Sunday, September 23, 2012

Direction without destination

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, biology, sociobiology, evolution

I was out of pocket and on a 'computer vacation' for a few days. While I was out, though, I had some time to read. While this is not light reading for most, it was an enjoyable book for me: The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson. Dr. Wilson is best known for his work with ants, but he is also a philosopher of evolutionary biology and sociology, with broad understanding of eusociality throughout the animal kingdom.

The kinds of animals that have developed at least some eusocial species ranges from termites, bees, wasps, and shrimps to rodents and primates and, or course, ants. Interestingly, flogging my own memory, I know of solitary species of bees, wasps and shrimps, and nearly all species of rodents are solitary most of the time; primates are typically found in groups of various sizes, but usually lack the kind of organization we think of as eusocial…but I know of no solitary ant or termite species. Finally, humans are eusocial to a degree found in no other primate species, though not in the kind of robotic way seen in eusocial insects.

Eusociality is an level of sociality that is characterized by a nest-focused grouping with a division of labor that includes members of multiple generations. Chimpanzees are social but not eusocial; there is no division of labor. All chimps gather or hunt their own food, though food sharing is common; where they use tools, each individual makes his or her own tools. There are status rankings, but no "Queen Chimp" who has all the babies. A certain amount of such reproductive ranking is found among dog and wolf packs, with the alpha female usually being the only one to have pups.

Dr. Wilson does not intend to classify us with the ants. Among humans, there is no "Queen" who has all the babies, no alpha couple. In fact, the human tendency to encourage everyone to reproduce is leading to pathological levels of overpopulation everywhere but parts of Europe. On the other hand, humans do have strong bonds to a home "nest" which is vigorously defended. In fact, we each tend to belong to multiple overlapping groups, each with a "nest", whether we call it home, or church, or lodge or fraternity. We typically feel that each group to which we belong is superior to all competing groups; if we didn't we would change groups! You know how it goes, "Uncle Morrie may be an jerk, but he is our jerk." You may despise your kid sister, but if a schoolyard bully gives her a hard time, you'll knock his block off. And then there is the rampant "My church is better than your church" attitude that is behind World War 3, currently under way.

Humans also have taken the division of labor to a level vastly beyond anything seen in another species. Among ants, the foragers "pay" non-foragers by sharing food with them, and the recipients further share among one another, whether their duties are janitorial, construction or caring for the young. What did humans do? We invented money, a currency easier to quantify and balance. No other species understands quantity. We have, uniquely, built our civilizations around quantitation. There are tens of thousands of job specialties. I remember when I was doing electronics design for one of the Xerox companies. We occasionally worked with people at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab. At JPL, no one person designed a whole circuit. There was a resistor specialist, a capacitor specialist, and so forth! It took 8 or 9 of them to design and build a radio. But what a radio! One of their radios is still sending signals back from far beyond Pluto.

A major, major theme of the author is to describe the evolutionary basis of everything human. Everything. To ask "What is human nature?" seems to be asking a question whose answer nobody has the time to hear. We should live so long. A list of our characteristics is not an answer, but can be used as a foil for getting there. In 1945, George P. Murdock wrote "The Common Denominator of Cultures," in Ralph Linton (ed.), The Science of Man in the World Crisis, that there are 67 social behaviors and institutions shared by every culture known. These are, listed alphabetically:
age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool-making, trade, visiting, weather control, and weaving.
(That's curious, I don't find music on that list, nor any concept under which it might be subsumed, unless music and storytelling and other performance arts are included in folklore.) Anyway, these are not human nature. They express human nature. To quote Wilson, "Human nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species." (p 193) To use a bodily analogy, some things are fixed, such as the five-digit hand. Wherever we find someone with six digits on hand or foot, a certain clumsiness results, and the cause is a deleterious mutation. But other things are more fluid: we all have fingerprints (and toe prints), but the details of the loops and whorls and junctions differ so that no two fingerprints are identical (that's roughly 70 billion unique fingerprints on living persons today, and an equal number of unique toe prints). Some of our mental equipment is fixed. Barring mutation or injury, we have "equipment" for interpreting our senses. In fact one-third of our brain is devoted to vision. And it is pretty well established that we have a "mental machine" for language learning, which is especially active prior to puberty. But which language or languages we may learn is as variable as our fingerprints. Even among those speaking a common language, there is more than one way to say any particular thing, and we are prone to saying things in as many different ways as possible. It is amazing that we ever understand one another! (Take that into account, you folks working on Natural Language Processing and Language Generation)

While any individual human has amazing abilities and talents, it is our social organization that has subdued all of Planet Earth. Dr. Wilson seems to be saying, along with God, "Behold, the people is one…and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." (Genesis 11:6). The book closes with a section devoted to asking the biggest question, "Where are we going?" (And I should mention that the book is built around the title of Paul Gaughin's last painting, "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?") Will we attain sufficient wisdom to preserve the life-sustaining biosphere we are currently wrecking? Can we, as the most social species of large animal, overcome the conflict between individual interest and altruistic service to society? For that is the source of evil.

On the one side, the super-individualistic "survivalists" (though most of them at least care for their family) reject society at large to an evil extent. On the other, extreme forms of Communism, such as Maoism, have perpetrated appalling evils. The Chinese still have the proverb, "The nail whose head sticks up will be hammered down". As much as I admire the Amish, their overly-collective society is ultimately stultifying, a dead end that will eventually wither away. At least they do recognize that people need their own clothing and their own toothbrush. I am not sure Chairman Mao understood that (except in the case of his own clothes and toothbrush, if he used one). Most nations and societies today strive to balance individual and collective rights, with various degrees of success. Naturally, I think the U.S.A. has had it most nearly "right", at least in the past. There's no telling where we are going!

The book closes with a sort of diatribe against religion. Dr. Wilson classes religious groups as equivalent to other groupings, but singles them out for special opprobrium, saying he thinks humanity deserves better. I think he goes overboard. If the strength of the American Republic can be retained (not at all sure given current political trends), one of its foundational characteristics is toleration of religious belief and practice, without favoring any, and an explicit prohibition against establishing any theocracy. For the Muslims to agitate in favor of imposing Sharia law is just as wrong, and as anti-Constitutional, as for the Christians to agitate in favor of imposing Christian regulations (if the various denominations could even agree on what those are), as for the Jews to impose the Torah (Mosaic) law. When the founding law of the Republic draws the teeth from the monster of theocracy, the faiths still retain their power to comfort and care for one another, to a level second only to family love, and sometimes superior to it. This, too, is part of our heritage; fundamental Christians may not like the idea that our tendency to group ourselves in a family of faith is a side effect of multi-level evolution. But it is, and it is a fortunate one, wherever we have the wisdom to deny political power to religious organizations.

I like so much about E.O. Wilson's work and writings that I can forgive his anti-religious attitude. He has been a core figure in biology, evolutionary biology, and sociobiology (a term he coined) for decades. For a non-specialist, this book clears up much of the confusion around "kin selection" and some of the other theories that have come into and out of vogue during his lifetime. Wilson explains multi-level evolution clearly and succinctly. Multi-level evolution kicks in once a species attains a certain level of social organization, and in rare cases produces a eusocial species. Humanity is a fortunate benefactor of this. While at each stage of the way the genus Homo was "ready" for the next step, the stochastic character of natural selection is no guarantee that any particular step will be taken in a particular direction. Among the two most recent Homo species, the Neandertals and us, one species progressed to eusociality and one did not, and became extinct, probably out-competed.

Is there a further major step of evolution? Humans appear to be the brainiest and the best-organized species so far produced. There is really no way to predict what is next. Evolution continues. I hope the future is better than the past, and not a turn toward extinction. There is no guarantee.

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