The Sunday review: The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O Wilson

by Anthony Painter

A few months ago an almighty row broke out in the world of evolutionary biology. Unsurprisingly, on one side was Richard Dawkins. On the other was Edward O Wilson who had co-written a piece in the journal, Nature, rejecting a view of evolution advocated by Richard Dawkins. He followed it up with a book: The Social Conquest of Earth. The row broke out on the pages of Prospect. With characteristic reserve, Dawkins concluded (borrowing from Dorothy Parker): “this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force.”

Edward O Wilson responded with two curt paragraphs. Dawkins had pointed to objections to the Nature piece from over 100 evolutionary biologists. Wilson replied: “If science depended on rhetoric and polls, we would still be burning objects with phlogiston and navigating with geocentric maps.”

This was full-on war; mud-wrestling rather than clinical dissection. Over at the Huffington Post, David Sloan Wilson (no relation to Edward O.), reprimanded them both. Their debate was almost half a century out of date. Not only that, but Dawkins was “unbecoming.” And you thought politics was bad.

Now, as a non-biologist, I have no means to adjudicate between the three men on the basis of the science and I won’t even try. It basically comes down to empirical observations and mathematical calculation that the untrained has no means of grasping. For Dawkins, sociability (and I’ll stick to humans in this rather than ants or squirrels – on the basis that I understand humans slightly more) is explained by “kin selection” – i.e. we prefer those who have the closest resemblance to us in terms of genetic proximity. They are more likely to be a recipient of our “altruism” and this drives evolutionary change.

Edward O Wilson is “multi-level” selection advocate: evolution is a many layers game of groups and individual selection (and kin selection in a minor and rare way). For him, group selection is a force independent of the pursuit of selfish advantage. We can and do subsume ourselves to group welfare through morality, cooperation, empathy, so on and so forth and this has a genetic element. Edward O Wilson emphasises the group-level of selection and mostly rejects “kin selection” to make a point in his book. And this was the provocative act that stirred the hornet’s nest.

The book itself is combative and provocative in equal measure. The notion of certain species acquiring what he describes as “eusociability” is a scintillating notion. Understanding human behaviour as the complex mix of cooperation and competition we know that it is has important application in human affairs. It shows how off-beam Randian fantasies of the asocial individualists actually are. He even questions the notion of “free will” given what we now know about our evolution, genetics and neuroscience. This doesn’t mean that we can’t exercise choice; it is that those choices are unconsciously bounded. When Barack Obama was (mis)quoted saying “you didn’t build that” of Romney’s businesses, he was damn right.

However, it is where this work crosses over into social science that it starts to stretch beyond its limits. There is a bad record of biology creeping into human affairs – not least social Darwinism and it is important to stand guard against unjustified leakage. The processes that Edward O Wilson describes play out across very long stretches of time – beyond the historical eye. They are relevant insofar as they tell us much about the neurological hardware and pre-loaded software we have at our disposal. It tells us almost nothing about any aspect of human history that we can view.

Edward O Wilson attempts to put social sciences in its place thus:

“How to think out and deal with the eternal ferment generated by multilevel selection is the role of the social sciences and humanities. How to explain it is the role of the natural sciences, which, if successful, should make the pathways to harmony among the three great branches of learning easier to create.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Actually, the social sciences should simply keep an eye on this developing field of knowledge to gain a deeper understanding of what we are as a species but then should ignore it completely- it can explain little of what we see in human history other than our prepared learning which is both competitive and cooperative.

For example, there is little in Wilson’s discussion of religion, morality and culture that couldn’t have been read in the works of the late nineteenth century sociologist, Emile Durkheim. They are just given a genetic spin. As Wilson states earlier in the book:

“Cultural evolution undoubtedly does tend to smother genetic evolution.”

Exactly. Technology, culture, political institutions, religion, morality, human societies evolve at a visible pace. Human genetics do not. It might be that there are both individual and group level adaptations that will fundamentally change human societies. We won’t be able to see them. Nor should we pretend that we can or what we see in our period of history is anything to do with dance of genetics. The minute we do is the minute we return to some of the terrors of the previous centuries: science justifying political horror. No matter how well-meaning the attempt to bridge biology and social sciences is (and Edward O Wilson is very well-meaning), it is a fundamentally misguided project. Wilson is no social Darwinist. Others will not be so careful.

It is terribly good fun watching biologists misbehave in public. Whether it’s individual, kin, or group level selection that determines the evolution of species, the debate is intriguing. The science is intoxicating. We do know more about what we are – or least have the potential to be. It is the social sciences and humanities that will tell who we are and how we have become that way. And when the story of our species is concluded, the genetic map may be placed alongside that human biography. And it will tell a more political than evolutionary tale.

Anthony Painter is an author and critic

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3 Responses to “The Sunday review: The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O Wilson”

  1. Clr Ralph says:

    Sorry Anthony,

    A bit weak here, I’m afraid human evolution at the genetic level is quite incredible from my observations and personal experience. Just look for instance at how human immune systems are “changing”, how tall and “big” people are getting.

    There is loads of extreme detail and examples to be taken into account here, anyway would love to go through your article in greater detail highlighting the “selective” compassion Labour primitives have for each other at the exclusion of the rest of society but I am off to church 🙂

    Some “culure” influences society in such a powerful way that the actual belief and values become ingrained thus creating an environment that enables “progress” and physical evolution to occur.

    Behavioral evolution has been occurring for some time….and empthy of the people of the past…even of those who were ruthless opens ones mind to the possibilities….

  2. swatantra says:

    Its an interesting point about whether genetics or the environment determines behaviour; its the old Nature and Nurture argument.

    If we are to believe the rise in irrational ‘fundamenatlism’ of late, then I am inclined towards the’culture’ bit. So, evolution is not progressive, but regressive, and the human species is the only species walking backwards into the night of irrational beliefs and mumbo jumbo.

    But what I want to know is when another mutation will takesplace and a new species more advanced than homo sapiens springs into life and dominates homo sapiens in much the same way that homo sapiens killed off neanderthal man, although some would argue we still have remnants of neanderthals at the extreme ends of the political spectrum.

    Nobody has yet come up with an answer, not even Dawkins.

  3. I sometimes found the book barely readable, no background in insects, but very intriguing.

    I agree with Wilson that modern society does look a lot like an ant hill, division of labor, competition/ cooperation some members self sacrificing, others exploiting/dominating, most individual dispensible and dwafed by the whole, the need for enemies to create unity ( no idea why this is called eusocial, eu-anti-social more like it). I also think it may be more than coincidence that both are “exoskelletal” (ours being the car) indicating perhaps we have created an environment as dangerous to us as the world is to tiny insects.

    But Wilson does not seem to realize there are human societies that barely have this, hunters and gatherers have little or none of these things, it would probably be better to say they share the fruits of individual work than cooperate (become tiny cogs in a vast machine) even sexual division of labor is often flexible (eg, the Batek of Malaysia)

    I also lack his faith in the ability of eusociality in humans to so save the world, I’d say it’s great power, lacking a comparable brain, is whats destroying it.

    But I did like the book & I like Wilson, find his his critic Dawkins offensively safe, unimaginative & conventional in outlook.

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