Last week, I wrote about The Hunger Games, the blockbuster movie based on the books by Suzanne Collins. One theme in that story is self-sacrifice, or what drives a person to sacrifice his/her life for someone else. This week, famous biologist Edward O. Wilson published his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, which has been firing up a major controversy among his peers. In fact, a paper Wilson published in Nature with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita has been facing serious criticism: In 2010, 137 scientists signed a letter, insisting that Wilson and his collaborators were plain wrong.
What's the fighting about? Wilson proposes a switch in one of the fundamental tenets of evolution, one that he defended in his classic book Sociobiology, published in 1975.
Ttraditionally, evolution holds that most creatures put their families first, something known as "kin selection" — if you are going to sacrifice yourself for the betterment of others, you'd better do it to preserve your genetic lineage. This is the evolutionary basis for altruism.
In the Nature article and in his book, Wilson argues for "eusociality," or group selection, regardless of genetic connections, "underlies the most advanced forms of social organization and the ecologically dominant role of social insects and humans." In other words, evolution favors groups that work together altruistically: dominant species tend to be social.
A recent article in The New Yorker about the dispute noted: "The controversy is fueled by a larger debate about the evolution of altruism. Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask? This is science with existential stakes."
Wilson uses his new take on evolution to promote an optimistic vision for humanity's future: "We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay."
Whatever your take on kin versus group selection, it's hard not to side with Wilson's vision, even considering the troubles we face today.