Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Edward O. Wilson and the Humanities

The following is part of a 1965 Unistat Congressional statute, trying to define the Humanities, and served as part of the context within which the NEA and NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) were founded:
The term “humanities” includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism, and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.
82 year old Edward O. Wilson has recently released The Social Conquest of Earth, and according to statements Wilson's made in recent articles, it may be his last hardcore, serious sociobiological work. In this latest book, Wilson builds on ideas first articulated deeply in his book Consilience, which sought to ground all human knowledge in the broad discipline of Biology.

The Arts and Biology? Oh hell yea: Wilson has a thick argument for how all the stuff in the above quoted paragraph on the Humanities cannot be known unless we account for the evolution of cognition and the human being's sensory modalities compared to other animals (we are retarded in taste and smell, compared to other animals: what we do well is visual and the auditory), how these cognitive processes are bound in our nervous systems, the heredity that gives rise to our human-ness, and all of the humanities' prehistoric origins.

Having spent a good while perusing Wilson's new book, I'm struck by two things: 1.) He still writes very elegantly for an 82 year old; for a man whose been in the forefront of at least three "revolutionary" movements in Biology, and has articulated very abstruse ideas based in molecular biology and statistical modeling, this man still writes almost poetically at times. And 2.) Wilson, at 82, has ignited yet another scientific firestorm over a basic idea in evolution. This one's such a big deal that at least 137 of his colleagues signed a "we object" statement about Wilson's latest bombshell.

And it's quite the rancorous debate among intellectuals. If you're like me and instead of watching boxing you'd prefer to watch PhDs and public intellectuals and other eminent thinkers whip their symbolic feces at each other, then you really can't top this latest one, with sweet old "EOW" (as I abbrev. him) in the center of it all, getting his colleagues all exercised over...Group Selection. (It's usually not capitalized, but the fulsome vitriol surrounding the idea seemed to warrant caps.)

Aye, EOW says Dawkins's "selfish gene" idea was way overblown. In the more sober works, Dawkins's idea was known as "kin selection." You take care of your own, because their genes/replicators will have a better chance of flourishing in the next generation. Even if you don't have offspring of your own, you aid (in various ways) your nephews, nieces, cousins, siblings. Why? Because they basically carry "your" genes. The further away from your gene pool, the less you find you care about Others. This has given rise to a very "fit" (in a broad sense) gene pool. (Don't laff!) Kinship selection is enough to account for cooperative complex behavior. And, as space/time and light/particle can't be separated, altruism is really the obverse of the coin labeled "selfishness." So say the kin selectionists.

                         Wilson is said to have collected a million different ant species?

I loved reading Dawkins's great book (I consider this The Selfish Gene), because it was so intellectually thrilling. But EOW - perhaps the eminence gris among all evolutionary biologists - now says, basically, kin selection has been given far too much its due.

[Caveat: Although a generalist, I know enough about the politics of Biology to know that, even with my honest attempt to define kinship selection very briefly above, there are probably readers who want to wring my neck for simplifying it too much. Or, I guess, "getting it wrong." In the comments, please!]

Darwin himself - for EOW the greatest thinker ever - thought quite a lot about individual selection and didn't know anything about genes, but seemed to intuit them.

So, we've got individual selection, kin selection (which, from W.D. Hamilton's 1964 paper on, has been the foremost exponent for the "theory of everything" in Biology...until EOW's mathematical colleagues found basic errors in Hamilton's math), and group selection, which, until now, or until EOW achieves his paradigm shift, is a "woo-woo" idea not taken seriously, or if proffered by a Credentialed One, has been attacked as Heresy.

There's a lot to discuss for the generalist, but EOW thinks the time has come to explain the Big Q: how did humans and ants and other social creatures conquer? It's because they are "eusocial." Yes, but how? Well, there must be "trigger" genes that give rise to a species' complex forms of cooperating beyond kin or individual selection.

Harnessing molecular genetics, anthropology, ecology, and cognitive science, EOW says when termites or wasps or humans or (of course!) ants or snapping shrimp or a certain kind of mole rat develop a "defensible nest" they have passed through an evolutionary bottleneck and the genes that encourage cooperation and division of labor - even if individuals are not related! - has made them "realize" that a defensible nest is an advantage that accrues to all...and I'm still trying to understand the argument for group selection, but it's fascinating, even thrilling intellectual thought-stuff!

But what a magnificent intellectual Edward O. Wilson is, has been, and always will be. Even if his Group Selection gets shot down in 30 years, he's certainly caused his most eminent colleagues to think, not to mention your humble yet somehow overweening correspondent.

Listen to EOW on NPR's Talk of the Nation from a few months ago, on this very subject.


Eric Wagner said...

Great blog, as usual. I still haven't read Sociobiology. I listened to a little Bud Powell today, getting ready to write on the Rebounding Jesus effect tomorrow...or sometime soon.

Bob Wilson used to have friends over to his house on the Fourth of July to watch the film "1776". Happy Independence Day, y'all.

michael said...

_Sociobiology: A New Synthesis_ is one of those omnibus books - sprawling, heretical, fat and difficult, data-filled, and gropes towards a Theory of Everything - that RAW so loved. It arrived in 1975 and was very controversial, but it looks like RAW and Leary read it immediately and used the ideas they liked, especially in 8CB writings.

I've been listening to Andy Timmons, guitar god, do his rock guitar version of the entire Sgt.Pepper's album. Chops for frikkkin' daze.

Watched Exit Through the Gift Shop, finally. I liked it. More than F For Fake (which some people who had seen Exit when it came out said I'd like it, and when they described it I said it sounded like Welles's film), it reminded me of an underrated documentary I saw called My Kid Could Paint That.

Eric Wagner said...

Yes, I own a Kindle. I haven't converted yet. I fear I will drop it as many times as I have my cell phone or that I will lose it as I have lost so many books over my lifetime.

I have had some difficulty recalling the Rebounding Jesus Effect. It made more sense to me 20+ years ago, and trying to articulate it has let me know I don't understand my mind from that period as well as I assumed I did.

Basically, it seems to me that whenever humans gain something through a new invention, we also lose something. Now, I value the inventions, but I do think we lose something. I remember reading a study about how members of illiterate tribes in the 1920's learned to read, and their memories got worse. That makes sense to me. I remember ten years ago I knew a lot more phone numbers. Now I have them stored in my phone, and I have to think to recall some frequently dialed numbers, and others I don't remember at all.

My theory gets hazy when it gets to Bud Powell. I had this idea about how Western Industrial Society, the Jumping Jesus, had jumped on African American musicians like Bud Powell. Reading Miles' Autobiography and Click Song and Night Music by John A. Williams made me think a lot about Powell. He got beated by the cops and put in a mental hospital and given shock treatment. He seemed like a very gentle guy, and his playing suffered. Miles said they gave Charlie Parker shock treatment, but his tougher nature enabled him to better survive the treatment.

I remember getting The Complete Blue Note Bud Powell on CD and thinking how great it sounded. The new technology created in partnership with the Western capitalist monster which I see in more Pynchonian terms today had helped to resurrect Powell's music with CD technology. Hence, the rebounding Jesus effect.

michael said...

I've been hanging around a bunch of READERS lately, and they've given me all kinds of good reasons why they use e-readers. I'm tilting at windmills and already mourning the death of the codex form of the book, although all of the readers (except maybe one) I know prefer the codex even if they've been using their Kindles a lot. And none of them think the codex form of the book is going away anytime soon. I seem more pessimistic than they.

Plato said reading would damage memory, and he's basically been proven right all through written history...The Rebounding Jesus reminds me of part of Eric and Marshall McLuhan's "tetrad" idea that is the heart of the Laws of Media. Given any new media-environment (which will produce a new "language," which has a grammar and syntax un-coded), the new THING will Enhance/Retrieve/Reverse Into/Obsolesce. The Reversal bit seems isomorphic to your Rebounding J.

I think the tetrad model works as heuristic, but seems too rationalistic and contrived. Still, both Father and Son exercised their intelligences/imaginations in laying out the theory.

The McLoons give as one of many examples: drugs. They just decided on tranquilizers, and I think it's because the hadn't actually used anything else that was psychoactive.

In harmony with the speed of electricity, tranquilizers ENHANCED "tolerance of pain via instant relief." The REVERSAL was "from remedy to way of life, from figure to ground." The RETRIEVAL was "fetal security." The OBSOLESCENCE was "symptoms."

Their trailing notes on tranquilizers:

"disease as art-form"
"enjoy your next cold"

Notably lacking is addiction. But I do like that drugs are a technology.

I thought what you had to say about western capitalism and jazz and Pynch was muy interesante.

I wonder what LSD psychotherapy could've done for Bird and Bud?