Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Darwinism I

If you read authors such as E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, you are soon likely to see Homo sapiens as just another big animal running around the planet.  Actually, you can arrive at the same outlook without studying science at all if you're skeptical about conventional wisdom.  Wilson and Dawkins disagree on whether a basic mechanism underlying human evolution is group selection or kin selection.  I tend to side with Wilson, the group selection advocate, because he has better scientific qualifications than Dawkins and because group selection has greater explanatory power to me than kin selection.  Dawkins has a vested interest in kin selection and the theories of W.D. Hamilton because they shaped his career, but to a non-scientist like myself, the kin-group dichotomy isn't all that important, and seems more like a turf war for people with big egos, Dawkins having the larger one.

Wilson's background is in the study of ants, but he is better known to the public for his popular books on Darwinism as it pertains to humans.  He claims that humans, like ants, are eusocial animals. Here is an excerpt of the Wikipedia article on eusociality that summarizes Wilson's position:

In Wilson's latest book, 2012's The Social Conquest of the Earth, he refers to humans as a species of eusocial ape. He supports his reasoning by stating our eusocial similarities to ants. Humans also fall under Wilson's original criteria of eusociality (division of labor, overlapping generations, and cooperative care of young including ones that are not their own). Through cooperation and teamwork, ants and humans gain a type of “superpower” that is unavailable to other social animals that have failed to make the leap from social to eusocial. Eusociality creates the superorganism. This has caused conflict amongst biologists as not all believe that a term reserved for invertebrates can explain humanity. Others do not believe that humans are eusocial because humans make the decision to be "cooperative" (i.e. babysitting a non-related child) whereas eusociality is a behavioral strategy that is not specifically selected by an individual.

I have not read the rebuttals to Wilson's theory mentioned here, but the last objection sounds like a familiar free will argument: humans can choose to behave eusocially, while ants cannot. I side with Wilson here, because behavioral predispositions are simply a weak version of hard-wired behavior.  For an analogy, you could say that humans are not sexual animals in the same way as rabbits, because they may choose not to engage in sex and rabbits cannot.  Adding free will and choice to explain our differences with animals is, in my opinion, nothing more than a delusion that comes with our consciousness. The fact is that none of us would be here if we hadn't had thousands of ancestors who engaged in sexual intercourse. 100% of them did.  I had problems with a similar argument that I studied in philosophy years ago: the mind-body problem. I now think that there is nothing wrong with seeing human behavior as mostly determined by genes and environment, and that this type of determinism is different from that of other animals only because it doesn't operate quite as rigidly. This relates obliquely to the mind-body problem, because our body seems determined and our mind does not. I think our minds are mostly determined, but we are simply unable to see it. As Schopenhauer concisely put it, "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills."

So if there is a difference between us and ants with respect to eusociality it is consciousness. Consciousness doesn't really remove us from the physical universe and is probably better seen as an aspect of it.  The lesson to be learned here, I think, is that we have unconscious drives that are in fact similar to the unconscious drives of ants.  This is neither good nor bad, but it is something that we need to be aware of.

Believe it or not, this ties in with my post on capitalism.  As a species we have reached a point in the control of our environment where the main obstacles we face are overpopulation, pollution, diminishing resources and conflicts between groups. Our instincts encourage us to address these problems by electing leaders even as we clearly see that the leaders are unable to solve them.  In this case, thinking outside the box is more difficult than it seems.

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