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Wednesday, June 27, 2012


There are, to the best of my knowledge, three English language bookstores in Paris, all within walking distance of our apartment.  The closest, and by far the best known, is Shakespeare & Co., on a Left Bank quai cattycorner across from Notre Dame de Paris [our neighborhood church.]  As readers of my Autobiography will know [Volume One, Chapter Three], I spent a good deal of time hanging out there in the Spring of ’55, when it was called Le Mistral.  The second, also quite well known among Americans in Paris, is The Village Voice [no kidding!], on rue Princesse in the 6th.  The Village Voice, which is more of a real bookstore and less of a tourist magnet than Shakespeare & Co., hosts readings by visiting English language authors, several of which Susie and I have attended.  The third is a tiny second hand bookshop on a back street up behind Odeon, which Susie and I discovered when we were wandering around one day after seeing a movie at one of the three cinemas in the Odeon area.

Several days ago, I walked to the little secondhand bookstore, where I found a serviceable Dave Brown schlock spy story, which occupied me for a day [not bad for 2 Euros.]  Then Susie and I went to rue st. Julien le Pauvre to have a bite at an English style tea house we favor, after which we walked around the corner to Shakespeare & Co. to look for something to read.  I bought another schlock spy book, by Steve Coonts, but Susie, whose tastes are somewhat more elevated than mine, opted for E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  The Coonts took me all of two days, and there I was again looking for something to read.

Despite having spent a curious and informative afternoon with E. O. Wilson in his Harvard office a quarter of a century ago [Autobiography, Volume Two, Chapter Five], I have long been suspicious of the field he fostered, Sociobiology, while remaining quite impressed by his extraordinary work on ants.  But pressed for something to read, I decided to try his new book.  To my surprise and delight, I found it engrossing and utterly charming.  Or at least that was my reaction to the first three-fourths of the book, but I will get to that in a bit.

The subject of the book is the evolution of eusociality in animal species, including homo sapiens, and the transformation of eusociality into culture in humans.  Wilson defines eusociality as “the condition of multiple generations organized into groups by means of an altruistic division of labor.”  “Altruism” here has a quite specific meaning, namely behavior that does not increase, or even decreases, an organism’s probability of reproducing.  Such behavior is extremely common in ant colonies, in many, if not most, of which there are so-called “worker ants” and “soldier ants” whose actions contribute to the “queen” ant’s ability to reproduce, even though they themselves do not, indeed perhaps cannot, reproduce.  Wilson has been studying ants all his life, and has an endless supply of fascinating examples drawn from the thousands upon thousands of species and genera of ants.  [In the 1950’s, when my sister was doing her doctorate in Biology at Harvard, Wilson was one of her fellow graduate students.  Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould were the star students, of course, and Wilson was very much the odd man out, since in those days no one who was fated to be anyone studied so-called “social insects” – ants, termites, and bees.]

You can see the problem that altruistic behavior, thus defined, presents to an evolutionary biologist.  How on earth can natural selection select the genes that code for altruistic behavior, when such behavior has no reproductive edge, and may even greatly diminish or even eliminate the probability that the organism bearing those genes will reproduce at all?  In theory, such genes should be selected against and disappear from the genome as soon as mutations produce them. 

According to Wilson, evolutionary biologists have been debating and investigating this question intensely for several decades, and Wilson is once again the odd man out.  The dominant explanation is something called “inclusive fitness,” according to which what natural selection selects for is the number of genes that are passed on globally – i.e., by any organism – rather than for the reproduction of any one organism carrying that gene.  The idea [see Richard Dawkins’ influential book, The Selfish Gene] is something like this:  If brother ants on average share fifty percent of their genes [because of the mechanisms of chromosomal reproduction], then one of them will improve the chances of its genes being passed on to the next generation if it takes a less than fifty percent chance of failing to reproduce in order to up the chances of its brother reproducing [by feeding it, for example, or protecting it from a predator] by more than fifty percent.  Cousins will be less likely to sacrifice for one another, and so on for even more distant relatives.  Ants don’t know any of this, of course, but natural selection operates as though they do.  Elaborate Game Theoretic models have been developed to defend this explanation for the evolution of “altruistic” behavior in eusocial species.

Against this theory, which he claims has proved to be both mathematically and experimentally disconfirmed [in this book he does not give details], Wilson offers a theory of group selection, according to which it is not individual organisms but groups of organisms – colonies, nests, extended families – that compete against one another with natural selection determining which group – and hence which assemblage of genes – survives and reproduces most successfully.

The real delight in the book is Wilson’s repeated extended comparisons of hominid evolution with ant evolution.  There are a variety of animal species that have developed eusocial behavior:  ants, of course, and termites and bees, and naked moles [who knew?], and a rare species of shrimp [this one is a real outlier, as we shall see], and, of course, the pre-hominids and hominids leading to homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens.  From his extensive study of and reflection on these instances of eusociality, Wilson comes to the conclusion that there were three facts about the early hominds – “preadaptations,” as he calls them – that prepared them for the possibility of making the leap from eusociality to culture [which is the real subject of his book.]  Rather unexpectedly, these are: first, the shift from an herbivorous to an omnivorous diet, which is to say the regular hunting for and eating of meat;  second, the possession of flat, soft appendages [i.e., fingers, as opposed to talons or claws] suitable for working materials like stone, shaping them, and manipulating them;  and finally, the successful mastery of controlled fire.  It is this last that has forever barred highly intelligent creatures like dolphins or octopi from ever evolving culture.

There is much, much more in the first three-quarters of the book, all of it fascinating, and some of it – the occasional autobiographical bits – quite charming.  Here is just one passage that gives something of the flavor of Wilson’s authorial voice:

“[I]n 1967, I received a piece of fossil metasequoia amber that two amateur collectors had picked up in a New Jersey stratum of Late Cretaceous age, about 90 million years old.  Present together were two beautifully preserved worker ants in the transparent amber.  They were almost twice as old as the most ancient ant fossil previously known.  As I held the piece in my hand, I knew I was the first to look back into the deep history of one of Earth’s two most successful insect groups.  It was among the most exciting moments of my life (and I can understand if the reader does not appreciate my reaction to a fossil insect.)  In fact, I was so excited that I fumbled and dropped the piece.  It fell to the floor and broke into two fragments.  I froze and stared down in horror, as though I had just bumped into and shattered a priceless Ming Dynasty vase.  However, fortune continued to favor me that day.  There remained one undamaged ant in each fragment, and each could be polished separately.”  [pp. 121-122.]

And so it goes, until, on page 232, things turn horribly wrong, and the book more or less falls apart.  The elaborate and fascinating discussions of ants and termites, hominids and homo neanderthalensis, have all been the merest prolegomenon to Wilson’s real subject, the evolution of culture.  The final one-quarter of the book is devoted to a discussion of the evolution of language, cultural variation, morality, honor, religion, and the creative arts.  And here, despite having a number of quite interesting things to say [about color perception, for example], Wilson wanders outside the sphere of his indisputable mastery and reveals his limits. 

Discussing the famous debate between B. F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky in 1957, Wilson completely breaks tone by quoting an extremely technical passage from Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book, which he then mocks, as if to say, “How can jargon like this possibly tell us anything about language?”  Now, Wilson has for more than two hundred pages been skimming over some equally technical stuff in evolutionary biology, repeatedly saying that he is simplifying it for a non-specialist audience, but instead of quoting any of the many quite lucid informal explanations Chomsky has given of his influential theories, Wilson adopts a know-nothing attitude that would do credit to an evangelical Christian.  I was so affronted by the passage that had it not occurred late in Wilson’s exposition, I would have simply thrown down the book in exasperation and refused to continue reading.

So, I warmly recommend the first three-quarters of Wilson’s new book as an engrossing and extremely informative treatment of a rich subject.  I you can find a second-hand copy in which the last sixty-five pages have been torn out, so much the better.


Utopian Yuri said...

chomsky's 1959 review of skinner's "verbal behavior" in "language" is a masterpiece of scientific demolition of pseudoscience. i keep it on my bookshelf at all times.

imcdpe said...

Take a look at Steven Mithen's review of Wilson's book in the June 21 issue of the New York Review of Books. He was equally disappointed by the punchline.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I tried to read Mithen's review, but the NYR cut me off after two paragraphs, so I will have to wait until get home. But my sister, who knows vastly more about this than I, has just finished reading the book, and I am trying to persuade her to write a guest post.

Chris said...

Here's Dawkins' review of Wilson's latest book; he too is displeased.