No one particularly expected E. O. Wilson to answer the question. It would have been tantamount to answering, once and for all, what the “x” in algebra really was.
Instead, the renowned evolutionary biologist’s talk at the Harvard Humanist Hub—entitled “The Meaning of Human Existence”—tried to answer a related and similarly important question. Namely: why do we, the altruistic, cooperative, and purportedly enlightened homo sapiens, seem to be so royally “fu[dg]ing” up the Earth?
There may be few people better equipped to answer that question than Edward. O. Wilson. His work on evolutionary biology earned him the moniker “Darwin II,” courtesy of writer Tom Wolfe. He has received two Pulitzers and is the man who coined the terms “biodiversity” and “biogeography.” To boot, Wilson is considered the world’s leading authority on ants. And having spent so much time with species other than our own, Wilson may just have enough intellectual distance to assess us fairly.
The appearance of homo sapiens, according to Wilson, runs something like this: “After many close calls, extraordinary suffering, [and nearly reaching extinction on the African savannah], we staggered onto the stage, to the grief of most of the rest of life.”
Since then, one Promethean achievement after another has brought us basic machines, mathematics, AC and DC currents, Fords, PCs, iPhones, increasing our power and our numbers. But while our computers run ever more advanced operating systems, Wilson says we continue to run on “Paleolithic emotions” while our society runs on “medieval institutions.” And although we like to think of ourselves as the dominant species on the planet, Wilson makes the argument that if we count “dominance” in terms of numbers, global biomass, and our odds of survival as a species, ants may have us beat.
Our dominance on Earth, and maybe even our mere survival, may depend less on our technological achievements than on whether altruism of selfishness wins out in our species.
Wilson argues, as Darwin himself first proposed, that altruism is not God-given but a development of natural selection. There are various examples—upwards of twenty different evolutionary lines, says Wilson—of biological altruism that have been identified in the natural world. (Altruism being defined as an organism acting to the benefit of other organisms at a cost to itself.)
Examples include vampire bats who regurgitate blood so those bats who failed to feed that night won’t starve; ‘helper’ birds that will aid in raising the young of other mating pairs; Vervet monkeys that will raise alarm calls when predators approach, even though they attract attention to themselves; and social insects like ants that rely on countless sterile workers who sacrifice their lives and reproductive potential for the survival of the colony.
Among evolutionary biologists, the idea that altruistic tendencies are derived by natural selection is not controversial. But exactly how biological altruism developed is a subject of ongoing debate.*
Wilson’s stance on the issue, put simply, is that altruism develops when there are different groups within a species—different tribes for example—that are in competition with one another. If there are selfish individuals within a group—even a single selfish member—then the selfish members will always win out over the altruists. However, groups of altruists will theoretically always out-perform groups of selfish individuals because altruism insures the group as a whole is more likely to survive.
However, whether biological altruism can be extrapolated as a direct cause of human altruism is still a subject of debate. For one thing, biological altruism and what’s commonly meant by human altruism are not identical, since the latter requires conscious intent and the former does not.
Furthermore, human behavior—more than any other animal’s—depends on culture, which is itself environmentally dependent. We’ve managed to spread across the globe, surviving in drastically different climates and on vastly different diets, not by rapidly evolving our anatomy (our genetic differences are superficial) but by endlessly adapting our culture. Humanity’s specific brand of altruism may be a unique product of cultural evolution.
By and large our altruism does resemble that of other animals. For example, we are far more altruistic towards our kin then towards strangers. And like birds, humans will help raise others’ young, or even adopt children who have no biological ties to themselves. But human altruism doesn’t always fall neatly in accordance to patterns of biological altruism. For example, humans often collaborate with and even give their lives for non-genetically related families and even “other tribes.” Stranger still: we act altruistically for the sake of other, non-symbiotic species.
But given our unique altruistic capacities why does it seem we’ve become so bad for the Earth? Why, as Wilson asked, are we screwing things up?
It’s tempting to fall into existential guilt or think of ourselves as some kind of perverse aberration inherently destructive to life on planet Earth. But we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. As answer for our behavior seems to lie in the very basic mechanisms of life.
We have been raised by Earth’s own code of conduct. Like other creatures, what’s first and foremost on our minds is an old and basic formula: survive and reproduce. Food and shelter, sex and kids. Much of what we and other animals do are focused on these basics ends and we strive for them as best we can.
Consider the rabbit or the starling. These species are not inherently evil, but when they’re placed in ecosystems with no natural predators and seemingly limitless resources, they do what life does best: consume and reproduce, ad infinitum, to the detriment—and sometimes extinction—of plants and animals around them. As a species we have come to a similar sort of place.
We’re not exactly a blessing for the Earth, but to be fair, we’re also not a plague. We’re a decidedly mixed bag. Our cultural adaptability has allowed us to stumble into, survive in, and disrupt ecosystems the world over. But we’ve also developed the capacity for arguably the highest form of altruistic action: altruism towards other species.
Once in a while a person like Wilson comes along to remind us just how strange, how tribal, how animal, how stomach-driven, sex-driven, and Paleolithically myopic we are. But at the same time—by simply existing at all—people like Wilson also manage to make a case for precisely the contrary.
*For those who want to enter into the fray see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on biological altruism.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on the Humanist Hub website on Sep 17, 2017.