The Basic Human Conundrum Results From Conflict Between Individual (Selfish) Genes and Group (Altruistic) Genes
by Glynn Wilson
Let’s face it. The most common answer at beauty pageants, we now know, is unachievable.
We will never achieve world peace.
How do we know this now for the very first time ever?
The basic human conundrum we can never escape can be boiled down to this. We are caught up in a never-ending and inevitable struggle between our genes that developed over about the past 2 to 3 millions years, on one hand from individual level natural selection — and group selection on the other.
“The two genes, which we all possess, are antagonistic,” according to Alabama native, Harvard professor and author Edward O. Wilson. “In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals. But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals.
“It’s as simple as that,” he says, insisting that is now proven as mathematically sound by some of his colleagues at Harvard.
Or to make it even more simple.
“Individual selection tends to produce sin,” he said with a wry smile. That means “selfishness, conniving,” etc.
“All the human traits that make reading fiction so interesting,” he joked, while explaining that “group selection promotes virtue and morality.”
These are always in conflict.
“This is the most important thing about the human condition,” he says in an interview available here on the C-SPAN Website. “It answers the big question.”
Other Essential Facts from E.O. Wilson’s Interview on C-SPAN
Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson talked about his book on the rise and domination of homo sapiens on Earth as he laid out a re-examination of fundamental questions of philosophy, religion, and science in human evolution in explaining how socially advanced species have come to dominate the Earth. He was interviewed by Steven Snyder and responded to questions from members of the audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia during this Meelya Gordon Memorial Lecture.
From fossil records, not anyone’s political opinion, he said, we now know that the key to the jump in human evolution occurred between two and three million years ago when human-like creatures began to hunt for meat. Their bone structure began to change and their brains to grow due to this protein source. They started with brains about the size of chimps, 400-500 cubic centimeters.
When homo sapiens came along about 1.5 million years ago and started making long-term camps by the fire and hunting in groups, brain size began to increase. Today it is about 1000-1200 cubic centimeters (average is about 1130 in women and 1260 in men, according to reliable sources).
While insects outweigh all species on the planet by 4-1, the ants making up about one-third of that, humans are unique of all the animal species in the types of culture and technologies we develop. But according to this research, culture is influenced by genes and instincts, which comes at odds to some researchers in the social sciences, which means controversy.
Wilson explains in the interview how he helped destroy a line in biology called “kin selection” and brought back “group selection.” There is also individual level natural selection, and Darwin was right about both, he said.
Individual level group selection at the genetic level leads to what has been called the “selfish gene,” our propensity to act in our own self interest, which obviously was necessary for survival. But the group selection gene led to “altruism,” which is also necessary for survival. It leads in groups to such qualities as “virtue, helpfulness and inventiveness,” he said.
How altruism originates in humans has now for the first time been demonstrated with mathematics.
Individual level selection comes from parents having and taking care of offspring, having as many children as possible and raising them. Group selection comes from groups communicating, cooperating and bonding, “how they act as a group,” he said. Winning individuals survive, prosper and continue to evolve. Same with groups, “but the genes associated with each are quite different.”
But the genes that come from group natural selection are the one’s that lead to virtue, honor, morality, etc.
The three big questions for science are:
Where do we come from?
What are we?
And where are we going?
“We are close to answering the first two questions,” Wilson said. “But the answer is a little disconcerting. It appears that with group selection as the driving force, and with individual selection being what made us human, group selection gave us innate virtue and morality. With these being in conflict, we are a genetic mix.
“And so it will ever be,” Wilson said. “We’re caught in this unstable, conflicted condition. It is very human and will always be conflicted to some degree. If we went all the way to individual selection, society would dissolve. If we went all the way to group selection, then we would become angelic robots.
“That kind of ability and that kind of drive got us where we are,” he said. “And now because of these two intense urges, we just cannot keep our minds off of it (thinking about each other, that is. Could this explain the Facebook phenomenon?).
“It’s important we know we have those urges,” he said. “It explains a lot of the difficulty we’re in now.”
Questions From the Audience
A side question was about hair and balding, which has to do with the loss of testosterone.
As for why humans have little hair compared to other apes, they are sprinters and we are long-distance runners, he said. So we evolved to be slow but to go on and on following and tracking prey over many miles and days. To do that, he said, we have to have a high level of heat exchange, which is why we lost our hair.
“It’s a cooling device,” he said.
In a question from the audience, someone asked: “So how do you phrase a question to a fundamentalist to bring them around to your point of view?”
His answer: “You don’t,” he said. You “sneak” good science stories into the media “as entertainment,” he said, and teach good science courses in the schools.
“That’s the only way,” he said.
“Biblical literalists and other jihadists are not rational on these issues,” he said. “They are identifying their signature traits of the tribe.”
He pointed out that he was talking about creation stories, not belief in god, theological studies, presence of a divinity, spirituality, etc…
“Those (myths) are absolutely set in stone for fundamentalists,” Wilson said. “If you mess around with any of it, it’s taken as a personal threat. That’s what you are dealing with.”
In explaining how genes evolve, he described it like how names are passed down from one generation to the next, like Wilson.
He was asked directly if this means that we can never have world peace, he answered like this.
“You will never have a joining of the groups,” he said. “Joining groups is so fundamental to humanity. It’s such a part of us that, what we’re likely to do in the future is to continue that, but we’ll be creating new kinds of groups.”
He said he believes there will be a diminishment of organized religion over time because of the problems with creation myths. He also said, “There may be a softening of nationalism.
“It’s hard to predict,” he said. “We don’t know what direction it’s going to take.
“But its certainly not going to lead to a one-world, unified, human society,” he insisted. “It’s too human to belong to groups and consider that they’re superior, like the Red Socks and the Patriots,” he joked. “A lot of the pleasure in our loves comes from rooting for the home team, despairing and cheering and so on. We’ll always have that.”
World Population and Resource Scarcity
When he was asked about world population and resource and food scarcity, he reported the numbers on world population and talked about the trends.
According to United Nation’s data, he said, due to a decrease in fertility rates in industrialized countries, human population growth should peak at between 7 and 9 billion people. The break even point in the growth of human population is 2.2 children per woman.
“That’s zero population growth,” he said. “All of the industrialized countries are below that and we are in the beginnings of negative population growth.”
“The whole thing is based on women’s choice. Women’s liberation saved the world,” he joked, but made sure everyone understood he was making a serious point.
A sudden reversal of this trend, while highly unlikely, could take world population up to 15 billion, he said, “and that would be disastrous.”
The problem is not the number of people, he said, but per capita consumption.
“It’s everybody wanting an American level of life,” he said. “We’ve got to slow a bit ourselves and persuade other contries to do the same. We’ve got to use the best of our science and technology to make everything less expensive so we have increased per capita growth, creating real wealth, combined with (enhancing) quality of life on far less natural resources. That’s the key.”
When asked more about individual verses group selection, he agreed that big breakthroughs in our thinking come from individuals, not groups, and he predicted that would continue.
In fact, innovation takes place not from “group think,” Wilson says. Not from think tanks.
“It works when one mind, usually rebellious, ambitious, enterprising, decides to do something new. Preferably where no one has tried before, and goes for it and finds who they are,” he said. “What you find is a real innovator in every society, in every larger group.”
The nerd in high school not on any team, but who is always doodling with something, he said.
“A spirit of entrepreneurship is more important than high IQ,” he said.
That person gathers collaborators and makes it happen, but “big dreams” come from individuals.
When asked if its true that nice guys always finish last, he said no.
“That’s the new trend in business management, is it not?” he said with a smile.
© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.