Tuesday, July 15, 2008

EO Wilson, of Ants and Humans

Taking a Cue From Ants on Evolution of Humans

Harvard entomologist EO Wilson just celebrated his birthday. He is in his 80's, yet does not shy away from a fight, although he rarely goes looking for one. But this is an exception:

...The issue is the level at which evolution operates. Many evolutionary biologists have been persuaded, by works like “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, that the gene is the only level at which natural selection acts. Dr. Wilson, changing his mind because of new data about the genetics of ant colonies, now believes that natural selection operates at many levels, including at the level of a social group....

Soon after Wilson and co-author David Sloan Wilson published this work, they were attacked by Richard Dawkins:

...Their statement evoked a heated response from Dr. Dawkins in New Scientist; he accused them of lying on a minor point and demanded an apology...

You know you must be on the right track, when you illicit personal attacks from Atheist front-man Dawkins! Wilson's hypothesis basically boils down to this:

...It is through multilevel or group-level selection — favoring the survival of one group of organisms over another — that evolution has in Dr. Wilson’s view brought into being the many essential genes that benefit the group at the individual’s expense. In humans, these may include genes that underlie generosity, moral constraints, even religious behavior. Such traits are difficult to account for, though not impossible, on the view that natural selection favors only behaviors that help the individual to survive and leave more children...

This flies in the face of "selfish gene" advocates (like Dawkins) who at best feel religion and spirituality are archaic traits of no use today (such as our appendix), or at worst dangerous virus-like mutations which need to be immunized against.

“...Groups with men of quality — brave, strong, innovative, smart and altruistic — would tend to prevail, as Darwin said, over those groups that do not have those qualities so well developed,” Dr. Wilson said...“I believe that deep in their heart everyone working on social insects is aware that the selection that created them is multilevel selection,” Dr. Wilson said...

Don't you love that a fellow who studies ants (well, admittedly he is the world's leading authority on the critters) can cause such a ruckus!

I always encourage any new Pagan or Wiccan to immerse themselves in the study of nature. Pick some '...ology' and read all you can on it. Birding is great. So is gardening. How 'bout rocks and minerals? But in my humble opinion, the two most valuable fields to embrace are entomology and astronomy. And both are open to people of limited funds and time, and amateurs are welcome and can even make contributions.

2 comments:

Yvonne said...

I've been reading Mary Midgley's excellent book "Science and Poetry", and it seems there are quite a few biologists who are prepared to criticise Dawkins' model. Of course genes interact with the environment, both inside the cell and beyond the organism. The reason the selfish gene idea was so popular, says Midgley, was because of the political climate of the 80s and 90s - nowt to do with good science.

genexs said...

Hi Yvonne:

Thanx for the book recommendation. It's good to see some scientists are starting to give the 'Atheist Supremacists' a hard time. They deserve it.