From Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson|
(Alfred A. Knopf)
In a classic 1945 compendium, the American anthropologist George P. Murdock listed the universals of culture, which he defined as the social behaviors and institutions recorded in the Human Relations Area file for every one of the hundreds of societies studied to that time. There are sixty-seven universals in the list: age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethnobotany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool making, trade, visiting, weaving, and weather control.
It is tempting to dismiss these traits as not truly diagnostic for human beings, not really genetic, but inevitable in the evolution of any species that attains complex societies based on high intelligence and complex language, regardless of their hereditary predispositions. But that interpretation is easily refuted. Imagine a termite species that evolved a civilization from the social level of a living species. Take for the purpose the mound-building termites Macrotermes bellicosus of Africa, whose citylike nests beneath the soil each contain millions of inhabitants. Elevate the basic qualities of their social organization in their present-day insection condition to a culture that is guided, as in human culture, by hereditary-based epigenetic rules. The "termite nature" at the foundation of this hexapod civilization would include celibacy and nonreproduction by the workers, the exchange of symbiotic bacteria by the eating of one another's feces, the use of chemical secretions (pheromones) to communicate, and the routine cannibalism of shed skins and dead or injured family members. I have composed the following state-of-the-colony speech for a termite leader to deliver to the multitude, in her attempt to reinforce the supertermite ethical code:
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Ever since our ancestors, the macrotermitine termites, achieved
ten-kilogram weight and larger brains during their rapid evolution through the
late Tertiary Period, and learned to write with pheromonal script, termitic
scholarship has elevated and refined ethical philosophy. It is now possible to
express the imperatives of moral behavior with precision. These imperatives are
self-evident and universal. They are the very essence of termitity. They
include the love of darkness and of the deep, saprophytic, basidiomycetic
penetralia of the soil; the centrality of colony life amidst the richness of
war and trade with other colonies, the sanctity of the physiological caste
system; and the evil of personal rights (the colony is ALL!); our deep love for
the royal siblings allowed to reproduce; the joy of chemical song; the
aesthetic pleasure and deep social satisfaction of eating feces from nestmates'
anuses after the shedding of our skins; and the ecstasy of cannibalism and
surrender of our own bodies when we are sick or injured (it is more blessed to
be eaten than to eat).
Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, USA. From Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson. Copyright © 1998 by Edward O. Wilson. All rights reserved.