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
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

In his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson explains his theory of everything—how hominids evolved, why war is common, how social insects became social, and why ants and bees and humans are so successful. Science writer Carl Zimmer spoke with Wilson.

When you use the phrase “the social conquest of earth” in the title of your book, what do you mean by that? How have social animals conquered the earth?
The most advanced social insects—ants, termites, many species of bees and wasp—make up only about 3 percent of the known species of animals on earth. But on the land they make up in most habitats upwards of 50 percent of the biomass. And of course humans, one of the very few of the largest animals that have reached the social level, has dominated in every respect.

And you see their social behavior as being key to these two kinds of animals having become so dominant?
When you study social insects, as I have, you see directly why eusocial, advanced social issues overall dominate because they will organize groups of individuals in seizing territory, in appropriating food, in defending their nest and generally controlling the parts of the environment for which they’re specialized.

How do you see the process by which you go from asocial species where insects are living as individuals to these incredibly highly organized societies? What do you see as being the progression through natural selection?
It’s actually fairly clear-cut when you take into account what we know about the evolutionary steps leading from completely solitary to eusocial or advanced social behavior. A great many solitary species—let’s say bees, wasps, the primitive cockroach—in the first stage build a nest and care for the young.

In the next stage, the mother or the mated pair stays with the nest and rears the young, defending them and securing food for them. In the next stage, whereas ordinarily the young would disperse upon reaching maturity, now they remain with the mother or the parents. And if that happens, and they work together as a group, then you have the advanced stage of social behavior.

A lot of scientists see social behavior as being partly the product of what’s called “inclusive fitness,” the effect that genes have not just in terms of an individual animal’s number of offspring but how many offspring their relatives may have. You’ve argued that inclusive fitness is not necessary and that you can focus on natural selection on individuals and on what you call “group selection” to explain how these social animals, like the social insects or humans, evolve their behavior. What do you mean when you use the term group selection?
As you might know, group selection became almost taboo in discussions on social behavior. But it comes back forcefully in the new theory developing about the origin of advanced social behavior.

The way I define it, group selection operates on the fitness, or lack thereof, of the social interactions in the group. In other words, it’s not simply group versus group in that sense but what actions individuals take that affect the group. And that would of course be communication, division of labor and the ability to read others’ intentions, which leads to cooperation.

When it’s an advantage to communicate or cooperate, those genes that promote it are going to be favored in that group if the group is competing with other groups. It gives them superiority over other groups and the selection proceeds at the group level, even as it continues to proceed at the individual level.

Are you envisioning groups fighting with each other or chasing each other off of good territory?
All of the above. It’s one of the most powerful forces still today and can range all the way from aggressive, extirpative warfare to control of neighbors’ territories through the advantage of a controlling group. Or it can simply include superior technology that allows a group to use land more effectively so that it can create larger populations and spread that way.

I think the key to understanding why advanced social behavior has been so rare, even though it’s highly successful when it happens, is that going from that first step over the threshold is difficult. It has to go through a period in which group selection is powerful enough to overcome this residual, individual level of selection, which is the main form of selection that’s been going on for countless numbers of generations before. Within groups, selfish individuals win and between groups, altruistic groups beat groups of selfish individuals.

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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