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July 11 Book Club meeting -- The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson

An important new work by one of our most prominent scientists, re-examining the evolution of the very few eusocial animals that have ever appeared on earth, human beings and our closest relatives, plus the ants, termites and bees.  The eusocial animals live in groups containing multiple generations and are prone to perform "altruistic" acts as part of the division of labor.

If you haven't had a chance to read it before the Book Club meeting, the Book Editor will be briefly summarizing it.  The book is available both in print and digitally so you can download it instantly to your computer or tablet.

Most members of some eusocial insect communities are actually clones with varying expression of the genes which affect their body forms and behavioral traits.

Human beings are the product of gene-culture evolution on the individual and group levels.  Because we live in groups, humans evolved important characteristics that advanced group success.  Groups evolved in competition and battle with each other.  Group cohesiveness was critical and individual characteristics that supported it were selected for during our evolution.  Consequently, he says, comfort with those similar to us is an inborn tendency and hostility toward non-members is also a fundamental, permanent predisposition.  Religion played  a similar role: the thousands of religions in history each bound individuals to their own groups, explaining their existence and purpose in life and promising support in their collective ventures.  This doesn't give delusion and massacres an ethical value, but it does give them an objective status as an integral and inevitable part of human life.  He goes on to describe "honor, virtue and duty" as the products of group selection, and "selfishness, cowardice and hypocrisy" as characteristics evolved through individual selection.

Wilson describes his own scientific evolution from enthusiastic support of the inclusive fitness theory of kin selection, currently the reigning paradigm of genetic social evolution, to the conclusion that it has not held up to extensive empirical study or mathematical analysis.  This is becoming an important issue of scientific debate today.


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  • Elaine

    Hi, Everyone! Feel free to add comments (and thanks, Loren). I wanted to pursue the issue of violence and its decline, partly because Mike raised this very important issue and partly because it seems profoundly relevant to E.O.Wilson's theory of evolution based on group competition and battle.
    In my first note, I was lamenting a little facetiously about missing Steve Pinker. Several months ago, we discussed Professor Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He points to the fact that as human populations grew, leaders, chiefs, kings, etc. came into control of larger areas of land and larger numbers of people. They almost invariably acted to suppress internal violence to stop their peasants from disrupting agriculture, killing each other off, etc. As people whose historical memory is mostly on the 20th century, we tend to think that as political units increase in size so does the scale of their wars. But not so.

    July 12, 2013

  • Elaine

    If this page works the way I think it does, this should be the second part of my opening comments above. START WITH THE NOTE ABOVE THIS ONE BEFORE I RAN OUT OF CHARACTERS: A comprehensive study of the historical record shows "five wars and four atrocities before World War I that killed more people than that war . . . . of the 21rst worst things people have ever done to each other (that we know of), 14 were in centuries before the 20th. And all this pertains to absolute numbers. When you scale by population size, only one of the 20th century's atrocities even makes the top ten. . . . The An Lushan Revolt and Civil War in China killed 2/3 of the empire's population, a sixth of the world's population at the time." These are quotes from Pinker's study, which include many other types of examples suggesting that violence has declined. Not just wishful thinking, but contribution to the study of human evolution.

    July 12, 2013

  • Loren

    Elaine did a really nice job of leading the group and making sure that everyone had a chance to join in the discussion.

    July 11, 2013

  • Elaine

    Hi, Mike. It is hard to see human violence declining until you see something like the comprehensive historical and psychological study by another first-rate scientist like Steven Pinker. You can probably find on YouTube interviews that would give you brief summaries of that book. This subject will continue to be debated as long as the Book Club (and human beings) exist.

    July 10, 2013

  • Elaine

    Oh, this made me so lonesome for Steve Pinker. We spent three meetings on his book demonstrating that human violence is declining and - realistically - we can increase its rate of decline. Perhaps the two scientists are not inconsistent, it's just a matter of focus and time frame. I'll cheer up and be back in my normal mood by the time of the meeting. I'm an admirer of Wilson, but, oh Steve!

    July 1, 2013

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