From The Social Conquest of the Earth by Edward O. Wilson


D’ou Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous;  P. Gauguin / 1897

 And as for you, Paul Gauguin, why did you write those lines on your painting? Of course, the ready answer I suppose is that you wanted to be very clear about the symbolization of the great range of human activity depicted in your Taihitian panorama, just in case someone might miss the point But I sense there was something more. Perhaps you asked the three questions in such a way to imply that no answers exist, either in the civilized world you rejected and left behind or in the primitive world you adopted in order to find peace. Or again, perhaps you meant that art can go no further than what you have done; and all that was left for you to do personally was express the troubling questions in script. Let me suggest yet another reason for the mystery you left us, one not necessarily in conflict with these other conjectures. I think what you wrote is a exclamation of triumph. You had lived out your passion to travel far, to discover and embrace novel styles of visual art, to ask the questions in a new way, and from all that create an authentically original work. In this sense your career is one for the ages; it was not paid out in vain. In our own time, by bringing rational analysis and art together and joining science and humanities in partnership we have drawn closer to the answers you sought.
Edward O. Wilson, 2012

 (Here I give you the final chapter, A New Enlightenment, from Wilson’s Book, his own answer, as it were, to Paul Gauguin’s three questions above. And if he would allow us to share his answer I would not hesitate to say that this is my answer as well.)

Scientific knowledge and technology double every one to two decades, depending on the discipline in which information is measured. This exponential growth makes the future impossible to predict beyond a decade, let alone centuries or millennia. Futurists are therefore prone to dwell upon those directions which, in their opinion, humanity should go. But given our miserable lack of self-understanding as a species, the better goal at this time may be to choose where not to go. What, then, should we be careful to avoid? In thinking about the subject, we are destined always to come back full circle to the existential questions—Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Human beings are actors in a story. We are the growing point of an unfinished epic. The answer to the existential questions must lie in history, and that, of course, is the approach taken by the humanities. But conventional history by itself is truncated, in both its timeline and its perception of the human organism. History makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology.

Humanity is a biological species in a biological world. In every function of our bodies and mind and at every level, we are exquisitely well adapted to live on this particular planet. We belong in the biosphere of our birth. Although exalted in many ways, we remain an animal species of the global fauna. Our lives are restrained by the two laws of biology: all of life’s entities and processes are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry; and all of life’s entities and processes have arisen through evolution by natural selection.

The more we learn about our physical existence, the more apparent it becomes that even the most complex forms of human behavior are ultimately biological. They display the specializations evolved across millions of years by our primate ancestors. The indelible stamp of evolution is clear in the idiosyncratic manner in which humanity’s sensory channels narrow our unaided perception of reality. It is confirmed in the way hereditarily prepared and counter prepared programs guide the development of mind.

Still, we cannot escape the question of free will, which some philosophers still argue sets us apart. It is a product of the subconscious decision-making center of the brain that gives the cerebral cortex the illusion of independent action. The more the physical processes of consciousness have been defined by scientific research, the less has been left to any phenomenon that can be intuitively labeled as free will. We are free as independent beings, but our decisions are not free of all the organic processes that created our personal brains and minds. Free will therefore appears to be ultimately biological.

Yet, by any conceivable standard, humanity is far and away life’s greatest achievement. We are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and—who can say?—perhaps the galaxy. Looking about us, we have learned to translate into our narrow audiovisual systems the sensory modalities of other organisms. We know much of the physicochemieal basis of our own biology. We will soon create simple organisms in the laboratory. We have learned the history of the universe and look out almost to its edge.

Our ancestors were one of only two dozen or so animal lines ever to evolve eusociality, the next major level of biological organization above the organismic. There, group members across two or more generations stay together, cooperate, care for the young, and divide labor in a way favoring reproduction of some individuals over that in others. The prehumans were far greater in physical size than any of the eusocial insects and other invertebrates. They were endowed with much larger brains from the start. In time they hit upon the symbol-based language, and literacy, and science-based technology that give us the edge over the rest of life. Now, except for behaving like apes much of the time and suffering genetically limited life spans, we are godlike.

What dynamical force lifted us to this high estate? That is a question of enormous importance for self-understanding. The apparent answer is multilevel natural selection. At the higher level of the two relevant levels of biological organization, groups compete with groups, favoring cooperative social traits among members of the same group. At the lower level, members of the same group compete with one another in a manner that leads to self-serving behavior. The opposition between the two levels of natural selection has resulted in a chimeric genotype in each person. It renders each of us part saint and part sinner.

The interpretation of human selection forces I have presented in The Social Conquest of Earth, on the basis of recent research, opposes the theory of inclusive fitness and replaces it with standard models of population genetics applied to multiple levels of natural selection. Inclusive fitness is based on kin selection, in which individuals tend to cooperate with one another, or not, according to how close they are genealogically. This mode of selection, if defined broadly enough, was thought to explain all forms of social behavior, including advanced social organization. The opposing explanation, including a mathematical critique of inclusive-fitness theory, was fully developed from 2004 to 2010.

Given the technical complexity and importance of the subject, the controversy engendered by the new approach can be expected to continue for years, perhaps long after my own ability to grasp new data comes to an end. In the event, however, that the theory of inclusive fitness continues to be widely used, that should have little effect on the perception of group selection as the driving force of where we have been and where we arc going. Theorists of inclusive fitness themselves have argued that kin selection can be translated into group selection, even though that belief now has been disproved mathematically. More importantly, group selection is clearly the process responsible for advanced social behavior. It also possesses the two elements necessary for evolution. First, group-level traits, including cooperativeness, empathy, and patterns of networking, have been, found to be heritable in humans—that is, they vary genetically in some degree from one person to the next. And second, cooperation and unity manifestly affect the survival of groups that are competing.

It is further the case that the perception of group selection as the main driving force of evolution fits well with a great deal of what is most typical—and perplexing—about human nature. It also finds resonance in the evidence from the otherwise disparate fields of social psychology, archaeology, and evolutionary biology that human beings are intensely tribalist by nature. A basic element of human nature is that people feel compelled to belong to groups and, having joined, consider them superior to competing groups.

Multilevel selection (group and individual selection combined) also explains the conflicted nature of motivations. Every normal person feels the pull of conscience, of heroism against cowardice, of truth against deception, of commitment against withdrawal. It is our fate to be tormented with large and small dilemmas as we daily wind our way through the risky, fractious world that gave us birth. We have mixed feelings. We are not sure of this or that course of action. We understand too well that no one is so wise and great that he cannot make a catastrophic mistake, or any organization so noble to be free of corruption. We, all of us, live out our lives in conflict and contention.

The struggles born of multilevel natural selection are also where the humanities and social sciences dwell. Human beings are fascinated by other human beings, as are all other primates riveted by their own kind. We are pleased endlessly to watch and analyze our relatives, friends, and enemies. Gossip has always been the favorite occupation, in every society from hunter-gatherer bands to royal courts. To weigh as accurately as possible the intentions and trustworthiness of those who affect our own personal lives is both very human and highly adaptive. It is also adaptive to judge the impact of others’ behavior on the welfare of the group as a whole. We are geniuses at reading intentions of others while they too struggle hour by hour with their own angels and demons. Civil law is the means by which we moderate the damage of our inevitable failures.

The confusion is compounded by the fact that humanity lives in a largely mythic, spirit-haunted world. We owe that to our early history, When our remote ancestors acquired a fall recognition of their personal mortality, probably 100,000 to 75,000 years ago, they sought an explanation of who they were and the meaning of the world each was destined soon to leave. They must have asked. Where do the dead go? Into the spirit world, many believed. And how might we see them, again? It was possible to do so at any time by dreams, or drugs, or magic, or self-inflicted privation and torture.

The early humans had no knowledge of Earth beyond the reach of their territory and trading networks. They knew nothing of the sky beyond the celestial sphere on the inner surface across which traveled the sun, moon, and stars. To explain the. mysteries of their existence, they believed in the superior beings otherwise like themselves, the divine ones who built not just stone tools and shelters but the whole universe. As chiefdoms and then political states evolved, the people imagined that supernatural rulers must exist in addition to the Earth-bound rulers they followed.

The early humans needed a story of everything important that happened to them, because the conscious mind cannot work without stories and explanations of its own meaning. The best, the only way our forebears could manage to explain existence itself was a creation myth. And every creation myth, without exception, affirmed the superiority of the tribe that invented it over all other tribes. That much assumed, every religious believer saw himself as a chosen person.

Organized religions and their gods, although conceived in ignorance of most of the real world, were unfortunately set in stone in early history. As in the beginning, they are everywhere still an expression of tribalism by which the members establish their own identity and special relation to the supernatural world. Their dogmas codify rules of behavior that the devout can accept absolutely without hesitation. To question the sacred myths is to question the identity and worth of those who believe them. That is why skeptics, including those committed to different, equally absurd myths, are so righteously disliked. In some countries, they risk imprisonment or death.

Yet the same biological and historical circumstances that led us into the sloughs of ignorance have in other ways served humanity well. Organized religions preside over the rites of passage, from birth to maturity, from marriage to death. They offer the best a tribe has to offer: a committed community that gives heartfelt emotional support, and welcomes, and forgives. Beliefs in the gods, whether single or multiple, sacralize communal actions, including the appointment of leaders, obedience to laws, and declarations of war. Beliefs in immortality and ultimate divine justice give priceless comfort, and they steel resolution and bravery in difficult times. For millennia, organized religions have been the source of much of the best in the creative arts.

Why, then, is it wise openly to question the myths and gods of organized religions? Because they are stultifying and divisive. Because each is just one version of a competing multitude of scenarios that possibly can be true. Because they encourage ignorance, distract people from recognizing problems of the real world, and often lead them in wrong directions into disastrous actions. True to their biological origins, they passionately encourage altruism within their membership, and systematically extend it to outsiders, albeit usually with the additional aim of proselytization. Commitment to a particular faith is by definition religious bigotry. No Protestant missionary ever advises his flock to consider Roman Catholicism or Islam as a possibly superior alternative. He must by implication declare them inferior.

Yet it is foolish to think that organized religions can be pulled up anytime soon by their deep roots and replaced with a rationalist passion for morality. More likely it will happen gradually, as it is occurring in Europe, pushed along by several ongoing trends. The most potent of the trends Is the increasingly detailed scientific reconstruction of religious belief as an. evolutionary biological product. When placed in opposition, to creation myths and their theological excesses, the reconstruction is increasingly persuasive to any even slightly open mind. Another trend against the misadventure of sectarian devotion is the growth of the internet and the globalization of institutions and people using it. A recent analysis has shown that the increasing interconnection of people worldwide strengthens their cosmopolitan attitudes. It does so by weakening the relevance of ethnicity, locality, and nationhood, as sources of identification. It enhances a second trend, the homogenization of humanity in race and ethnicity through intermarriage. Inevitably, it will weaken confidence in creation myths and sectarian dogmas.

A good, first step toward the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully, the claims of those in power who say they speak for God, are a special representative of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God’s divine will. Included, among these purveyors of theological narcissism are would-be prophets, the founders of religious cults, impassioned evangelical ministers, ayatollahs, imams of the grand mosques, chief rabbis, Rosh yeshivas, the Dalai Lama, and the pope. The same is true for dogmatic political ideologies based on unchallengeable precepts, left or right, and especially where justified with the dogmas of organized religions. They may contain intuitive wisdom worth, hearing. Their leaders may mean well. But humanity has suffered enough from grossly inaccurate history told by mistaken prophets.

I am reminded of a story, told me long ago by a medical entomologist, about the transmission of relapsing fever by Ornithodorus ticks in West. Africa. When the fever became severe, he said, it was the practice of the people to move the village to a new location. One day, as such an emigration was under way, he saw an elder picking up some of the ugly distant relatives of spiders off the dirt floor of a dwelling and placing them carefully in a small box. When asked why he was doing this, the man said he was transporting them, to the new site, because “their spirits protect us from the fever.”

Another argument, for a new Enlightenment is that we are alone on this planet with whatever reason and understanding, we can muster, and hence solely responsible for our actions as a species. The planet we have conquered is not just a stop along the way to a better world out there in some other dimension. Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have. The evidence for climate warming, with industrial pollution as the principal cause, is now overwhelming. Also evident upon even casual inspection is the rapid disappearance of tropical forests and grasslands and other habitats where most of the diversity of life exists. If global changes caused by HIPPO (Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, Overpopulation, and Overharvesting, in that order of importance) are not abated, half the species, of plants and animals could be extinct or at least among the “living dead” — about to become extinct — by the end of the century. We are needlessly turning the gold we inherited from our forebears into straw, and for that we will be despised by our descendants.

The obliteration of biodiversity in the living world has received much less attention than climate changes, depletion of irreplaceable resources, and other transformations of the physical environment. It would be wise to observe the following principle: if we save the living world, we will also automatically save the physical world, because in order to achieve the first we must also achieve the second. But if we save only the physical, world, which appears our present inclination, we will ultimately lose them both. Until recently there existed many kinds of birds we will never again see fly. Gone are frogs we will never again hear calling on warm rainy nights. Gone are fish flashing silver in our impoverished lakes and streams.

It will be useful in taking a second look at science and religion to understand the true nature of the search for objective truth. Science is not just another enterprise like medicine or engineering or theology. It is the wellspring of all the knowledge we have of the real world that can be tested and fitted to preexisting knowledge. It is the arsenal of technologies and inferential mathematics needed to distinguish the true from the false. It formulates the principles and formulas that tie all this knowledge together. Science belongs to everybody. Its constituent parts can be challenged by anybody in the world, who has sufficient information to do so. It is not just “another way of knowing” as often claimed, making it coequal with religious faith. The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religions is irreconcilable. The chasm will continue to widen and cause no end of trouble as long as religious leaders go on making unsupportable claims about supernatural causes of reality.

Another principle that I believe can be justified by scientific evidence so far is that nobody is going to emigrate from this planet, not ever. On a local scale—the solar system—it makes little sense to continue exploration by sending live astronauts to the moon, and much less to Mars and beyond to where simple alien life forms might reasonably be sought—on Europa, the ice-sheathed moon of Jupiter, and on fiery Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. It will be far cheaper, and entail no risk to human life, to explore space with robots. The technology is already well along, in rocket propulsion, robotics, remote analysis, and information transmission, to send robots that can do more than any human visitor, including decisions made on the spot, and to transmit images and data of the highest quality back to Earth. Granted that our spirit soars at the thought of a human being—one of us—walking on a celestial body like explorers on unmapped continents in times long past. Yet the real thrill will be in learning in detail what is out there, and seeing ourselves what it looks like, in crisp detail, at our virtual feet two meters away, picking up soil and possibly organisms with our virtual hands and analyzing them. We can achieve all this, and soon. To send people instead of robots would be enormously expensive, risky to human life, and inefficient—the whole of it just a circus stunt.

The same cosmic myopia exists today a fortiori in the dreams of colonizing other star systems. It is an especially dangerous delusion if we see emigration into space as a solution to be taken when we have used up this planet. It is time to ask seriously why, during the 3.5-billion-year history of the biosphere, our planet has never been visited by extraterrestrials… (Except perhaps in fuzzy UFO lights in the sky and bedroom visitors during waking nightmares,) And, why has SETI, after searching the galaxy for years, never received a message from outer space? The theoretical possibility of such a contact exists and should be continued. But imagine that on one of the billions of stars in the habitable part of the galaxy an advanced civilization arose that chose to conquer other star systems in order to expand its galactic lebensraum. That event could easily have occurred a billion years before the present. If it initiated a cycle of conquest that took a million years to reach another usable planet, and after extended exploration, another million years to send forth fleets of colonizers to several other usable planets, the ET conquering race would long ago have occupied all of the habitable segment of the galaxy, including our own solar system.

Of course, a scenario to explain the absence of extraterrestrials is that we are unique in all the galaxy going back, through all those billions of years; and that we alone became capable of space travel, and so the Milky Way now awaits our conquest. That scenario is highly unlikely.

I favor another possibility. Perhaps the extraterrestrials just grew up. Perhaps they found out that the immense problems of their evolving civilizations could not be solved by competition among religious faiths, or ideologies, or warrior nations. They discovered. that great problems demand great solutions, rationally achieved by cooperation among whatever factions divided them. If they accomplished that much, they would have realized that there was no need to colonize other star systems. It would be enough to settle down and explore the limitless possibilities for fulfillment on the home planet.

So, now I will confess my own blind faith. Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay.

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