Monday, March 10, 2014

E.O. Wilson and The New Enlightenment: A Call to Understanding

by Gary Berg-Cross

Biologist Edward O. Wilson’s new book is called ‘The Social Conquest of Earth.’  It’s largely provides a biological perspective on 3 grand philo-cultural questions (famous questions, inscribed by Paul Gauguin in his giant Tahitian painting of 1897):


    ·     “Where do we come from?
  •      What are we?
  •      Where are we going?” 

 Unlike traditional philosophy or religion Wilson wants to incrementally advance on these from scientific understanding and theory.  He speaks in terms of the relatively rare, eusocial nature of humans and how this might have develop as part of pre-adaption. (Eu-Social means the highest level of organization of animal sociality, and is defined by 3 characteristics: 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).
 While it takes a while to make a scientific case Wilson argues for this approach as better than what we are handed by religion approaches.  It’s of no real help at all  he argues aside from making us feel like we know:
          “mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity”
Contemporary philosophy  also comes up with a backhand irrelevant, having as Wilson argues
 “long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence.”
Well maybe and maybe at Harvard, but there are relevant, contemporary folks in philosophy I think.

I largely agree that the most likely approach to answering the 2 above foundational questions is to follow the scientific method as applied by the proper and emerging disciplines.   So we have Biology, Psychology, Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology along with newer disciplines like neuroscience, epigenetics and evolutionary biology.  It’s a wonderful matrix of expanding understanding and especially nice when a master of one or two of these spends the time to synthesize a view understandable to non-experts.  Others in this senior synthesis of ideas worth reading and listening to are Jared Diamond whose last 3 or 4 books are enlightened warning that touches on our eroding environment in an historical context. They are wake up calls such as we have heard too from Richard Dawkins, of course, whose latest book An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist  is autobiographical.

Wilson draws on all these sources to explore the development of human society and some objective self-awareness needed to understand our collective selves. The path has bounced from ancient art, primitive religion, the founding of philosophy, and finally an integrated science perspective. As a Biologist Wilson sees a tipping point in these various views of human nature and such with Charles Darwin's 19th century theory of evolution by natural selection. Together with other sciences this theory can be applied to understand human behavior and deal with some age old controversies.
Wilson outlines the broad human story and fills in some details to illustrate our new understanding.  Wilson does this, for example, spinning a more complex story than a simple genetic basis for shared individual- and group-level selection factors.  Both selfish and group favoring factors exist. As a result there is intense inter-group competition along with unstable group composition that results in:
 "an unavoidable and perpetual war ... between honor, virtue, and duty ... and           selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy..." 
A payoff is the later section of the book called “A New Enlightenment.” In a sequence of chapters he covers the topics of language (pre-adapted cognition evolved into the ability to create abstractions, and later to use arbitrary symbols for communication, thus leading to the evolution of language)., culture, morality ("The naturalistic understanding of morality does not lead to absolute precepts and sure judgments, but instead warns against basing them blindly on religious and ideological dogmas," p. 252)., religion and art. These provide a much different and nuanced view to approach an answer to the earlier question - “What are we?”,
His warning about the tribal aspects of religion are a meme that one hopes is widely heard. Organized religion, Wilson argues, is a simple expression of an evolution favored tribalism. So the "illogic" of religious belief is not a weakness in traditional human cultures, since it serves a social role of binding a group's members together to the exclusion of outsiders.  You may get to be part of a group by abandoning your differences and converting to the group’s core beliefs. In pre-scientific days creation- genesis stories & myths employed by the early Big religions are all explainable as cultural relics. Wilson does a back hand refutation of "phantasmagoric elements" as the result of hallucinogenic drugs.  This natural explanation, he argues, is a much more plausible as the basis for things like John's “visions” recorded in the Book of Revelation than the idea that god intervention actually happened. The same goes for nomads wandering in the desert.
“.. you can see this especially in the difficulty of harmonizing different religions. We ought to recognize that religious strife is not the consequence of differences among people. It's about conflicts between creation stories. We have bizarre creation myths and each is characterized by assuring believers that theirs is the correct story, and that therefore they are superior in every sense to people who belong to other religions. This feeds into our tribalistic tendencies to form groups, occupy territories and react fiercely to any intrusion or threat to ourselves, our tribe and our special creation story. Such intense instincts could arise in evolution only by group selection—tribe competing against tribe. For me, the peculiar qualities of faith are a logical outcome of this level of biological organization.
Yes, it is a good explanation and a warning too.

For a good interview with Wilson on this see the Slate article.

For a video interview see BookTV’s Social Conquest of the Earth.

1 comment:

Born Again Agnostic said...

A good read on such topics is Mary Douglas - the British social anthropologist. Personally I believe organised religion is just insitutionalised narcissism. The attraction is self-validation and self affirmation. And there is evidence (academic research) to suggest the more devout also tend to be the more narcissistic.