More on E. O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth”: Let the Kerfluffles Begin!

Group selection isn’t the only hornet’s nest E. O. Wilson poked a stick into in his latest book. The interstellar travel fans at the Tau Zero Foundation are bound to take exception to this:

The same cosmic myopia exists today a fortiori in the dreams of colonizing other star systems. It is an expecially dangerous delusion if we see emigration into space as a solution to be taken when we have used up this planet.


Another principle that I believe can be justified by scientific evidence so far is that nobody is going to emigrate from this planet, not ever.

In my humble opinion, Wilson is wrong about interstellar travel.  I hereby predict that we will colonize planets in other star systems.  Our survival depends on it, and our species has a strong inclination to survive.  I suspect his opinion is motivated less by a sober assessment of the technological possibility of interstellar travel than by ideological concerns about the environment.  For example,

Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have.  The evidence for climate warming, with industrial pollution as the principle cause, is now overwhelming.

I suspect a certain rather irascible Czech physicist may take exception to that comment.  In any case, while I admit to having a personal preference that the planet not be destroyed, but I would certainly not presume to elevate such idiosyncratic whims to the level of a “moral precept.”  Here, like so many other modern thinkers who should know better, Wilson is treating moral precepts as objective things.  In this case, he is suggesting that not destroying the planet can be legitimized as a “good-in-itself” by virtue of everyone agreeing on it.  Otherwise, his comment becomes pointless.  He probably wouldn’t agree, because he writes elsewhere,

There is a principle to be learned by studying the biological origins of moral reasoning… If such greater understanding amounts to the “moral relativism so fervently despised by the doctrinally righteous, so be it.

I can certainly sympathize with Wilson’s aversion to the doctrinally righteous or, as I would call them, the pathologically pious.  However, virtually in the same breath, he falls back into the same old fallacy, writing,

It is that outside the clearest ethical precepts, such as the condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide, which all will agree should be opposed everywhere without exception, there is a larger gray domain inherently difficult to navigate.

Here we have the familiar “50 billion flies can’t be wrong” justification of the legitimacy of moral precepts.  Wilson’s comment begs the question of what qualitative difference exists between “clear ethical precepts,” and all the rest that lie in the gray area.  If, as he asserts, the origins of moral reasoning are biological or, in a word, evolved, in what way is it at all reasonable to claim that condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide can have an objective existence as ethical precepts at all?  Presumably, the thought that there even was such a thing as “genocide” never occurred to those of our forebears among whom the “biological origins of moral reasoning” evolved.   Wilson’s implicit acceptance of an objective morality is evident elsewhere in the book.  For example,

For scientific as well as for moral reasons, we should learn to promote human biological diversity for its own sake insted of using it to justify prejudice and conflict.

On what, exactly, are we to base the legitimacy of these “moral reasons”?  In what sense was the “promotion of human biological diversity” relevant to the australopithecines?  Wilson has some other comments on the origin of moral precepts that are bound to make the detractors of group selection see red, such as,

An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.

At the risk of committing lèse-majesté, I must admit that I find such sweeping generalizations somewhat over the top.  Turning to less controversial subjects, Wilson mentions the concept of a superorganism in several places, such as,

The queen and her offspring are often called superorganisms…

This circumstance lends credence to the view that the colony can be viewed as an individual organism or, more precisely, an individual superorganism.


In this sense, I have argued, the primitive colony is a superorganism.

It would have been nice if Wilson had mentioned the great South African, Eugene Marais, who first proposed the idea of a superorganism in the context of his studies of termites, in the course of these discussions.  Readers of today will find some remarkably modern insights in books such as The Soul of the White Ant and The Soul of the Ape.  To say Marais was ahead of his time is an understatement.

In any case, I hope all the controversy Wilson’s latest is bound to inspire won’t have the unfortunate effect of toppling him from his exalted state as the “father of evolutionary psychology.”  The field has enough unpersons as it is.  Regardless, some rewriting of textbooks will likely be in order.  For example, in David Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology he refers to the “bulk of the theoretical tools” in Wilson’s Sociobiology as “inclusive fitness theory, parental investment theory, parent-offspring conflict theory, and reciprocal altuism theory.”  Might it not, perhaps, be best, to avoid “confusing” young undergraduates, to just let Wilson’s group selection faux pas pass in silence?  If not, and his head must indeed roll, I hereby nominate Charles Darwin as the new “father of evolutionary psychology.”  At least he will be a safe choice.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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