PROFESSOR Edward O Wilson, who died on 26 December 2021, was a biologist who translated his exploration of the natural world into consideration of why and how we humans have come to be the way that we are, and of our place in the ecology of life on earth.
Wilson was at heart a naturalist. Starting as a child with a fascination for creepy crawlies, he grew into a scientist studying ants and eventually broadened his work to explore the behaviour of social organisms generally, including us. He is known for the creation of the term and the field of sociobiology – “the scientific study of the biological (especially ecological and evolutionary) aspects of social behaviour in animals and humans”.
Wilson did not shy away from difficult issues. Although often quite confronting, his work has helped us to better understand ourselves and our behaviour.
I suggest reading his Pulitzer Prize winning book On human nature, where he discusses the evolutionary origins of human sociobiological behaviour, such as aggression, sex, altruism, and religion. Consilience encourages the reader to consider the natural world as an interconnected whole. His more scientific works, including Sociobiology: the new synthesis, The ants (also a Pulitzer Prize winner) and The superorganism provide evidentiary foundations.
Wilson and his colleagues discovered that the strictly regimented complex behaviour of colonies of ants emerges from their communication by chemical messengers – pheromones – and is controlled by genes. Their colonies produce individual ants as controllable and disposable components of the whole ant colony which operates as the product of their hugely complex interaction with one another. Yet none of the individual ants are aware of, or manage, the whole of what they do – nest building, raising of young, hunting, wars, slavery and farming of fungi. An ant colony exists to perpetuate itself.
The genes that control the social behaviour of ants, and their pheromones, are the product of many hundreds of millions of years of natural selection, of the chance events of mutation and mixing by sexual reproduction – error and trial. For one example, two variants of a particular gene complex determine whether or not workers in fire ant colonies tolerate more than one queen.
The enormous successes of communities of “simple” ants demonstrate the wide-ranging benefits of collaboration, specialisation and security, and why socialisation has emerged and succeeded in a wide variety of organisms. More complex creatures (such as ourselves) that can learn from their experiences and store and communicate information (culture) do even better.
In On human nature Wilson discusses how human communities have benefited from the combination of diversity in personality and behaviour (determined by our genes), and malleability of culture that shapes our communal behaviour. These have made it possible for us to occupy much of the world and thrive in a wide diversity of habitats. However, only very recently have humans been more likely than ants to have understood why or how changes in genes or culture perpetuated their success, or brought about their failure.
Human communities also exist to perpetuate themselves. We have succeeded as groups because we are as we are – those that failed for whatever reason are not here. We combine the genetically driven aspects of our personality that are imbedded in the structure and function of our brain with the ability to learn (another attribute of our brain) from our experiences (including the explanations, the knowledge and the behaviour of our culture). These make us the product of complex interactions between our inherited nature and acquired nurture, each shaping the advantages offered by the other.
Unlike ants, human success is derived from the co-evolution of our individual biology with the culture of the groups within which we live. However, just as with ants, the overall success of our communities is the product of and dependent on our individual success, and vice versa.
While we may seem to be intolerant of diversity, over the long term, group natural selection has favoured diversity and tolerated tension across the spectrum from conservative stability to the variety and creativity (as described in Wilson’s The origins of creativity) that is essential for adaptation. And so, in addition to the co-evolution of biology and culture within groups, natural selection also plays out in the competition between groups.
These evolutionary interactions played out over many millions of years between genes and the slowly emerging phenomenon of culture, and in and between the small groups of our ancient sociable vertebrate and subsequent primate predecessors. It was only mere hundreds of thousands of years ago that humans eventually emerged equipped with the deeply imbedded behavioural tools to live in small collaborating social groups of about 10–100 individuals (often in conflict or an uneasy truce with neighbouring groups).
Only a few tens of thousands of years ago we discovered agriculture. Then, within the blink of the last few thousand years, we found that big works too (sort of), and have embarked on the paradigm shift of a rapid amalgamation into larger groups. In spite of the devastation of pandemics that can only emerge in large interconnected communities, we now operate with a large and growing proportion of enormous and unsustainable populations living in large cities (McNeill W, Plagues and peoples, Random House, 1976).
The “sort of” is because the acquisition and maintenance of the functional order that we create in our lived big city world comes at the expense of disorder in the rest of the biosphere on which we depend. And the wealth and power of some members of human populations are more than matched by the impoverishment and insecurity of many of the rest (here, here, and here). Although technology has so far allowed the various iterations of large communities to grow even larger and more complex, every large and dominant society that humans have created has eventually become so complex and unstable that it has fallen apart, without their collapse being understood by their constituents (Tainter JA, The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988).
It is not such a great leap to start to consider how who we are and how we got here might be shaping how we are dealing with human-induced climate change.
How can it be that, at the beginning of 2022, we find ourselves, the increasingly fractious community of humans, failing to stop ourselves from trundling inexorably towards the disruption of the comfortable niche that we occupy on our hitherto relatively stable planet (here, and here)?
We are villagers. Even when living in a big city, we tend to see ourselves as small-group people afloat in a sea of outsiders. We view the events of the world through a parochial lens that gives primary consideration to their short term impact on our own lives, and those of our family and friends. We are less interested in their impact on the human population as a whole, and generally unwilling to make sacrifices or changes to our own lives as remedies for complex emerging global problems.
Culture can adapt, although we often resist such change. On the other hand, the complex of genes that evolved to make us what we are cannot change rapidly (genetic evolution does not happen rapidly without harsh selection). Our variety and occasional contrarianism are deeply embedded. As much as totalitarian regimes may try, we are unlikely to adopt voluntarily the strict conformist behaviours of large, highly regimented populations that underpin the success of social organisms like ants, nor to accept the repression that keeps them under control. To quote Wilson in reference to rigidly controlled social ants: “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species.”
Our immediate response is to blame our politicians. After all, what have successive Australian governments managed to achieve since, in 1981, the Office of National Assessment warned the Malcolm Fraser cabinet of the risks of rising CO2 and consequent global climate change. In 1981, I was a junior hospital doctor; I am now a 70+ retiree and more than half of all Australians alive today were not even born in 1981.
We may think we elect our leaders on the unspoken promise that they will deal with the unexpected. That they will identify threats, assess our short and our long term interests, and chart a path for the community to follow, as they have often done with COVID-19. The reality is that they are just like the rest of us; shaped by what our evolution has made us, creatures that favour our personal self-interest and that of our family and the small band to which we belong. For politicians, that is their party and their ideology.
Humanity’s reluctance to act on the multitude of known consequences of climate change has not been due to a lack of comprehension of the science – environmental degradation, mass extinction and ecosystem destabilisation (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
As village folk, we are not very good at cohesive actions as huge groups, particularly those of us who are likely to have to make sacrifices without personal gain. Our evolution chose from the chance mutations and human behaviour that were on offer those attributes that had us preferring the small group interests of those close to us. Evolution could never have prepared us to accommodate large group solutions for the then unimagined challenges of the future.
As I have ruminated on our global environmental crisis, I have come to understand our insufficient responses as the complex and deep-seated consequence of who/what we evolved to be and how that shapes our response to threat. It seems we may not have the capacity to understand and manage the vast complexity of our current challenges (Buchanan M, Ubiquity: why catastrophes happen, Three Rivers Press, 2000).
Perhaps we will accept how we came to be the way we are and become able to engage in a deliberate and dramatic transformation in our behaviour, thereby taking control of our destiny having avoided the trap of our origins. If so, many of us will have to surrender a range of fundamental beliefs and reconsider our place within the interdependent ecology of a dynamic and ever-changing planet.
Or, we might simply continue to react with the behavioural and cultural tools that co-evolved in support of our success as villagers.
A lot is hanging on the outcome of this prolonged sociobiological evolutionary test of our intelligence and wisdom as problem solvers. So far, I have not seen much to suggest that we are equipped for the mammoth task of running the world as a non-competitive single global community living in a steady state, nor that we would remain content having got there. It is not impossible that, trapped by our past and unable to make the transition to successful managers of our world, we will remain stuck in an unsettled high-tech version of the fractious world of the small group niches for which we evolved to perpetuate ourselves. Wracked by conflict on a destabilised planet.
Professor Wilson might have said, “I thought as much, but hoped for more.”
Dr Will Cairns is a generally cheerful Consultant Emeritus in Palliative Medicine, an Associate Professor at James Cook University, and author of the ebook Death Rules: how death shapes life on Earth and what it means for us.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.