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The Social Conquest of Earth

Sam Berry

E O Wilson
W W Norton, 331pp

Darwin puzzled over the question of where our morality comes from. He wrote in The Descent of Man: 'When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to defend and aid each other, this tribe would succeed and conquer the other.... But it may be asked, how within the limits of the same tribe did a large number of members first become endowed with these social and moral qualities, and how was the standard of excellence raised? It is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathetic and benevolent parents, or of those who were the most faithful to their comrades, would be raised in greater numbers than the children of selfish and treacherous parents.... It hardly seems probable the number of such men could be increased through natural selection'.

A possible answer was suggested mathematically by J.B.S. Haldane in 1931. Asked if he would risk his life to save a drowning man, Haldane replied, 'No. But I would do it for two brothers or eight cousins'. Such relatives would carry some of his genes and be available to hand them on to the next generation, even if he died. Thus was born the theory of kin selection, developed by Bill Hamilton, named by John Maynard Smith, expanded by George Williams, and popularized by Richard Dawkins. But the concept reached most people through Sociobiology, published in 1975 by Edward Wilson, an ant expert at Harvard. Wilson was impressed with the potential of kin selection to explain why so many ants and bees devote their lives to supporting a single breeding queen, 'altruistically' giving up their own reproduction for her: their genes would be handed on to the next generation because they shared these genes with the queen.

Wilson excited and angered both natural and social scientists with the final chapter of Sociobiology, 'From sociobiology to sociology', in which he claimed that kin selection works in the same way in human beings as in ants. He was condemned as a determinist - apparently assuming that human behaviour was controlled by genes - and attacked for offering a reactionary justification for the militaristic, sexist, racist, hierarchical, capitalist status quo. He was unrepentant, and in later books he expanded his view that 'Biology is the key to human nature'.

However, in 2010, Wilson and two Harvard colleagues, Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita published a paper in the journal Nature on 'The Evolution of Eusociality', pointing out problems and failures in kin selection theory, and proposing instead that 'eusociality' (a high degree of social organization, involving a division of labour, overlapping generations and cooperative care of the young) could more easily arise by standard natural selection leading to differential survival between groups, than by the more fashionable mechanism of kin selection. The Social Conquest of the Earth is Wilson's own exposition of this idea. He points out that eusociality is very rare (it seems to have arisen only about two dozen times in the history of life). It depends on the coming together of a 'protected nest' in which to raise young, and then a lack of immediate dispersal of the young after maturity (which could be the result of a simple genetic change), producing a community in competition with other communities.  Wilson develops the idea from his own expertise in ants, but shows that the origins of humankind could be interpreted similarly. Our own 'protected nest' has come about over the millennia as our diet changed from vegetarianism to omnivory, as we learnt to use fire as a social focus and for cooking, and thus giving an assured home base for organizing and cooperating in hunting, providing for those in the 'nest'. Such a community will involve an extended family, but not be limited or restricted to close relatives. This interpretation removes one of the major problems over standard kin selection for humans, that our communities are not confined to close family groups.
Many biologists have a vested interest in the kin selection thesis. The Nature paper raised shrieks of dismay from behavioural ecologists. This book is having the same effect in the wider world. The June issue of Prospect carried an agonized wail from Richard Dawkins, who has invested much of his career in insisting on the importance of kin selection. His article brought more responses than any other in the magazine's history.

This is not the place to discuss the Nowak-Wilson revisionism in detail. From the scientific point of view it is certainly premature to pronounce on it. It is undoubtedly important in seeking to identify what Wilson calls 'the human condition'. But it is necessary to call a halt when Wilson strays too far from science. He argues that altruism is 'based on a biological instinct for the common good of the tribe' and accepts that 'the naturalistic understanding of morality does not lead to absolute precepts', but then extrapolates a long way, saying, 'the power of organized religions is based upon their contribution to social order and personal security, not to the search for truth'. He specifically rejects 'the God-given moral law'.

I think he is wrong here. He may be on the way to answering Darwin's problem about the origin of altruism. I have no problem with the idea that this may have arisen 'naturally', i.e. through processes which we can identify and describe, but I also believe that there is a God who created and oversees these processes. This is faith, but a faith supported by the coherence of all the relevant evidence and an awareness of answered prayer. I also believe that at a point in history God transformed Homo sapiens into Homo divinus, a change involving God's image, not human genes. This is something else I cannot prove scientifically, but that does not make it uncertain. And I take issue at Wilson's disingenuousness in citing as evidence for a decline of faith in biologists a small study by Will Provine, a professed atheist, rather than much larger ones showing a surprising degree of belief in a personal God among scientists in the USA.

The Social Conquest of Earth is an important book about an important issue.  It is well-written and an easy read, although it needs to be approached critically. It will have a wide circulation. But let Darwin have (almost) the last word. He ended The Descent of Man: 'We must acknowledge that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system - with all these exalted powers - Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin'. For the last word: read Psalm 8.

R.J. Berry