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 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.
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.
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.