This is the 13th blog in this series which is reflecting on E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth. The first blog in the series is “What Does It Mean to be Human?” and the previous blog is Evolution and the Ethical Human.
In this the final blog of this series, I want to consider a few thoughts from Wilson which I found interesting for various reasons. First, Wilson, staying true to his belief in biological determinism, says there is a constant balancing act in humanity between the selfish gene and individual and the altruistic nature of communal living. It is this genetic balancing act which influences so much of human society.
“Nevertheless, an iron rule exists in genetic social evolution. It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme. If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve. If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies.” (Kindle Loc. 3914-18)
“Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.” (Kindle Loc. 4419-21)
For Wilson all is controlled by genetics. Consciousness and self-willed decision making – whether individual or the collective – has little role in human behavior. This is an area where I think biological determinism cannot in fact fully describe what it is to be human nor can it offer any answer to the question, what does it mean to be human? There is for Wilson no difference between the eusociality of ants and humans. All such behavior is genetically determined, so humans do not rise above their genetically determined behavior. Such thinking seriously handicaps anyone observing human behavior for it denies what we can observe about human behavior.
Yet Wilson does at moments recognize the absolute uniqueness of humanity among all the creatures on earth.
“HUMAN BEINGS CREATE cultures by means of malleable languages. We invent symbols that are intended to be understood among ourselves, and we thereby generate networks of communication many orders of magnitude greater than that of any animal. We have conquered the biosphere and laid waste to it like no other species in the history of life. We are unique in what we have wrought.” (Kindle Loc. 270-73)
Humans are indeed unique, and the world seems to be well suited for their surviving and thriving. Biological science can say no more than that the existence of humanity is the end result of a very long cause and effect process. The end result of this process – the existence of intelligent, conscious human beings – is highly improbable, and despite the success of humans on the planet, more species have not evolved with our particular characteristics of consciousness and conscience. It is indeed miraculous that we exist at all.
“THE EXPLOSION OF INNOVATIONS that lifted humanity to world dominance surely did not result from a single empowering mutation. Even less likely did it come as some mystic afflatus that descended upon our struggling forebears. Nor could it have been due to the stimulus of new lands and rich resources—enjoyed also by the relatively unprogressive species of horses, lions, and apes. Most probably it was the gradual approach to and final attainment of a tipping point, the crossing over of a threshold level of cognitive ability that endowed Homo sapiens with a dramatically high capacity for culture.” (Kindle Loc. 3598-3603)
It seems that in this concluding comment Wilson admits that the evolution of humans cannot be completely explained by genetics alone. There is epigenetics, and there is the effect that human culture itself has on the continued development of humans, their intelligence and their consciousness. There are forces at work in the world that cannot be completely explained by materialism alone. Wilson rejects because of his own beliefs any notion that “some mystic afflatus” had any impact on our human ancestors. Yet humans have continued to aspire to levels beyond the limits of their own biology. They have shown an ability to create cultures which work against genetic desire or determinism. Humans have shown in their conscious creation of culture to reflect something far greater than their genetic makeup can account for. In humans we see glimpses of the divine.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.
You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet…