Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Review: E O Wilson: The Social Conquest of Earth

E O Wilson: The Social Conquest of Earth (Liveright Publishing , NY, 2012) 297 pages, references (adequate), index (minimal). Well illustrated: drawings, photos, tables

abbreviations used: EP - Evolutionary Psychology 
                                NS - natural selection

       I had the good fortune to read this text soon after reading Robert Wright's The Moral Animal (1994), another "classic" of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) destined for a wide reading public. These two texts published nearly two decades apart provide a fascinating series of snapshots of a rapidly evolving area of scientific investigation. It is possible we are witnessing, or have already witnessed, the birth of a new science, EP - formerly known as "Sociobiology". Texts such as Wright's and Wilson's would correspond, roughly, to Darwin's  Origin of Species. Time will tell if EP is a viable addition to the family of sciences or merely a passing intellectual fad.

           What is EP? The study of human behavior - or the human mind - and its evolutionary history. What is its inherent interest? Wilson, like Wright before him, argues that knowledge is power, power to change our currently irrational, self-destructive behaviors which are causing ecosystem collapse, climate change, overpopulation, etc. At this stage of the game, no one knows if such a supposition is warranted or not. Once again, "time will tell"..

           The gist of Wilson's analysis is that wo/man is a"chimeric being" with bipolar instinctive impulses in eternal conflict - the "human condition" so well described by modern existentialist philosophers.. This "house divided against itself" condition is due to the fact that our basic instinctual drives have been "programmed" from two different - usually  opposing - levels of natural selection (NS). The first level is the individual. NS selects for those who look out for # 1. Selfish, status seeking behaviors are selected for. However, NS also operates on another level of biological (and genetic) organization: the group. Here, "altruistic" behaviors, and the genes which support or facilitate them, are selected for. Such (potentially) self-sacrificing, co-operative behaviors often do not favor the survival of the individual but rather increase the efficiency with which the social group can harvest the resources of its environment and compete with other social groups of the same  - or similar - species. 

       In this perspective, genes do not, usually, "cause" behavior but modify their intensity, frequency, timing, probability, etc. A mutation in a cerebral neurotransmitter regulating gene might enhance nurturing behaviors in situations where such behaviors are appropriate. If, in addition, there were selective pressures such that nurturing individuals produced more successfully breeding offspring, the mutant gene would tend to spread in population. Eventually the mutant might eliminate "competing" alleles (variant forms of the gene). Alternatively, a balance in frequency of occurrence  between the mutant and other alleles might be struck, a balance which shifts as environmental conditions fluctuate. As environmental conditions - including competition with other groups or species - shift the balance of benefits and disadvantages between the different alleles, their relative frequency of occurrence in the population will vary accordingly. "Success" in the Darwinian "struggle for survival" in the end means reproductive success of a genetic lineage over time.

         Humanity evolved as a highly adaptable, intelligent, tool making / tool using primate. Our nature is basically social. Our true strength lies in strategizing and working together. A strength which is also our weakness for, like other social mammals, "alien" groups and those belonging to them are naturally seen as enemies or competitors for the resources of our territory. This situation, transposed into  the modern technological era of atom bombs and genetic engineering is obviously untenable. Tribalism in its ancestral expression must go or we will not survive as a civilization. Since we cannot change our nature - we will remain tribal as long as we remain human - we must adopt tribal urges and needs to modern conditions of living. One suggestion: we must learn to decentralize our systems of governance and our economies. Humans have survived and thrived against imposing odds when they lived in small, cooperative, self-governing social bands (hunter-gatherer clans). One knew one's neighbor, one worked with him and one governed the community with him. One depended on one's neighbor in hard times. This is the good side of tribalism - as Wilson recognizes.  Much of the misery and failure of modern, depersonalized, industrial societies lies in the loss of these positive aspects of tribal life. We have, perhaps rejected these aspects at our own peril: might not some of the collective social monstrosities of the 20th century - fascism and communism in particular - be due to a desperate attempt to recapture the tribal?

          Wilson argues that genes drive cultural evolution. These genes act through group selection: groups which cooperate best compete best. This process is "recursive", like that old riddle puts it: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Genes drive social / cultural evolution which, in turn, selects for particular genetically determined traits. Society does this by selectively rewarding - in such ways as to increase reproductive success - individuals who exhibit desired traits (the assumption being that the trait in question has some, at least, genetic determination). At the limit, it is arguable that our genes have been selected to make us culture creating animals. So much for the old "Nature versus Nurture" debate. "Human nature" - our genome - and "Culture" are interacting, not mutually exclusive categories. The situation is analogous to the relation of the individual and the society they live in. The society shapes and nurtures the individuals who compose it. The society, in turn, emerges from the collective behavior of the individuals who compose it. Chicken or egg?

           From this perspective, it is not hard to see why so many cultural traits appear either universal or quasi-universal around the world: language, music, poetry, marriage, hierarchy, justice and law, religion, magic, divination, belief in gods and some kind of afterlife, medicinal use of plants, manners and customs, rites and rituals, taboos, superstitions, respect, honor and shame, humor, crime and deviance, architecture, time reckoning and so on. The list is impressionably long, in fact. The fact that there is so much "in common" between human groups - yet expressed so differently! - strongly suggests a common (hence genetic) origin. All men have language, this is genetically determined. But what that language will be, what it sounds like, what its particular genius will be depends upon local and historical contingencies, not genes.

            The scientific study of color language, for example, tends to confirm these insights. If we look at the number of colors different languages recognize, we are surprised by the common sequence by which new colors are added:

- white and black: two color words used
- red is added next: three word color vocabulary
- either green or yellow is added next: four color words used
- five color cultures invariably recognize: white, black, red, green AND yellow
- six color cultures add blue
- seven color cultures add brown

             The statistical odds against such invariance are very large. At the physiological level, the pattern observed reflects well the varying sensitivity of the human eye to different colors. Thus in color naming - a cultural trait - our genetically determined physiology plays a strong role. Caveat! Humans are not "biological robots". It is culture - and, to some degree, environment - that determines how many colors are recognized..

            Human social nature appears to represent a powerful advance in evolutionary and adaptive potential. Sociality permits NS to operate in a more "holistic" fashion because what is being selected for are not individual traits of physiology but behavior patterns (and their supporting emotional matrix) emerging from the interactions of many individuals. Much the same may be said of cognitive abilities. Emerging problem solving abilities are linked with the evolution of language as language allows a group of individuals to share a common cognitive field and exchange information, increasing the "bag of survival tricks" the group possesses. Example: the ability to integrate cognitive aptitudes within the individual mind. Chimps, surprisingly, are more spontaneously innovative than humans. The average chimp can figure out more novel uses of screw drivers and hair blowers than you can, hands down. But their ingenuity lies mostly fallow: they do not pass on their inventions to future generations the way humans have learned to do. Our spontaneous mechanical ingenuity may be less than theirs but, as a species, our innovativeness seems better integrated into our overall psychology and social behavior. Our capacity, not just to innovate, but pass on innovations and build upon past innovations has allowed homo sapiens, as the book of Genesis puts it, to "dominate the earth". Language - a shared or group phenomenon - is another product of "holistic" NS acting at the level of the group, not the individual organism.

           Wilson emphasizes that, as evolution proceeds, it seems to act in a more holistic fashion. In the  early stages of proto-life - the "chemical soup" of the early oceans - random "mutations" could occur in the cycles of self-replication of autocatalyzing enzymes. Such "mutations" could, sometimes, result in more efficient autocatalyzing cycles. Less energy might be used for the enzyme molecule to copy itself. Or it might make fewer - or better! - errors during the copying process. Such "improved" enzyme cycles would, being more efficient in harvesting the energy and material of their environment, tend to dominate and lead to more efficient self-replicating chemical cycles. From such humble origins, life emerged. Or so the new book of Genesis, written by Science, reads..

         With the emergence of more complex nervous systems and complex social behaviors (birds, mammals, social insects), NS could act on more "holistic", integrative properties of collectivities. For proto-humans and early humans, this group level was represented by the hunter-gatherer clan of several dozen to, perhaps, several hundred individuals. Groups who harvested the resources of their territory more efficiently tend to displace - or eliminate - the less efficient. In the process, human traits like group solidarity and our sense of justice emerged. And so did our propensity for tribalism, nationalism and racism - the dark, obverse face of group solidarity and brotherhood.

          Human cultural evolution, especially after the introduction of modern science and technology, poses some very special problems and perspectives, some of which make me wonder if EP - being a science - is capable of addressing them in their fullness.Our science makes us morally responsible for the life of our world in a way that applies to no other animal, past or present - just for openers..

             EP is, generously, an emerging science. (It may have an analogy in Astrobiology, the study of the physical conditions under which life emerges in the cosmos.) It's weaknesses: relatively weak explanatory power, resulting in instability of foundational categories and principles. Thus, back in 1994, a widely acclaimed popularization of EP, The Moral Animal by Robert Wright defined three principles which found EP as kin-selection, reciprocal altruism and social status. Less than two decades later, one of the founders of EP, EO Wilson himself, rejects kin-selection - which he formerly championed -and replaced it by group-selection. The difference may seem slight to the outsider but both Wright and Wilson emphasize their incompatibility. Kin-selection operates on related individuals (kin). The biological  clan is the nexus and target of NS's ministrations. Group selection operates on the level of competing social groups (generally composed of a mix of related and non-related individuals). The fact that foundational principles are still in such a fluid state suggests that EP may not yet have fully won its spurs as a full-fledged science. It may be moving through a transitional phase. One one side, the pre-scientific array of competing "schools" (one thinks of schools of psycho-analysis or Communism's various sects). One the other side, the Sciences, each with its dominant "paradigm" or consentually agreed upon hypothetical model guiding research.

        I have read several books on EP recently and found them fascinating. EP will, probably, have its plate full with the emerging study of religion and religious behavior. EP appears to ask the right kinds of question: not "does God exist?" but "what is the function of religion - or belief in God - in human societies and in their evolution?", "what advantages did religious behavior confer on those groups which possessed genes favoring the emergence of such behaviors?"

       I found Wilson's discussion of religion perhaps the weakest part of the text. Not from lack of sympathy with his critique: I concur that religion's hands are blood drenched, that, indeed, religion is "irrational". While Wilson admits the attraction of religion, one feels his resistance to the subject. He gives lip service to religion's power: "the power of organized religion is based upon their contribution to social order and personal security, not to the search for truth. The goal of religions is submission to the will and common good of the tribe" (page 259).

           Indeed, Wilson captures much truth here but distorts some. It is probably too early to assess "modernity" - we live too close to the trees to see the general lay of the forest - but one interpretation of the 20th century reads: if God is dead, then He must be resurrected. The political ideologies of the last century may be seen as surrogates for dead faiths. Like religions proper, they often make high demands and force an "ascetic" existence upon the zealous. The Marxist future utopia - the Classless Society - justified much human sacrifice, both self-immolation and (mass-)murder. Is this different from high demand religious faiths like, during certain phases, Christianity or Islam? It may be that the role of religion in providing "social order" - a "road map of reality" - may be primordial - and irreplaceable. Time will tell..

           "The goal of religion is submission to the will and common good of the tribe". This statement is perhaps more ripe with (discordant) meanings than Wilson realized. One might debate whether or not tribes - like anthills - actually possess anything that could, by analogy with individual minds, be called a (collective) Will. However, for me, the important point is submission to the  common good of the tribe. The question is obviously a minefield. For example, WHO determines is the common good? Today, with our burgeoning - and interlocking, mutually reinforcing - ecological, social, moral, political and economic crises, the idea of a common tribal good - for all of humanity if not the entire biosphere - is becoming strongly clarified. Once we choose to reject the narcissistic option, we are left with questions like: what kind of a world do we WANT to leave to our children?

           I feel that Wilson does not address the fully metaphoric power of religious language and thought. It is arguable that "religion" - or other similar modes of cognition - allows people to break through logical / emotional logjams of suffering, loss, grief, absurdity.. to reach places of healing and transcendence. But rather than address these transformative powers of religion, Wilson restricts his discussion to "intellectual" matters such as the (literal) validity of creationist claims or the belief that the universe possesses an overall purpose conferred by the Deity. In so doing, he skirts the potentially beneficial, healing power of religion to "unite the tribe" in a web of solidarity, caring and mutual aid.

          Above all, religion was "invented" to satisfy a basic human need or cluster of needs: the need to situate or ground our existence in a larger whole which provides our life with context, meaning, purpose, signification, value. Viktor Frankl, was a psychotherapist who survived the Nazi death camps. Frankl observed that without a sense of purpose, human life degenerates, becoming existentially flat and clinically neurotic: Man does not live by bread alone. But a wo/man with a strong life affirming sense of purpose might survive hell.


        Religion may likewise satisfy basic human need for collective rites and rituals which forge , express, reinforce and celebrate community solidarity and brotherhood. One American Episcopalian bishop, John Shelby Spong, has gone as far a identifying God with love. We pray, says Spong, in working for social justice in an active, engaged fashion. Like traditional religions and 20th century political ideologies, Spong's vision of the faithful life makes high demands in time and commitment. It demands a certain form - or attitude - of "asceticism": engagement, faith, devotion, sacrifice, commitment, effort, even risk. Such human needs run deep (but are highly variable in intensity and expression from one individual to another).

        Perhaps the strongest point of Wilson's philosophy lies in his commitment to reason. I have an image of one overlooking a vast panorama (our human evolutionary history in Deep Time perspective.) This view, if cultivated, helps us to "fix" - contextualize - our human strengths, talents, abilities, weaknesses and failings. This "view from a high place" encourages a certain measure of compassion towards others -  perhaps even towards ourselves! - and toward life as a whole. Unfortunately, since Wilson does not fully estimate religion's potentiality for expressing the best in ourselves, his deep and often compelling insights lie fallow.

          The Social Conquest of Earth is a fascinating, engaging, popular introduction to an emerging field of scientific study, Evolutionary Psychology - a work in progress. A good book, mildly flawed stylistically in places - 8 on 10.

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