September 9, 2013
LAMARCKIANISM ON THE ONE HAND, INTELLIGENT DESIGN ON THE OTHER:
REVIEW of The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson (Christopher Booker, 7 September 2013, The Spectator)
If extra-terrestrials had visited earth three million years ago, Wilson suggests, they might have concluded that 'the apex of social evolution' had been reached by the ants: certainly not by the few thousand early australopithecines shambling across the African savannah. But he then devotes a third of his book to rehearsing the not-unfamiliar story of how, with astonishing speed in geological terms, that handful of higher primates not much removed from apes evolved ever larger brains, became recognisably human, discovered language and an ever greater range of skills, formed complex co-operative societies, fanned out across the globe and became masters of all they surveyed.Clearly this has not come about just through the classical Darwinian process, whereby evolution works through that infinite series of minute genetic variations which has supposedly led life step by tiny step up the evolutionary ladder. Wilson therefore falls back on the idea of 'cultural' or 'multi-level evolution', allowing successive generations to pass on each progressive step along the way, independent of genetic mutations (taking side-swipes as he does so at the 'inclusive theory' championed by Richard Dawkins and others, which makes 'kinship selection' within particular groups the main driver of the process).But Wilson then moves on to those 'eusocial' insects which have long been his special subject, showing how, like mankind, ants and bees have developed societies made up of different classes -- queens, workers, soldiers, drones -- each making a complementary contribution to the common good, even, as with Amazonian leaf-cutter ants, practising agriculture, as they mulch chewed up leaves with their faeces, to grow a unique fungus to feed their larvae.All this may be fascinating enough, but what Wilson completely misses out is any recognition of what is by far the most glaring difference between humans and ants. What marks out humankind as unique is the degree to which we have broken free from the dictates of instinct. We may in terms of our individual 'ego-instincts', such as our urges to eat, sleep, live in social groups and reproduce our species, be just as much governed by instinct as other creatures. But in all the ways in which we give expression to those urges, how we build our shelters, obtain our food, organise our societies. we are no longer guided entirely by instinct. Unlike any other species, we have become free to imagine how all these things can be done differently. Whereas one ant colony is structured exactly like another, the forms of human organisation may vary as widely as a North Korean dictatorship and a village cricket club.It is our ability to escape from the rigid frame of instinct which explains almost everything that distinguishes human beings from any other form of life.
Posted by Orrin Judd at September 9, 2013 4:39 PM