Eusociality & The Social Conquest of Earth

This is a fascinating read by an influential social biologist on the effect of “eusocial” action to species success. Edward Wilson in the “Social Conquest of Earth” provides an impressive array of evidence for the comparative advantage bestowed by altruistic collective behaviour.  This is a book published earlier this year to great acclaim.

Although not necessarily aimed at an academic audience there are rich seams of research exposed here.
Some of my notes:

  • In mammals competing for territory and resources group composition tends to be unstable.  The products of group selection (honour, virture, duty) are competing with the products of individual selection (selfishness, cowardice, hypocrisy).
  • Ability to read others (honest signal) is paramount, while culture is the product of the clash between group selection and individual selection.  There are a few hundred books worth of exploring the ramifications of this on free will, political contest, collective action and of course my own area of interest: the structure of social relations.
  • Heredity plays a role in the size and strength of social networks.
  • We have an evolutionary adapted urge to collaborate.
  • We are enmeshed in social networks by being good at understanding the intentions of others.  We have an advantage in social skills and have developed “shared attention” behaviour that allow us to learn and act collectively.
  • Language is a “set of coordination devices for directing the attention of others”.  Through prosody, irony and deniability indirect speech allow us to negotiate relationships reducing the likelihood for conflict.
  • Nonverbal vocalisations that communicate negative emotions (anger, disgust, fear, sadness) are similar across ethnic groups compared with positive ones (achievement, amusement, sensual pleasure, relief).
  • Language has evolved to fit the human brain and not the reverse (in favor of Skinner and against Chomsky).
  • “individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the grater part of virtue”p.241
  • throughout prehistory “the network of each individual was almost identical to that of the group to which he belonged” p.243
  • 10000 years ago “the nature of networks changed dramatically. They grew in size and broke into fragments.These subgroups became overlapping and at the same time hierarchical and porous” 243-4
  • in modernity “networks grew to a complexity that has proved bewildering to the Paleolithic mind we inherited…Our instincts remain unprepared for civilization” p244
  • we are “compulsive group seekers” and intensely tribal.  In each group we “find competition for status, but also trust and virtue, the signature products of group selection” p.245.  Coercive empathy leads us (except from psychopaths-you know who you are) to feel the pain of others.
  • One strategy to contain individual ambition is “the put down … an art based on wit”.  On which I profoundly disagree.  But that is the subject of another debate.
  • Selfishness (and one of its derivatives corruption I would like to add) can be countered with reference to honour.   As the self-sacrifice to a higher cause even against prevailing consensus. “We, all of us, live our lives in conflict and contention” p.290
  • The structure of our brain alters by playing a musical instrument, while we find aesthetically pleasing patterns with a 20% redundancy!

In these and other insights Wilson raises profound questions for philosophers of free will to ponder.  He considers eusociality our competitive advantage as a species (only to have evolved in a couple of dozen animal lines).  But there is no indication here of what would be an obvious next evolutionary step.  If eusociality has helped us dominate the planet what evolutionary step will allow us to maintain in balance to it absent of natural controls.

In his concluding call for reason, decency and awareness of our humanity he expresses the hope that our dreams will come home to stay.  These are noble aims and the optimist in me shares them.  My cynical self however cannot think of a definition of our individual and collective dreams that does not produce strife and conflict.  Maybe paleolithic groups of nomads could attain their dreams through enlightenment.  But can we in our current predicament? When we are collectively burdened from polynomic societies from which we disengage while at the same time we are individually driven to self-centred personal gratification?

This is a positive good book and my pessimism on human nature should not deter you reading it.

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