E.O. Wilson: ON HUMAN NATURE

I first read this book shortly after its 1978 hardcover publication, and it was revelatory; elegantly written and insightful, it challenged conventional ideas about human nature, especially the one about the mind being a ‘blank slate’ completely molded by environment, education, and society. (In the late 1970s, for example, there were debates, and there are still, about whether giving toy trucks to boys and dolls to girls was simply a cultural cliché, or if boys and girls really have different interests and personalities.) More generally, the assumptions in psychology in the early part of the century were shaped by the ‘behavioralists’ like B.F. Skinner, who claimed that human behavior could be entirely molded by conditioning, the way you can train pets. You can understand why some on the left *wish* the human mind could be completely moldable — or rather, why they resisted the idea that there were pre-existing inclinations in humans, or differences between boys and girls — because they prioritize equality, and enforcing equality of opportunity would be easier and completely justifiable if all people are equal in actuality.

I’ve just this year reread the book, in the 2004 trade paperback edition with a new preface that explains why the book was controversial when it first appeared (and why Wilson was sometimes protested against when he spoke). It’s interesting to see the seeds of several later Wilson books in this first one written for general audiences. (And it won the Pulitzer Prize.)

Here’s my summary with some direct quotes from the book, with my aside comments [[ in italicized double brackets ]].

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2004 Preface

When the book was first published, two conceptions of the human condition dominated: theologians saw humans as dark angels awaiting redemption; a mix of good and evil propensities, “which we must sort out with the aid of writings by ancient Middle Eastern prophets.” Intellectuals doubted that human nature existed at all; the brain as blank slate, culture entirely learned.

In contrast was the naturalistic view that the brain and mind are entirely biological in origin, the result of evolution by natural selection. This became known as sociobiology, or evolutionary biology.

Author [a professor at Harvard] had focused on the biology of ants, and of the biology of populations. He published The Insect Societies in 1971, then Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975, with speculation at the end on how it all applies to humans. Many scholars were indifferent, or hostile, to these ideas.

Also in the 1970s the background culture was in turmoil: the Vietnam War; civil rights; academia was radically left. Any talk of race, or inheritance of IQ and human behavior, was controversial. There were legitimate concerns about the history of social Darwinism. Some saw it as a threat to Marxist ideology. The final chapter of the second book was inadequate; thus Wilson wrote the present book.

Ch1, Dilemma

The central questions said David Hume are: how does the mind work; why does it work in such a way and not another; and thus what is man’s ultimate nature?

The conclusion from biology is that humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection. This understanding entails two spiritual dilemmas: that no species possesses a purpose beyond the genetic imperative; the brain exists to promote survival and reproduction (and thus why physical reality is so mysterious). Everything is just part of a cycle. That is: [first dilemma] we have no particular place to go. Should all our problems be solved, what then? P3.6: “Traditional religious beliefs have been eroded, not so much by humiliating disproofs of their mythologies as by the growing awareness that beliefs are really enabling mechanisms for survival.”

The idea that western civilization is in decline – with long quote by Gunther Stent [[ that anticipates themes of Harari about the unemployable middle class ]] – because of the loss of traditional transcendental goals. A new morality will rely on an evolutionary understanding of the mind. Thus the second dilemma: if morality evolved as instinct, then we may soon be able to investigate the origin and meaning of human values, and ethics. Philosophers mostly consider consequences of ethical system, not their origins. Examples of Rawls and Nozick. The dilemma is: [second dilemma] if we understand the origins of morality, which censors and motivators should be obey, and while might be curtailed? [[ Wilson doesn’t suggest an answer to this, but based on Pinker et al, it might be to favor those that enable large multicultural societies—not libertarian lone hunters in the woods. ]]

The only way forward is a study of human nature through the integration of the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities. [[ thus the theme of author’s 1998 book CONSILIENCE. ]]

This will involve overcoming misunderstandings between the two cultures, in particular the various disciplines and antidisciplines – essentially, studies that work from top down, and those that work from top up, the latter presuming their opposite disciplines can be explained from below (e.g. life is merely atoms and molecules). Every scientist deals with disciplines at three levels, p8. Example of history of molecular biology, cytology vs. biochemistry. Both sides prevailed and illuminated each other. A similar blending will take place with biology and the social sciences.

The easy view is that science is limited to certain classes of information, and cannot illuminate the Dionysian life of the mind; science is too dehumanizing. No; this underestimates what the mind can accomplish. Science reduces multiple phenomena to fundamental principles; it also takes those principles and reconstructs the complexity, including emergent phenomena, where each level is consistent with all those beneath. Examples, e.g. how haplodiploidy allowed the development of advance social life (in insects).

It is wrong to fear some kind of deterministic reductionism; understanding the lower levels is not sufficient to understand the higher ones. Thus the social sciences are far richer than mere biology. And so the proper study of man is indeed man.

Ch2, Heredity

Life on earth is extremely diverse. We know of some one million species, and are discovering new ones all the time; the total may be from 3 to 10 million.

Thousands of these are social. Sociobiology is based on comparisons of social species, and can be applied to human beings. We look at humans from afar, in order to place them into context. Example from Nozick about aliens visiting earth; the test might be, anything that behaves like man is man. It’s not true that that social behavior can be shaped into virtually any form. Though known cultures are highly variable, they are all similar compared to the organizations of known social species, or those that can be imagined. The evidence that human social behavior is genetically determined is decisive.

The evidence is compelling when compared to social behavior of the great apes and monkeys, our evolutionary relatives. Examples:

  • Intimate social groups are on the order to 10 to 100, not 2, not thousands;
  • Males are larger than females;
  • The young are molded by social training first by the mother, then by children of the same age and sex;
  • Social play is strongly developed including role practice, mock aggression, sex practice, and exploration.

And there are further traits that distinguish us as a species—as in the list compiled in 1945, of characteristics that have been recorded in every culture known to history and ethnography – see list p22. [[ I can’t find this list online; but Wikipedia has an expanded list of them, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_universal ]]

[[ the famous list, worth revisiting in context of PvCs – see how many of them involve superstition or spiritual practices. One might predict that these will never go away, in a culture at large. The best one can expect is that individuals can become self-aware enough to realize these are cultural enablers, not truths about the universe. This is a new key point. Or: these are all the cultural traits that would be recreated, in different fashion, by any species reset. ]]

A similar, different list could be drawn up for insect societies, p22-23. It would be impossible for a group of humans to emulate the features of even a primate relative species. What of people raised from birth devoid of most cultural influences? They would create a new language, p24, and a host of other practices; quote by Robin Fox. [[ again this is identical to my PvC9 ]]

And thus we also see similarities between us and chimps, e.g. facial expressions, that we would expect from evolutionary descent. Chimps are especially close to us, even if at best they are like mentally retarded children. Considering language skills, and self-awareness in mirrors, even in social organization, and hunting strategies. And culture, e.g. play by infants to help use tools as adults. Other tool using behaviors show patterns of cultural transmission from various populations. Thus we have a little brother species, and these similarities are likely genetic.

How natural selection works: p32-33. It’s possible to have purely cultural sociobiology, involving learned social behaviors. But the genetic proposition also entails the validity of evolutionary theory in general. Given the time spans, wherein human genetic evolution within the past five million years—but before cultures evolved beginning 10,000 years ago – the human sociobiology is best tested in the hunter-gatherer societies that resemble those of the distant past—i.e. via anthropology.

A theory is measured by its ability to make predictions; by its success against rival theories; and to the extent it assembles an ever larger body of facts into explanatory schemes. Facts come from experimentation, or observations of undisturbed nature.

Various sociobiological explorations are explored in the following chapters. Two concise examples: incest taboos. There are traditional anthropological explanations. The Sociobio explanation concerns the physiological harm of inbreeding, which carry obvious natural selection costs. Thus the tendency for outbreeding. The second is hypergamy, whereby females marry men of equal or greater wealth. The principles also explain patterns of infanticide.

We can find people whose rational facilities have been impaired but who still function at the level of instinct. E.g., cultural retardates vs. noncultural retardates in institutions.

What about how much social behavior varies genetically within the human species? One possibility is that humanity has become completely uniform, with only cultural evolution occurring now. The other is that some genetic variation still exists. The evidence is strong that behavioral variation is genetic. Examples include variations of X and Y chromosomes and resultant behavior. Other evidence comes from studies of identical twins. Thus the psychic unity of mankind is a testable hypothesis. We should be able to identify genes that influence behavior.

We can even speculate about racial differences, aware that this is an explosive topic. We can ask about geographical variation. Some small effects have been noticed, e.g. infant behavior of Chinese vs. Europeans. Navajo babies are even more quiescent than Chinese.

We are a single species, with relatively minor hereditary influences recycling in ever changing patterns. It’s a unity that overwhelms the difference there would be between humans and australopithecines, if they still existed; or between our species and a mentally superior human species…

Ch3, Development

A description of what happens after conception, the growth of the embryo, how the newborn infant processes sight and sound. To what extend do the neurons, coded by genes, preordain the social development that follows? Is there a range, or only genetic determinism, the way a mosquito is an automaton?

In humans, genes prescribe a capacity for an array of traits; some arrays are limited, some vast and the outcome easily influenced. Examples of the former are handedness, and the condition called PKU, which leads to mental retardation unless treated in infancy. More typical is schizophrenia, a suite of behaviors influenced by many genes, but also by environment. The crude distinction between nature and nurture is archaic. It is more like a complicated topography. Thus every behavior will need to be analyzed separately.

Some behaviors are more easily analyzed than others, e.g. how human facial expressions seem to be universal. Some of the simplest may be genetically hard-wired. But consider language, where a ‘deep grammar’ may exist, but the outcomes are vast, in terms of particular languages.

Behaviorism, e.g. Skinner, has crumpled; rather the learning potential of a species is programmed by its brain. Thus some animals learn certain behaviors very quickly; blind kittens finding their mother; birds that navigate by learning circumpolar constellations only.

Humans are not so rigid, but it’s not true that we can learn anything. Children show certain specific developmental stages (Jean Piaget). Others have shown that children pass through a tight order of stages in the growth of moral codes. [[ Haidt discusses this in his much later book; the first level being obedience in the face of punishment, the basic motivation of the religious fundamentalist, who thinks without that fear of punishment, a person would have no morals. ]]

Thus the human mind is not a tabula rasa, a blank slate. We can see relative strictness on different types of behavior; those concerning the physical environment are more narrowly constrained than those that adapt to a social environment. Important decisions might be less rational and more emotional. [[ this anticipates Kahneman and others. ]] Phobias are an extreme example. Incest taboos are an example of a general rule that one type of social bond tends to preclude others. Rites of passage, and the tendency to divide the world into us vs. them, where others are inferior. These all make sense in terms of genetic advantage.

Ch4, Emergence

If genes are inherited and environment is a train of physical events, where is free will? Maybe only a self-delusion. Theoretically perhaps a coin flip could be predicted. Consider a honeybee, or a human. There are so many variables, and there are issues with the measurement interferes with what is being measured. There are also issues of how the brain processes raw sensual data. The mind can easily simulate reality by recall and fantasy. The self is the leading actor in this neural drama. The key problem in neurobiology is intentionality. A solution might lie in schemata or plans; we interpret sensory inputs with preexisting patterns. Will (or soul) may be a republic of schemata; we know feedback loops control most of our automatic behavior.

Even if purely mechanical, the mind is too complicated a structure to ever predict; thus we are free and responsible in a fundamental sense.

Still, behavior is partially determined within some kinds of bounds. Statistical properties of populations can be predicted. Cultural evolution can be anticipated. Cultural evolution is Lamarckian; biological evolution in Darwinian—description p79m. But they can’t diverge too much; biological traits can undermine the health of societies. An example is slavery, which in many examples passes through a life-cycle that ends in its destruction. Slaves under great stress persist in behaving like humans, rather than e.g. slave ants or gibbons.

We can gain clues to the course of history by studying hunter-gatherers. Bands of a hundred or less, extended families; sexual division of labor; otherwise egalitarian. Large prey size and social hunting are linked in humans and other carnivores. The prevailing theory of social behavior is an autocatalysis model: walking erect freed the hands, building artifacts became easier, etc.

The brain continued to expand about one cubic inch every hundred thousand years, until about a quarter million years ago, when it tapered off. Cultural evolution took off: the Mousterian; Paleolithic; agriculture; growth of knowledge and technology since 1400ad. Genetic changes can be substantial in only 100 generations. Still, it’s safe to assume that most changes since the hunter-gatherers of 40000 years ago have been cultural, not genetic. Thus the same genetics has influenced most cultural evolution, as societies have followed similar paths throughout history—see chart p90—Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Mexica, Central and South America. The key to the emergence of civilization is hypertrophy—the extreme growth of pre-existing structures. The subordination of women is one example.

Other examples: nationalism and racism, as outgrowths of simple tribalism. E.g. one group shows how “civilizations have raised self-love to the rank of high culture, exalted themselves by divine sanction and diminished others with elaborately falsified written histories.” P92.5

Modern societies require a person to fulfill multiple roles, out of thousands, sometimes several within one day. Thus the identity crisis; the yearning for a simpler existence.

Another example: how meat shortages affect religious beliefs. The societies of the New World did not have large game as in Africa and Asia, and so their religious evolved to sanctify human sacrifice—whose victims would be cut up for eating. India’s history led to the classification of the cow as a sacred animal. Thus we can explain pathways of religious evolution.

The most extreme hypertrophic segment is the gathering and sharing of knowledge. Vast computers [in 1978].

“Pure knowledge is the ultimate emancipator. It equalizes people and sovereign states, erodes the archaic barriers of superstition and promise to lift the trajectory of cultural evolution. But I do not believe it can change the ground rules of human behavior or alter the main course of history’s predictable trajectory. …”

Ch5, Aggression

Are humans innately aggressive? Yes. That’s why societies invent sanctions against rape, murder, etc. And some forms of human aggression are unique to our species. The rare society that seems entirely peaceful can be found to have violent histories, or become violent given the chance. Freud and Lorenz imagined that aggression is a human drive that needs periodic release; Fromm that man is subject to a unique death instinct. Both of these are wrong. Aggression is a suite of at least seven types of behaviors.

Not all species are aggressive; those that are are because of ecological reasons: crowding, access to food or shelter. Some species don’t experience these issues. Nor are humans the most violent of all. Example of hyenas. Ant wars. And the drive-discharge model is disproven by evidence that warlike cultures do not have reduced incidences of other violent behaviors.

Human aggressive behavior is both learned, and genetically prepared to be learned. If there are 23 types of aggressive behavior, A through W, we find that some species exhibit, say, only A through P, or one species only A and a similar species only B. Territoriality is one such behavior. Each culture develops particular traits to safe-guard property and space. Example of behavior around vacation residences near Seattle, p109-110.

War is the rupture of territorial taboos, driven by ethnocentrism and the reduction of enemies to subhuman status.

Durham analyzed data from a tribe of headhunters, whose challenge was a source of protein, with three hypotheses in mind, p112—no relation to genetic fitness; fitness of individuals; fitness of groups. In the case studied, the second hypothesis best fit. The warriors however were unaware of any fitness motive; headhunting was part of their culture. Particular forms of violence are not inherited. Another tribe was motivated by the availability of women.

While organized aggression evolved early in our species, as populations grew into chiefdoms and states this tendency became institutionalized. Warfare continued to evolve, since any group unilaterally renouncing it would fall victim. Thus a mode of natural selection was at work at the level of entire societies, p116. Advanced societies develop more sophisticated militaries; though recently, with nuclear threats, leaders have been able to turn back. Some cultures can back down, as the Maori in New Zealand when European firearms were introduced–within 20 years a quarter of the population died. By the 1840s they converted to Christianity and warfare ceased entirely.

Summary p119. We can recognize the learning rules of violent aggression as obsolete and attempt to create political and cultural ties to create cross-binding loyalties.

Ch6, Sex

Sex is central to human biology, though it’s not designed primarily for reproduction—other species reproduce in simpler ways. Nor is sex about pleasure; most animal species do it mechanically. And sex is consuming and risky. It seems to offer no Darwinian advantage; in fact, it reduces the individual’s contribution to the next generation.

So why sex? Diversity, and adaptability. As a way to hedge bets against a changing environment. Example of combinations of traits. While many sexes are possible, the two seems to be the most efficient. Thus each fertilized egg has a new mixture of genes. The human egg is eighty-five thousand times larger than the sperm. This has consequences in human biology and psychology. Thus a female places a greater investment in her sex cells; she might generate 20 children in a lifetime. A man can theoretically inseminate thousands of women in his lifetime.

Thus in most animal species the males are aggressive, hasty, and undiscriminating; it pays for females to be coy, to identify males with the best genes, and who will stay around to raise the child. Humans obey this principle, even given the cultural variations in sexual roles.

We are moderately polygynous. About three-fourths of all societies permit the taking of multiple wives. The remaining monogamous societies exist with various extramarital stratagems in place. Women benefit by marrying upward in social position. Polygyny and hypergamy are complementary strategies. Prostitutes are despised for abandoning their reproductive investments to strangers.

Males, being heavier than women, are stronger and excel in most sports, by some 5 to 20 percent. The few sports where women excel are those farthest from primitive hunting and aggression.

Temperamental differences between the sexes have been amplified by culture to universal male dominance. Lineage is reckoned through the male line most of the time. And so on.

Can these be altered? First we need to understand the roles of heredity and environment. There are modest genetic differences between the sexes, leading to a divergence that can probably be canceled with careful planning, and a conscious decision.

Differences include the rate of smiling in girl vs boy infants; girls react with greater fright; they are more reluctant to leave their mothers in novel situations. Boys are more venturesome and aggressive.

Advocates of complete environmentalism would need to explain how these partly subconscious biases occur around the world. And evidence about hermaphrodites supports the genetic explanation. And examples of how hormone treatments led to tomboys, etc.

So there are three choices societies might make: exaggerate the difference (as most societies do now); train members to eliminate all differences in behavior; or provide equal opportunities but take no further action. The last option would allow disparities to remain, as has happened in Israeli kibbutzim, where enforced equality almost worked. These decisions are not easy and not everyone would agree.

Another issue is the traditional nuclear family, currently in decline. Will it disappear? Author thinks not; it’s a human universal, in the sense of a set of closely related adults and their children. History gives examples of family groups broken up that managed to reform, e.g. among slaves. Even in communes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, families reasserted themselves. Pseudo families form in female prisons.

[[ these issues are reflected in the current political divide, where of course conservatives want to retain, even enforce, the traditional gender roles, while progressives work toward equal opportunity. The usual irony is that conservatives are more likely to reject evolution, even as they insist on retaining differences in gender roles entirely explained by evolution. ]]

The sexual bond transcends sexual activity. One function may be the division of labor that helped early human species survive, as suggested by modern hunter-gatherer species. Humans have especially intense and varied sexual activity, and unlike most other species, female humans lack estrus; ovulation is hidden. This might have evolved to facilitate bonding, and reduce male aggression. Human courtship rituals are for bonding, not reproduction.

The significance of sex has been misinterpreted by Judaism and Christianity, based on natural-law theory derived from God. This theory is in error. Everything we’ve learned argues for a more liberal sexual morality, where sexual practices are understood first as bonding devices and only second as means for reproduction.

For example, homosexuals. We understand where the Old Testament prophets were coming from – “the prophets of an aggressive pastoral nation whose success was based on rapid and orderly population growth enhanced by repeated episodes of territorial conquest.” P142b. ff.

Yet there are many homosexuals, and it is common in virtually all cultures, even approved of in some. It may in fact be beneficial, carrying rare altruistic impulses. It is above all a form of bonding. But how would it be passed down? One answer is that their close relatives have more children; by helping their relatives’ children, or by playing special roles: shamans, artists. This is the ‘kin-selection’ hypothesis. Some evidence of heritability exists to support this, from twin studies. There are other clues in primitive societies and the roles played in modern ones. All of this isn’t conclusive, but it’s more consistent than the traditional Judeo-Christian view.

Ch7, Altruism

Generosity without hope of reciprocation is rare and cherished behavior. Sacrifice of oneself to save others is rewarded at the highest levels. Yet it is a puzzle for evolutionary biology, to simply dismiss it as the better side of human nature. A few other animals make altruistic gestures. Altruistic suicide appears in ant, bee, and wasp species. Bees routinely sacrifice themselves to protect the hive. But for humans, the basic problem is that fallen heroes do not have children. Simple Darwinism would suggest that selfish individuals would prevails in the long run. Insect altruism is explained by kin selection. Does it apply to humans, considering that in most of its history, humans lived in tight family groups? And among humans, there is often the expectation of reward, even personal immortality.

Hard-core altruism is directed unilaterally to others; soft-care altruism is selfish, with the altruist expecting reward for himself or close relatives, and can come about even through self-deception. Humans carry soft-core altruism to elaborate lengths, to fashion agreements upon which cultures and civilizations are built. But is it actually based on hard-core altruism, e.g. nepotism? This would be the enemy of civilization. Author suggests that true selfishness, given other constraints of mammalian biology, is the key to a more nearly perfect social contract. Evidence comes from tribalism. Consider where humans lie on a spectrum from extremely individualistic species, like sharks, and colony species, like jellyfish or the social insects. Human altruism is hard-core toward relatives, the remainder soft. “The predicted result is a mélange of ambivalence, deceit, and guilt that continuously troubles the individual mind.” P159. [[ it sounds to me as if these ideas matured later into Wilson’s formulation of the tensions between individual and group selection – see THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH and THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE. ]]

Examples from Jamaica and Guyana about how ethic groups shift their allegiance as history changes their circumstances. The deep structure of altruistic behavior is rigid and universal, generating predictable group responses that have been seen by social scientists. An important distinction is the ingroup vs the outgroup, but see how flexible this can be as in the formation of professional sports teams. Similar shifts play out in international politics, and religions. “The substance matters little, the form is all.”

What about Mother Theresa? But she worked in the service of a religion that condemns others, just as do other religions and ideologies like Marxism-Leninism. Thus the lines of good and evil cut through every human heart. Recall Kohlberg’s six states of ethical development, p166. Individuals can stop at any rung on the ladder. [[ as mentioned before, the first, lowest rung, obedience to avoid punishment, is the mindset of religious fundamentalists who think the 10 commandments are needed to avoid chaos. ]] Most of human development has worked at stage five (legalistic). Does stage 6, conscience allegiance to principles that might override the law, suggest that we can consciously manipulate those principles [the second great spiritual dilemma]. Probably not; genes hold culture on a leash. Human behavior is ultimately the means by which human genetic material is kept intact. Morality has no other ultimate function.

Ch8, Religion

Religious belief is complex and powerful and probably ineradicable. Skeptics like to think that religion, a tissue of illusions, will retreat in the light of knowledge. But this conception of human nature seems futile, in which advanced nations like the US are among the most religious. Traditional religion survives in the Soviet Union, despite that other religion, Soviet Marxism. Pockets of scientific humanists exist, trying to discredit religion and superstition, but their efforts “pass like steel-jacketed bullets through fog” p171. People would rather believe than know.

Others have tried to compartmentalize—Newton, Whitehead. But theirs is abstruse, a world away from typical believers.

“Our schizophrenic societies progress by knowledge but survive on inspiration derived from the very beliefs which that knowledge erodes.” P172. We can understand this paradox by considering, sociobiologically, through genetic advantage and evolutionary change. Yet though we might explain it, science can’t diminish the importance of its substance.

Consider the now-extinct Tasmanians, about which we know almost nothing. The British either slaughtered them or gave them syphilis. The last few were taken to a remote town and taught English manners and Calvinist religion. They grew somber and lethargic and stopped having children. The last male died in 1869.

We can understand a kind of cultural Darwinism among advanced religions, as they compete for members to enhance their welfare. Some are more oppressive to some degree, and religion seldom displays tolerance for other religions.

But finding a materialist basis for the religious process will difficult to decipher for two reasons. First, because religion seems unique to the human species, and so no animal studied can apply. Second, because religious motivations are probably subconscious, because it is a process in which individuals subordinate their own interests to those of the group. Including self-deception.

We can think of religion as being guided by natural selection at three levels: ecclesiastic, the rituals and conventions employed; ecological, so that such practices do not weaken their societies; and then the frequency of genes. The hypothesis is ecclesiastic preferences reflect gene frequencies, over many lifetimes; religious practices that enhance survival and reproduction will spread, even as the practices vary widely over cultures, in a gene-culture interaction. So, we can look at the effects of religious practices on the welfare of individuals and tribes.

Consider ritual: many examples, especially of the proneness of the human mind to binary distinctions. The witch-hunt, in which someone claims to be bewitched, is more puzzling, but explainable.

So is the readiness to be indoctrinated a learning rule that evolved through group selection among clans? One reason to think so is that religious allegiance can exist independent of theology, as in May Day rallies to the ideals of the Bolsheviks. Modern cults like Esalen and scientology are simple vulgar replacements of traditional forms. Sanctification is arbitrary, and invites reform, triggering repression and charges of blasphemy. This leads to the conflict of natural selection at the individual and group levels. Group selection brings about hard religiosity; individual selection a softer and more ambivalent religiosity. They need not be mutually exclusive. Quotation from Numbers.

The mechanisms of religion are objectification, defining reality using simple images and terms; commitment, pure tribalism, through self-surrender; and then myth, narratives to explain the tribe’s special place in the world, often in Manichaean terms involving two warring forces. Not all belief systems include high gods; those that do are usually pastoral. Monotheistic gods are always male; herding is usually the male’s responsibility. Thus the Bible speaks of sheep and shepherds.

We can see that Marxism is based on an inaccurate view of human nature; it is sociobiology with the biology. Marxist biologists believe that the human mind contains only structures that can be channeled to purposes of the state, and declare human nature off limits to further investigation.

Religion is not merely inaccurate; as its myths have been dismantled, it retreats toward the idea of a creator God.

Yet scientific materialism has defeated traditional religion, point for point in zones of conflict. Its myth extends from the evolution of the universe through the origin of the elements and the beginnings of life on earth, p192. All the way to the scientific explanation of religion itself. Theology may not survive, but religion will endure for a long time. The evolutionary epic denies immortality and divine privilege. So we can to the second dilemma: can we divert the power of religion to a new enterprise..?

[[ so Wilson does explicitly discuss group selection from time to time, as far back as 1978; this theme became more prominent in THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH and later books. What Wilson doesn’t seem to address are the effects of psychological biases toward seeing intent in inanimate objects, and so on, that Bering and others have explored; things which seem to provide the motivation for the supernatural claims made by religions. ]]

Ch9, Hope

Author reviews the first dilemma; and that the second dilemma is what conscious choices we might make. There’s a circularity: “we are forced to choose among the elements of human nature by reference to value systems which these same elements created in an evolutionary age now long vanished.” P196. We can break this through an exercise of will, 196b.

One consideration is the value of human genes in a common pool – think about the number of ancestors we have in 1700, or 1066. Given propensities toward selfishness and tribalism, we could consider the future of the entire species. Nobility.

A cardinal value should be diversity. “Individuals of truly extraordinary capacity will emerge unexpectedly in otherwise undistinguished families, and then fail to transmit these qualities to their children.” 198.2 [[ this is regression to the mean, but perhaps more ]] Image of Sisyphus; unless we can control heredity entirely, we should keep the entire gene pool in order to allow these rare geniuses.

A third value might be universal human rights, simply based on our mammalian values (which intelligent ants would find intrinsically evil).

Beyond these are values defined by our emotions – exploration, discovery, etc. – p199b:

The search for values will then go beyond the utilitarian calculus of genetic fitness. Although natural selection has been the prime mover, it works through a cascade of decisions based on secondary values that have historically served as the enabling mechanisms for survival and reproductive success. These values are defined to a large extent by our most intense emotions: enthusiasm and a sharpening of the senses from exploration; exaltation from discovery; triumph in battle and competitive sports; the restful satisfaction from an altruistic act well and truly placed; the stirring of ethnic and national pride; the strength of family ties; and the secure biophilic pleasure from the nearness of animals and growing plants.

These might be rechanneled in some sense, just as dreams “call up imagines from the memory banks and fabricating plausible stories.” In a similar way we construct morality, religion, and mythology.

We can admit that scientific mythology is itself a mythology defined in the noble sense, even as we have reasons to consider the scientific ethos superior to religion, p201t. Including the explanation of religion—which makes the solution of the second dilemma a practical necessity.

The core of scientific materialism, p201m:

The core of scientific materialism is the evolutionary epic. Let me repeat its minimum claims: that the laws of the physical sciences are consistent with those of the biological and social sciences and can be linked in chains of causal explanation; that life and mind have a physical basis; that the world as we know it has evolved from earlier worlds obedient to the same laws; and that the visible universe today is everywhere subject to these materialist explanations. The epic can be indefinitely strengthened up and down the line, but its most sweeping assertions cannot be proved with finality.

Which is to say, the evolutionary myth is the best we will ever have. We can meet the mythopoeic requirements of the mind with this myth, without dogma. We must cultivate the relationships between the sciences and the humanities. The origin of the universe as we understand it is far more awesome than the first chapter of Genesis. Quote from Job – Jehovah’s challenges have been met. p202b:

The physical basis of life is known; we understand approximately how and when it started on earth. New species have been created in the laboratory and evolution has been traced at the molecular level. Gene can be spliced from one kind of organism into another. Molecular biologists have most of the knowledge needed to create elementary forms of life. Our machines, settled on Mars, have transmitted panoramic views and the results of chemical soil analysis. Could the Old Testament writers have conceived of such activity?

(And that was in 1978!) And yet the high culture of Western civilization ignores the natural sciences, as in the journals (The New York Review of Books; The New Republic, et al.) that read as if basic science halted in the 19th century. Modern science is regarded as a problem-solving activity. The few who try to bridge the gap are regarded as ‘popularizers’. [[ this is Wilson’s theme of consilience again ]]

Recall the dialectic of disciplines. As this syncretism proceeds, a true sense of wonder will reinvade broader culture, 204b. We need to speak more explicitly about things we do not know. We realize that in many places economic and social problems are overriding. And this view will be rejected by those whose emotional needs are satisfied by religions, even if their origins are revealed. Their rituals are too embedded in our cultures.

And science might explain art, but will never replace it. And author does not suggest that scientific naturalism should be an alternative to organized formal religion. P207:

Man’s destiny is to know, if only because societies with knowledge culturally dominate societies that lack it. Luddites and anti-intellectuals do not master the differential equations of thermodynamics of the biochemical cures of illness. They stay in thatched huts and die young. Cultures with unifying goals will learn more rapidly than those that lack them, and an autocatalytic growth of learning will follow because scientific materialism is the only mythology that can manufacture great goals from the sustained pursuit of pure knowledge.

The historical theorists – Spencer, Spengler, Toynbee et al—had no understanding of the basis of human nature. The possibilities of human cultures are constrained; we know some ideas are biologically impossible.

We might face a final, third dilemma—we can change the genetic foundation of social behavior. What will we choose? Last paragraph, p209:

The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.

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One Response to E.O. Wilson: ON HUMAN NATURE

  1. Mark R. Kelly says:

    Test comment.

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