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article imageOp-Ed: Go to the ant, consider her ways, and cop academic flak

By Paul Wallis     Jul 15, 2008 in Science
Ed Wilson is one of the world’s top, perhaps the top, scientists, in the study of ants. He’s a real field worker, too, not hanging around in the paneling like some. He’s also a writer, with opinions. How dreadful.
He works at little ‘ol Harvard, out there on the prairies. He and his longtime friend Bert Holldobler produced the first definitive work on ants since Goetsch, who pioneered the modern studies of ants.
It’s huge, and it’s the first systematic study ever done on the insect which controls more of the Earth than we do. Wilson isn’t exactly a neophyte. He’s one of that rare breed, an effective scientist who’s a real asset to his field of study.
He and Holldobler, and a few other dedicated myrmecologists, have put the science firmly on the map, and have been producing some mindblowing things, like the concept of the superorganism, which has now gone into the language.
It’s as a writer, however, that Wilson has been getting into the wars with some of his fellow inhabitants of academe.
The New York Times explains the history of these wars, and the crux of Wilson’s new work:
Dr. Wilson was not picking a fight when he published “Sociobiology” in 1975, a synthesis of ideas about the evolution of social behavior. He asserted that many human behaviors had a genetic basis, an idea then disputed by many social scientists and by Marxists intent on remaking humanity. Dr. Wilson was amazed at what ensued, which he describes as a long campaign of verbal assault and harassment with a distinctly Marxist flavor led by two Harvard colleagues, Richard C. Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould.
The new fight is one Dr. Wilson has picked. It concerns a central feature of evolution, one with considerable bearing on human social behaviors. The issue is the level at which evolution operates. Many evolutionary biologists have been persuaded, by works like “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, that the gene is the only level at which natural selection acts. Dr. Wilson, changing his mind because of new data about the genetics of ant colonies, now believes that natural selection operates at many levels, including at the level of a social group.
This contradiction of what is currently a pretty fashionable concept is likely to cause a few ruffled antennae. The fact that it’s a pretty superficial concept, of course, has almost nothing to do with it.
Genes are obviously the inherent mechanism of evolutionary change, but what causes changes?
The freak gene, the mutant advantage, there’s a range of scenarios, but if you leave out the environment, what have you got?
A gene, however convenient, selfish or otherwise, has to survive its environment. Natural selection isn’t that much of a raffle. Everything except a clone has a unique, individual, set of genes, but not everything survives.
Then there’s the little matter of behavior. You may have the greatest set of genes in existence, but it won’t help you much if you make a habit of walking off cliffs, metaphorically or otherwise.
Meaning that genes have a natural loop. The gene exists. If it works, and can be passed on, so far so good. But it has to survive interaction, on every level, with its environment, both individually and socially. There’s a social component in every species. A purely selfish gene, trying to live a solipsistic existence, by definition, may find itself with plenty of time on its hands.
Wilson, of course, hasn’t left it at that:
It is through multilevel or group-level selection — favoring the survival of one group of organisms over another — that evolution has in Dr. Wilson’s view brought into being the many essential genes that benefit the group at the individual’s expense. In humans, these may include genes that underlie generosity, moral constraints, even religious behavior. Such traits are difficult to account for, though not impossible, on the view that natural selection favors only behaviors that help the individual to survive and leave more children.
On the basis of pure individual survival, this would mean “at the expense of the society”, because the individual, however fertile, is part of a society. Most societies wouldn’t agree with that definition, and when asked, definitely don’t like it.
It also leaves out, as many behaviorists seem to insist upon doing, the idea of any higher strata of human mentality. Mentality is based upon genes, too, even if this period in history isn’t perhaps the greatest example of mental activity the world has ever seen.
Meaning the selfish gene is just too damn simple. It’s unbelievably lazy thinking to just assume that the not-noticeably-unique ability to reproduce is the ultimate, the last word in genetic development.
Even chimp societies are more complex than that.
Humans have social instincts, whether they like it or not. Those social instincts have to work across a range of behaviors. How do they do that, without some sort of genetic content in establishing those behaviors? The brain has to be able to operate in what can be a very demanding, sometimes extremely dangerous, social environment. If that’s not adaption to environment, and natural selection in strict context with the meaning of the term, what is?
It appears tantrums aren’t entirely unknown in the field of evolutionary biology. Wilson has trodden on a few toes, albeit some that needed treading on, if only to get their attached egos to pay attention.
He’s not talking “social Darwinism”, or Nietzsche-like supermen. His idea of group selection would require something in human society with which we are yet to be blessed on the subject of moral evolution:
Dr. Wilson’s treatise, on the shaping of social behavior, seems likely to tread firmly into this vexed arena. Morality and religion, he suspects, are traits based on group selection. “Groups with men of quality — brave, strong, innovative, smart and altruistic — would tend to prevail, as Darwin said, over those groups that do not have those qualities so well developed,” Dr. Wilson said.
Let’s face it, the world isn’t oversupplied with people of this sort.
In fact, you could say quite the opposite, that the Peter Principle has run amok globally, and that only people who have none of these qualities are permitted to have social status.
But let’s also face the fact we know what he means.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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