onto which we shuffle off our responsibilities. We need "to understand who we are and where we come from." The goal is to "know where we need to go."

You might expect evolution to take care of that without any effort on our part. After all, it produced "altruistic" ants who will commit to going sexless so that the queen can pass on the group's genes. It produced humans who behave outwardly as if they cared about other people, when they are really selfish. Why does anyone need to read a book with a sermon about responsibility for the planet?

We can only conclude (thinking within Wilson's own worldview) that he is selfish, and his selfish genes directed him to write this book. He doesn't really mean it. We can't really comprehend it anyway. We will do what our genes direct us to do. What's the point of a book about a pointless process? Toss it in the trash; it doesn't matter.

Wilson would likely be irritated by such a response. But that would be one of those "aha" moments Griss told us about. "Aha, Dr. Wilson -- so you do believe in immaterial realities, like truth and morality! Well then, come now and let us reason together."