Review and Notes: “On Human Nature” by E.O.Wilson (1978)

Chapter One: Dilemma

On the first dilemma posed by the human life cycle, page 3:

The first dilemma, in a word, is that we have no particular place to go. The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature. It could be that in the next hundred years humankind will thread the needles of technology and politics, solve the energy and materials crises, avert nuclear war, and control reproduction…But what then? Educated people everywhere like to believe that beyond material needs lie fulfillment and the realization of individual potential. But what is fulfillment, and to what ends may potential be realized? Traditional religious beliefs have been eroded, no so much by humiliating disproofs of their mythologies as by the growing awareness that beliefs are really enabling mechanisms for survival. Religions, like other human institutions, evolve so as to enhance the persistence and influence of their practitioners.

Or, as I’ve been saying for a decade or more now, the meaning of life is lunch. It is only because lunch is so readily and easily obtainable that we fret over having a greater purpose to fulfill. If there is some greater purpose than simply surviving for so long as we are able, all that can be conclusively observed about it is that no one knows for sure what it is or where it came from, page 4:

Thus the danger implicit in the first dilemma is the rapid dissolution of transcendental goals toward which societies can organize their energies. Those goals, the true moral equivalents of war, have faded; they went one by one, like mirages as we drew closer. In order to search for a new morality based upon a more truthful definition of man, it is necessary to look inward, to dissect the machinery of the mind and to retrace its evolutionary history. But that effort, I predict, will uncover the second dilemma, which is the choice that must be made among the ethical premises inherent in man’s biological nature.

Philosophers, and presumably theologians, won’t be much help in the endeavor, page 6:

Like everyone else, philosophers measure their personal emotional responses to various alternatives as though consulting a hidden oracle.

That oracle resides in the deep emotional centers of the brain, most probably within the limbic system, a complex array of neurons and hormone –secreting cells located just beneath the “thinking” portion of the cerebral cortex.

The point to sociobiology is that all the various behavioral adaptations, including religion, or the manner with which children are raised, or the particular culture and traditions of a population, are driven by the intersection of genes with the environment. And it may just be fortuitous genetic circumstance that creates particular behavioral responses, as with the social insects and its sterile worker castes, page 12:

But whatever its initial cause, haplodiploidy represented an evolutionary event that quite accidentally predisposed these insects to develop advanced forms of social life. The reason is that haplodiploidy causes sisters to be more closely related to each other than mothers are to daughters, and so females may derive genetic profit from becoming a sterile caste specialized for the rearing of sisters.

Chapter Two: Heredity

It is here that Wilson makes his case more forcefully and completely that behavioral traits in human beings, as we already know them to be in all other animals, are heritable and genetically determined. As he puts it, “…The question of interest is no longer whether human social behavior is genetically determined; it is to what extent.” (page 19).

The notion that human social behavior might singularly be governed by something other than genes, in the face of mountains of evidence that the social behaviors of all other living creatures are genetically determined, is something like imagining that the sun revolves around the earth because the Catholic Church said it did and the people wanted to believe it did, as it gave earth a most favored place in the cosmos. If human social behavior is governed by something other than genes–culture is generally offered as a substitute–then the notion of human exceptionalism is secure, which is well and good because humans desperately want to believe in the notion that they are exceptional.

Culture makes a good substitute for genes because cultural progress is perceived to be attainable, whereas genetic progress would look something like eugenics, which in today’s hypersensitive racial climate, is considered revolting. Humans have bred dogs and pigs and cattle and even cats (for what reason, only the cat breeders can tell) for millennia in order to accentuate and magnify certain traits, including behaviors—nobody wants an aggressive pig that prefers fighting to eating. Yet, when it is imagined that the same principle could be applied to garner better adapted and socialized human beings, people balk, and set their rational minds to work generating reasons why such a strategy would not work. The best rationalization is to claim that humans are somehow different from all other life in the mechanism through which social behaviors are determined. It’s demonstrably false, but evidence doesn’t matter to someone determined to generate rationalizations justifying the answer the emotional heart has already concluded. Like David Hume observed centuries ago and modern neuroscience has finally affirmed: Reason is the hand-maiden of emotion, not the other way ‘round.

Wilson observes that believing that genes have no impact on behaviors puts the whole franchise of evolution through natural selection in peril. It implies there is something other than the biochemical processes of nature, something more than relatively static genetic capacities interacting with a dynamic environment, that determine social behaviors and thereby impact fitness and reproductive success. This notion that there is something else than simply animalistic genes and their interactions with environments determining behavior has a long history. Mankind has assigned to the mysterious entity the name of God or Yaweh or Allah in the Abrahamic religions; the scientific-materialist atheists who don’t like genetic determinism call it culture. In either case, they are refusing to acknowledge the accumulated evidence, of which Wilson offers abundant examples.

Because the genetic determinants of human social behavior had to have evolved over vast stretches of time—natural selection works very slowly and fitfully—Wilson asserts that studying extant hunter-gatherer groups holds the greatest promise of revealing our sociobiological tendencies that are genetically determined. Thus anthropology is the academic study most closely approximating sociobiology. Wilson had previously observed (in Sociobiology) that a goodly portion of the maladaptive behaviors seen in society today arise from the genetic legacy we carry as hunter-gatherers trying to fit the sedentary life that arose with agriculture, and particularly with the Industrial Revolution, and of late, the Information Revolution. In the ten thousand or so years since agriculture came on the scene, there have not been enough generations to sufficiently alter the genetic code to accommodate our new ways of life. The idea that most social ills arise from this mismatch between genes and environment is, to me, the central insight revealed when applying evolutionary theory to human social behavior. New cultural traditions can arise quickly in the face of environmental changes such as were wrought by agriculture; new genetic traditions, not so much. Culture is like the software of human social behaviors; the hardware is the genetic legacy. The culture can imprint influences on the genetic legacy, making this genetic expression more likely than another, but it must work with what exists. It can’t its own create genetic infrastructure.

Wilson uses the example of inbreeding taboos as behavior that reflects the operation of natural selection on human society and culture. Studies have shown that inbred children are innately less fit than outbred children, and therefore survive and reproduce at lower rates. The disparity in fitness is behaviorally expressed in a natural sexual revulsion that arises when children are raised together, a revulsion that does not depend upon their being siblings. Nature has selected for outbred children. In doing so, it implanted an aversion to sex between children raised together, whether natural siblings or not, as children wouldn’t be able to tell their level of consanguinity. The aversion has crystallized into social taboo, which also holds for parent-child sexual liaisons. This is the sort of insight that sociobiology offers.

As an aside, taboos are considered heinous breaches of moral codes. From where do moral codes arise? Philosophers have devoted entire lifetimes to the matter, only to leave things in a befuddled mess. But sociobiology tells us the answer is quite simply that they arise from the genes. Whatever is good for the survival and propagation of the genes is morally good. Whatever impairs prospects for the survival and propagation of the genes is bad. It really is that simple. The taboo against incest provides a ready example of the principle.

It is often asserted, even by biologists who ought to know better (Stephen Jay Gould, et al), that there is no such thing as human races. If there is no such thing as races, then there is no need to genetically explain different averages in attributes among races. Wilson says not so fast. While it is true that human beings comprise one species, there are identifiable differences traced to geographic origins that are obviously heritable. A reality which is obvious to all but the most intentionally oblivious of observers. White Europeans have genetically-determined differences in their skin color and fat composition and hair texture that black Africans don’t. It can be argued that the differences are superficial, but that is hardly true. The differences make a black African genetically more fit to survive and prosper in equatorial climates than his European brethren to the north.

These environmental adaptions arose very quickly in geologic time, as anthropologists believe H. sapiens only left Africa about 200,000 years ago. But arise they did. Who knows, had the dispersal to the four corners of the globe been abruptly interrupted, with each breeding population stuck in its own climatological locale for a sufficiently long period, there may well have arisen several distinct human species. In fact, it is doubtlessly true that several distinct human species would have arisen. Isolation in breeding populations is one of the well-understood requirements for speciation to occur.

Wilson uses the example of studies done on the social behaviors of infants that show differences among Europeans, Asians and Native Americans that are significant and ascertainable, and not attributable to environmental differences. And he cites twin studies showing that behavioral attributes are more closely correlated between identical twins than in fraternal twins. The point, which he makes clearly and forcefully throughout the chapter, is that human social behaviors are, like everything else, by and large heritable

Chapter Three: Development

The process of development is analogous to the flow of water down a hillside into the sea. Animals for whom environmental responses are explicitly preprogramed, and thereby instinctive, travel down deeply scoured ravines of development (Wilson uses the example of a mosquito and how it reacts in only one way to environmental cues in its short adult life which is devoted practically exclusively to reproduction). Animals with a genetic library providing for an array of responses to environmental stimuli, such as the case with humans and other great apes, may travel down one or more of several different developmental pathways, depending at each turn on what genes are available for interacting with a specific environmental circumstance.

Language acquisition, though not the example cited by Wilson, is a good example of how the environment interacts with genes to furrow a pathway to development. If the environment for language acquisition is absent during a critical period, probably sometime between two and six years of age, the child will not develop a fully formed human language, and won’t be capable of doing so later. This is known from studies of the few instances of human children being raised completely outside contact with other humans, i.e., the almost mythical stories of humans raised by wolves or apes. If, however, there is contact with other humans, a sensory-capable child will acquire language whether there is directed effort to do so or not. The furrow of language skills can be vastly deepened, particularly as the child ages into an adult, with consistent training, particularly in literacy. Genes are not determinative, except as they set upper and lower bounds on the capacity for refined language development. Neither is environment determinative, except as a complete lack of a language environment precludes language acquisition. The genes provide the rough contours of the landscape through which development will flow, but the landscape can be altered at critical junctures by experience.

The analogy is even more apt than Wilson provides. Like water flowing downhill, it is clearly the case that development proceeds down the path of least resistance. Nature seeks its own nurture. As Wilson puts it:

The learning potential of each species appears to be fully programmed by the structure of its brain, the sequence of release of its hormones, and ultimately, its genes. Each animal species is “prepared” to learn certain stimuli, barred from learning others, and neutral with respect to others. (Page 65).

Humans learn language because it is what our brain has been programmed by our genes to do.

Wilson uses the genetic/environment dichotomy to explain schizophrenia, which certainly carries a genetic component—the children of schizophrenics are far more likely to become schizophrenics than the children of people who aren’t so afflicted, which obtains even after controlling for environment. But there are various shades of schizophrenia. There are a great many people walking around leading perfectly normal lives whose psyche is lightly tinted with schizophrenia. And there are those whose affliction is so bad that they are incapable of living independently. Environmental pressures might force a schizophrenic episode in the former instance; no amount of environmental intervention will cure a schizophrenic of the latter type.

Wilson provides the biological reasoning behind the adage about foreign affairs– that nations will resort to reason only after all other possibilities have been exhausted:
The less rational but more important the decision-making process, for example, the more emotion should be expended in conducting it. The biologist can restate the relationship as follows: much of mental development consists of steps that must be taken quickly and automatically to insure survival and reproduction. Because the brain can be guided by rational calculation only to a limited degree, it must fall back on the nuances of pleasure and pain mediated by the limbic system and other lower centers of the brain. (Page 68).

Chapter Four: Emergence

Wilson really hits his stride here, and gets at the crux of the questions to be answered by sociobiology. He begins by posing the ages-old philosophical question of whether mankind has free will, or whether everything above the probabilistically-determined quantum level is predetermined. The answer to which he arrives is that man has no free will, though it often seems as if he does because the process whereby the intersection of environment and genetics determine an outcome is vastly too complicated to explain and model.

There are literally trillions of variables jostling for preeminence and priority in making even the simplest of decisions. Teasing out the magnitude of each variable’s impact is simply unknowable, particularly considering that the impact caused by a variable’s particular magnitude can turn around and reverberate, further impacting the variable’s magnitude (a process George Soros described as “reflexivity”). For Wilson, there is no “ghost in the machine” or non-material soul, that guides our decision-making. There is only the material brain, and the process whereby it does so is so complicated that it is often confusedly considered that we have some ephemeral free will calling the shots. Though Wilson doesn’t say so, the idea of free will seems like something of a “god in the gaps” explanation, letting some immaterial something explain processes where the human capacity to understand fails at the level of complexity. But just because we don’t understand something does not warrant granting it mystical powers.

So much for the individual, what about the group? While it is impossible to predict the actions of individuals, the behavior of populations taken together can be statistically modeled and predicted.

Human social evolution proceeds along a dual track of inheritance: cultural and biological. Cultural evolution is Lamarckian, and very fast, whereas biological evolution is Darwinian and usually very slow. (page 78).

However, of the two, biological evolution takes precedence:

Societies that decline because of a genetic propensity of its members to generate competitively weaker cultures will be replaced by those more appropriately endowed. I do not for a moment ascribe the relative performances of modern society to genetic differences, but the point must be made: there is a limit, perhaps closer to the practices of contemporary societies than we have the wit to grasp, beyond which biological evolution will begin to pull cultural evolution back to itself. (Page 80).

Genes, i.e., biological evolution, drives cultural evolution. We’ve always known as much about the animals; it was unquestioned. But it is also true of mankind. There can arise no stable culture that rejects our biological endowment.

Take for example the gaining acceptance of homosexuality in American culture today. Wilson points out that homosexuality, to a limited degree, could be socio-biologically favored, as a homosexual sibling might aid the transmission of genes through the next generation by focusing his parental impulses on his nieces and nephews, increasing their chances of surviving and propagating. The increasing acceptance of homosexuality in the culture surely expresses in some measure this possibility. But if the culture became so accepting of homosexuality that it began disdaining and prosecuting heterosexual behavior to the point that heterosexual behavior vanished and there was little or no reproduction, biology would pull the culture back to itself or the culture would vanish.

Wilson also cites the example of the instability of slave societies. Human cultures that depend upon slavery for their economic survival are inherently unstable because human beings, unlike some species of ants for instance, aren’t bred to slavery. Biology pulls culture back to itself (Wilson’s beautiful turn of phrase that is crammed with explanatory meaning). The same could be said for cultures with vast wealth disparities, though less strongly if history is any guide. In a cooperative economic group, such as are the clans of hunter/gatherers for example, or the crews of pirate ships, the natural state is to have hierarchies of power and purpose, but not so much of material welfare. Everyone shares in the spoils. Human economic cooperatives are apparently innately egalitarian. Not so the hierarchies of reward found in modern capitalism. These too then, just like slave societies, are also inherently unstable.

Wilson’s theory of human social evolution is that it was driven by autocatalysis, which describes a process that increases in speed according to the amount of products it creates:

Now the species moved onto the dual track of evolution: genetic evolution by natural selection enlarged the capacity for culture, and culture enhanced the genetic fitness of those who made maximum use of it. (page 85).

Men were acculturated accordingly, the dominant male shaped and formed by cultural and biological evolution to look a lot like the mythological Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal who is protrayed in American Sniper, quoting Robin Fox:

Controlled, cunning, cooperative, attractive to the ladies, good with the children, relaxed, tough, eloquent, skillful, knowledgeable, and proficient in self-defense and hunting.

Autocatalytic reactions can’t go on forever. Trees don’t grow to the sky, and the near-miraculous evolutionary development of the human mind both biologically and culturally can’t go on forever. When mankind first separated from man-apes, the brain grew about a cubic inch every hundred thousand years—no other known organ in the history of life grew faster. The growth leveled off about a quarter million years ago, at about the time of the appearance of modern Homo sapiens. But the cultural growth in information and understanding has continued apace, at least until recently, when smart phones began making everyone stupid.

But even with all the evolutionary gains, culturally and biologically, we still are essentially hunter/gatherers, as Jimmy Buffett puts it, “cavemen in faded blue jeans”, or, as Wilson observes:

Most and perhaps all of the prevailing characteristics of modern societies can be identified as hypertrophic modifications of the biologically meaningful institutions of hunter-gatherer bands and early tribal states. Nationalism and racism, to take two examples, are the culturally nurtured outgrowths of simple tribalism…
…Even the beneficiaries of the hypertrophy have found it difficult to cope with extreme cultural change, because they are sociobiologically equipped only for an earlier, simpler existence….Furthermore, each occupation—the physician, the judge, the teacher, the waitress—is played just so, regardless of the true workings of the mind behind the persona. Significant deviations in performance are interpreted by others as a sign of mental incapacity and unreliability. Daily life is a compromised blend of posturing for the sake of role-playing and of varying degrees of self-revelation…
…Little wonder that the identity crisis is a major source of modern neuroticism, and that the urban middle class aches for a return to a simpler existence. (pages 92 and 93).

Chapter Five: Aggression

The answer to the question of whether human beings are innately aggressive is ‘yes’ unless the notion of aggression and innateness are redefined to the point where they no longer have meaning. Innateness refers to the measurable probability that a trait will emerge in a given set of environmental circumstances, not that it is always present. Likewise, aggression is an ‘ill-defined array of responses with separate controls in the nervous system.’ There are at least seven categories, including defense and conquest of territory, assertion of hierarchical dominance within groups, sexual aggression, prey aggression, aggression to wean offspring, aggression to enforce behavioral customs, inter alia. The types of aggression need not be present in all species, and the types possessed of any one species can rapidly change according to selection pressures. Specific aggressive behaviors are quite genetically labile.

Most kinds of intra-species aggression arises from environmental crowding, where population is limited by the carrying capacity of the environment rather than predators or disease or some other limiting factor.

(As an interesting side note, overcrowding tends to increase the death rate and decrease the birth rate, all while the population tries to spread out. Perhaps in humans, the rapid urbanization generally always accompanying economic development is the real reason for the generally severe decline in birth rates that are concurrently experienced.)

Aggression is not like sex. It is not hydraulic. There is not, like sex, a certain measure of aggression that is necessary to be expressed in order for the body to enjoy peace. (Although, in human males the sex impulse and the aggressive impulse arise from very closely located and related places in the brain, which perhaps explains why sex in humans sometimes seems like a fight, and also why fights sometime seem to have the effect of discharging sexual energy).

Aggression is learned behavior, but the individuals in all human societies in all epochs have been innately endowed with the capacity for learning to be aggressive, the true aspect that is genetically determined. In Wilson’s metaphor, aggression is like a pre-existing mix of chemicals that are just waiting on a proper catalyst to set the process in motion. Aggression is economic in nature—it is undertaken only when benefits outweigh costs—the same calculus as Vladimir Putin is employing to decide how far to go with his Ukrainian adventure.

Some aggression is clearly aimed at securing economic resources otherwise in scarce supply. For the Mundurucu of Brazil, headhunters who would periodically raid neighboring tribes, cutting off the heads of all the men and women they are able, the point was protein. The jungles of the Amazon conspicuously lack vast herds of ungulates easy for the taking. There were mainly peccaries, and not so abundantly as wildebeest and antelope roam the African savannah. Killing their competitors for this limited protein source—and protein has always been a critical component of hunter/gatherer diets—freed up more for them. Other tribes engage in primitive warfare for the purpose of securing females to breed, if a lack of females, rather than environment is the limiting factor to population growth.

While the capacity for aggression is inherited, the particular forms of organized violence are not. Headhunting or cannibalism, either one, can arise from the same set of genes. It just depends on what the environment indicates. And if the environment indicates peace, that too can obtain. Like Steven Pinker explained in The Decline of Violence, since World War Two, aggression of all types has declined in the civilized West, my guess is probably ultimately because of nuclear weapons. When great cultural clashes portend the ultimate destruction of civilization, all the chest-thumping and May Day parades seem a bit silly except as showy artifacts of an earlier age. In those cultures along the periphery of civilization, there has been no similar decline in violence. The Hutus and Tutsis hacked each other’s limbs off in an old-fashioned tribal orgy of violence, killing almost a million, and nobody cared, because nothing bigger than the limbs and lives of Hutus and Tutsis were involved. Though the capacity for violence is inherited, its expression, i.e., its use as a survival and propagation strategy, depends on the environment, and how the cost-benefit calculus resolves.

Chapter Six: Sex

It is here, and only here, in the chapter on sex, which could have more aptly titled, “sex and gender”, with which I have some quibbles with Wilson. The first is his assertion that sex in humans is more important as a bonding mechanism than for its reproductive purposes. That may seem to be the case, especially considering that the peculiar method of sexual reproduction is so inefficient and its attendant mating ritual so messy and dangerous. No matter. The inefficiencies and mating rituals survive because reproduction done in such manner contribute to species fitness somehow. And to say the primary purpose of sex is as a bonding mechanism misses the point that even if sex were superficially for bonding between a couple, the bonding must somehow be adaptively beneficial relative to those who do it for other reasons.

If sex has primary importance among humans as a bonding mechanism, what of the several billion dollars per year porn industry? How does sex between a prostitute and her john promote bonding between them? No. A whole lot of sex is just for fun, or recreation, or hydraulics (in one seminal discharge, men ejaculate millions more sperm than could ever hope to fuse with an egg, and men can often discharge semen several times in a day), none of which have any relationship to the reproductive impulse per se. I think it would be better to say that humans, especially male humans, have sexual appetites and abilities that far exceed reproductive necessities, not unlike a great many species. The difference with excess human reproductive capacity and with that of, say, fishes, is that it is readily apparent why fishes produces so many offspring—because few will make it to maturity. With humans, it seems the excess capacity is directed at something of the same unfavorable probabilities, but where the environmental limitation bears most heavily earlier in the process, at fertilization. Humans have so much more sex than yields procreation because human females hide, rather than display, their point in the fertility cycle, and males are hydraulically configured with the vast amounts of sperm their testes ceaselessly produce to not anyways care.

ex is for bonding? I’m sure a goodly proportion of human females would like to believe as much, but Las Vegas and the internet’s most valuable and innovative industry stand in testament otherwise.

My second quibble concerns Wilson’s discussion of gender. Wilson observes that human males and females are different, and for reasons not solely attributable to environment. Which makes perfect sense. Males and females are distinctively endowed genetically. The Y chromosome, which causes maleness (the default mode for the species is femaleness), is responsible for making men on average bigger, stronger and faster than women; and with more stamina; and more inclined to aggression and violence. Reproductively, as already noted, men are able to impregnate many more women than time and the female reproductive cycle make possible. Men who are able to command the biggest harems enjoy the greatest reproductive success, and all of the particularly male attributes arising from the Y chromosome enhance the ability to command bigger harems. Modern cultures have generally discouraged the male impulse to harem building, preferring instead to officially recognize and favor monogamous sexual arrangements as more conducive to social peace. But the impulse nonetheless survives, and is expressed in the implicit treatment of women as possessions by many cultures, and in hypergamy, the female impulse to find a mate of equal or higher rank.

Furthermore, even in societies where women are treated from birth as every bit the equal of men (Wilson uses the example of the Israeli Kibbutzim), men are still more likely to become social, business or political leaders, while women are still more likely to want to stay at home with their children and to be happy being helpmates to men rather than motivated in struggling their way to leadership over them. In other words, the lament of today’s feminists that there exists a glass ceiling prohibiting equal female participation at the highest ranks of society seems to arise from nature rather than nurture. None of this is particularly troublesome.

It is where Wilson, perhaps understanding full well how revoltingly archaic and chauvinistic his views would be perceived by his female colleagues in the humanities, no matter that they are resolutely undeniable, reasonable and dispassionate inferences to be drawn from the evidence, prescribes a potential “solution” to the problem of gender inequity. He asserts that all gender inequalities and disparities could be erased with a forcefully applied social engineering program directed to the purpose. After providing example after example of genetic differences yielding phenotypical differences between the sexes, including even when the social environment makes no official distinction, he takes it all back, and says the environment could be made determinative. Nonsense. The vast resources such an endeavor would require would dangerously weaken the culture which attempted it, and would nonetheless be futile, so long as the DNA of babies is knit together in the same manner as always, creating little boys made of snakes, snails and puppy dog tails, and little girls made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Wilson does at least note that the suppression in ordinary modes of expression, particularly of males, would entail a substantial cost in freedom.

He also accords far too much weight to official measures of power and status that seem to shortchange women, while ignoring the soft power that females in society have always wielded. The “little woman” may not be the CEO of the company and why would she want to be? The CEO of the company ultimately works for her, because while he decides on which widget to make and how much each day, she decides on whether his genes get to do what genes exist to do—survive unto the next generation. Her power is not absolute, but it is commanding. If she dislikes one of the officers of the company, she can have him dismissed. If she has a particular political cause or politician she’d like to support with the CEO’s money, he’d best at least pretend to accommodate her if he wants his life to be something less miserable than a living hell. Women have lots and lots of soft social power, to the point where it could be argued (but never really directly measured) that it collectively exceeds by many magnitudes the hard power that comes with leading businesses and political entities. The reason so many women lose interest in climbing the ladder of leadership is they have an easier means of ascension at their disposal, even when their ultimate aim is to garner positions of hard-power leadership. The probable next president of the US is a case in point. She didn’t have to do much of anything except be the President’s wife, and she ultimately was elected to the Senate and then appointed Secretary of State and might just become the President of the United States. For the woman less inclined and eager to take the reins of official leadership, she must simply focus her energies on manipulating and controlling men, or a man, which is well within a female’s purview. If she picks one who makes it to the top echelon of power, she becomes the power behind the throne. The particular mammalian genetic legacy that makes humans human rendered the sexes different but equal, with the slight advantage going to the female. It takes a more sophisticated understanding of gender relations than can be gained by looking only at formal power structures to get that true decision making power is also allocated more or less equally, but different.

Wilson makes one last blunder in the chapter on sex by noting that homosexuality is perhaps adaptive, which is counterintuitive, but because of the advantage it might bestow on the family group or clan to have an adult member who is not preoccupied with raising their own children. This seems a fanciful stretch, a “just-so” story of creating a myth to fit a phenotypical expression to a genotype with very little evidence for justification. The idea is that the genetics of homosexuality and altruism might therefore be correlated in something of the same way that worker ant castes have no impulse to procreate but carry the impulse to do anything to help the colony survive, including even suicide, which though probably wrong, provides a nice segue for the next chapter.

Chapter Seven: Altruism

Wilson surprisingly uses the term “altruism” in the popular sense, not in the sense that biologists have of the term. For biologists, altruism is some action that reduces the reproductive fitness of the entity performing it but that increases the reproductive fitness of the entity for which it is being performed. Honeybees that sting intruders to the hive commit suicide in the process, but even the act that kills them—their barbed stinger ripping out their abdomen—aids in the hive’s fitness, as it secretes pheromones alerting other bees to the problem and directing the focus of their attack. This is what Wilson refers to as “hard altruism” which I think he means biological altruism, but it is not. The social insect colonies and hives are constructed around the principle that most of the members exist solely for the benefit of the hive or colony and have no individual chance at reproduction. Worker bees and ants and termites sacrifice their existence for the good of the colony, but don’t actually sacrifice their genetic fitness for reproduction because they can’t reproduce, so it may be “hard” altruism, it is not true biological altruism.

In fact, true biological altruism should not exist, except only very temporarily. Sacrificing reproductive fitness to aid that of another means that the other will have a better chance of successfully reproducing, which ipso facto means that its genes should eventually overwhelm those of the true biological altruist. Biological altruism should not exist in human beings except temporarily. But what of the soldiers who sacrifice their lives by falling on a grenade? Aren’t they true altruists? Not unless it is imagined that they believed they could otherwise have survived the grenade explosion without jumping on it, but decided to save their buddies anyway. The reality is that they likely did an extremely quick calculus and realized they were going to die anyway, so why not save some of their comrades whose culture and perhaps even genes, are more similar to theirs so that they might reproduce in their place?

This is kin selection, and it is not altruism, because it is intended to enhance one’s reproductive fitness by proxy. It provides the glue for the social insect colonies, and in fact, even for the cells in the body of a multi-celled creature. The social insect worker castes (the non-reproducing females) are more closely related to each other than they are to the queen, so will gladly fall on a grenade if it means their sisters will survive. For the multi-celled creature with trillions of cells all sharing the same DNA, the individual cells, which would prefer to multiply and proliferate individually, instead cooperate to keep the body alive so that the genetic code they share with each other might make it to the next generation. When cooperation and the restrain of selfishly-animated reproductive impulses fails, we call it cancer.

Wilson coins a term, “soft altruism”, to refer to altruism which isn’t really altruism at all, neither in the popular nor the biological sense. It is doing good for the sake of gaining favor and approbation or with the expectation of reciprocation. It is the sort of routine thing for which the guilt-ridden American public likes to express thanks to service members. According to Wilson, “Its psychological vehicles are lying, pretense, and deceit, including self-deceit, because the actor is most convincing who can believe his performance is real.” (Page 156). Wilson essentially describes, a half-century before his appearance on the scene, The American Sniper, Chris Kyle, when a reasonably accurate biography of the man is pieced together from the disparate extant reports (most of the disparities being between Kyle and the truth).

To quote Wilson further:

The evidence suggests to me that human beings are well over toward the individual end of the spectrum [i.e., are not like ants]. We are not in the position of sharks, or selfish monkeys and apes, but we are closer to them than we are to honeybees in this single parameter. Individual behavior, seemingly altruistic acts bestowed on tribe and nation, are directed, sometimes very circuitously, toward the Darwinian advantage of the solitary human being and his closest relatives. The most elaborate forms of social organization, despite their outward appearance, serve ultimately as the vehicles of individual welfare. (Pages 158-9).

Wilson allows that civilization ultimately depends upon “soft altruism” for its survival. If people weren’t inclined to selfish promotion of their own interests and were instead solely devoted to promoting their in-group to the exclusion of others (i.e., if people were like ants, “hard altruists”), then society would meet its violent end, dissolving in a tangled web of conflicting loyalties. With loyalty ultimately only to one’s self, society has the chance to bargain for advantage. Wilson doesn’t state it, but the basis of the social contract is that the individual gives up to society some measure of his freedom to act in order that he might engage in the society in a manner that enhances his survival and reproductive fitness. If men were suddenly unselfish, the social contract would fail for lack of consideration, just as the social contract fails when civilized society can no longer provide enhancements to reproductive fitness for the individual. Without both attributes—selfish men garnering benefits by giving up some measure of freedom, and society being able to deliver the benefits as advertised, civilization fails. There are at present several states that have effectively failed and been replaced by a warlordish anarchy—Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan (mostly), parts Nigeria and the Sudan—the list goes on. In these societies, Wilson’ soft altruism that provides the glue for keeping society together has hardened fast to the sort of altruism that tears them apart.

Altruistic actions in human beings are almost exclusively directed at the individual’s in-group. Social dynamism comes from the ever-shifting notion of where the demarcation line between the in-group and out-group exists. In his memoir, Chris Kyle described the Iraqis he was trying to kill as “savages”. Yet today, those very same Iraqis are generally allied with the US. Kyle was considered to be an altruist by many who came to know of him and his actions through the movie based on his life. But it was a determinedly soft altruism, as Kyle didn’t jump on any grenades to save his comrade’s lives, but simply plink, plink, plinked human targets we the society had deemed out-group individuals from the relative safety of his covered and concealed positions. Had he been killing Americans from the rooftop of the Superdome in New Orleans like he claimed he had been doing after Hurricane Katrina, he’d have been thought of less as an altruistic hero and more as psychopathic thug.

But, to end this exegesis on a happier note, here’s the last few sentences of the chapter’s concluding paragraph. If only for the prose, I thought they were worth sharing:

Can the cultural evolution of higher ethical values gain a direction and momentum of its own and completely replace genetic evolution? I think not. The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the gene pool. The brain is a product of evolution. Human behavior—like the deepest capacities for emotional response which drive and guide it—is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable function. (Page 167).

Indeed, genes hold culture on a leash. And they won’t allow culture to go barking up a tree of altruism for too long, because they know those trees rarely hold squirrels.

Chapter Eight: Religion

Wilson begins the chapter with this powerful assertion:

The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature. (Page 169).

But ends with this:

Most importantly, we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural scientists…
If this interpretation is correct, the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline. But religion itself will endure for a long time as a vital force in society. (Page 192).

I think it’s fair to ask which is it? If religion is an ineradicable part of human nature, how will it only just endure for a long time as a vital force in society? Won’t it endure so long as human society endures? Unless the nature of human beings somehow changes, and if that’s what is referred to here, the long time referred to must be characteristic of eons, not generations, for it takes more than just swapping a few genes around to get at the essence of human nature from which religion eradicably arises.

David Foster Wallace said it best because he said it simplest when he said that everyone believes in something. The question is whether what is believed helps along in the struggle to survive and prosper or impairs it. For Wallace, belief in false gods like beauty and wealth and fame ultimately devour you. Better to believe in something, sort of how Jesus explained, that the ravages of entropy accompanying time won’t destroy.

Wilson offers scientific materialism as a belief system that is less prone to displacement than any other, but particularly from traditional monotheistic religions. So he’s not really saying that theology is doomed as an intellectual endeavor. What he’s really saying is that theology will be transformed in source and expression.

And it already is. It is already the case that the high priests—generally speaking, anyone with a scientific Ph. D– of the scientific materialist theology have devised myths like any other religion. As Wilson correctly observes, the Big Bang Theory is nothing more than an unprovable creation myth that more pleases the reasonable mind because it is at least superficially created from observable phenomenon. Evolutionary theory is in some ways also a myth (though Wilson does not use this example). Though robustly supported by the evidence, it still can’t be proved with mathematical certainty that no intervening agent had a hand in life’s development. (But in its tautological form, i.e., that things exist because they can, it is unquestionably true, and thereby not mythological.)

The danger with adopting scientific materialism for expressing that ineradicable part of human nature that comprises the religious impulse is that it affords roughly the same powers to white-robed scientists as Catholicism afforded to black-robed medieval priests. Power of that nature practically screams to be abused and exploited. In medieval times, the abuses were so scandalous that a reform movement arose that ultimately splintered the church into bloody, competing factions. And today, even as scientific materialism advances in competition with established religions, its priesthood have already taken to abusing the power to interpret nature.

Climate change is a case in point. It has become something of a denomination within the scientific materialist theology, as the high priests of climate science have attempted through the old religious methods of shaming and shunning non-believers to create certainty where none exists. All that the parishioners in the Church of Anthropogenic Global Warming know for sure is that they believe the earth is warming and man is the cause. Neither they nor any scientific materialist high priest knows for sure if the earth’s whole climate is warming. The earth is a vast place whose far reaches aren’t readily measurable; of that part that has been measured, the records go back no more than two hundred years—a fraction of the blink of a geologic eye. Neither are the AGW high priests able to say with any measure of certitude, even if they can ascertain that the globe is actually warming, what exactly might be the cause. Occam’s razor—the principle that the best answer is usually the simplest and easiest to imagine—demands that any warming trend be explained as just a continuation of the warming trend that began with the end of the last ice age until proven otherwise. We don’t know what caused the various warming and cooling episodes in earth’s history that led to ice ages and warm interludes, but we can be certain they weren’t caused by modern, post-industrialized man. It takes belief surpassing all understanding to be certain that mankind , recent arrivals on the scene as we are, are now causing the climate to fluctuate where it fluctuated all by its lonesome before.

Wilson seems rather optimistic that scientific materialism can succor the ineradicable impulse to belief without itself becoming a belief system every bit as mystical as any of the myriad religious faiths, which is doubtful. But Wilson does make the point, and quite forcefully that religion is like any other social institution, arising for the aid to survival and propagation it provides. Religions that are generally helpful in the premises survive and flourish, religions that don’t, and the peoples who practice them, face extinction. Ancient Judaism survived unto today because it confers some biological advantage upon its adherents, or it was an expression of some biological advantage with which its adherents were favored. Either way, it survived for the utilitarian value it afforded its adherents.

Chapter Nine: Hope

I considered leaving out this last, recapitulative, chapter. But upon rereading, I felt I should include it, especially for of the motivations of his heart that Wilson reveals in the concluding paragraph:

The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed. (Page 209).

Wilson is here referring to Aeschylus’ Prometheus Unbound, where Prometheus represents “The ascent of humanity from primitive beginnings to the present level of civilization”, according to Karl Martin Dietz. Subverting the will of Zeus, Prometheus stole fire from Mt. Olympus and gave it to human beings, later adding writing, mathematics, art, etc. that comprise the activities of man in civil society.

To say there is a Promethean spirit of science is to say there is a spirit of science where one shouldn’t be. It is not the purpose of science to liberate man. It is the purpose of science to aid in the acquisition of knowledge. Throughout his entire exegesis, Wilson has preached the genetic necessities, only here to make a flowery statement about liberating man through knowledge and environmental dominion. But if man is to remain man, there can be no liberation beyond the meeting of physiological needs such that survival and propagation obtain.

The last sentence of the book is moderately despairing. If there is no point to mankind, then mankind has not been on some progressive journey to enlightenment and blind hope is a futile waste of time.

I would rather that people grew up and internalized the reality that there is no humanly-discernible point to life. If time and energy are left over after one’s daily bread is obtained, so much the better, but don’t imagine that beyond such obtainment, there lies any greater and more fulfilling existence or goal to which one might turn. My blind hope would be that the notion of blind hope, or any hope, outside of hoping that lunch is tasty, would be abandoned for the ambiguity that comes with internalizing life’s lack of humanly-discernible ulterior purpose. Acquiring one’s daily bread is virtually effortless these days, which makes life seem pointless, which causes people to seek meaning in any number of belief systems and groups and lifestyles. But just because lunch is easy to come by doesn’t mean life is meaningless. It just means life is easy. It means that whatever was our original sin of existence, it must have somehow been overcome. Why can’t that be enough?

Western man is miserable and mainly because he takes a progressive, linear view of history, just as Wilson did here, making him guilt-ridden and full of angst for every undirected, unpurposed minute he spends of his life. Western man thinks there really is some point to life. The normal striving to survive that drives all living creatures becomes gnarled and mangled and malformed in him by the idea that there is some point to life other than just living. The survival impulse in Western man has hypertrophied into a maniacal, insatiable all-consuming greed. He can’t get no satisfaction, as Mick Jagger puts it, because he’s so afraid of the abyss of pointlessness that he can never accept that enough is enough.

The resolution of the first dilemma is not to find substitutes for life’s pointlessness beyond meeting one’s physiological needs, but to accept that indeed, this is all there is. “Lose your life to gain it”, Jesus said to the ancient Hebrews. It applies today. Cease the incessant striving for unnecessary things and you might just become who you really are, rather than who you think you must be. Learning who you are and openly and honestly living it—that to me is the point to this pointless life, once the material needs are fulfilled.

Reading and studying Wilson’s exegesis, On Human Nature, ought to help one handily along in the endeavor.

1 thought on “Review and Notes: “On Human Nature” by E.O.Wilson (1978)”

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