Filmed on Friday April 20, 02012

Edward O. Wilson

The Social Conquest of Earth

E. O. Wilson has received 81 awards in science, conservation, and the humanities. Currently a Harvard professor emeritus and honorary curator of entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, he has authored The Social Conquest of Earth; Pheidole in the New World; The Future of Life; Naturalist; Consilience; The Ants (with Ber Hölldobler); Biophilia; On Human Nature; Sociobiology; and The Theory of Island Biogeography (with Robert H. MacArthur).

Seminar and Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Stewart Brand, with an introduction by Rob Semper, Executive Associate Director of the Exploratorium.

Presented by The Long Now Foundation and the Exploratorium

Edward O. Wilson has revolutionized science and inspired the public more often than any other living biologist. Now he is blending his pioneer work on ants with a new perspective on human development to propose a radical reframing of how evolution works.

First the social insects ruled, from 60 million years ago. Then a species of social mammals took over, from 10 thousand years ago. Both sets of “eusocial” animals mastered the supremely delicate art of encouraging altruism, so that individuals in the groups would act as if they value the goal of the group over their own goals. They would specialize for the group and die for the group. In recent decades the idea of “kin selection” seemed to explain how such an astonishing phenomenon could evolve. Wilson replaces kin selection with “multi-level selection,” which incorporates both individual selection (long well understood) and group selection (long considered taboo). Every human and every human society has to learn how to manage adroitly the perpetual ambiguity and conflict between individual needs and group needs. What I need is never the same as what we need.

E. O. Wilson’s current book is The Social Conquest of Earth. His previous works include The Superorganism; The Future of Life; Consilience; Biophilia; Sociobiology; and The Insect Societies.

The real creation story

“History makes no sense without prehistory,“ Wilson declared, “and prehistory makes no sense without biology.” He began by noting that every religion has a different creation story, all of them necessarily based on ignorance of what really happened in the past. Religions thus can’t give valid answers on the meaning of life---Gauguin’s questions: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Philosophy gave up on the questions long ago. The task was left to science, and from science a valid, shareable creation story is now emerging.

For the last 65 million years Earth has been dominated by eusocial animals. Ants, termites, and bees in some areas make up half of all biomass. Yet only a few of the million known insect species made the jump to eusociality. One variety of mammal, a tiny set of primates, made a similar jump. Once they began to use their eusocial skills to fan out from Africa 60 thousand years ago, they gradually became far more dominant even than the social insects. “The term ‘eusocial,’“ Wilson said, “means a society based in part on a division of labor, in which individuals act altruistically, that covers two or more generations, and that cares for young cooperatively.”

That eusociality is so rare suggests how difficult it is for altruistic traits to evolve. The powerful evolutionary force to make individuals that successfully reproduce has to be overcome by some form of selective pressure which generates altruistic individuals who yield their interests to the interests of the group. How does that occur? Examining near-eusocial species like African wild dogs and snapping shrimp along with primitively eusocial species like sweat bees shows that a crucial step appears to be made when multiple generations linger to defend a constructed nest with valuable access to food. That step can be made with a simple change to a single behavioral gene, silencing the trait for normal dispersal of young to carry out their own independent reproduction. When the young linger to defend the nest and begin to provide for the next generation of young, eusociality begins.

All eusocial species appear to have arisen from multi-generational nest defense. Two million years ago our ancestors began using fire for campsites and cooking. At the same time hominid brain size began expanding dramatically. Social traits emerged that have characterized humanity ever since. We love joining groups, and we became geniuses at reading the intentions of each other, a skill we fine-tune incessantly with our enjoyment of gossip. In another distinctively human trait, like ants, we became highly adept at collaborative warfare.

Wilson had long been a proponent of William Hamilton’s theory of “kin selection” as an explanation for how altruistic traits could evolve. But as a naturalist he found it did not explain phenomena that he and others were discovering in eusocial species, and he began to favor “group selection” instead---a process where the “target” of evolution was sacrificially collaborative traits, because highly cooperative groups beat poorly cooperative groups, and the “units” of evolution (genes) adjusted accordingly. It is successful groups, more than successful families, that are being selected for. In 2010 Wilson, along with mathematician Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita formally challenged kin selection with a peer-reviewed paper in Nature. There was, as Wilson put it, “considerable blowback” from kin selection theorists and supporters.

Wilson’s alternative he calls “multi-level selection,” where individual selection and group selection proceed together (with kin selection a continuing bit player). In our eusocial species, that mix of traits makes us “permanently unstable, permanently conflicted” between selfish impulses and cooperative impulses. We negotiate these conflicts endlessly within ourselves and with each other. Wilson sees inherent adaptive value in that constant negotiation. Our vibrant cultural life may be driven in part by it.

In response to a question about what the next stages of human eusociality might be, Wilson said he hoped for a fading of interest in end-state ideologies and end-time religious creation stories because they so fervently deny negotiation.

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