Are we altruists? E.O. Wilson’s new book

 “When Edward O. Wilson has a new idea, people listen–and then start fighting.”  L.A. Times, July 9, 1998


Octogenarian, biogeographer, Harvard professor emeritus and world expert on ants, E.O. Wilson is one of my heroes.

Currently he’s busy making a case that our sociability, not our selfishness, is the reason we are among the most successful species.

Are there other species that are more successful?  Yes. Ants.  Why? Because biologically speaking, ants are more altruistic than humans. Females forego sexuality so that one female can specialize in reproduction while the rest support her. It’s an effective strategy. The mass of ants on earth exceeds that of all other insects and of all nonhuman vertebrates.

Wilson is confident that geneticists will soon find genes that cause selflessness – for ants and people.

Wilson’s views fly in the face of traditional evolutionary biology, which holds that selfishness is the key to evolutionary success. We live in a society where pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, is a cherished ideal.

We are also, Wilson says, also selfish. Selfishness is an advantage within groups. The aggressive Alpha Male, for example, gets the females and passes on his genes.  Alpha male:

But between groups, individuals that cooperate with and sacrifice for each other, succeed.

Wilson theorizes that humans are cruel to each other and can’t live harmoniously with our biological environment because we are torn by, on the one hand,  the drive to support the groups we live in, and on the other, the drive to support ourselves.  “Group selection brings about virtue, and — this is an oversimplification —  individual selection, which is competing with it, creates sin. That, in a nutshell, is an explanation of the human condition.”  Ayn Randians, meet the Socialists.

Ayn Rand,
Karl Marx, from


Wilson brings thunderous criticism upon himself with talk like this.

He’s 80 something.  He doesn’t care.

E.O. Wilson, from:




Highly recommend the November, 2011 Atlantic Magazine feature: E.O. Wilson’s Theory of Everything.

Also look for Wilson’s new book The Social Conquest of Earth (due out in April, 2012) and the storm of protest sure to follow.



  • Julie I like it..Clever, funny with great pictures….. I also have a book for you Philosopy of Biology by Daniel Mcshea and Alex Rosenberg Thanks Reed


  • Like that quote about Wilson, but now I feel bad about my peppermint oil spray bottle reserved for the ants that dare to creep in my kitchen door.
    oh well.


  • Your perspective is interesting; but different from mine.

    I Thought Wilson theorized in his latest book that we and a few other species have thrived, not so much because we have been altruistic to increase our gene lineage; as current behaviorists theorize, but because we as a group have been nesters and as such have developed defensive tactics to protect our homes while some of us have foraged for food, thus ensuring survival and proliferation of our groups as a whole. Individually, we may behave altruistically in order to increase our gene lineage within our group, but that doesn’t necessarily ensure survival outside our group as effectively as does protection of nests (or camps)..


  • You’re right. Perhaps I’ve bent his ideas too much to make my point, which is that sociability itself is part of our genetic makeup. The way I read it, until recently it was assumed that willingness to sacrifice for others depended on genetic connection between individuals, that altruism was basically family-related. Economists operate from this model. Self-interest rules. Altruism is seen as enhancing the well-being of an individual, but the basic motivation is self-survival and propagation.

    Wilson et al show that social connection itself is an evolutionary advantage, whether or not individuals are genetically identical or even related.

    So, I’m arguing with Adam Smith. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”

    This is the trouble with trying to make connections political science and real science, however. Will have to wait for the book to find out how far I’m off. Also, I guess two paragraphs in a blog isn’t going to get to the bottom of this.


  • If there are ways (i.e. social connnection) that non or extremely weakly related organisms or groups benefit each other ( i.e. increased gene frequency for every organism involved) by association does this change the definition of self or group. I think it does. There is evidence from an examination of major extinctions in the fossil record that Genera (and not just Species) may undergo selection. So, weakly related clusters of genes may be sensitive to evolutionary pressues in the same way as a highly related group or individual organism. If this is true, maybe the idea of the individual or group is biologically way too narrow. Maybe biologic groupings (clusters of genes) are actually social groupings.


  • That would certainly put a spin on how we define “social”. Hey baby, let’s share macromolecules. We might need a whole new genre of films.


Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.