E. O. Wilson’s Theory of Everything

At 82, the famed biologist E. O. Wilson arrived in Mozambique last summer with a modest agenda—save a ravaged park; identify its many undiscovered species; create a virtual textbook that will revolutionize the teaching of biology. Wilson’s newest theory is more ambitious still. It could transform our understanding of human nature—and provide hope for our stewardship of the planet.

Wilson told me the new proposed evolutionary model pulls the field “out of the fever swamp of kin selection,” and he confidently predicted a coming paradigm shift that would promote genetic research to identify the “trigger” genes that have enabled a tiny number of cases, such as the ant family, to achieve complex forms of cooperation. His next book, The Social Conquest of Earth, expands on his theories—and takes up the question left dangling at the end of the Nature article. “It starts with posing the questions that I call the most fundamental of philosophy and religion,” he said. “Where did we come from, what are we, and where are we going?”

Wilson explained the book, which will be released in April, during an animated two-hour discussion on a day that he’d previously set aside for rest. Earlier that morning, he had turned up in his usual baggy, sagging khaki pants and installed himself at a table outside the Gorongosa camp restaurant, slumping silently into a flimsy plastic chair. Soon he could be seen jotting ideas in his small, neat hand, on a yellow legal pad. Once in a while he would tear off a sheet, number it, fold it carefully, and put it in the side pocket of the same blue-striped sport coat he wore every day.

Later he told me that he’s done all of his writing that way, relying on Kathleen M. Horton, the assistant who has worked with him for 45 years, to enter material into a computer and help edit his writing. “Most people are now aware that the digital age is upon us,” he said, with a twinkle in his left eye, the other sightless from a boyhood accident. “It has left me behind. I haven’t had time to learn iPhones and tablets, or even how to run a computer properly, but it’s arrived.”

Wilson told me he’d worked for a decade on the ideas he presents in Social Conquest, drawing on the primary literature in a wide variety of fields to refine his views. These ranged, he said, from molecular genetics and ecology to anthropology and cognitive science. In the book, he proposes a theory to answer what he calls “the great unsolved problem of biology,” namely how roughly two dozen known examples in the history of life—humans, wasps, termites, platypodid ambrosia beetles, bathyergid mole rats, gall-making aphids, one type of snapping shrimp, and others—made the breakthrough to life in highly social, complex societies. Eusocial species, Wilson noted, are by far “the most successful species in the history of life.” Humankind, of course, has thoroughly transformed the environment, achieving a unique dominion. And ants, by some measures, are more successful still. (If you were to weigh all the animals on the planet, you would find that the mass of ants exceeds that of all other insects combined, and also that of all terrestrial nonhuman vertebrates.)

“Wow, the butterflies are out,” Wilson interjected mid-sentence, as a pretty, modestly sized, yellow-and-black creature floated dizzily around his chair.

Wilson announced that his new book may be his last. It is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities, as well. Summarizing parts of it for me, Wilson was particularly unsparing of organized religion, likening the Book of Revelation, for example, to the ranting of “a paranoid schizophrenic who was allowed to write down everything that came to him.” Toward philosophy, he was only slightly kinder. Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain.”

Answers to the fundamental mysteries of human nature can only be found elsewhere, Wilson told me—in science, and most particularly in genetics and evolution.

Wilson had begun this particular conversation promising to answer the question of what caused the shift from the genus Australopithecus to Homo and led to the line that ultimately became human. But now he asked, “Can we have lunch before I tell you?,” clearly enjoying playing up the drama.

His theory draws upon many of the most prominent views of how humans emerged. These range from our evolution of the ability to run long distances to our development of the earliest weapons, which involved the improvement of hand-eye coordination. Dramatic climate change in Africa over the course of a few tens of thousands of years also may have forced Australopithecus and Homo to adapt rapidly. And over roughly the same span, humans became cooperative hunters and serious meat eaters, vastly enriching our diet and favoring the development of more-robust brains.

By themselves, Wilson says, none of these theories is satisfying. Taken together, though, all of these factors pushed our immediate prehuman ancestors toward what he called a huge pre-adaptive step: the formation of the earliest communities around fixed camps.

“When humans started having a camp—and we know that Homo erectus had campsites—then we know they were heading somewhere,” he told me. “They were a group progressively provisioned, sending out some individuals to hunt and some individuals to stay back and guard the valuable campsite. They were no longer just wandering through territory, emitting calls. They were on long-term campsites, maybe changing from time to time, but they had come together. They began to read intentions in each other’s behavior, what each other are doing. They started to learn social connections more solidly.”

Wilson’s “campsite” theory, of course, connects us directly back to the species described in the Nature article, and helps him lump humans together with the handful of other known species to have made it across what he calls the evolutionary “bottleneck” toward highly structured social life. “The humans become consistent with all the others,” he said, and the evolutionary steps were likely similar—beginning with the formation of groups within a freely mixing population, followed by the accumulation of pre-adaptations that make eusociality more likely, such as the invention of campsites. Finally comes the rise to prevalence of eusocial alleles—one of two or more alternative forms of a gene that arise by mutation, and are found at the same place on a chromosome—which promote novel behaviors (like communal child care) or suppress old, asocial traits. Now it is up to geneticists, he adds, to “determine how many genes are involved in crossing the eusociality threshold, and to go find those genes.”

But the story does not end here. In his new book, Wilson posits that two rival forces drive human behavior: group selection and what he calls “individual selection”—competition at the level of the individual to pass along one’s genes—with both operating simultaneously. “Group selection,” he said, “brings about virtue, and—this is an oversimplification, but—individual selection, which is competing with it, creates sin. That, in a nutshell, is an explanation of the human condition.

“Our quarrelsomeness, our intense concentration on groups and on rivalries, down to the last junior-soccer-league game, the whole thing falls into place, in my opinion. Theories of kin selection didn’t do the job at all, but now I think we are close to making sense out of what human beings do and why they can’t settle down.”

By settling down, Wilson said, he meant establishing a lasting peace with each other and learning to live in a sustainable balance with the environment. If Wilson’s new paradigm holds up—“and it will,” he insisted in an e-mail exchange several weeks after visiting Gorongosa—its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers he criticized.

“Within groups, the selfish are more likely to succeed,” Wilson told me in a telephone conversation. “But in competition between groups, groups of altruists are more likely to succeed. In addition, it is clear that groups of humans proselytize other groups and accept them as allies, and that that tendency is much favored by group selection.” Taking in newcomers and forming alliances had become a fundamental human trait, he added, because “it is a good way to win.”

Kin-selection theory would explain nepotism, but not the more complex rivalries and alliances that we see throughout human history. If Wilson is right, the human impulse toward racism and tribalism could come to be seen as a reflection of our genetic nature as much as anything else—but so could the human capacity for altruism, and for coalition- and alliance-building. These latter possibilities may help explain Wilson’s abiding optimism—about the environment and many other matters. If these traits are indeed deeply written into our genetic codes, we might hope that we can find ways to emphasize and reinforce them, to build problem-solving coalitions that can endure, and to identify with progressively larger and more-inclusive groups over time.

Once the book comes out, Wilson said, he expects parts of the biological mainstream to howl on cue. He is just as certain, though, that there will be many converts. “I am going to get fuselaged—you know, bombarded,” he said, laughing. “I don’t care, though, because I feel so secure about the theory and interpretation.”

In Gorongosa, Wilson’s study of complex social behavior was centered on the termite, an insect that seemed to obsess him at times during his stay. Termites are unrelated to ants; rather, they are distant cousins of cockroaches. As such, their reproductive strategy is entirely dissimilar to that of ants. But like ants, they are on the shortlist of eusocial animals. For Wilson, how such different creatures ended up creating highly structured societies, replete with castes and the complex division of labor, remains a source of fascination and ongoing study.

Nonetheless, during much of his stay, termite research was crowded out by the broader conservation effort that had brought him here, and by the Life on Earth project—and indeed, the two often ran together, as film crews shadowed him, recording material for the textbook.

One morning, I traveled with him to Mount Gorongosa for an event billed as a “bio blitz,” which combined a classic natural-history specimen-gathering exercise, textbook-filming, and an educational opportunity for the scores of village children who were enlisted in the effort. Normally events like these bring together a diverse team of biologists, but Wilson, who was seated at a table in a makeshift shelter beside a clear stream and just above a waterfall, was on his own this time, and clearly relished being the center of the action.

“You will be seen by other students in many places,” he explained through a translator, as video crews filmed. “Because we wish to help science, we wish to know what is all around here, what species exist here. It is good for your education to see how studies in science can be done, how you can do studies in science.”

Ziploc-style bags were passed out, and Wilson told the children, who sat on the ground before him, to collect all the “creatures, little animals, insects, spiders” they could find, and bring them to him for identification. With that, the children, let loose on the mountainside, threw themselves into the task with abandon, tromping through the stream, seizing bugs in the tall grass, and pursuing other creatures up the hillsides.

As the bagged bugs, lizards, scorpions, and other creatures they brought forth began to pile high, Wilson became almost giddy, seemingly reliving the thrills of his Alabama childhood, when his avid specimen-hunting fostered a growing fascination with nature, and eventually a love of science. For minutes at a time, the white-haired scientist resembled nothing so much as a grandmaster smiting a score of enthusiastic challengers at a speed-chess exhibition, as he quickly named each animal brought to him:

“And here we have—very good—a lycaenid butterfly. Probably that’s a new species, but I’m not going to keep it. Who got that butterfly? … What is this? Wait a minute, where is my magnifying glass, I’ll tell you. Oh yeah, that one I know. I know the genus. That one is a Tetragnatha. … Now the ants … This is an important one. Can you be sure to get that one? All right, wait a minute. I want that one. It’s different. That’s a reduviid, an assassin bug … That’s a—wait a minute, it’ll come to me. This is a coccinellid.”

This medley, one of many, concluded with Wilson saying: “Wow, this is the way to make a real collection, if you are an entomologist. Get a bunch of kids around. No, seriously.”

Later, in a quieter moment, I asked Wilson how he managed to name so many of the creatures, particularly ones far outside his specialty, and on a continent he’s never visited before. He told me that he’d prepped intensively for the experience for two months, consulting both reference books and experts, committing the descriptions of thousands of species to memory. Silently, I recalled a critic’s recent characterization of him as senescent.

A few days earlier, Wilson, remarkably, had taken his very first helicopter ride, a shuttle run that brought him from the nearby port city of Beira to the park’s immense floodplain, dotted by riverine pools thick with caucusing hippos and crocodiles, and finally to a close view of the mountain itself. “Mount Gorongosa!” he exclaimed to me later. “It has always loomed in my imagination as this dark, brooding mountain, but boy, is it magnificent; so bright, so full of life!”

With that, I asked Wilson what made this place so special for him. “Every place is special,” he answered. “But this is—even among all the varieties of natural history that you can get in parks around the world—this one stands out because of its tragic history. The destruction that is being healed, largely through the efforts of one man, this Greg Carr, showing what can be done.”

After a few days here, Wilson amended his vow not to write more books, saying he would like to return next year to work on a book about Gorongosa and its mountain, tentatively titled Gorongosa: The Park as a Window on Eternity. In lieu of producing any more big, theoretical works, though, Wilson tells me, he longs to spend more of his time traveling. Soon, he said, he plans to go to Yosemite National Park to study a rare ant, and late this year he is planning a seven-week expedition in New Caledonia and Vanuatu. He wants to relive his exploits as a 25-year-old naturalist, when he explored the region as part of a 10-year stint of fieldwork during which he worked out the classification of hundreds of species of ants throughout the Pacific region and elsewhere. “These are the things I want to do—travel, visit the places I’ve wanted to go,” he says.

In such a full life, I asked him how he made sense of his own achievements. “How successful you are depends on a small number of qualities and activities, and one of them is luck,” he answered, laughing. Then the man who had told me, a few days earlier, that he was interested in more than ants confided that he was lucky to have settled on them at a young age.

“For every organism, there exists a problem, for the solution of which that organism is ideally suited,” Wilson said. We had been talking over lunch for about two hours, and Wilson had barely touched his food. He paused for a moment, taking a bite of chicken. “A lot of my work was done with pheromones; then came island biogeography, because I could collect enough ants in a short enough period of time to get an idea of the nature of fauna on different islands.” Only then “came the question, ‘What are the driving forces of evolution?’” He put down his fork, and gave a slight smile. “Ants are always there, and this has given me an edge,” he said. “I’ve ridden ants the whole way.”

Presented by

Howard W. French is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa. He teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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