“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.
Wilson brings thunderous criticism upon himself with talk like this.
He’s 80 something. He doesn’t care.
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.