1978, 2004 (with new preface), Harvard University Press, 282 pages
This book fills me with awe. Reading it gives me the sense that everything is possible, not just in science, but in my own field of dramatic literary theory. All that it takes for success is an idea, the conviction to pursue the idea, and the daring to continue when the world misinterprets and turns against you. In the 1950s, Wilson discovered how the social insects communicate with one another with (through pheromones or smell). In the 1970s, Wilson took what he had learned from insect behaviour, and applied it to vertebrate animals, including humans. Behaviour, he argued, is genetically determined. He created a new field called sociobiology, sometimes known as evolutionary psychology. For this endeavour, he was called out in many quarters. In the 1990s, he attempted to unite science with the humanities through the concept of consilience. In 2021, he is 91 years old and still active. His life and work inspire me. He has the fire.
On Human Nature inspired two book chapters that are coming out later this year. Wilson’s work on tribalism directly informed my essay: “Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes: A Patriot’s View of Patriotism.” Wilson’s work also indirectly influenced another essay: “Tragedy, Comedy, and Chance in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.” In this second essay, it was Wilson’s beautiful image of anastomosing paths and forks that inspired me. Wilson is as much a scientist as he is an artist. He writes with beauty.
Wilson’s book has also solved a long-standing mystery. I’ve been a fan of Nietzsche for a long time. One of the core ideas in his thinking is the “will to power.” To Nietzsche, the will to power is an unconscious drive that seeks to survive, and not only survive, but to assert control and dominion in the process of surviving. It is a life force. The feeling of strength. The fuse of life. In this post, I described it as a form of “appetite.” Jaspers, in his book-length critique of Nietzsche, threw me a sidewinder, however. Jaspers said that Nietzsche knew that he could not prove the will to power, and consequently abandoned his attempts to make it the centrepiece of a philosophical doctrine. Nietzsche had hypothesized that the will to power was the base human drive. Like other base human drives driving the other human drives, he could not demonstrate its existence. I was perplexed. After reading Wilson, I understood why: to demonstrate the will to power, Nietzsche needed a theory of sociobiology, a theory that said that human behaviours originated from something material such as the genes. The will to power, as a human behaviour, can, in the centuries to come, be demonstrated or falsified by science. It exists as a genetic imperative, or does not.
This insight filled me with tremendous awe. Even in my middle age, there are so many rudimentary ideas on things I have been thinking about my whole life I am only beginning to grasp. Amazing. This feeling of wonder and awe is what makes it all worthwhile.
On Human Nature offers a naturalistic view of human nature to compete with two views prevalent in the 1970s. The first competing view was from religion, which saw human nature as a creation of God, to be understood through the words of the prophets. The second competing view was from the behaviorists, who saw the mind as a blank slate to be molded by culture. Culture in turn is the learned response to environment. Wilson creates the field of sociobiology–also called evolutionary psychology–to test the hypothesis that the brain is biological in origin and structured by evolution through natural selection.
If Wilson is correct, human nature, instinct, and social behaviour have a biological basis grounded on thousands of millennia of evolution. Genetics and evolutionary theory, rather than learning, can explain behaviour:
In spite of the phylogenetic remoteness of vertebrates and insects and the basic distinction between their respective personal and impersonal systems of communication, these two groups of animals have evolved social behaviors that are similar in degree of complexity and convergent in many important details.
Sociobiology looks at how human behaviour is related to the social behaviours of all known social organisms, from bacteria and coelenterates through insects and vertebrates.
The point of this book is to demonstrate, writes Wilson, that the same principles that govern social insects can govern vertebrate animals. One theory can govern animal behaviour from termite colonies to troops of rhesus monkeys and human beings.
Chapter 1: Dilemma
To philosopher David Hume, the question of how the mind works, why it works one way and not another, and, from these considerations, the question of man’s ultimate nature is the question of questions. If mind is a biological device, then it is the process of natural selection that drives us to select religious or esthetic choices. Our ultimate nature is to promote the survival of our genes. First dilemma is that our biological nature directs our goals, dreams, and ambitions. Religions and secular religions such as Marxism are enabling mechanisms for survival. They are a legislated escape from the consequences of human nature but are energized by the will to self-aggrandizement. Result of the first dilemma: once we solve the problems of our age, then what? Ennui follows.
Second dilemma is that our ethical premises are based on innate censors and motivators in our brain. Morality evolved as an instinct. Philosophers make definitive statements without this evolutionary perspective: this is a mistake. Science can encroach on the humanities. Take John Rawls and A Theory of Justice. He understands that the liberties of equal citizenship are settled. The function of the state is to ensure the equal distribution of resources. Then look at Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He begins as well by asserting human liberties. But then he suggests a meritocracy: the function of the state is minimal, only to enforce law and order. Unequal distribution is alright. Who is right? Without an understanding of the biological basis of human nature, it is hard to decide. Philosophy must be combined with biology.
Each discipline is antidiscipline to another discipline. Chemistry is antidiscipline to biology. Chemists view that biology must be reducible to the laws of chemistry while biologists view their investigations as too complex to be reduced to an atomic viewpoint. In the struggle for supremacy between discipline and antidiscipline, scientific materialism progresses.
The scientific viewpoint is not completely reductionist, however. In more complex interactions, emergent phenomena take place that cannot be explained by the underlying antidiscipline. Take haplodiploidy. In haplodiploidy, females choose the sex of the offspring. Because of this selection process, the insects which engage in haplodiploidy–wasps, bees, and ants–evolved the emergent phenomenon of complex social structures. Science, therefore, is not a danger to the humanities, but another tool to be used by the humanities in grappling with the question of human nature.
Chapter 2: Heredity
To develop and justify ways to structure human life, philosophers and social scientists have conducted thought experiments to see how man behaved without the trappings of culture. Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have all developed social models based on their mental reconstructions of hunter-gatherer life. Their models are mistaken because they did not take science into account.
Take incest taboos, for example. Anthropologists have built theories that find incest taboos exist because, without them, the integrity of the family unit would be broken. Other anthropologists, following Claude Lévi-Strauss, find that incest taboos facilitate the exchange of women between social groups. Sociobiology, grounded on science, finds that incest taboos exist because it is a behaviour bred into the genes of human behaviour. Incest produces inferior offspring. Humans who did not have the incest taboo were less successful at passing on their genes as humans who did have the incest taboo. That the incest taboo is an inherited behaviour can be seen in the kibbutz arrangement of living: despite a lack of pressure from parents, children who have grown up together up to the age of six will not marry one another.
Sociobiology is defined by Wilson as a meeting between ethology, psychology, and biology. It considers behaviour to be encoded into the genes. As a result, humans, in the building of culture, are not unique. We are much like colony forming invertebrates (e.g. coral, bryozoans), social insects (termites, wasps, bees, ants), and social fish, birds, and mammals. Sociobiologists look at humanity as through a telescope and consider behaviour to arise from the interaction between genes and the environment. Human behaviour is shaped by natural selection and is not unique. It is no longer possible to say only human behaviour is symbolic behaviour; chimpanzees can also use symbolic language.
While proponents of culture argue that, for the last 5000 years (since the rise of civilization), culture rather than genetics has determined human behaviour, Wilson points out culture can only bend biology so far. Things would go badly quickly, for example, if culture prescribed that humans lived like apes or ants. Humans, for example, have the following characteristics that are irrevocable: “Age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, etc.,” while ants exhibit the following behaviours: “Age-grading, antennal rites, body licking, calendar, cannibalism, caste determination, caste laws, colony-foundation rules, communal nurseries, etc.,” Wilson’s bottom line is that culture moves between the parameters set by genetics. Culture can prescribe unhuman behaviour, but it will be short lived. Biology is destiny.
Chapter 3: Development
In the debunked theory of humorism, human nature is seen as the outcome of the balance between the four humours of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. In sociobiology, human nature is seen as the outcome of the balance between more than 250 thousand pairs of genes. Genetic determinism is the new phrase of sociobiology.
Geneticist Conrad H. Waddington has an image of how genes develop into behavior. Each human trait, whether mental or physical, is like a boulder rolling down from the highlands to the sea. On the way down are many anastomosing channels that fork. Genes make some of the channels deeper, others narrower. Some channels are available, others are not. The final outcome of where the boulder or ball lands is only statistically predictable.
We like to think of human learning as infinite. Biology, however, tells us that our learning potential is programmed by the structure of the brain: we are allowed to learn some things, but not other things. An example: when a chick is given an electric shock on the beak and shown a flash of light, the chick will avoid the flash of light in the future. When a chick, however, is given an electric shock on the beak and hears a clicking sound at the same time, the chick will not avoid the clicking sound in the future. This same chick, if given an electric shock on the foot and a clicking sound, will avoid the clicking sound in the future. But, if given an electric shock on the foot and a flash of light, will not avoid the flash of light in the future. The chick’s brain tells the chick: learn the things that you can see that affect your head and the things that you can hear that affect your feet. Humans are more advanced than chicks, but our ability is not limitless.
Chapter 4: Emergence
Free will may be delusion. A honeybee, in a life of 50 days, thinks it has free will by learning the time of day, the location of the hive, the location of up to five fields, and the odour of its nestmates. But in doing all these things, it is only carrying out its genetic imperative. The human brain, even though “an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern,” can only do what it has been programmed to do. In future years, the paradox of freedom and free will will be solved as an empirical problem by biologists and physicists.
Wilson uses the failure of slavery to demonstrate the triumph of human biology. In insect societies–such as the red Polyergus ants–slavery is a permanent fixture. Humans, however, resist slavery so that slave societies always come to an end. Unlike the ants, humans lack a biological basis for slavery. Slavery is imposed on human beings as part of culture. Culture, however, can only overcome biology for so long before biology reasserts itself.
Further evidence of a biological basis for culture can be seen in the rise of the different civilizations: Rome, Sumer, Mesoamerica, etc., All civilizations follow a template of development from ad hoc ritual, and local group autonomy through to craft specialization and elite endogamy to codified law and taxation. Wilson suggests the template of development is due to culture and civilization refining biology through a process of an intense hypertrophy biologically meaningful institutions of hunter-gatherer bands.
Chapter 5: Aggression
This is the first of four chapters looking at a human behaviour through a sociobiological lens. Wilson finds that theoreticians who find that culture–and not the genes–is to blame for aggression are mistaken. By looking at human beings through the principles of animal ecology, a form of studies usually reserved for lower animals, it appears that the best way to human aggression as a mix of chemicals preexisting in the human mind that, mixed with the appropriate spark, will burn. This sociobiological view of aggression differs from other models of aggression such as the “drive-discharge” model of Freud and Lorenz or the “learned anger” model of blank-slate behaviourists.
Just because a trait fails to develop in a specific environment does not mean the trait is not intrinsic to a species. In other words, that a handful of tribes are pacifist does not mean that human beings are not innately aggressive. The right environmental trigger must be present to activate human aggression, which can take many forms. Wilson uses the simpler example of the rattlesnake to demonstrate different types of rattlesnake aggression that only occur when triggered by the environment. Rattlesnakes, when going after prey, will bite them and kill them. But when male rattlesnakes compete with one another over a female, they will wrestle, but not bite one another, even though their venom would be lethal. At other times, when the rattlesnake may be in danger, it will take on a different form of aggression by moving its head to the centre of the coil in striking position, and shaking its rattle. Then again, when a rattlesnake encounters a king snake or another predator that specializes in killing snakes, the rattlesnake will coil, cover its head, and bat the intruder with one of its coils. Human beings are the same, writes Wilson. They will become aggressive when confronted with the appropriate situation.
Wilson goes on to examine a particular aspect of human aggression associated with territorial behaviour. He finds that, if humans inhabit an arid land where game and plant food are poor, society will remain nomadic. No bands or villages form. No concept of land ownership develops. Territorial aggression is absent. The Western Shoshoni living in the Great Basin is an example of this. In contrast, however, the Owens Valley Paiute occupied a fertile land full of game and plant food. Here, the territory is worth defending, and the people living here organized into villages and bands. Social and religious sanctions rose up to justify territorial aggression.
Wilson finds that, although the genes encode aggression, the conscious mind never experiences the raw biological process. In territorial aggression, for example, the conscious mind does not process interference competition, density dependence, or human and animal demography. The raw biological process, however, manifests itself through the creation of social and religious customs which justify the raw biological drive of aggression.
Chapter 6: Sex
This is the second of four chapters looking at a human behaviour through a sociobiological lens. Why has sex evolved if it can be made private, direct, safe, energetically cheap, and selfish? Nature’s point of sex, argues Wilson, is to create diversity and a division of labour. Diversity is achieved through sex because each offspring only shares half of the genes of each of the creating organisms. Division of labour is achieved when one of the sexes specializes in producing sperm and the other the egg. Wilson speculates that, from this primal division of labour, secondary traits emerged such as sexual bonding and family stability which gave homo sapiens a Darwinian advantage. Secondary or tertiary divisions of labour may be seen in both modern societies and living hunter-gatherer societies. As typical, Wilson emphasizes the biological and evolutionary differences in sex over cultural differences: in sociobiological theory, culture may only move between the imperatives laid down by biology.
Wilson cites evidence of genetic differences in male and female behaviour in contemporary society while admitting that such differences (though he believes unlikely) may be cultural. His strongest argument is the evidence from the accidental birth of hormone-induced hermaphrodites in the 1950s. In the 1950s, women were often given progestins, a substance that mimics male hormones, to prevent miscarriage. The hermaphrodites born to some of these women are genetically female with female internal sex organs. These hermaphrodites were also raised in the normal manner that girls were raised. Subsequent studies of these progestin-altered girls reveal that they often displayed dissatisfaction with being assigned a female role and preferred toy guns to dolls. Wilson takes this as the best evidence he can find that male and female behaviour have a biological rather than a cultural origin.
Wilson finds that human beings are connoisseurs of sexual pleasure not for the sake of reproduction, but for the sake of bonding. Bonding, to Wilson, is a trait that gives humans an evolutionary leg up. Natural-law theory and the church, which see sex as strictly a tool of procreation, is incorrect. To argue that sex is for the sake of bonding, Wilson presents a “kin-selection” hypothesis to explain homosexuality in the context of sociobiology. He postulates that the behaviour of homosexuality has a biological basis as it is practised by insects to mammals, with 4 percent of men identifying as exclusively homosexual and 13 percent of men being predominantly homosexual for a portion of their lives. Homosexuality, argues Wilson, is a type of bonding that favours the surrounding kin. Homosexuals expend their energies supporting their kin group. Shamans, seers, artists, and similar have been observed to perform this role. Kin groups, therefore, with homosexual individuals had an evolutionary advantage over kin groups without homosexual specialists. Wilson notes that this kin-selection hypothesis is quite radical.
Chapter 7: Altruism
Altruism or compassion is Wilson’s third chapter on the sociobiological basis of human emotions. Robins, chimpanzees, and other animals display the behaviour of altruism that is the glue of society. Only insects, however, will perform heroic feats of altruistic suicide that is often performed by soldiers in war. While the form and content of human altruism is largely determined by culture, the underlying emotion is evolved through genes. Wilson proposes two types of altruism: “hard-core” altruism which is irrational, directed towards the kin group, and expects nothing in return and “soft-core” altruism which is calculating, expects a return, and, ultimately, selfish.
In honey bees and termites, hard-core altruism prevails. But, if hard-core altruism were to prevail in human societies, civilization could not develop: people would favour kin and tribe to too large a degree. Hard-core altruism is inimical to larger society. For social harmony and homeostasis, soft-core altruism is required. Wilson argues that the closest we can come to a controlled experiment on where human altruism lies on the spectrum between hard- and soft-core is by observing immigrating ethnic groups under stress. Studies of Chinese and Jewish immigrations suggest that: 1) when historical circumstances bring race, class, and ethnic membership into conflict, the individual manoeuvres to achieve the least amount of conflict, 2) during these conflicts, an individual considers his own interests over others, and 3) kin, racial, or ethnic interests may prevail temporarily, but in the long run it is socioeconomic interests that dictate action.
The behaviour of altruism, concludes Wilson, though linked to morality and inscribed into moral codes, is a genetic phenomenon. Though culture can prescribe higher ethical values, culture is on the long rein of biology. Altruism, at bottom, is part of a circuitous process created by evolution to keep genetic material intact and to pass genetic material on to new generations. “Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function,” says Wilson as he ends the chapter.
Chapter 8: Religion
Religion is Wilson’s fourth chapter on the sociological basis of human behaviours. Religion to Wilson is an ineradicable part of human behaviour. Even though religion loses out in its confrontations with the enlightenment and scientific materialism, it offers a hope in immortality and an everlasting kingdom that nothing else can offer. From at least 60,000 years ago to the first Neanderthal burial rites, humans have created in the order of 100,000 different religions.
That religion is a sociobiological phenomenon may be seen in Nietzsche’s quote that people would rather believe in the void than be void of purpose. Groups predisposed to religious belief may have a better chance of survival as religion is the process whereby an individual is persuaded to subordinate self for group interest. Religious ceremonies such as the potlatch are conspicuous displays in which leaders can advertise wealth and mobilize kin groups.
Humans today are still ruled by myth. The three primary myths in conflict in this day and age, writes Wilson are: traditional religion, scientific materialism, and Marxism. Although Marxism sees itself as a branch of scientific materialism, sociobiology would disagree. The Marxist perception of history as a class struggle whereby lightly governed workers would control the means of production is supposed to be based on a subtle understanding of the pure economic process. It is incorrect. It is based on a mistaken view of human nature. Wilson declares that Marxism is sociobiology without the biology. Although Marxism was founded to combat ignorance and superstition, in denying the biological basis of human nature and asserting too much credit to culture, Marxism is itself, in the end, a form of superstition. Wilson finds that, on account of this, traditional religion will outlast Marxism.
Chapter 9: Hope
Biology, neurobiology, and sociobiology are the antidisciplines to the social sciences. The failure of social sciences great models (Marxism, rationalist economics, etc.,) is because they had an insufficient knowledge of human nature. The way to understand human nature is through biology. The great myth of scientific materialism is evolution and the pinnacle of evolution is the human brain.
Human values must be understood through their phylogenetic development through evolution. What we may value as our highest ideals may not be the ideals of other organisms: ants, for example, would view individual freedom as a great evil.
Since behaviour is based in genetics, with the unlocking of genetics, it will be possible one day to change human nature itself. We will be able to become more or less smart, more or less caring, more or less artistic, more or less selfish. So far, natural evolution keeps human nature in a homeostasis. Soon we can evolve our own human natures. Will we continue to build space age cultures from stone age behavious? Or will we give ourselves new space age behaviours to suit space age society? These are all the worthwhile questions to ask.
In his new preface, E. O. Wilson reflects on how he came to write this book, how The Insect Societies led him to write Sociobiology, and how the political and religious uproar that engulfed that book persuaded him to write another book that would better explain the relevance of biology to the understanding of human behavior.
Edward O. Wilson is Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard University. In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes (one of which he shares with Bert Hölldobler), Wilson has won many scientific awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He is the author of many books, including Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus.
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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil