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11:00 am
Fri April 13, 2012

How Humans And Insects Conquered The Earth

Originally published on Fri April 13, 2012 2:05 pm

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. It's easy to assume that we humans rule the Earth. After all, we can clear-cut forests, we can chop the tops off mountains. We can harvest anything we want from the land or the sea. But before we get too cocky, let's not forget about those other titans of the Earth, the bugs.

Take ants, for example. My next guest, who may be the world's greatest ant expert, estimates the number of ants living on Earth today to be 10 to the 16th power. That's 10 thousand trillion ants. And he says if you put them all on a scale, they'd weigh about as much as all of the world's humans. Can you believe that?

But how did ants and humans, such different creatures, both evolve complex societies? And is that the key to our success? Are our instincts - are your culture and your instincts part of your genes? Just a couple of the questions my next guest, Edward O. Wilson, E.O. Wilson, writes about in his new book, "The Social Conquest of Earth." He's professor emeritus at Harvard University in Cambridge. He joins us from WBUR in Boston. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

EDWARD O. WILSON: Thank you, Ira, I'm glad to be back with you.

FLATOW: Your book is called "The Social Conquest of Earth," and in it you call humans and insects the two conquerors of Earth. What made us both so successful?

WILSON: That's a question, a question - you know, it hasn't been addressed much by scientists, and of course probably not at all by social scientists and others. We have now begun a new line of investigation, and we developed a new theory of the origin of the very advanced social systems like those of ants and bees and wasps on one side, that are the dominant forms ecologically among the little things of the Earth, and ourselves.

We have a couple of questions we need to answer. One is that if those advanced conditions of social organization which we call (unintelligible), we could define it in a moment if you like, but if they are so immensely successful, why are they so rare in the course of evolution, and why did they take so long to appear?

We're just newcomers, of course, and the social insects, they're so dominant around the world and the land, didn't show up until well into the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs. Before that, there were no creatures like us either among them or among the bigger animals.

So what's the answer to that? We had to develop a new theory which encompassed other things but also encompassed the possibility to answer that key question.

FLATOW: And what is your new theory?

WILSON: Well, at the most - at the foundation, I and a number of others have been seeing for years that there were big problems with the reigning theory, which is called kin selection theory, or kin selection. It has another name, theory of inclusive fitness. But kin selection is the one that's familiar to most people who've taken courses or read about this subject.

It's been around for 40 years, but it was - it was showing its age. It was able to seemingly predict some things, but it wasn't able to predict very much, and even the things it predicted seemed not a very good fit after all. And so it was necessary - foundationally what happened was that the new theory - I mean the old theory - emphasized the relationship between kin, particularly closely related kin, that forms a nucleus of the formation of a very advanced society and that that sort of friendliness, altruistic reciprocity between close kin, was the key to how social behavior came about, including very high social behavior.

FLATOW: In other words, if you had a lot of kin around you, you behaved well and kind toward them.

WILSON: Yeah, that was the selfish gene view. In other words, the sacrifice for your brother or your aunt, whatever close kin you have around you, and if you lose in the Darwinian race, I mean you leave fewer children as a result of that altruistic behavior and leave in the next generation fewer, then it doesn't matter because the close relative has the same genes as you by common descent, and therefore the thing, the trait that made you altruistic can evolve in a strict Darwinian manner.

That's why it was sometimes called the selfish gene theory. Well, that has, for reasons that I think we could spend the rest of the hour discussing, has largely fallen very far short. Key evidence that was thought to support it proved not to be true, and it just hasn't lived up to the demands of a really good theory, which is that a good theory fits a lot of facts, and it points clearly to new lines of investigation.

The new theory, actually, it's a piecing-together of elements that have been with us for some time, and we built up to it not just through my thinking, certainly, but through the efforts of quite a few people, is that kin selection is not important. I mean, it can occur but it most likely would lead to nepotism. It's not an important factor.

And whereas group selection had been marginalized in the kin selection scheme - that is, the competition among groups of individuals and the outcome of that competition in altruism that results in group superiority when group is pitted against group, that was marginalized, but now we see that that was a big mistake.

Kin selection is not a key factor. Group selection, combined with individual classical Darwinian selection - that is, you know, people competing with other people within the same group, that is the key, and now we're back to re-examining group selection, group versus group, in a wholly new way. And it's been yielding new ideas and information already very fast.

FLATOW: And so then in this theory, the group then seeks to help itself out. Rather than working between one-on-one kin, it's all the members of the group that are helping each other succeed.

WILSON: Yeah, there's a way of comparing group and individual-level selection. People understand immediately individual-level selection. Group selection is not hard either. And the little formula that we use just to sort of sum it all up, to make it clearer, is that within groups selfish individuals beat altruists. But between groups, groups of altruists beat groups of selfish people.

So both of those are operating simultaneously, and you can see they're operating in contest with one another. It's a conflict between those two levels. That means that within a very complex society, certainly including human societies, you are - you have conflicted individuals. You have a lack of a stable point at which individual welfare and if you want to call it selfishness cannot be expunged, and neither can altruism be expunged without respectively dissolving the society into just a bunch of competing individuals on one end and - or a robotic, ant-like society on the other end.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with E.O. Wilson, author of "The Social Conquest of Earth." Your idea was not well-greeted, if I recall, when you published that paper in 2010. Around 150 scientists wrote into Nature taking issue with this idea, did they not?

WILSON: Yeah, not at all unexpected because there were quite a few people whose research was bound up in or depended upon applications of kin selection theory. But as I said, it's a theory that wasn't working very well. It was spinning its wheels. And yes, I expected a very strong blowback. I knew how it would go. But that - you know, we do not do science by polls.

And if those who have been developing elements of the theory and beginning to express and explore it were to be polled, I mean you formed a caucus of them, it would include some of the leading experts on the various subjects that are most affected by the theory, experts on social insects, experts on the theory of evolution at different levels and so on.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let me see if I can get a quick phone call before the break. Peter in Berkley, California, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PETER: Well, thank you, it's quite an honor, and thanks for that show on space, by the way. I wondered if Dr. Wilson could comment on his - what he's just said about the kin selection versus altruistic - or altruistic reciprocity between close kin and groups what would be the prescription for a peaceful world? Would it be some kind of universal civic values alliance, perhaps, that would spread this altruism to the group as a whole, the whole human race? I've always thought about this.

FLATOW: Alright, let me get an answer...

PETER: I've always thought about this...

FLATOW: Good question. You write about this in the book a little bit.

WILSON: Yes, right, I - my take on it is that there isn't any simple formula. We never expected a simple formula in settling down humanity on this planet because so much of our behavior is inherently conflicted at the individual level and of course in - between group relationships. We just have too long and solid of a history of contravention of one form of selection by the other.

The group selection pressure is what made us. It's also the pressure that's most dangerous because although it makes us altruistic within the group, it also makes groups very easily turn against other groups. So I know I sound like I'm dodging your question, and I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILSON: But let me just put it this way: Before we solve a problem, just as in medicine and engineering, anything, we have to define what the problem is precisely, and we have to find out what might be the ways to get a solution. And in this case, the solution to finding, say, a more peaceful global community is to diagnose what we are.

FLATOW: OK, let me...

WILSON: That is to say, what are we? You know, what is the human species, and where do we come from? We need to have better self-understanding.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a break on that very deep thought for you to think about while we're in the break. Talking with E.O. Wilson, author of "The Social Conquest of Earth." 1-800-989-8255. Tweet us @scifri. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with E.O. Wilson, author of "The Social Conquest of Earth." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. And Dr. Wilson was saying that before we can solve our problems, we have to know who we are. Is it possible to know who we are?

WILSON: Yeah, the - I think it is. You - I think most people would agree that the two questions, where do we come from and what are we, I like to use the word what are we as a better, more distanced way of asking the question, we have to answer those two questions. They are the central questions of religion and philosophy. That's what makes them in part so difficult because there have been so many takes by the creation stories of different religions and by philosophers struggling to figure out what the mind is and so on.

But now I think we can cut through more quickly, with the aid of science, and science from many disciplines that range all the way from molecular genetics to archeology and then on beyond into history, to begin to settle on what an answer is.

And certainly we are a work in progress, but when we say that, we need to know why we went so far as we did. I don't want to get long-winded about it, just to say the following, and we can expatiate on that if you want. But the following is the interesting fact that came clear to me when we try to - when we review what it is we know about the course of evolution, of the forms that became very advanced in social organization, including humans.

And there is one final step that was attained and then taken by every one of the roughly 24 instances of which we have knowledge in the history of life that went to the extreme high level of social insects and humans. And that final stage was to be solitary individuals building nest, nest sites, that were valuable, that were defensible, in which the individuals raised the young progressively, by going out, finding food and bringing it and feeing to the young until they matured.

When you reach that stage, it's just one short step over to this advanced state of (unintelligible), and that can be attained by a very small genetic change, but what it means when it does happen is that group selection has to then enter the picture and overwhelm or at least compromise individual-level selection. That's the formula, and I hope that was not too unclear.

FLATOW: No, that was...

WILSON: But that's how we are approaching the problem now.

FLATOW: You write in your book that we're a mix of genes, some altruistic, some individualistic. Does that mix of genes describe what we know as human nature, what is human nature?

WILSON: I think it does. In other words, if you - there are two properties of human beings that we really don't acknowledge much, I mean in the sense of taking some more distanced views and say, saying what is peculiar about homo sapiens (unintelligible).

One is that we are extremely group-ish. People intensely desire to belong to groups, identify themselves with those groups and consider their groups to be superior to comparable, competing groups. And they may be overlapping, they may - and they are interacting, and this is what we do. We are a group-forming species.

But in addition, we are intensely interested in what other people are doing and thinking, and this is something the cognitive psychologists have come out with pretty clearly in recent years, that people are superb, all of us geniuses, at reading the intentions of others in order to get cooperation, to develop dominance, bonding and so on. And that is what is called social intelligence.

That is a - that's a consequence of group selection and is probably a hallmark of human behavior.

FLATOW: And you're saying that the most advanced groups, the most advanced colonies, ants or humans, are the ones that evolve the most altruistic behavior?

WILSON: They have. It's not easy to be an altruist, and - because there's always a countervailing pressure not to be an altruist. So in any society - and that's endemic. That means that we will never get over that conflicted nature. But that's not so bad if we can learn to live with our complex personal motivations like that, which are an endowment from the way the human species was created, starting back about three million years ago.

And we should keep in mind that that plus the two dominant features of the human social condition that I just mentioned, is the stuff of our humanities. That's what we do within the humanities: We tell stories. We dwell upon our histories. We look endlessly through novels and biographies and all the details of bonding, deception, tyranny, reversal of fortune and the like. All of this is made up out of permutations of those (unintelligible) that are unique to our form of social behavior.

FLATOW: So then there is a part of our evolution of our genes toward altruism that makes us successful?

WILSON: It is. It is. But it does have its compromises, and I'm afraid that those compromises are the difficulty of our moral decisions.

FLATOW: Please expound on that a bit, the compromises.

WILSON: Yes, because every decision that a person makes, you know - I'm now talking to something everybody knows and may not even wish to hear again - every decision that a human being makes entails a competition between reflection on individual interest in the consequences and the social interest in the consequences, even if those social interests are known or expressed to the person in his calculation by laws and rules and moral strictures.

So we are always, in every decision we make, particularly social decision, having to play those two forces one against the other. And so that's why moral reasoning is such a complicated and difficult matter. Our moral - our decisions then, in the midst of this conflict, which is inborn, that's the point I want to make, and is responsible for making us highly social in the first place, has to be thought out in contexts.

And also it has to be thought out through time, long-term consequences and short-term consequences, and that's what makes being human so difficult and why philosophers ponder so long and laboriously on the whole matter of moral reasoning, trying to get rules and patterns out of it that can serve us as a kind of guidebook.

FLATOW: Let me go to the phones, Robert in Salisbury, Maryland. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ROBERT: Oh, hi, fantastic that discussion you're having. Just one quick question, sort of comment. I believe your theory has been proven correct 100 percent by what's happening now with society, has bonded through mass communication methods. And it looks like that will be the way to overthrow anything which seems to be socially unacceptable, whether it's governmental or whatever.

And as you said earlier, more decisions (unintelligible) and it looks like the use of Facebook or whatever, Twitter, whatever, for mass communication and (unintelligible) society against evil. That's all I want to say, thank you.

FLATOW: All right, do you agree?

WILSON: It's a little hard to comment on that except to say yes, that's some of the fine detail of what we do and how we work out our day-to-day existence.

FLATOW: So you believe we're at sort of a turning point then, for our society and our evolution?

WILSON: Not necessarily. I think what we are is at a turning point in the sense of having, one, much better knowledge of where we came from. I think we need to be teaching that and investigating it as just part of routine education. And second, what are we, and why, from that history, and from what all we know of how our brain works in the like, what we are.

And the - and then we're going to be in a situation - of course we are at the turning point, and we are right on the edge of - we're in the early stage of techno-scientific revolution, where we are becoming essentially a global community in constant and minute communication. That'll change the arena somewhat, but it's not going to change our human nature or our ability to deal with our problems without a lot of calculation and without a lot of background knowledge.

FLATOW: But your research and your ideas are saying that if we want to stay a successful large community, we have to think altruistically, all of us together.

WILSON: That's correct.

FLATOW: And that's what your research with ants and your research with people have shown that if we evolve toward altruism, we'll stay successful. That means we have to get all the different parts of the world working, if there is truly, you know - we're now, through social communities, combining a lot of different - various parts of the world into a larger colony, bigger nest.

WILSON: Oh, don't use that metaphor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILSON: I know what you mean, but we don't want to become ants, surely. We want to be as fractious and quarrelsome and uncertain and dithering from now on, but we just want to do it with more wisdom and making better decisions. But basically, again, as I say, I think the time has come to put together and to put, as part of education, what a host of scientists ranging in their separate interests, all the way from molecular genetics through to portions - to the social sciences, actually, to take what they have - are putting together with increasing clarity and make that basic to our understanding of ourselves. We're not teaching anything like that now, even teaching it in - with critiques. So I hope to see that change. I hope - and I hope soon.

FLATOW: Hang on with us because joining us now is our multimedia editor, Flora Lichtman, to talk about - you recall, she made a visit to your office, Dr. Wilson, and she filmed you there. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira. Hi, Dr. Wilson. Yes.

WILSON: Hello?

LICHTMAN: This week, we - our Video Pick of the Week this week is part of the series called "Desktop Diaries." And this week's was a tour of Dr. Wilson's desk and office, he graciously let us camp out for a few hours. And I'll just set the scene a little bit, but, Dr. Wilson, feel free to jump in and correct me. So you walk in, and on one side of the hallway is the biggest ant collection in the world, and I think you said maybe a million specimens of ants?

WILSON: Yeah, about that. If you have volunteers, we can get the exact figure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Well, I'm sure the phone lines are lighting up for that.

WILSON: All right.

FLATOW: A lot of Googling going on.

LICHTMAN: And then...

WILSON: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...on the other side of - is your office and another type of collection. You have an enormous number of sort of ant-related paraphernalia. And I wonder, where did all that stuff - we never asked you while we were there - where did most of that come from?

WILSON: From people all around the world. Apparently that when friends want to, you know, give you a birthday gift or somebody I've hosted wants to send a thank-you note or I go somewhere and I give a lecture, I get a new sculpture or a photograph of an ant. So I've got a wonderful collection there, and I can't bear to throw a single one of them away.

LICHTMAN: Well, that explains it. It really is a beautiful collection, and you can see it on our website at sciencefriday.com. And I was - as I was listening to you talk, it occurred to me that maybe "Desktop Diaries," our interest in other people in this way has something to do with our genes too. You said that maybe - you know, that we're really social. I wonder, do you think that's why we like biographies and, like, sort of a human take on stories?

WILSON: Actually, yes. I was just saying - and I'm not - this is not just my perception or off the top of my head. This is what cognitive psychologists like Michael Thomas Shellow(ph), who's done brilliant work in this area, but many others as well, are showing, is that we are are about as intensely interested in other people minute by minute and just about the most gossipy conceivable species that you can imagine being produced on any planet. These are extraordinary qualities we have, and I think they're to the good. So, by all means, keep up these interviews and stories in depth and so on.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here with Flora Lichtman and with E.O. Wilson, author of "The Social Conquest of Earth." And, Flora, you took a visit and created a video this week. It's our Video Pick of the Week, a "Desktop Diary."

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Go feed your humanness with the "Desktop Diary" this week.

FLATOW: Did you - Dr. Wilson, did your desk change over the years, or is it...

WILSON: My what?

FLATOW: Your desktop...

WILSON: My desk?

FLATOW: ...has it changed over the years?

WILSON: No, I've kept that pretty clear.

FLATOW: Yeah.

WILSON: I - otherwise, well, you know what will happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILSON: I don't know about your desktop, but I keep mine clear.

LICHTMAN: One thing we heard a little bit about is how you stumbled upon ants a very long time ago. Can you give us that story? You said you were 9, I think.

WILSON: Yeah. I'm glad to do that because I just, two days ago, addressed the TEDMED organization in Washington at the Kennedy Center. And what I wanted dealt with and we were able to treat very nicely is the message to a young scientist. In fact, that's what I'm doing now, if I can intrude that. I'm writing a book called "Letters to a Young Scientist."

And now I realize, looking back, I could use my own story out of thousands that could be used. I started an interest in ants and butterflies and things like that when I was about nine years old. I had a bug period - and I think most kids do - and I just never grew out of it. I saw myself, when I wandered off into the woods with a butterfly net at an early age, as Frank Buck or some kind of adventurer or adventurer-to-be entering the jungles of distant lands and learning all about the creatures that lived them. I think it's a basic human archetype that we tend to follow. I can follow very easily. And other than that, I became a scientist. If we collected all the stories of scientists and whatever profession you really would like to understand more deeply, I think it would profit us a lot to, how would you say it, excavated - excavate by testimony and examination in just how it all got started and where those commitments came from.

FLATOW: Well, you've added to that library that we collect each week from scientists about that, and I want to thank you very much and wish you the best of luck. "The Social Conquest of Earth" by E.O. Wilson. You have a talent for describing things and knowing how hard it is for us to understand them and repeating them in your text, and we thank you for that, Dr. Wilson. And good luck with your work and your next book. We'll look forward to that.

WILSON: All right. Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you for allowing us. And thank you, Flora, for the "Desktop Diary."

LICHTMAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: It's up there at our website. It's sciencefriday.com. And you can take a look at it and download it on your iPhone or your Android app and enjoy it and share with everybody else. We're going to take a break. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.