Saturday, March 23, 2013

Review: The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson

The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson. I've previously reviewed his books The Future of Life and Anthill.
The Social Conquest of Earth
The bulk of this book describes the process by which Homo sapiens' ancestors became eusocial and how that led to multilevel selection. When a species becomes eusocial, group selection becomes an important element in the species' evolution.

For criticism of the concept of group evolution, read blog entry 1 and blog entry 2 from Jerry Coyne, the author of Why Evolution is True, a book I have in my possession and intend to read and review. I heard Dr. Coyne give a lecture in a suburb of Augusta, GA on February 4, 2013.

Being an expert in insects, the typical example of eusociality, E.O. Wilson shifts back and forth between describing the development of eusociality in ants and eusociality in anthropods.

The important thing for me, and for most readers of this blog, is Professor Wilson's final chapters where he presents conclusions on how this understanding of humanity should impact our religious and moral beliefs and ethical practices.

Wilson believes human reality should correspond with an accurate understanding of human nature, and he believes science provides the most accurate understanding of human nature.
Human nature is the inherited regularities of mental development most common to our species. They are the "epigenetic rules," which evolved by the interaction of genetic and cultural evolution that occurred over a long period in deep prehistory. These rules are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which we represent the world, the options we automatically open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make. (p. 193)
While most epigenetic rules date to more than millions years in our mammalian ancestor past, others such as those governing the stages of linguistic development are only hundreds of thousands of years old. Adult tolerance to lactose in milk dates to a mere few thousand years ago.

Another fascinating example of epigenetic rules are those which reduce the incidence of incest. In addition to "cultural" taboos and practices of exogamy, Edward Westermarck discovered in 1891 that males and females spurn sexual activity with "individuals with whom they were closely associated early in life." Most important for our discussion is for the reader to realize that these behaviors are found in humans and "all the social nonhuman primate species whose sexual development has been carefully studied, including marmosets and tamarins of South America, Asian macaques, baboons, and chimpanzees."  (pp. 200-1)

In short, there is a strong relationship between genetics and culture.

While other mammals have developed culture, "the combination of traits that distinguishes one group from another," Homo developed a larger memory capacity which permitted more sophisticated culture. (pp. 213-6) Similarly, language is a development which can be explained by genetics.
Gene-culture coevolution, the impact of genes on culture and, reciprocally, culture on genes, is a process of equal importance to the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Its study provides a way to connect these three great branches with a network of causal explanation. (p. 236)
Genetics and evolution explain the moral poles of altruism and selfishness:
The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual but largely in opposition to each other. Individual selection is the result of competition for survival and reproduction among members of the same group. It shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish with reference to other members. In contrast, group selection consists of competition between societies, through both direct conflict and differential competence in exploiting the environment. Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another (but not towards members of other groups). Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature. (p. 241)
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists have determined that "'altruistic punishment' lights up the bilateral anterior insula, a center of the brain also activated by pain, anger, and disgust." (p. 251)
Authentic altruism is based on a biological instinct for the common good of the tribe, put in place by group selection, wherein groups of altruists in prehistoric times prevailed over groups of individuals in selfish disarray. (p. 251)
So what does this tell us about morality?
The naturalistic understanding of morality does not lead to absolute precepts and sure judgments, but instead warns against basing them blindly on religious and ideological dogma. (p. 252)
For example, contraception promotes continuous and frequent intercourse, and this is genetically adaptive because it promotes help from the father to the child and its mother. Bans on homosexuality are also based on ignorance of evolutionary principles. "...[H]ereditary-influenced homosexuality occurs in populations worldwide too frequently to be due to mutations alone. ... [Thus, it] must be favored by natural selection working on a target of some other kind. ... A society that condemns homosexuality harms itself." (p. 253-4) [I have questioned the received Muslim teachings on same-sex relationships in this blog and elsewhere. I've also written skeptically about Islamism, or the political manifestation of Islam, in this blog and elsewhere.]

Religion must be seen as a genetic-cultural development which strengthened group level selection at a certain point in human evolution:
Every religion teaches its adherents that they are a special fellowship and that their creation story, moral precepts, and privilege from divine power are superior to those claimed in other religions. Their charity and acts of altruism are concentrated on their coreligionists ... The power of organized religions is based upon their contribution to social order and personal security, not to the search for truth. The goal of religions is submission to the will and common good of the tribe. The illogic of religions is not a weakness in them, but their essential strength. Acceptance of the bizarre creation myths binds the members together. ... Such an intensely tribal instinct could, in the real world, arise in evolution only by group selection, tribe competing against tribe. (pp. 258-9)
The process of revelation can be explained by dreams, drug-induced hallucinations, bouts of mental illness and visions following periods of sleep and nutrition deprivation:
These raw visions are no more bizarre than those posed as foundational truths by the world's major religions. (p. 261)
Historians and other scholars with an evolutionary perspective "have begun to piece together the steps that led to the hierarchical and dogmatic structures of modern religions." "[R]eligious faith is better interpreted as an unseen trap unavoidable during the biological history of our species. And if this is correct, surely there exist ways to find spiritual fulfillment without surrender and enslavement." (pp. 262-7)
Why then is it wise to openly question the myths and gods of organized religions? Because they are stultifying and divisive. Because each is just one version of a competing multitude of scenarios that possibly can be true. Because they encourage ignorance, distract people from recognizing problems of the real world, and often lead them in wrong directions into disastrous actions. ... A good first step toward the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully  the claims of those in power who say they speak for God, are a special representative of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God's divine will. Included among these purveyors of theological narcissism are would-be prophets, the founders of religious cults, impassioned evangelical ministers, ayatollahs, imams of the grand mosques, chief rabbis, Rosh yeshivas, the Dalai Lama, and the pope. The same is true for dogmatic political ideologies based on unchallengeable precepts, left or right, and especially where justified with the dogmas of organized religions. ... The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religion is irreconcilable  The chasm will continue to widen and cause no end of trouble as long as religious leaders go on making unsupportable claims about supernatural causes of reality. (p. 292-5)
I've quoted extensively because I've wanted to give the reader of this review an accurate representation of Wilson's argument. At some points in his argument, I've wanted to inject, "Islam is not like that." And, I've thought to counterpose some of Wilson's contentions with textual evidence (Qur'an and hadith) that Islam is not tribal and that the phenomenon of revelation (the Quran) is not explained by dreams and post-fasting visions. However, for every text that I may produce, another person may identify other texts which support the tribal elements of Islam.

So if you disagree with Wilson's view of Islam (or other religions), prove it by acting as if the revelation's purpose is for humanity's worship of God and not individuals' or groups' aggrandizement.

وَقُلِ ٱعۡمَلُواْ فَسَيَرَى ٱللَّهُ عَمَلَكُمۡ وَرَسُولُهُ ۥ وَٱلۡمُؤۡمِنُونَ‌ۖ وَسَتُرَدُّونَ إِلَىٰ عَـٰلِمِ ٱلۡغَيۡبِ وَٱلشَّہَـٰدَةِ فَيُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمۡ تَعۡمَلُونَ
And say (unto them): Act! Allah will behold your actions, and (so will) His messenger and the believers, and ye will be brought back to the Knower of the Invisible and the Visible, and He will tell you what ye used to do. Qur'an 9:105