Under the Microscope
by Glynn Wilson
I once tried to goad newspaper reporters in Alabama to pick up the story that if basketball star Charles Barkley ran for governor of Alabama as a Republican, then the Democrats should recruit E. O. Wilson.
The campaign headline could be: Brains v. Brawn!
Beneath his gentle manner and Southern charm, Dr. E.O. Wilson, an Alabama native who made Time magazine’s list of the top 100 minds of the 20th century, is a “scrapper.”
According to a story recounted in the New York Times science section on Tuesday, where Wilson grew up the local custom with respect to fistfights was this: prevail or get knocked out. There was no third option.
“I never picked a fight,” he wrote in Naturalist, his autobiography. “But once started I never quit, even when losing, until the other boy gave up or an adult mercifully pulled us apart.”
Dr. Wilson wasn’t picking a fight when he published Sociobiology in 1975, a synthesis of ideas about the evolution of social behavior in which he set out the theoretical groundwork for a genetic basis to human behavior, expanding Darwinian evolutionary natural selection to multi-level group influence on genes and behavior, over time of course. A lot of time.
In the debate between nature vs. nurture, in other words, he made a quantitative argument for nature.
Behavior is not only learned. It evolves.
Convinced even more by new data mapping the genetics of ant colonies, he says human behavior, such as people trading favors, develops through natural selection on many levels. Groups, such as tribal or church groups, evolve strategies for survival that influence their genetic development over long periods of time.
Many social scientists picked a fight with him in the ’70s. They were of course influenced by the philosophies of Karl Marx as well as Sigmund Freud, as all academics are, since they are among the top five thinkers in history, along with Albert Einstein and others. I would not call them political Marxists, as the Times reporter uses the term, although I suppose when it comes right down to it, they ended up on the political left.
Hard scientists at his own university, Richard C. Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, also came after him, since their life’s work rested on the simpler idea that natural selection acts only on one level, the genetic level.
Richard Dawkins, who wrote The Selfish Gene, was in Gould’s anti-Wilson camp.
But he fought them off. And now he is picking this new fight because of the new, hard information.
It is through multilevel or group-level selection – favoring the survival of one group of organisms over another – that evolution has in Dr. Wilson’s view brought into being the many essential genes that benefit the group at the individual’s expense. In humans, these may include genes that underlie generosity, moral constraints, even religious behavior. Such traits are difficult to account for, though not impossible, on the view that natural selection favors only behaviors that help the individual to survive and leave more children.
“I believe that deep in their heart everyone working on social insects is aware that the selection that created them is multilevel selection,” Dr. Wilson said.
He and David Sloan Wilson, a longtime advocate of group-level selection, laid out a theoretical basis for this view last year in an article in the Quarterly Review of Biology, evoking an angry response from Dr. Dawkins in New Scientist; he accused them of lying on a minor point and demanded an apology.
Proposing an idea heretical to many evolutionary biologists is one of the smaller skirmishes Dr. Wilson has set off, according to the Times. In his 1998 book Consilience, he proposed an overarching theory for bringing together the social and natural sciences on many questions from economics to ethics and morality, where progress has been slow.
“It is an astonishing circumstance that the study of ethics has advanced so little since the 19th century,” he said, a jab at a century of work by “moral philosophers,” as the Times calls them. His insight has been supported by the recent emergence of a new school of evolutionary psychologists who are constructing an evolutionary explanation of morality.
There is another reason to come to Wilson’s aid in this fight.
While ants may be Dr. Wilson’s first and lasting love, he has become one of the world’s most renowned biologists through two other passions, his urge to create large syntheses of knowledge and his gift for science writing. He has two Pulitzers on his belt, and through the power of his words, he champions the world’s biodiversity and international conservation measures.
He also recently made a swing through the South trying to get Southern Baptists aboard his campaign to document and save the world’s species biodiversity, if not on the basis of science, then on the Biblical demand that God’s creatures should be protected on a moral basis.
I would relish the thought of Wilson coming home to Alabama after retiring in his 80’s in a few years, he’s now 79, and whipping up on old Charles Barkley. But now that Barkley says he is going to run as a Democrat, since Bush and the Republicans have messed things up so much in the world with Iraq and “the economy stupid,” we may just have to put them both in the primary and see what wins out: Brain Power or Brawn.
Not that Barkley ain’t smart or anything, it’s just that we get the feeling Wilson is a bit more evolved in the head, if not in body, and might do his home state some good. As everyone knows, Alabama suffers a certain brain-drain syndrome, in that a lot of genetically smart, culturally educated young people tend to get the hell out as soon as they can.
Read that last part again and notice how I slipped nature vs. nurture in there again. From my own studies in this area, it’s pretty obvious that it’s both.
For the record, and to head off any possible confusion here, both Wilson and Barkley are evolutionary anomalies. They are both off the charts as humans go, several standard deviations above the mean, if you know what I mean : )
But perhaps a little brainy infusion might give the good people of this state a little evolutionary boost – in about a million years or so : )
Now, for more discussion of this, including a great example of science blogging, check this out: E. O. Wilson, Neville Chamberlain Controversialist?
I love the way this kid ends the discussion, and check this out for an interesting example of a comments policy on a science blog. I’m thinking about adopting part of it…
Comments that I feel do not edify this forum will be deleted without warning or explanation. Just as I will not accept arguments in favor of geocentrism, I will not accept Creationist-Intelligent Design talking points. My interest in that topic is limited to political and sociological implications in terms of its cultural impact, not its non-existent scientific validity. You can extrapolate from this what the general comments policy is.
© 2008 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.