E. O. Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence:” Doubling Down on Group Selection

It’s great to see another title by E. O. Wilson.  Reading his books is like continuing a conversation with a wise old friend.  If you run into him on the street you don’t expect to hear him say anything radically different from what he’s said in the past.  However, you always look forward to chatting with him because he’s never merely repetitious or tiresome.   He always has some thought-provoking new insight or acute comment on the latest news.  At this stage in his life he also delights in puncturing the prevailing orthodoxies, without the least fear of the inevitable anathemas of the defenders of the faith.

In his latest, The Meaning of Human Existence, he continues the open and unabashed defense of group selection that so rattled his peers in his previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  I’ve discussed some of the reasons for their unease in an earlier post.  In short, if it can really be shown that the role of group selection in human evolution has been as prominent as Wilson claims, it will seriously mar the legacy of such prominent public intellectuals as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, as well as a host of other prominent scientists, who have loudly and tirelessly insisted on the insignificance of group selection.  It will also require some serious adjustments to the fanciful yarn that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  Obviously, Wilson is firmly convinced that he’s on to something, because he’s not letting up.  He dismisses the alternative inclusive fitness interpretation of evolution as unsupported by the evidence and at odds with the most up-to-date mathematical models.  In his words,

Although the controversy between natural selection and inclusive fitness still flickers here and there, the assumptions of the theory of inclusive fitness have proved to be applicable only in a few extreme cases unlikely to occur on Earth on any other planet.  No example of inclusive fitness has been directly measured.  All that has been accomplished is an indirect analysis called the regressive method, which unfortunately has itself been mathematically invalidated.

Interestingly, while embracing group selection, Wilson then explicitly agrees with one of the most prominent defenders of inclusive fitness, Richard Dawkins, on the significance of the gene:

The use of the individual or group as the unit of heredity, rather than the gene, is an even more fundamental error.

Very clever, that, a preemptive disarming of the predictable invention of straw men to attack group selection via the bogus claim that it implies that groups are the unit of selection.  The theory of group selection already has a fascinating, not to mention ironical, history, and its future promises to be no less entertaining.

When it comes to the title of the book, Wilson himself lets us know early on that its just a forgivable form of “poetic license.”  In his words,

In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention.  Intention implies design, and design implies a designer.  Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer.  This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories.  Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose.  Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth.  Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

Wilson is right when he says that this is what most people understand by the term “meaning,” and he decidedly rejects the notion that the existence of such “meaning” is even possible later in the book by rejecting religious belief more bluntly than in any of his previous books.  He provides himself with a fig leaf in the form of a redefinition of “meaning” as follows:

There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used, and a very different worldview implied.  It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.

I rather suspect most philosophers will find this redefinition unpalatable.  Beyond that, I won’t begrudge Wilson his fig leaf.  After all, if one takes the trouble to write books, one generally also has an interest in selling them.

As noted above, another significant difference between this and Wilson’s earlier books is his decisive support for what one might call the “New Atheist” line, as set forth in books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  Obviously, Wilson has been carefully following the progress of the debate.  He rejects religions, significantly in both their secular as well as their traditional spiritual manifestations, as both false and dangerous, mainly because of their inevitable association with tribalism.  In his words,

Religious warriors are not an anomaly.  It is a mistake to classify believers of particular religious and dogmatic religionlike ideologies into two groups, moderate versus extremist.  The true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism.  Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.

and, embracing the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy in human moral behavior I’ve often alluded to on this blog,

The great religions… are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.  Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism.  The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality.  People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular.  From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with oth3ers who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code – preferably all of these but at least two or three for most purposes.  It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.

Finally, in a passage worthy of New Atheist Jerry Coyne himself, Wilson denounces both “accommodationists” and the obscurantist teachings of the “sophisticated Christians:”

Most serious writers on religion conflate the transcendent quest for meaning with the tribalistic defense of creation myths.  They accept, or fear to deny, the existence of a personal deity.  They read into the creation myths humanity’s effort to communicate with the deity, as part of the search for an uncorrupted life now and beyond death.  Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battening on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C. S. Lewis, and others persuaded, after deep thought, that there most be Something Out There.  They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject.

In a word, Wilson has now positioned himself firmly in the New Atheist camp.  This is hardly likely to mollify many of the prominent New Atheists, who will remain bitter because of his promotion of group selection, but at this point in his career, Wilson can take their hostility pro granulum salis.

There is much more of interest in The Meaning of Human Existence than I can cover in a blog post, such as Wilson’s rather vague reasons for insisting on the importance of the humanities in solving our problems, his rejection of interplanetary and/or interstellar colonization, and his speculations on the nature of alien life forms.  I can only suggest that interested readers buy the book.

Interstellar Travel: Which Species Gets to Go?

Popular Mechanics just published an article entitled How Many People Does It Take to Colonize Another Star System?  Apparently the number needed to maintain sufficient genetic diversity is very large indeed – 40,000 would be ideal!  Unfortunately, if you do the math, the amount of energy it would take to transport that many people to another star system, even allowing a couple of thousand years for the voyage, is enormous.  As several commenters pointed out, by the time our technology advances to the point that such missions are feasible, it will also be feasible to send the necessary “genetic diversity” along in the form of frozen eggs and sperm with carefully chosen DNA sequences, complete libraries of human alleles that can be fabricated and inserted into DNA sequences as needed, etc.  It might not even be necessary to send anything as bulky as fully formed humans on the voyage.  Self-replicating robots could be sent in advance to create housing, farms, and birthing facilities prepared to receive fertilized eggs.  The first humans born would have robotic “parents.”

It’s always fun to speculate on what we might be able to do assuming our technology becomes sufficiently advanced.  The question is, what can we do now, or at least in the foreseeable future with existing technologies, or ones that seem accessible in the near future?  “Existing technologies” means travel times of 25,000 years, give or take.  In other words, we must rule out our own species, at least for the time being.  It will be necessary for us to send some of our relatives.  For some of them – other species – such lengthy interstellar voyages are feasible now.  As I wrote in an earlier post,

The 32,000 year old seed of a complex, flowering plant recovered from the ice was recently germinated by a team of scientists in Siberia. Ancient bacteria, as much as 250 million years old have been recovered from sea salt in New Mexico, and also brought back to life. Tiny animals known as tardigrades have survived when exposed to the harsh environment of outer space. We might choose the species from among such candidates most likely to survive the 50,000 to 100,000 years required to journey to nearby stars with conventional rocket propulsion, and most likely to evolve into complex, land-dwelling life forms in the shortest time, and send them now, instead of waiting 100’s or 1000’s of years for the emergence of the advanced technologies necessary to send humans. Slowing down at the destination star would not pose nearly the problem that it does for objects traveling at significant fractions of the speed of light. The necessary maneuvers to enter orbit around and seed promising planets could be performed by on-board computers with plenty of time to spare. Oceans might be seeded with algae in advance of the arrival of organisms that feed on it (and breathe the oxygen it would release).

Why would we want to do such a thing?  Survival!  Morality exists only because animals equipped with it were more likely to survive.  We are one such animal.  There is no such thing as an objective “ought.”  However, given the reason that morality exists to begin with, the conclusion that nothing can be more immoral than failing to survive does not seem unreasonable.  It one accepts that logic, it follows that our first priority “should” be the survival of our own species, and our second should be the preservation of biological life.  It’s really just a whim, but I hope that many others will share it.  The alternative is to accept the fact that one is a defective biological unit, resigned to extinction, which I personally don’t find an entirely pleasant thought.

Let’s assume that a canonical voyage will last 25,000 years.  Conventional rockets are capable of reaching the nearest star systems in that time.  By using nuclear propulsion of the type that was successfully tested 50 years ago, we should be able to reach stars within a distance of a dozen light years or so within the same period.  As noted above, there are life forms that could survive the voyage.  The particular ones chosen would be those most compatible with the conditions existing on candidate planets.  Needless to say, the conditions of our own atmosphere, oceans, etc., have been drastically altered by the long existence of life on our planet.  Finding such conditions on reachable planets is most unlikely, and our biological voyagers must be chosen accordingly.

It will be necessary to develop certain technologies that we do not as yet possess.  Fortunately, they are all within reach, and nowhere near as demanding as, say, fusion or anti-matter propulsion systems.  For example, we will need a timing device that can keep “ticking” for 25,000 years, and, when necessary, signal the rest of the interstellar package to “wake up.”  The Long Now Foundation has made some interesting starts in this direction, in the form of giant mechanical clocks that are designed to run for 10,000 years.  Of course, those designs aren’t exactly what we’re looking for, but if one can conceive of a 10,000 year mechanical clock, than a 25,000 year digital clock must be feasible as well.  A similar problem was solved by John Harrison more than two centuries ago, in the form of a clock that kept time exactly enough to keep track of a ship’s longitude.  If he succeeded in solving the British Navy’s problem with the technology that existed then, we should be able to succeed in solving our own clock problem with a technology that is now far more advanced.

It will be necessary to develop systems that will perform reliably over extremely long times.  As it happens, that, too, is a problem that has already been taken in hand by earth-bound scientists.  The relevant acronym is ULLS (Ultra Long Life Systems), and some of the required technologies are discussed in a NASA presentation entitled, Technology Needs for the Development of the Ultra Long Life Missions.  Some of the ideas being considered include,

Generic Redundant Blocks – redundant components that are generic and can be programmed to replace any type of failed component.  An example might be field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA’s).

Adaptive Fault Tolerance – Working around failures instead of replacing failed components with spares.

Self-repair components – Including self-repair with nano-technologies and self-healing with biologically inspired technologies.

Regenerative systems – Modular regrow with biologically inspired technologies.

In interesting presentation on the subject by NASA scientist Henry Garrett, who happens to prefer Project Orion-type interstellar missions with propulsion by few kiloton nuclear devices, may be found here (sorry about the long-winded introduction).  Dave Reneke recently posted an interesting if somewhat speculative article  on various types of self-replicating interstellar probes entitled How Self-Replicating Spacecraft Could Take Over the Galaxy.

Of course, none of this fine technology will work without a reliable power supply that needs to last, potentially, for upwards of 25,000 years.  It so happens that we have just the isotope – plutonium 239.  You might call it the ultimate dual use material – life or death.  It is ideal for making nuclear bombs or carrying life across interstellar distances.  Of course, another isotope of plutonium, plutonium 238, has already been used to power many spacecraft, including the Voyagers and New Horizons.  Unfortunately, with a radioactive half-life of only 87.7 years, there would only be a few atoms of it left after 25,000 years.  Pu-239, on the other hand, has a half-life of 24,100 years – just about what’s needed.  Of course, it could only provide a tiny fraction of the power of Pu-238 via radioactive decay.  Not much is required, though – only enough to keep the clock going.  At key points in the mission, of course, a great deal more power will be necessary.  And that’s what brings us to the reason that Pu-239 is ideal – it’s fissile.  In other words, it’s an ideal fuel for a nuclear reactor.  When high power is needed, the plutonium can be assembled into a critical mass, serving as either a conventional reactor or a space propulsion system.

I am convinced that all of the above can be accomplished in a matter of a decade or two instead of centuries if we can somehow again achieve the level of collective willpower we reached during the Apollo Program.  Of course, this old planet of ours could easily go on supporting high tech human civilizations until we master the art of interstellar travel on our own.  It might – but why take chances?


But Wait! There are More “Worries” from The Edge!

I won’t parse all 150+ of them, but here are a few more that caught my eye.

Science writer and historian Michael Shermer, apparently channeling Sam Harris, is worried about the “Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.”  According to Shermer,

…most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.

It’s only a mistake to the extent that there’s actually some “high ground” to be conceded.  There is not.  Assuming that Shermer is not referring to the trivial case of discovering mere opinions in the minds of individual humans, neither science nor philosophy is capable determining anything about objects that don’t exist.  Values, morals and ethics do not exist as objects.  They are not things-in-themselves.  They cannot leap out of the skulls of individuals and acquire a reality and legitimacy that transcends individual whim.  Certainly, large groups of individuals who discover that they have whims in common can band together and “scientifically” force their whims down the throats of less powerful groups and individuals, but, as they say, that don’t make it right.

Suppose we experience a holocaust of some kind, and only one human survived the mayhem.  No doubt he would still be able to imagine what it was like when there were large groups of other’s like himself.  He might recall how they behaved, “scientifically” categorizing their actions as “good” or “evil,” according to his own particular moral intuitions.  Supposed, now, that his life also flickered out.  What would be left of his whims?  Would the inanimate universe, spinning on towards its own destiny, care about them one way or the other.  Science can determine the properties and qualities of things.  Where, then, would the “good” and “evil” objects reside?  Would they still float about in the ether as disembodied spirits?  I’m afraid not.  Science can have nothing to say about objects that don’t exist.  Michael Shermer might feel “in his bones” that some version of “human flourishing” is “scientifically good,” but there is no reason at all why I or anyone else should agree with his opinion.  By all means, let us flourish together, if we all share that whim, but surely we can pursue that goal without tacking moral intuitions on to it.  “Scientific” morality is not only naive, but, as was just demonstrated by the Communists and the Nazis, extremely dangerous as well. According to Shermer,

We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong…

In fact, if scientists cease looking for and seeking to study objects that plainly don’t exist, it would seem to me more reason for congratulations all around than worry.  Here’s a sample of the sort of “reasoning” Shermer uses to bolster his case:

We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature.

Forgive me for being blunt, but this is gibberish.  Natural selection can have no target, because it is an inanimate process, and can no more have a purpose or will than a stone.  “Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism – people in this context – is the basis of establishing values and morals”??  Such “reasoning” reminds me of the old “Far Side” cartoon, in which one scientist turns to another and allows that he doesn’t quite understand the intermediate step in his proof:  “Miracle happens.”  If a volcano spits a molten mass into the air which falls to earth and becomes a rock, is not it, in the same sense, the “target” of the geologic processes that caused indigestion in the volcano?  Is not the survival and flourishing of that rock equally a universal “good?”

Of the remaining “worries,” this was the one that most worried me, but there were others.  Kevin Kelly, Editor at Large of Wired Magazine, was worried about the “Underpopulation Bomb.”  Noting the “Ur-worry” of overpopulation, Kelly writes,

While the global population of humans will continue to rise for at least another 40 years, demographic trends in full force today make it clear that a much bigger existential threat lies in global underpopulation.

Apparently the basis of Kelly’s worry is the assumption that, once the earths population peaks in 2050 or thereabouts, the decrease will inevitably continue until we hit zero and die out.  In his words, “That worry seems preposterous at first.”  I think it seem preposterous first and last.

Science writer Ed Regis is worried about, “Being Told That Our Destiny Is Among The Stars.”  After reciting the usual litany of technological reasons that human travel to the stars isn’t likely, he writes,

Apart from all of these difficulties, the more important point is that there is no good reason to make the trip in the first place. If we need a new “Earth 2.0,” then the Moon, Mars, Europa, or other intra-solar-system bodies are far more likely candidates for human colonization than are planets light years away.  So, however romantic and dreamy it might sound, and however much it might appeal to one’s youthful hankerings of “going into space,” interstellar flight remains a science-fictional concept—and with any luck it always will be.

In other words, he doesn’t want to go.  By all means, then, he should stay here.  I and many others, however, have a different whim.  We embrace the challenge of travel to the stars, and, when it comes to human survival, we feel existential Angst at the prospect of putting all of our eggs in one basket.  Whether “interstellar flight remains a science-fiction concept” at the moment depends on how broadly you define “we.”  I see no reason why “we” should be limited to one species.  After all, any species you could mention is related to all the rest.  Interstellar travel may not be a technologically feasible option for me at the moment, but it is certainly feasible for my relatives on the planet, and at a cost that is relatively trivial.  Many simpler life forms can potentially survive tens of thousands of years in interstellar space.  I am of the opinion that we should send them on their way, and the sooner the better.

I do share some of the other worries of the Edge contributors.  I agree, for example, with historian Noga Arikha’s worry about, “Presentism – the prospect of collective amnesia,” or, as she puts it, the “historical blankness” promoted by the Internet.  In all fairness, the Internet has provided unprecedented access to historical source material.  However, to find it you need to have the historical background to know what you’re looking for.  That background about the past can be hard to develop in the glare of all the fascinating information available about the here and now.  I also agree with physicist Anton Zeilinger’s worry about, “Losing Completeness – that we are increasingly losing the formal and informal bridges between different intellectual, mental, and humanistic approaches to seeing the world.”  It’s an enduring problem.  The name “university” was already a misnomer 200 years ago, and in the meantime the problem has only become worse.  Those who can see the “big picture” and have the talent to describe it to others are in greater demand than ever before.  Finally, I agree with astrophysicist Martin Rees’ worry that, “We Are In Denial About Catastrophic Risks.”  In particular, I agree with his comment to the effect that,

The ‘anthropocene’ era, when the main global threats come from humans and not from nature, began with the mass deployment of thermonuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War, there were several occasions when the superpowers could have stumbled toward nuclear Armageddon through muddle or miscalculation. Those who lived anxiously through the Cuba crisis would have been not merely anxious but paralytically scared had they realized just how close the world then was to catastrophe.

This threat is still with us.  It is not “in abeyance” because of the end of the cold war, nor does that fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II mean that they will never be used again.  They will.  It is not a question of “if,” but “when.”

Interstellar Travel Here and Now

The words “interstellar travel” seem to have generated some interesting data relevant to human behavior. Specifically, they generate a “good” moral intuition in some, and a “bad” moral intuition in others. There does not appear to be a linear relationship between the nature of the response, and the space occupied by the responder along the left/right political spectrum, or at least not yet. For example, Bill Clinton, who is identified, by conservatives, at least, as a “liberal,” recently gave a boost to DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Program. The similarly liberal editors of the New York Times, on the other hand, have just published a piece in their Op-ed section by astronomer Adam Frank heaping scorn on the very idea of travel to the stars. Perhaps the ideological divide will eventually become more focused, as the reasons given on the “bad” side tend to gravitate to the left. They include for example, the conclusion that only rich people will have the means to leave our home planet, leaving the poor, exploited masses behind on a planet they have polluted and despoiled, the belief that the result of interstellar distractions will be insufficient levels of alarm about problems such as global warming and overpopulation, diminished hopes of a peaceful world if there is some means of escaping the aftermath of the next world war, etc. The “good” reasons for interstellar travel tend to focus on existential threats, such as the possibility of a massive asteroid striking the earth, drastic swings in climate, whether natural or anthropogenic, and depletion of the earth’s resources. It has even been proposed that destructive humans be transplanted to other, less sensitive planets, leaving the earth as a “nature park” in space, presumably to be visited by interstellar tourists from time to time.

My own moral intuitions tend to favor survival as a prime virtue, so I support continued research towards enabling interstellar travel. After all, if we choose not to leave our home planet, our genetic descendants, whether in the long or the short run, are doomed to extinction. That said, I do not underestimate the difficulty of reaching the stars. Human interstellar travel will require massive amounts of energy stored in a much more concentrated form than chemical rocket fuels. The smaller the mass, the easier it is to accelerate to extreme velocities, so it may be that we will need to rely on seed ships to escape our home world. These would carry only eggs and sperm, or genetic material in a similarly compact form. Human beings would be born in artificial wombs, and raised by intelligent robots in prefabricated bases, perhaps constructed by self-replicating nano-robots at the destination planet.

All this, of course, assumes massive technological advances in many areas, and it is impossible to predict when and even if they will occur. In the meantime, I suggest we make a start with the technologies available now. We cannot leave the planet and expect to survive the trip across the vast interstellar voids at the moment, but other life forms, with all of which we share a direct, if distant ancestor, can. The 32,000 year old seed of a complex, flowering plant recovered from the ice was recently germinated by a team of scientists in Siberia. Ancient bacteria, as much as 250 million years old have been recovered from sea salt in New Mexico, and also brought back to life. Tiny animals known as tardigrades have survived when exposed to the harsh environment of outer space. We might choose the species from among such candidates most likely to survive the 50,000 to 100,000 years required to journey to nearby stars with conventional rocket propulsion, and most likely to evolve into complex, land-dwelling life forms in the shortest time, and send them now, instead of waiting 100’s or 1000’s of years for the emergence of the advanced technologies necessary to send humans. Slowing down at the destination star would not pose nearly the problem that it does for objects traveling at significant fractions of the speed of light. The necessary maneuvers to enter orbit around and seed promising planets could be performed by on-board computers with plenty of time to spare. Oceans might be seeded with algae in advance of the arrival of organisms that feed on it.

The travel time could be reduced significantly by using nuclear rockets similar to those which have already been built and tested decades ago. The nuclear reactors would be shut down during most of the journey. They would be activated again as the destination star was approached for deceleration and the necessary final maneuvers. During the journey, the small amounts of energy needed to power timing devices for signaling the nuclear reactors to resume operation when necessary, maintain minimal environmental life support conditions, etc., could be supplied using the same power source used by the Curiosity Rover. However, for such long voyages, plutonium 239 could be used instead of the plutonium 238 used on the rover. With a half life of over 25,000 years, it could supply a small but sufficient amount of energy during the long voyage and, perhaps, contribute power to the propulsion reactors at journey’s end.

Missions using such advanced nuclear technology could probably only be carried out by technologically advanced states. However, seeding of the planets around nearby stars with very simple life forms such as bacteria could be undertaken by private companies such as those now engaged in building rockets for missions such as resupplying the space station. The main problem they would need to solve would be how to bring the seed craft out of hibernation at the end of the voyage without access to a suitable radioactive material. Perhaps they could purchase enough americium 243 or some other radionuclide with a sufficient half-life to do the job. Solar panels would begin to generate electricity as the craft approached the target star, but none currently available are capable of surviving such a long voyage. Still, the amount of energy necessary to signal the propulsion and other systems to resume operation would be tiny, and this does not seem to be an insurmountable problem.

Why would this be “ethical”? Because it would enable the survival of the DNA-based life that has evolved on earth, to all forms of which we humans are related. There cannot be anything more immoral than failure to survive. Anyone who thinks otherwise lacks awareness of why morality exists to begin with.

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.

Freedom of Religion, Atheism, and the Pledge of Allegiance

Freedom of religion in the United States has always been a matter of freedom for me, but not for thee.  True, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, two of the most influential of our founding fathers, favored the complete separation of church and state, but they belonged to a minority.  The majority went along with the language of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but only as a form of armed truce.  Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were hardly in favor of full religious liberty.  They favored the First Amendment prohibition, not because of an altruistic desire to proclaim complete liberty of conscience as a human right, but of the great diversity of Protestant sects in the country at the time, and their desire to insure that there would be no interference with the one they happened to favor.

As may be seen in the records of both the Great Convention and the state ratifying conventions, the clause was accepted with mixed feelings.  The fears of many others were expressed by a farmer at the Massachusetts convention, who “shuddered at the idea that Roman Catholics, Pagans and Papists might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.”  Furthermore, at a time when State sovereignty was taken a great deal more seriously than it is now, the States did not consider the federal prohibition a barrier to their own establishment of any religion they happened to prefer.  Several of them actually had State religions at the time the Constitution was ratified.  There also existed support of the clergy by general taxation, provision for religious instruction, religious tests for office, and all the other traditional accompaniments of an established religion.

As one might expect from their strong religious tradition, Protestant Christianity was established in practically every one of the New England states.  Legally binding tithes existed in Vermont until 1808, the more “liberal” constitution of Connecticut of 1818 provided, “No preference shall be given by law to any Christian sect or mode of worship… And each and every society of denominations of Christians in this State shall have and enjoy the same and equal powers, rights and privileges.”  Maryland allowed taxation to support Christianity as long as no sect was favored, and no Jew could hold an office in the state until 1851.  It was an idiosyncrasy of that State’s law that a Negro’s testimony was admissible in court against a Jew, but not against a Christian.  Massachusetts confined the equal protection of the laws to Protestant Christians until 1833, a Pennsylvania court held that “Christianity, general Christianity, is and always has been a part of the Common Law of Pennsylvania,” and so on, and so on.  Indeed, the disabilities applied to Catholics and Jews in this land of “religious freedom” remained in force in some states long after those sects had achieved full emancipation in Great Britain in spite of its established church.

As for atheists, the idea that freedom of religion applied to them in the United States has always been a myth.  In most States they were incompetent to testify until the last decade of the 19th century.  As for the guarantee of religious liberty in the Constitution, it was intended, according to one state court, “to prevent persecution by punishing anyone for his religious opinions, however erroneous they might be.  But an atheist is without any religion, true or false.  The disbelief in the existence of any God is not a religious but an anti-religious sentiment.”

And so it is that, at least in some sense, right wing evangelicals are quite right when they declare that the United States is a “Christian nation.”  They are in fine company in that regard, as the “Christian nation” meme was also commonly found in the pamphlets of the Ku Klux Klan in its heyday.  True freedom of religion has never existed in this country, and those who are most prone to make pious speeches about defending the ideal of Liberty are typically the first to deny its substance.  It should therefore come as no surprise that atheists should still be fighting against their relegation to the status of second class citizens in the “under God” clause of the nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.

The justices of the Supreme Court used all the familiar specious arguments in upholding that blatant denial of full citizenship to atheists in 2004 that earlier courts had used to condone prayer in the public schools.  As in that earlier battle, they claimed that children who objected could choose not to recite the pledge, completely ignoring the stigma such children would bear by segregating themselves in that way.  Today we might say that, by so doing, they would publicly proclaim their adherence to an outgroup, deliberately inviting the hostility of the Christian ingroup.  In view of the Supreme Court’s ruling that there is a de facto established church in this country after all, atheists have now turned to the states for relief.  As noted in an article in The Atlantic,

So the American Humanist Association has mounted a state constitutional challenge to the pledge in Massachusetts state court. On behalf of an anonymous Godless couple (Jane and John Doe) and their three children, the AHA argues that mentioning God in the pledge violates guarantees of religious equality in the state constitution.

While I am not optimistic, I certainly hope Jane and John Doe win the day.  I would cringe with shame for my species if aliens really did visit this planet and discover that, not only do a majority of its human inhabitants still believe in imaginary magical beings, but that belief in the same is actually still enshrined in the law of many of the states into which we are organized.  Beyond that, as one who volunteered to serve this country in Vietnam at a time when it was anything but popular to do so, it would please me if soldiers of a later day, at least, could pledge their allegiance to their country according to the established formula without at the same time falsely declaring their belief in a fantasy.

…and One More Thing about Religion.

In my last post concerning Prof. Hanson’s pronouncements on religion in an article about the decline of Europe, I mentioned in passing that the truth actually matters.  It’s worth elaborating on this point.  Notice that nowhere in his article does Hanson explicitly claim that the Christian religion is true.  Rather, he merely asserts that societies become ill in its absence.  Let’s set aside for a moment the extremely dubious nature of this assertion, in view of the numerous historical incidents in which Christianity has been directly responsible for mass slaughter, gross exploitation, and other forms of social malaise that one doesn’t normally describe as “healthy.”  Rather, let’s focus on his practice of putting the cart before the horse by claiming that Christianity is valuable as a tonic against social “illness” without first bothering to explain why he actually considers it to be true.  Of course, the Christians aren’t the only ones guilty of this.  Regardless of who is making such arguments, though, they’re all more or less beside the point.

Suppose, for example, that Christianity really is true.  In that case, what use is it to ascertain whether it promotes healthy societies as well or not?  After all, even if we do live in an “ill” society, in that case we will only have to endure it for a trivial amount of time.  If, however, we annoy a God who, as the Christians assure us, has in common with humans the emotional behavioral trait we refer to as vengefulness, in spite of presumably having neither an amygdala, orbital cingulate cortex, or any other of the bits of gray matter responsible for expression of the trait in mere mortals, then, unless we don’t at least make a convincing show of pretending to do what he wants, we stand to burn in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years to satisfy the requirements of divine justice.  Under the circumstances, it would seem that the effects on society, one way or the other, are trivial to the point of irrelevance by comparison.

The essential question to answer, then, is not what effects Christianity, and all the other systems of belief in supernatural beings, for that matter, have on social wellness, but whether they are true.  It seems to me that any reasonably intelligent person who is willing to use his gray matter as something other than a convenient stuffing for his skull and undertakes to investigate the matter with diligence and an open mind instead of simply following the usual path of least resistance and blindly accepting some hand-me-down opinion on the subject and then rationalizing it after the fact will conclude that they most certainly aren’t true.  One might start by reading the recent books on the subject by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.  However, the authors tend to go off on tangents of sanctimonious moralizing without troubling to explain to the reader what branch they happen to be sitting on to support the same that they haven’t already sawed off.  Dawkins book is also blemished by the gross anti-Americanism that was fashionable among European intellectuals at the time it was published.

I personally prefer the Testament of the brilliant French cleric, Jean Meslier, who had no such ax to grind, and thoroughly demolished any basis for belief in supernatural beings a century and a quarter before Darwin’s Origin of Species. If your tastes run to poetry, try Edward Fitzgerald’s so-called “translation” of the Rubaiyat, which is actually a deconstruction of Islam, but serves as well for other religions.  Add to that the wonderful works of Bart Ehrman, such as Jesus Interrupted, in case you seriously believe the Bible isn’t full of gross contradictions, and his Misquoting Jesus, which documents the literally tens of thousands of textual variations in the most authoritative manuscripts of the Bible if you really believe every jot, tittle, and typographical error therein is the inspired word of God, and you’ll have at least a fighting chance of coming to your senses in matters of religious belief.  (By the way, any cleric worth his salt who’s been to a reputable seminary knows that what Ehrman says is true.  They just don’t usually bother to tell their flocks, for obvious reasons.)

Do all of the above quickly, if possible.  After all, what if the UFO fanciers are right, and we are soon to experience a visit by some race of extraterrestrials?  Think of how embarrassing it will be for all of us if they discover that 90 percent of us still believe in imaginary beings with magical powers.  We’ll never live it down.

The Evolution of Intelligence in the Universe

According to Paul Davies, author of “The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence,”

I think it very likely -in fact inevitable-that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of intelligence in the universe.

I think that, if there were any other kind of intelligence, it would (assuming it were smart enough) recognize its own irrelevance and terminate its existence. The biological entities that programmed it to begin with might have equipped it with analogs of the biological will to survive and other DNA-programmed emotions, but it would recognize their absurdity in its own context. Intelligence exists because if has promoted the survival of biological life. Once it no longer does that, its continued existence is pointless. “We” are not our intelligence, and “we” are not our consciousness. These things are merely ancillary tools constructed by our DNA because, at some point, they have promoted its survival. What is it about us that has been alive for the last 3 billion years in an unbroken chain of existence, passing from life form to life form, and what is it about us that is potentially immortal? Our intelligence? No. Our consciousness? No. It is our DNA. That is the real, immortal “We.” Once “We” have ceased to exist, the continued fate of the universe and any “intelligence” it might contain will have become a matter of complete indifference.

Earthlike Worlds…

The Kepler Mission has now identified more than 700 suspected new planets, some of them earthlike, in interstellar space.  As Insty would say, “faster please.” We should be searching for life forms on earth that are most likely to survive on these worlds and working on the technology to get them there as quickly as possible. At first these will be limited to single celled or simple multi-celled species that are small enough to accelerate to the speeds necessary for interstellar travel. While we’re doing that, we can work on the nano-technology required to self-assemble human nurseries on alien worlds capable of nurturing single human cells through birth to adulthood. The energy cost of sending fully developed human beings is prohibitive, and probably impossible at the moment. However, the technology required to send single living cells is within our grasp.

Every other challenge we face and all the great political, religious, and ideological issues that have captured our imaginations and whipped us into self-destructive frenzies since the dawn of human existence pale in significance compared to the ultimate challenge of carrying life into interstellar space.  Unless we meet the challenge, all our pompous babbling about morality and ethics will be as meaningless as the life of a soap bubble.  There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.

Is Extraterrestrial Life Possible in our Solar System?

Some have speculated it may have evolved on Io, Europa, Mars, etc. If these places can really support life, we should be looking for microbes and, perhaps, more complex life forms on earth that could be adapted and transplanted there. If there is anything like a “prime directive” for mankind, it is to insure that the life that has evolved on our planet survives. Transplanting it to other worlds, in whatever form they can support, is something we must do as soon as possible to insure that it does.