Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s preeminent biologists, is the author of more than twenty-five books, including Sociobiology, the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Ants, and the best-selling novel Anthill. His latest book is The Social Conquest of Earth. A professor emeritus at Harvard University, he lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.
From Wilson's Q & A with Liz Else:
You've recently been involved in a high-profile academic row over what drives the evolution of social traits such as altruism. Why should non-specialists care?--Marshal Zeringue
That is one of the main points of my new book. Scientific advances are now good enough for us to address coherently questions of where we came from and what we are. But to do so, we need to answer two more fundamental questions. The first is why advanced social life exists in the first place and has occurred so rarely. The second is what are the driving forces that brought it into existence.
Eusociality, where some individuals reduce their own reproductive potential to raise others' offspring, is what underpins the most advanced form of social organization and the dominance of social insects and humans. One of the key ideas to explain this has been kin selection theory or inclusive fitness, which argues that individuals cooperate according to how they are related. I have had doubts about it for quite a while. Standard natural selection is simpler and superior. Humans originated by multilevel selection—individual selection interacting with group selection, or tribe competing against tribe. We need to understand a great deal more about that.
How will a better understanding of multilevel selection help?
We should consider ourselves as a product of these two interacting and often competing levels of evolutionary selection. Individual versus group selection results in a mix of altruism and selfishness, of virtue and sin, among the members of a society. If we look at it that way, then we have what appears to be a pretty straightforward answer as to why conflicted emotions are at the very foundation of human existence. I think that also explains why we never seem to be able to...[read on]