Thursday, March 28, 2019

Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies

This new book by Edward O. Wilson is extremely short, which is a plus, but I didn't find it particularly satisfying. I had a similar reaction to Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, which was published in 2016. I guess this is to be expected, given that Wilson is now almost ninety. He seems to be a compulsive writer, and producing new books must be his hobby. Still, he always provides many examples from the zoological world, and in this case he roughly traces evolution from the earliest times to the present. The stages he lists are:
1. The origin of life
2. The invention of complex ("eukaryotic") cells
3. The invention of sexual reproduction, leading to a controlled system of DNA exchange and the multiplication of species
4. The origin of organisms composed of multiple cells
5. The origin of societies
6. The origin of language
The primary subjects discussed are social evolution, eusociality, group selection and the emergence of modern humans. If you are already familiar with the concepts, there is little new here.

Throughout nature, most species survive primarily with the selfish behavior of individuals. Although we tend to associate altruism with high status within the animal kingdom, it is no more than an evolutionary accident. There is a spectrum of cooperation that enters natural selection and varies from no cooperation to complete cooperation. Schools of fish, flocks of birds and swarms of insects protect individuals from predators and are one of the simplest forms of cooperation. In the extreme case of ants and termites, individual survival may be completely subordinated to group survival, and most individuals are incapable of reproduction. Under group selection, fitness may be conferred to a group as a whole rather than to individuals. Quoting David Sloan Wilson, the evolutionary biologist, Wilson sums up the difference between individual and group selection as follows: within groups, selfish individuals win against altruists, but groups of altruists beat groups of individuals. At times, I found that there were so many examples of adaptation that it was difficult to think of eusociality as a distinct process. Occasionally it is unclear exactly how a behavior is encoded in genes, and it may be triggered only under certain conditions. In this respect, Wilson isn't much clearer than Jonathan Losos in Improbable Destinies: the underlying processes are so complex that descriptions seem like oversimplifications.

I had been hoping that Wilson would have more to say about modern humans. There are a few interesting facts, but Wilson is not an anthropologist, and while he is fairly philosophical for a scientist, he isn't particularly philosophical by other standards. One reviewer criticized him for linking homosexuality to eusociality. Wilson may be correct, but from a research standpoint that view seems controversial. An area that interested me was research on aggression in chimpanzees and humans. Chimpanzees have been observed patrolling the border of their territory and capturing and eating babies from neighboring groups. There is a table listing archaeological and ethnographic evidence of human mortality due to warfare. Known groups of hunter-gatherers have always had a small percentage of adult deaths attributable to warfare. Thus, Rousseau's idea that life used to be better seems merely to be a variation of the Garden of Eden myth from the Bible.

In Wilson's explanation, modern humans developed on the savannas of Africa. He thinks that wildfires burned animals, and humans began to eat cooked meat this way. Soon they were keeping fires and eating meat regularly. Meat provides nutrition more efficiently than plants, and a carnivorous diet takes less time and effort than a vegetarian diet. Wilson thinks that meat consumption is associated with the rapid increase in the brain size of modern humans. I have often wondered why I like fires so much: it's probably because my ancestors sat beside them for hundreds of thousands of years.

Wilson does not engage in the kind of speculation about the future of mankind that I enjoy. He seems comfortable thinking of us as a type of animal and leaving it at that. To me, it isn't an idle thought to consider the conditions in which human existence might become more peaceful and sustainable. This could be facilitated by conditioning people to believe that they all belong to the same group, as I've mentioned before. A world government would help, but Wilson doesn't pursue such ideas.

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