Can deep philosophical questions regarding human societies be solved by studying cell biology and animal group behaviour? EO Wilson thinks so, and in Genesis he turns his attention from the macro to the micro, asking to what extent our underlying biology can explain why humans behave as we do. He appears determined to wrestle the debate over the meaning of human existence – if any – from the arena of theology into the warm, comforting arms of the sciences.
Specifically, he wishes to address evolutionary questions about altruism and eusociality – when individuals in a population work together as a single organism to ensure the collective survival of the species. First, why is eusociality so rare in the natural world? Only around 20,000 out of over a million insect species appear to show signs of eusociality, for example. But when it does exist, how does it actually work? Why, if, as is often observed, certain individuals choose to immolate themselves for the greater good, are the genes that dictate such behaviour not bred out? Based on common knowledge of ‘survival of the fittest’, self-sacrifice would not appear a very successful method for ensuring the prosperity of one’s genetic code.
It’s hard to imagine anyone besides Wilson tackling complex, abstract concepts around ecology, biology and anthropology in such a calm and clear manner, even if he does unashamedly maintain a heavy scientific approach that requires completely focused concentration in order to follow his thought process. It’s hard to identify many real definitive conclusions, besides that Homo sapiens are a social species that evolved with a high value upon altruism. But for anyone with an interest in understanding how Wilson’s mind ticks, it’s certainly a valuable addition to his long line of work.
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