What Does E.O. Wilson Mean By a "Social Conquest of the Earth"

Carl Zimmer asks the evolutionary biologist about the theories in his high-profile new book

Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist E.O. Wilson appears in his office at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. Wilson, an author, biologist, and humanist made well-chronicled efforts to team with evangelical Christians to fight global warming. (AP Photo / Steven Senne)

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When you look at human behavior today, in addition to warfare, which you’ve mentioned, what other things do you interpret as a result of this multi-level selection? What are some striking examples for you of the legacy of this evolutionary process?
Almost everything. All the way from passion at football games to war to the constant need to suppress selfish behavior that ranges over into criminal behavior to the necessary extolling of altruism by groups, to group approval and reward of people who are heroes or altruists.

Constant turmoil occurs in modern human societies and what I’m suggesting is that turmoil is endemic in the way human advanced social behavior originated in the first place. It’s by group selection that occurred favoring altruism versus individual level selection, which by and large, not exclusively, favor individual and selfish behavior.

We’re hung in the balance. We’ll never reach either one extreme or the other. One extreme would take us to the level of ants and bees and the other would mean that you have dissolution of society.

When you presented your ideas in a Nature paper in 2010 with Novak and  Corina Tarnita, over 150 scientists responded, taking issue with your argument. They said that inclusive fitness was, in fact, a very powerful and legitimate explanation. Had you anticipated that kind of response?
Yes. [Laughter] It’s just that the inclusive fitness theory had persisted as the correct and prevailing theory for almost four decades. 

Are there any particular directions that you’re going in next?
Having just spent ten years on this track, I’m returning more fully to conservation biology and to, I guess you might call it scientific activism in promoting national parks. How much time have I got? I’m 83 in June. I’ll let somebody else continue this train of advanced social behavior. I want to spend what time I have left engaged more now in conservation sciences and activism.

One point you make in your book is that this highly social kind of behavior that we’ve evolved has allowed us to be part of the social conquest of earth, but it’s also had an unfortunate effect of endangering a lot of the world’s biodiversity. Does that make you pessimistic? If this is just part of the way we’ve evolved, is there going to be any way out of it?
That’s a very big question. In other words, did the pathway that led us to advanced social behavior and conquest make it inevitable that we will destroy most of what we’ve conquered? That is the question of questions.

I’m optimistic. I think that we can pass from conquerors to stewards. We have the intellectual and moral capacity to do it, but I’ve also felt very strongly that we needed a much better understanding of who we are and where we came from. We need answers to those questions in order to get our bearings toward a successful long-term future, that means a future for ourselves, our species and for the rest of life.

I realize that sounds a little bit like it’s coming from a pulpit but basically that’s what I’ve had in my mind. In writing A Social Conquest of Earth, I very much had in mind that need for self-understanding, and I thought we were very far short, and we remain very far short, of self-understanding. We have a kind of resistance toward honest self-understanding as a species and I think that resistance is due in part to our genetic history. And now, can we overcome it? I think so.

Carl Zimmer is the author of twelve books about science. His next book, coauthored with Doug Emlen, is Evolution: Making Sense of Life. He has written for Smithsonian about life on Mars and decision making in bees.


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