Friday, October 16, 2015

2048. An Ecological Socialist's Reflection on Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology

By Kamran Nayeri, October 16, 2015

I. My intent and focus
There are dozens of reviews of Edward O. Wilson’s recent two books, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) [hereon TSCE], and The Meaning of Human Existence (2014) [hereon TMHE], some by distinguished biologists.  The intent and focus of this review is different. As a life-long activist for radical social change and an ecological socialist, I wish to see what can be learned from Wilson’s work to advance these political projects.  I am fascinated by and sympathetic with Wilson’s intellectual quest for biological underpinnings of the human condition. Are we not biological beings? Do we not wonder about Paul Gauguin’s famous questions given as the title to his most famous painting: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” (D’où Venons Nous/Que Sommes Nous/Où Allons Nous, 1897) which frame’s Wilson’s two books?  Like Stephen Hawking who in  The Grand Design (2010) argues that longstanding philosophical questions about the nature of reality can now best be answered by advances in physics, Wilson asserts that evolutionary biology is key to a definitive answer to Gauguin’s questions.  But Wilson’s sociobiology has raised controversy. In the perennial debate over the role of “nature” and “nurture, Wilson offers an expansive view that claims that in the final analysis evolution through natural selection determines who we are and at the same time attempts to weave together sciences with the humanities and social sciences to give rise to a New Enlightenment.  

In Part II of the review, I will outline Wilson’s most basic arguments in these books.  In Part III, I will outline two lines of criticism of Wilson’s work: one from supporters of kin selection and another from dialectical biologists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin.  In part IV, I will offer my own critical reflections.

II. Sociobiology
Wilson’s argument in these two books further develop and refines his theory of sociobiology (Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 1975), which he defines in On Human Nature (1978) as “[t]he extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization.”  By social organization Wilson means the way in which eusocial species live: cooperative brood care (including brood care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups.  Wilson books are largely given to the study of the emergence of eusociality and why it is so limited (only about two dozen species, only human among the Great Apes, that are eusocial).  

The dominant view of human nature during the past century has been the “blank slate” theory which is based on John Locke’s Tabula rasa that denies inborn mental content for humans arguing that all human traits are culturally acquired.  But if humans are in fact animals and other animals demonstrate at least some behavior that are inborn then perhaps human nature also includes inborn traits.

Thus, the notion of co-evolutionary biological, environmental and cultural determination of social behavior and organization is an attractive approach.  In fact, Wilson’s readers are treated with an exquisite discussion of long chain evolutionary transformations that have led to modern humans.  The question is how much of this co-evolutionary development of nature and culture continues with the emergence of the Homo genus.  This part of Wilson’s narrative is subject to criticism as we will see in Part 2. 

Since Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1999), Wilson has argued that once the biological underpinnings for human condition are discovered it is possible to work for integration of sciences with the humanities and social sciences. In the books under review Wilson continues this line of inquiry.  TSCE has a discussion of how culture and language evolved and diverged. He discussed origins of morality and honor and creative arts. In TMHE  he continues with his earlier discussion of instinct, religion, and free will.  In the interest of brevity, I can only state that he is more persuasive in some and unconvincing in some others (I will return to these issues in Parts 2 and 3).

In comparison to other two questions posed by Gaugin, Wilson spends much less space on the question of where we are going. He ends both books with a short chapter on his idea of New Enlightenment which at the risk of oversimplification can be characterized as an ecologically aware modernism.  

On human nature
For Wilson, human nature is defined by “the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species.” (TSCE, p. 193)  

Wilson argues that these “regularities” are enforced by epigenetic rules that are themselves products of “interaction of genetic and cultural evolution” in Homo genus that emerged some 2.8 million years ago. 
“… [T]he ‘epigenetic rules’ which evolved by the interaction of genetic and cultural evolution that occurred over a long period in deep prehistory.  These rules are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which we represent the world, the options we automatically open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make.” (ibid.)
Moreover, Wilson writes: 
“The behaviors created by epigenetic rules are not hardwired like reflexes. It is the epigenetic rules instead that are hardwired, and hence compose the true core of human nature.  These behaviors are learned, but the process is what psychologists call ‘prepared.’ In prepared learning, we are innately predisposed to learn and thereby reinforce one option over another.” (TSCE, p. 194, my emphasis) 
Once established, epigenetic rules contribute to further gene-culture co-evolution.  Wilson cites lactose tolerance as the textbook example of what ecologists call “niche construction” that occurred in recent millennia. Another, more ancient such gene-culture co-evolution Wilson discusses is incest avoidance that occurs across human cultures and in other species as well.  

Wilson observes that human behavior is conflicted by selfish and selfless traits. To account for it, he utilizes Darwin’s own multilevel individual and groups selections.  (Mirsky, 2008)  Individual selection is non-controversial but cannot account for social (altruist) behavior.  Evolutionary biologists have largely accepted kin selection model first proposed in 1955 by J. B. S. Haldane but more fully laid out by William D. Hamilton in 1964.  It proposes that “kin recognize one another and form altruistic groups because relatives share the same genes and can still place those genes in the next generation, even if they fail to do so by having offsprings of their own.”  (TSCE, p. 165)  Wilson himself was a leading advocate of kin selection and gave it a predominant position in his writings in the 1970s, including in Sociobiology.  In books under review, Wilson gives an account of how he began to suspect the incorrectness of Hamilton’s theory (see, for example, chapter 18 in TSCE).  

In 1994, David Sloan Wilson (no relation to E. O. Wilson) and Elliott Sober argued for multi-level selection, including group selection, on the grounds that groups, like individuals, could compete. In “The Evolution of Eusociality,” (Nature, August 26, 2010), Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita, and E. O. Wilson used sophisticated mathematical methodology that showed that limitations of the kin selection model based on the concept of inclusive fitness and argued  
“… [t]hat standard natural selection theory in the context of precise models of population structure represents a simpler and superior approach, allows the evaluation of multiple competing hypotheses, and provides an exact framework for interpreting empirical observations.” (ibid.)
Group selection holds that “hereditary altruists form groups so cooperative and well organized as to outcompete non-altruist groups.” (TSCE, p. 165) 

In TSCE and TMHE, Wilson describes how eusociality evolved in insects and in humans and he explains some consequences of it. 

III. Criticism 

Criticism by proponents of kin selection
Not being a biologist, I defer to biologists to provide criticism of Wilson’s arguments.  I outline two strands of criticism here.  First, there are evolutionary biologists who continue to subscribe to the kin selection model and see Wilson’s rejection of it in favor of group selection an unjustified assault on their long-held view of how natural selection operates.  Thus, Jerry  A. Coyne, a University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, writes about TSCE in “Genes First” as  being “devoid of merit except for tidbits about biology and anthropology.”  Richard Dawkins whose The Selfish Gene (1976) popularized kin selection selling over one million copies wrote a review of TSCE entitled “The Descent of Edward Wilson” (Prospect, June 2012).  Dawkins based his criticism on the rejection of Wilson’s use of group selection model by some 140 evolutionary biologists. He lists some of them in his review.
“They include Alan Grafen, David Queller, Jerry Coyne, Richard Michod, Eric Charnov, Nick Barton, Alex Kacelnik, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Geoffrey Parker, Steven Pinker, Paul Sherman, Tim Clutton-Brock, Paul Harvey, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Stephen Emlen, Malte Andersson, Stuart West, Richard Wrangham, Bernard Crespi, Robert Trivers and many others. These may not all be household names but let me assure you they know what they are talking about in the relevant fields.”
However, as Wilson responded to such critics, the article in the highly respected scientific journal Nature was peer-reviewed by some of the best experts in the field and to date there has not been any refutation of it published anywhere. 

Levins’ criticism of sociobiology
The second line of criticism I will discuss is leveled by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin who have long practiced and advocated a dialectical approach to biology. (Levins and Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist, 1985; most relevant to this discussion are chapters “1. Evolution as Theory and Ideology,” “13. What Is Human Nature?” and “Conclusion: Dialectics.”)  In “Is Human Behavior Controlled by Genes?” (2012) Levins reviews TSCE.  He gives Wilson credit for fighting against biological reductionism but criticizes him for reducing social and behavioral sciences to biology.  

He agrees with Wilson that “[o]ur lives are restrained by 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 and natural selection.” (TSCE, p. 287)  But he criticizes Wilson for ignoring interactions among levels of analysis.  In particular, he argues Wilson does not consider how the social level alters the biological. “Or biology is a socialized biology,” Levins writes.

To illustrate, Levins notes that a few animals, such as bears, are omnivores like humans. But that label’s utility is limited to such things as comparing digestive systems across species that are omnivores.  However, when humans “produce food, turning inedibles to edibles, the transitory into stored food. This has had such a profound effect on our lives that it is also legitimate to refer to us as something new, "productivore.” Thus, Levins argues humans have developed various modes of production, that these have varied across time and each has its specific internal dynamics and relation with the rest of nature.  
“Division of society into classes changes how natural selection works, who is exposed to what diseases, who eats and who doesn’t eat….It is no longer possible to prescribe the direction of natural selection for the whole species.”
As for Wilson’s discussion of human nature, Levins argues that beyond its general capacities there is widespread disagreement about which behaviors or attitudes are expressions of brain structure.  “The amygdala is a locus of emotion, but does it tell us to be angry or rejoice? It is an ancient part of our brains, but has it not evolved in response to what the rest of the brain is doing?”
“Every part of an organism is the environment for the rest of the organism, setting the context for natural selection.  In contrast to this fluid viewpoint, phrases such as ‘hardwired’ have become part of the pop vocabulary, applied promiscuously to all sorts of behaviors.
“In a deeper sense, asking if something is heritable is a nonsense question. Heritability is always a comparison: how much of the difference between humans and chimps is heritable? What about the differences between ourselves and Neanderthals? Between nomads and farmers?” 
Levins seems sympathetic to Wilson’s quest for understanding the emergence of eusocial species, including humans, and why they are so few of them.   He calls Wilson “at his best” in his discussion of “the origins of social behavior 220 million years ago for termites, 150 million years for ants, 70-80 million years for humble bees and honey bees.” But he argues that as Wilson 
“gets closer to humanity the reductionist biases that informed Sociobiology reassert themselves. Once again Wilson argues that brain architecture determines what people do socially – that war, aggression, morality, honor and hierarchy are part of ‘human nature.’”
Levins welcomes Wilson’s break with kin selection.  However, he takes exception with Wilson’s embrace of group selection that in combination individual selection to explain social behavior.  Quoting Wilson that “[w]e are an evolutionary chimera living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct. This is the reason we are mindlessly dismantling the biosphere and with it, our own prospects for permanent existence” (TSCE, p. 13) Levins writes:
“For Wilson, as for many environmentalists, the driver of ecological destruction is some generic ‘we,’ who are all in the same boat. But since the emergence of classes after the adoption of agriculture some 8-10,000 years ago it is no longer appropriate to talk of a collective ‘we.’”
He concludes: 
“In a book that attempts such a wide-ranging panorama of human evolution, there are bound to be errors. But the errors in The Social Conquest of Earth form a pattern: they reduce social issues to biology, and they insist on our evolutionary continuity with other animals while ignoring the radical discontinuity that made us productivores and divided us into classes.”
Lewontin’s criticism of sociobiology
Lewontin has written about and lectured on dialectical biology for a long time and like Levins has been critical of sociobiology.  I particularly enjoyed reading his “Sociobiology as an Adaptationist Program” (1979) in which he also takes on Wilson’s Sociobiology (1976).   First, he dissects sociobiological theory into three elements: description, heritability, and adaptive story.  He then criticizes each element.  Description faces the daunting task of which behaviors are the correct set to consider. These problems include arbitrary agglomeration, reification, conflation and confusion of levels of analysis.  Heritability is problematic due to genetic variation in a given species.  The problem of adaptive story is in individual and kin selections (Wilson was a proponent of kin selection in the 1970s are discussed above).  Lewontin offers an outline of an alternative approach to sociobiology.  He concludes by stating the sociobiological theory can make lasting contribution to our understanding of evolution if it abandons the “naive adaptationist program that now characterizes human sociobiology and become very much more explicit about the epistemological and methodological difficulties it faces.”  
“To do so will require that sociobiologists abandon their claim to universal explanation of all human social phenomena and accept a much more modest goal of providing well-founded explanation, say, caste formation in social insects…By being less grandiose in its project, sociobiology may become more fruitful in its outcome.” (ibid., p. 14). 
Thirty-six years later, last March 2015 in an interview with David Sloan Wilson (no relations to E. O. Wilson). (“The Spandrels of San Marco Revisited: An Interview with Richard C. Lewontin,” March 29, 2015)  Lewontin criticism of Wilson’s recent work is less severe. He still criticizes Wilson for attributing traits to human nature without sufficient reason.  But his main problem is with Wilson search for determinants of human nature.
“My main complaint is not the list of specific manifestations but the underlying claim that there exists a human nature, which then the claimant must give examples of, and so each claimant gives examples that are convenient for his or her pet theory. I think the worst thing we can do in science is to create concepts where what is included or not included within the concept is not delimited to begin with. It allows us to claim anything. That’s my problem with Sociobiology. It’s too loose.”
IV. My reflection

Three critical differences
In his The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1972), the British analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell concludes about human knowledge that “the only difference between science and philosophy is, that science is what you more or less know and philosophy is what you do not know.” (ibid., p. 124)  A key difference between Wilson and others who argue for a sociobiological theory and their dialectical biology critics such as Levins and Lewontin is in their respective estimation of current biological knowledge that can serve as the basis for understanding human behavior.   Wilson believes there is sufficient knowledge to propose an outline of a sociobiological theory. Levins and Lewontin argue that we just don’t know enough. 

A second important difference is in the underlying epistemological and methodological views of human nature.  Wilson clearly believes that aside from individual variations there is a significant set of characteristics that define us as humans and that these are explainable through evolution by natural selection.  However, as Levins and Lewontin point out that in sociobiological theory “the individual is ontologically prior to the social organization, it is genetically determined human nature that gives shape to society.” (Levins and Lewontin, 1985, p. 254).  It so happens that conservative ideologues use a similar approach to society by arguing that class society and class rule are justified by some innate human nature.  Neoclassical economists, for example, argue for the notion of Homo economicus is consistent with human nature which justifies the capitalist society.    

Thus, Levins and Lewontin criticize the very notion of human nature.  
“The trouble with the question of human nature is that it is the wrong question.  Partly the question reflects the analysis we bring to understanding human political and social life, and partly it carries a vestige of Platonic idealism.  The evident fact about human life is the incredible diversity in individual life histories and in social organization across space and time. The attempt to understand this diversity by looking for some underlying ideal uniformity, called ‘human nature,’ of which the manifest variation is only a shadow, is reminiscent of pre-Darwinian idealism of biological thought.” (ibid.) 
However, this view tends to narrow the scope of the discussion of human nature to class societies that are only some 5,000 years old.  This narrow time span does not really lend itself to a discussion of evolution by natural selection and whether and how a human nature emerged.  In contrast, Wilson looks at the much longer span of time, deep into our prehistory, at least the past 2.8 million years, to the emergence of the Homo genus.  

Further, Levins and Lewontin endorse Frederick Engels’ focus on “[t]he very strong feedback between what people did and how they changed” in “The Role Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man” (1876).  (Levins and Lewontin, 1985, p. 253).   In his review of TSCE Levins actually, argues that humans are uniquely “productivore.” Could we say that is human nature?  But then again, the earliest possible “productivores” emerged when Homo erectus controlled fire some 400,000 years ago.  But we know that our ancestors continued to mostly subside as foragers, by various combinations of gathering, collecting, scavenging, fishing and hunting until the emergence of first farmers some 10,000 years ago.  Then again, even if being “productivore” is a uniquely human trait it coincides with the human history that Marx and Engels describe in their historical materialist outline as centered on modes of production.  

Thus, Levins' and Lewontin’s discussion of human nature argues that even the most basic traits of humanity such as eating and sex are affected by the mode of production and it's attending social organization that gives differential access according to class position. Their discussion of human nature dissolves into the search for an appropriate political program for radical social change (ibid. pp. 264-65). 

A third key difference is an emphasis on continuity or discontinuity with the Great Apes and other species in the Homo genus. As already noted, Levins and Lewontin emphasize our discontinuity with other animals by stressing our “productivore” character. While Wilson does praise humans as a special eusocial species that emerged with a large brain enabling us to reflect on the rest of the universe and on ourselves and generate civilization itself, he sees these as the product of a long evolutionary chain of cause and effect underscoring our continuity with the rest of the animal kingdom. Thus, while for Wilson the prehistory of humans looms large for Levins and Lewontin our history is essential.

Let me use Gauguin’s three questions to evaluate Wilson discussion in light of dialectical biology criticism.  Where do we come from? Levins praises Wilson for his delineation of evolution up to the rise of eusocial insects: termites, ants and humble bee and the honey bee.  However, Levins argues that Wilson’s account becomes problematic the closer it gets to the rise of the human species as his reductionist biases reassert themselves and he ends up arguing that social issues such as war, aggression, morality, honor, and hierarchy are part of “human nature.”

While I agree with Levins’ concerns, I find Wilson’s argument in his recent books quoted above to be more nuanced about how biology plays a role in who we are. Wilson argues that epigenetic rules predispose species, as in “prepared learning” in psychology, to favor certain choices over others.  This view is not mechanical biological determinism or biological deterministic that argues our behavior is determined by genes.  While Wilson says epigenetic rules are “hardwired” he also argues they are codetermined by genes, environment, and culture interaction. Given that even in On Human Nature (1978) Wilson suggested that culture determines 90% of our behavior, genes only 10%, it seems inaccurate to state that his most recent writings are biological determinist.  Still, it is true that Wilson lacks an explicit socioeconomic and cultural theory to understand human history. This leaves him vulnerable to biological determinist biases (see, for example, John Horgan’s “New Study of Foragers Undermines Claim That War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots,” 2015).  Similar biases are at the core of the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: why Violence Has Declined (2011) and Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from the Traditional Societies (2012)  (For critical reviews see, Peter Gray’s review of Pinker’s book, Stephen Cory’s review of both books, and Richard Lee’s “Hunter-Gatherers on the Best-Seller List: Steven Pinker and the “Bellicose School’s” Treatment of Forager Violence,” 2014)

The claim that there is no human nature runs against thousands of year of longing to understand what it is that make us human from the Indian and Chinese philosophy in the first millennium BCE to the present day (for a collection of such texts see Kupperman, 2012).  To look at the problem from a different angle, if animate life arose out of inanimate nature then we admit inorganic matter can give rise to organic matter and life itself without any intervention of biology or culture. As the first living organisms emerged, their interaction with their environment made for the unfolding of the evolutionary process that eventually led to the rise of the eusocial insects. Here interaction of genes and environment seem to have been the main drivers. With the rise of the Homo genus, the development of culture begins to interact with genetic and environmental factors.  Clearly, the further culture developed the more influential it has become. So, Levins and Lewontin are correct to emphasize social factors in human evolution since the rise of civilization.   However, this does not negate Wilson’s overall goal to search for how the interaction of epigenetic, environmental and cultural factors could explain our evolution. Wilson's key shortcoming lies in his lack of consideration of sociocultural theories that explain in his own estimation the large majority of effects.  

It is true that in the final analysis, Wilson’s current model of human behavior gives primacy to biology.  “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.” (Wilson, TSCE, p. 288) But Marx’s and Engels' theory and methodology that inform Levins' and Lewontin’s own dialectical biology similarly assigns primacy to the “economic base” in understanding human history: “The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure, the real basis on which rises a legal and political superstructure. . .” (Marx, Contribution to Critique of Political Economy, Preface, 1859)   In fact, Marx has been criticized for economic determinism. However, some proponents of historical materialism have proposed a more dialectical relationship between the “base” and “superstructure” to avoid an economic deterministic error in understanding human history.  Cannot Wilson’s attempt to answer Gauguin’s questions get help from a more dialectical approach for the period from the emergence of the Homo genus up to the emergence of Homo sapiens and complete it with an adequate theory of history which he clearly lacks?  

While I think I sympathize with Lewontin's criticism that Wilson goes too far out on a limb trying to synthesize biology with the humanities and social sciences through sociobiology, and that by doing so he ventures outside the realm of biological inquiry, Marx and Marxists can be similarly accused of venturing too far out from a critique of political economy to explain some of the same social behavior that is certainly in part due to our biology. As some of the key problems of our times are clearly specific to the present capitalist mode of production, others such as religion and war, date back to prehistory but are now re-articulated in a capitalist world economy.  

Where are we going?
How about Gauguin’s final question? Where are we going? For Wilson, the answer is in evolution by multilevel selection (group and individual selection combining altruistic and selfish behavior).  “We, all of us, live our lives in conflict and contention.” (ibid.) These conflicting social behavior and feelings are the domain of the humanities and social science.  The confusion of our conflicted feeling and behavior is compounded by our need to find answers to existential questions that first were posed for our ancestors probably some 100,000 or 75,000 years ago when they acquired a full recognition of their personal mortality.  This led to mythical stories about our existence and in time to organized religions.  Thus, for Wilson overcoming religious and non-scientific view of the world in favor of a scientific one, of rational mind over irrational mind is the road to human fulfillment. He calls this the New Enlightenment which is an extension of his humanism: 
“[H]umanity 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….We will soon create simple organisms in the laboratory. We have learned the history of the universe and look almost to its edge.” (ibid. p. 288)    
Human fulfillment will arrive with the triumph of scientific rational though and homogenizing and universalizing trends in history to cumulate in a New Enlightenment.  Thus, Wilson is an ecologically sensitive modernist. 

Levins perceptively notes that the division of society into social classes “changes how natural selection works….It is no longer possible to prescribe the direction of natural selection for the whole species.”  Thus, he illuminates an aspect of human civilization that is lacking in Marx’s and Engels’ historical materialism.  Thus, Levins and Lewontin utilize historical materialism to demonstrate how social stratification caused by modes of production, in particular by capitalism, differentially affect the operation of natural selection.  Given this, we must ask how Levins and Lewontin might respond to the question of where we are going.  In the concluding part of the chapter on the human nature in The Dialectical Biologist, they write that as materialists we do not search for universal or superior goals within ourselves. Instead, our starting point “is the real struggles of peoples for a better life….The core of our vision of the new is the negation of our deeply felt suffering in the exiting order.” (Levins and Lewontin, 1985, p. 264)  However, their vision of the future is fluid. 
“There is no final state. …[A]lthough as revolutionaries we struggle for those arrangements that make different emancipating goals compatible, we cannot foresee with any real accuracy the problems that will arise or the new aspirations that people will have who grow up in a new society.” (ibid. p. 265)
Just as Marx’s theory of the proletariat and the socialist revolution were formulated as the historical response to the unfolding of the “laws of motion” of the capitalist society of their time, in today’s world we must recognize ecological socialism as the response to the combined social and ecological crisis of the world capitalist economy.  

Evolution and Ecological socialism
In his Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (1990), philosopher James Rachels argues that “moral rules are species-neutral: the same rules that govern our treatment of humans should also govern our treatment of non-humans.” (p. 208). 

There is a certain tension between Wilson the naturalist and Wilson the humanist. It is the tension between ascribing both to evolution by natural selection and anthropocentrism. Although Wilson's approach to evolution is anti-teleological, he takes great pain to walk his reader through many evolutionary coincidences that let to eusociality and to humans, he still characterizes humans as special, in fact as the pinnacle, of the evolutionary process because of our large brain and complex and rational mind.  But these are purely anthropocentric values.  Wilson details how many other species excel well beyond humans in their senses and abilities.  Would it be correct to hold them to be the pinnacle of the evolutionary process for their amazing powers? At the same time, Homo sapiens could be justifiably described as the invasive species par excellence as Wilson is keenly aware of the planetary crisis caused by our species.  How does he explain the root cause of this crisis?   Lacking a social theory, he might fall back on the conflicted view of human nature. And although there is nothing in his theorizing that justifies overcoming selfishness with altruism he lands on the side of optimism for a New Enlightenment.

However, there are in fact social explanations for the combined social and ecological crisis of our time.   Take, for example, climate change.  Scientists agree that it is caused by “man-made” greenhouse gasses mostly from burning fossil fuels.  Exxon corporation has known about this since the 1970s but has chosen to wage a disinformation campaign to cast doubt on the scientific consensus about its cause delaying policy response (see, Naomi Oreskes’s  “Exxon’s Climate Concealment,” October 9, 2015).  In this, it has been joined by other fossil fuel companies and forces that oppose government regulation of “free enterprise.” It is well known among economists that in the global capitalist economy individual countries have no incentive to limit emissions that bring them economic benefits as long as they do not have to share its costs.  It is a typical free-rider problem.  Thus, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that industrial capitalist world economy is the cause of climate change and what holds humanity back from addressing it.  Similar explanations exist for all other ecological problems of our time. In fact, the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Curtzen and ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer have argued that we live in a new geological epoch in which one species, Homo sapiens, has come to shape the Earth’s geology in ways that undermine life-sustaining environment and ecology, setting off planetary crises.  They called it the Anthropocene and suggest it might have begun with the introduction of the steam engine (although they have left open the possibility that it began much earlier). Thus, no reasonable person, much less an eminent scientist who deeply cares for life on earth, can argue we can deal with the root cause of the planetary crisis without transcending a particular socioeconomic system humans have built—world capitalism. 

Marx and Engels view of history is of class societies driven by internally generated struggles. They explained that with the advent of the Agricultural Revolution the possibility of economic surplus arose and with it the basis for social stratification and emergence of social classes defined by a given mode of production. 

A neglected but crucial aspect of this world-historic transition is the cultural revolution from the ecocentric world views of hunter-gathers to anthropocentric world views of early farmers.  It is still an open question whether the anthropocentric view emerged before the transition to farming or during or after the transition was initiated. However, we know that anthropocentrism was consolidated and became the common ideological pillar of all class societies since.  Anthropocentrism marked our alienation from nature because hunter-gatherer bands held cosmologies that viewed them as organically connected with all life and inanimate objects in nature. With the rise of civilization alienation from nature deepened and the need to dominate and control nature increased.  The resulting class societies emerged precisely because the early agriculturalists eventually succeeded in developing a surplus economy by exploiting domesticated flora and fauna, the early systematic cases of artificial selection. The economic surplus made it possible to extend alienation from nature to social alienation through social stratification and multifaceted oppression and exploitation of some humans by others.  As Barker (2006, pp. 38-39) observes, domestication of flora and fauna led to “domestication of the [farmers] mind.” While it is true, as Levins writes, that with the rise of class societies natural selection began to affect humanity differentially across social groups, it is even more crucial and true that artificial selection intervened ever more deeply in the lives untold non-human species. The case for domesticated flora and fauna has been well-known and in fact set Darwin on his path to the discovery of evolution by natural selection (for an especially gross recent example, see the Silver Fox Experiment in the Soviet Union).  However, wildlife has also been subject to heavy evolutionary pressure from human civilization. Throughout history, civilizations have either dominated and controlled other species or sought to annihilate them.  Anyone who has gardened or knows of gardening also knows how selectively we propagate domesticated species and how violently we eradicate those we do not like.  In the great majority of cases wildlife species simply cannot keep pace with the radical, expansive and fast pace of change humans have brought to their habitat causing them to dwindle in numbers and range or/and disappear. The Sixth Extinction is the most tragic consequence of artificial selection and other activities of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist society.  Thus, in “Economics, Socialism, and Ecology: A Critical Outlines, Part 2” (Nayeri, 2013) I have argued that the advent of the Agricultural Revolution should be viewed as the onset of the Anthropocene and to address the root cause of the current combined crisis of society and nature we must transcend the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization.  Ecological socialism in this sense can provide us with the mode of productions that can eliminate class conflict and re-establish our conscious connection with the rest of nature. If we succeed we can be confident that we are genuinely capable of making our own history and improve our own human nature. 

Barker, Graeme.  The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory.  2006.
———————-.  “Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong,”, June 11, 2013. 
Coyne, Jerry A.  “Genes First: Review of E. O. Wilson’s ‘The Social Conquest of Earth.”  Why Evolution Is True. December 12, 2014. 
Dawkins, Richard.  The Selfish Gene. 1976.  
—————————    “The Descent of Edward Wilson,” Prospect, June 2012. 
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pjt111 said...

Raymond Williams (1926-89; an English-Welsh writer about culture, literature, language, and politics, as well as a novelist) in his 1980 essay, "Ideas of nature," gives us a sense of the changing meanings given to the term “nature,” the coexistence of contradictory meanings at any one time, and how these meanings reflect ideas about the social order being defended or promoted. There is a cycle: society is projected into nature and then propositions about society are read back out of this “nature.” Ideas of nature are often invoked to explain aspects of the social order, usually aspects becoming problematic at that particular historical juncture. So, when we hear people debating what nature is/what is natural, we can ask ourselves what it is about society that is being debated. In other words, we should try to expose what is only implicit, what is not literally stated. This is as true for scientific ideas about human nature as it is about popular ideas. The corollary of Williams' analysis is that social arrangements can be more soundly argued for on social terms. For example, when I was a young biologist and social activist, I looked for biological cases of mutualism and cooperation to make the case that competition was not the dominant process. Williams helped me abandon that project and simply make the case in word and deed for cooperation in society.

Lana Amirah said...

The argument for the justification for a large as opposed to small family size can and should be applied as well here. Having 'come' from a small and improperly cared for (in all respects) family-we suffered much less because we were not a large size family, eco-based society would have and argue-ably should have knocked some of us "off". If such would've been done (and nature did in fact dispose of my sister) then my chances at living a more moderate lifestyle might have been propagated. I have mixed "feelings" about genetic fetal-abortion and governmental support IE am in support for smaller family size, when I see all forces of nature/social-biology saying that a couple should be more mindful of family size...thus giving parents of offspring more time, energy and resources to two or three children per household.