Eusociality, as explained by Edward Wilson in his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, is the condition of multiple generations organized into groups by means of an altruistic division of labor. This, according to Wilson, was one of the major innovations in the history of life. It created super organisms, or the next highest level of biological complexity, and is comparable in impact to that conquest of land by aquatic air-breathing animals, and in importance to the invention of powered flight by insects and vertebrates.
So are we, homo sapiens, today a super organism? Certainly in some respects we seem to be, in regard to the distributive centers and networks, as it were, that provide us, at least to some degree, with defense, warmth, cooling, food and shelter, and, although to a much lesser degree, jobs, education, health care and much else including a world wide web or communication network open and available to all of us.
And furthermore, why, when we can cool or warm a whole village, give everyone in the village broadband access, would we choose not to regardless of ability to pay? When the river flowed through the town’s center it was everyone’s possession, might not the fiber optic cable be that now?
At least for a time the river was, although eventually it, like the seashore, was walled off from the many and only remained freely available to the few. Why? Because we hadn’t solved the problem of the commons, or free, joint usage of a good, that to be successful always requires individual responsibility.
Now the greatest resistance to such centers of control and distribution, that is, to government, comes from those who feel that thereby they are losing their freedoms. Is this true?
Isn’t it true that for the 16 or more years of freedomless childhood the parents or parent, a central authority, is providing the child with defense, warmth, cooling, and all the rest, and that no one is concerned that the child’s freedom has been removed? Isn’t it rather that one is satisfied that the child’s basic needs are being met in a manner that allows the child the real freedom to grow and learn?
So then, what about the adult, and our constant chatter about, “life long learning?” Is this supposed to happen for the unemployed at home, for the prison population in jail, for the homeless in a shelter?
I wonder why is it that at 17, 18, or a bit older, the child, now the young adult, is more or less expected if not required by its own efforts (work, a job) to meet and satisfy its own needs?
This is not always the case, of course, as the European Union makes evident. For there are European nation states that allow the “hand-outs” to continue after childhood, —professional training, health insurance, public transportation, and much else. Furthermore, no one is required to pay for defense, police and fire protection, and other basic services, even if one is without funds to do so oneself in the form of taxes.
But in respect to all this there is of course the major underlying problem that I haven’t yet mentioned, the one that no one has of yet solved, the elephant in the room, blocking all other movement. The elephant is of course the huge monetary cost that has to be met if we would satisfy everyone’s needs for warmth, cooling, health care, education etc.
For the government, —state, local and federal authorities taken together, has only the means that working people provide it by their taxes. And so far the level of taxation has not met the level of expenditures that would be necessary if the government by itself were really to meet all the people’s needs. Could it ever?
Isn’t it a fact that up until now people’s needs do seem much greater than any central authority funds available to meet them. The result is, as now, that to a very large extent people’s needs are not being met.
Indeed, we are not much closer today to meeting them, than in 1944 when President Roosevelt proposed a second or “economic bill of rights,” one that would guarantee such rights as a “job with a living wage, housing, health care, education and social security.” At the time, and perhaps still, a pipe dream. We still haven’t figured out how to pay for it.
It’s not that we don’t see the need, for about that need, the total of our country’s problems, we talk and write about little else. On little inspection the need is made evident by such numbers as: —a high school dropout rate of 30% or more (not even to mention the numbers of those who may finish school but without having learned even one useful skill); —a federal and state prison population totaling at the end of 2012 some 1.6 million.
And there’s more: —a homeless population also in the millions; —an unemployment rate of nearly 7.5%, meaning nearly 12 million without a job; —and, as we’re told over and over again without doing anything about it, the continued presence in the country of 12 million “illegal” immigrants.
So do these numbers, and others like them, make us a failed instance of eusociality? Are we to conclude that we’re not at all a super eusocial organism meeting the needs of each of the 300 million and more citizens? It would seem so.
Yet instead of generally admitting our failure and working together to correct it, there is a royal battle going on among us, between those who feel that already the central authority is much too big, doing too much, that taxes are too high, and by all this and much more our individual freedoms are at great risk.
And, on the other side of the battle, those who feel that too many of our citizens are being left out, that the so-called American dream is crumbling, that without having a super beneficial organism we have the super rich, a minority among us, not really among us but isolated from us living in their own gated communities, and we have the super poor, and all those in between who are struggling to provide for themselves and their families.
A water park in Suining, in China’s Sichuan province
Wilson’s book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, describes the most successful examples of eusociality, the termites and the bees, but most of all the ants. According to Wilson humans like to think that they run the world. But, as he tells us, even in the heart of our great cities, a rival superpower thrives, and that is the ants.
These tiny creatures live all around us in vast numbers, though we hardly even notice them. Yet in many ways, it is they who really run the show. They outnumber us a million to one, and their total weight matches that of the entire human race.
Could these insect societies really have the edge on us? Edward Wilson believes that they might: “I’ve spent most of my life,” he says, “working with tiny insects, like the leafcutter ants. Each one is only about a millionth the size of a human being—and over the years, I’ve become convinced that the key to their success is, quite simply, the way they work together.”
There you have it. Who didn’t know this? That success depends on the ways we work together. Common sense of course says the same thing. But also the sense, or lesson to be drawn, from the nearly 100 million years of the evolutionary history of the ants.
This is the history that Edward Wilson more than anyone else has written. At the moment we seem, senselessly, to be holding on to “freedoms,” that not only are not making us free, but are taking away the real freedom that might emerge from our working together. And yes, to some degree, in the manner of the ants.