Where does good come from? Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson tries to upend biology, again

Copyright The Boston Globe
April 17, 2011
On a recent Monday afternoon, the distinguished Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson was at his home in Lexington, talking on the phone about the knocks he’s been taking lately from the scientific community, and paraphrasing Arthur Schopenhauer to explain his current standing in his field. “All new ideas go through three phases,” Wilson said, with some happy mischief in his voice. “They’re first ridiculed or ignored. Then they meet outrage. Then they are said to have been obvious all along.”

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Wilson is 81, an age at which he could be forgiven for retreating to a farm and lending his name to the occasional popular book about science. Over the past year he’s tried his hand at fiction writing, publishing a novel about ants — his scientific specialty — and landing a short story in The New Yorker. But he has also been pressing a disruptive scientific idea, one he reckons is currently in phase two of the Schopenhauer progression: outrage.

What Wilson is trying to do, late in his influential career, is nothing less than overturn a central plank of established evolutionary theory: the origins of altruism. His position is provoking ferocious criticism from other scientists. Last month, the leading scientific journal Nature published five strongly worded letters saying, more or less, that Wilson has misunderstood the theory of evolution and generally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One of these carried the signatures of an eye-popping 137 scientists, including two of Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard.

His new argument, in a nutshell, amounts to a frontal attack on long-accepted ideas about one of the great mysteries of evolution: why one creature would ever help another at its own expense. Natural selection means that the fittest pass down their genes to the next generation, and every organism would seem to have an overwhelming incentive to survive and reproduce. Yet, strangely, self-sacrifice exists in the natural world, even though it would seem to put individual organisms at an evolutionary disadvantage: The squirrel that lets out a cry to warn of a nearby predator is necessarily putting itself in danger. How could genes that lead to such behavior persist in a population over time? It’s a question that bedeviled even Charles Darwin, who considered altruism a serious challenge to his theory of evolution.

The puzzle of altruism is more than just a technical curiosity for evolutionary theorists. It amounts to a high-stakes inquiry into the nature of good. By identifying the mechanisms through which altruism and other advanced social behaviors have evolved in all kinds of living creatures — like ants, wasps, termites, and mole rats — we stand to gain a better understanding of the human race, and the evolutionary processes that helped us develop the capacity for collaboration, loyalty, and even morality. Figure out where altruism comes from, you might say, and you’ve figured out the magic ingredient that makes human civilization the wondrous, complex thing that it is. And perhaps this is the reason that the debate between Wilson and his critics, actually somewhat esoteric in substance, has become so heated.

The currently accepted explanation for altruism is something known as kin selection theory. It says that an organism trying to pass its genes down to future generations can do so indirectly, by helping a relative to survive and procreate. Your brother, for example, shares roughly half your genes. And so, by the dispassionate logic of evolution, helping him produce offspring is half as good for you as producing your own. Thus, acting altruistically towards someone with whom you share genetic material does not really constitute self-sacrifice: It’s just a different way of promoting your own genes. Wilson was one of the original champions of kin selection theory, but 40 years later, he is calling it a “gimmick,” and is imploring his colleagues to give it up.

“Kin selection is wrong,” Wilson said. “That’s it. It’s wrong.”

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