E.O. Wilson on Altruism and Enlightenment

New Scientist
Stories from New Scientist.
April 30 2012 6:30 AM

Altruism and the New Enlightenment

An interview with E.O. Wilson.

Edward O. Wilson
Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University, in 2007

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Groundbreaking Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson has authored more than two dozen books, including Sociobiology (1975), Consilience (1998), the Pulitzer Prize-winners On Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990), and the novel Anthill (2010). His latest book is The Social Conquest of Earth (W. W. Norton). In the interview below, he argues that group selection is the main driver of evolution and explains why we need a new intellectual revolution.

You've recently been involved in a high-profile academic row over what drives the evolution of social traits such as altruism. Why should non-specialists care?

That is one of the main points of my new book. Scientific advances are now good enough for us to address coherently questions of where we came from and what we are. But to do so, we need to answer two more fundamental questions. The first is why advanced social life exists in the first place and has occurred so rarely. The second is what are the driving forces that brought it into existence.

Eusociality, where some individuals reduce their own reproductive potential to raise others' offspring, is what underpins the most advanced form of social organization and the dominance of social insects and humans. One of the key ideas to explain this has been kin selection theory or inclusive fitness, which argues that individuals cooperate according to how they are related. I have had doubts about it for quite a while. Standard natural selection is simpler and superior. Humans originated by multilevel selection—individual selection interacting with group selection, or tribe competing against tribe. We need to understand a great deal more about that.

How will a better understanding of multilevel selection help?

We should consider ourselves as a product of these two interacting and often competing levels of evolutionary selection. Individual versus group selection results in a mix of altruism and selfishness, of virtue and sin, among the members of a society. If we look at it that way, then we have what appears to be a pretty straightforward answer as to why conflicted emotions are at the very foundation of human existence. I think that also explains why we never seem to be able to work things out satisfactorily, particularly internationally.

So it comes down to a conflict between individual and group-selected traits?

Yes. And you can see this especially in the difficulty of harmonizing different religions. We ought to recognize that religious strife is not the consequence of differences among people. It's about conflicts between creation stories. We have bizarre creation myths and each is characterized by assuring believers that theirs is the correct story, and that therefore they are superior in every sense to people who belong to other religions. This feeds into our tribalistic tendencies to form groups, occupy territories and react fiercely to any intrusion or threat to ourselves, our tribe and our special creation story. Such intense instincts could arise in evolution only by group selection—tribe competing against tribe. For me, the peculiar qualities of faith are a logical outcome of this level of biological organization.

Can we do anything to counter our tribalistic instincts?

I think we are ready to create a more human-centered belief system. I realize I sound like an advocate for science and technology, and maybe I am because we are now in a techno-scientific age. I see no way out of the problems that organized religion and tribalism create other than humans just becoming more honest and fully aware of themselves. Right now we're living in what Carl Sagan correctly termed a demon-haunted world. We have created a Star Wars civilization but we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. That's dangerous.

Yet at the end of your new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, you seem upbeat, arguing that by the next century we could turn the world into a permanent paradise for humans.

It's a statement of hope. I was not going to say we have intrinsically screwed up. I had to finish it as a full-blown American optimist saying I think we are going to find our way out of this and we are going to do it with education and science.

But the clock is ticking ...

That's right. That is why I'm devoted to the kind of environmentalism that is particularly geared towards the conservation of the living world, the rest of life on Earth, the place we came from. We need to put a lot more attention into that as something that could unify people. Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have.

Do you believe science will help us in time?

We can't predict what science is going to come up with, particularly on genuine frontiers like astrophysics. So much can change even within a single decade. A lot more is going to happen when the social sciences finally join the biological sciences: who knows what will come out of that in terms of describing and predicting human behavior? But there are certain things that are almost common sense that we should not do.

What sort of things shouldn't we do?

Continue to put people into space with the idea that this is the destiny of humanity. It makes little sense to continue exploration by sending live astronauts to the moon, and much less to Mars and beyond. It will be far cheaper, and entail no risk to human life, to explore space with robots. It's a commonly stated idea that we can have other planets to live on once we have used this one up. That is nonsense. We can find what we need right here on this planet for almost infinite lengths of time, if we take good care of it.

What is it important to do now?

The title of my final chapter is "A New Enlightenment". I think we ought to have another go at the Enlightenment and use that as a common goal to explain and understand ourselves, to take that self-understanding which we so sorely lack as a foundation for what we do in the moral and political realm. This is a wonderful exercise. It is about education, science, evaluating the creative arts, learning to control the fires of organized religion and making a better go of it.

Could you be more concrete about this new Enlightenment?

I would like to see us improving education worldwide and putting a lot more emphasis—as some Asian and European countries have—on science and technology as part of basic education. To that end, the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation—a foundation I was invited to give my name to—has been working with Apple to create an online beginners' course in biology using the best animation techniques.

We're using 3D animators, educators, multimedia artists trained in science and cinema, and textbook professionals. It's a sort of portal that runs from molecules to ecosystems, from the origin of life to the modern awareness that we control the environment we live in. It will present modern biology in an exciting, compelling way. The first chapters have already been distributed for free by Apple in 32 countries, including the US.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

Liz Else is a New Scientist associate editor.

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