The Social Conquest of Earth

With back to school time, everyone else in my household was leaving in the morning, except me, who continued to work at home. I started feeling that I wasn’t getting the basics of my life handled every day. I’ve found myself just getting everyone out the door before I start my first meetings in the morning. So I decided to hold myself to account and add daily TODOs to my calendar: brush teeth, shave, shower, change clothes, eat breakfast, take vitamins, exercise, meditate.

It worked well enough that I added in some more abstract tasks that are psychologically healthy: learn something, get a long-term task out of the way, talk to people in person, make something. They’ve been harder to get done daily, but it’s a good incentive. I’m giving myself a break on each of them; reading a new Wikipedia article counts as learning, and writing a new blog post counts as making something.

I also read a good book a few months ago about memory called Moonwalking with Einstein. The author points out, among a lot of other facts about memory, that we can spend hours reading a book only to forget its contents completely only a short time later. He mentioned a trick attributed to Michel de Montaigne, who wrote a short summary of each book he read to both have a synopsis to access later, as well as to fix the experience in his own memory. Since I read this, I’ve been trying to write quick reviews of books that I read since then.

So, that’s the upshot of why I’m writing so many book reviews in this blog. I gotta make something, and I think writing book reviews is helpful for my memory. One last thing: I started reading The Golden Bough a couple of months ago on my Kindle, and I didn’t realise how big it was — it’s usually a 7-volume printed work, apparently. It’s also quite dense and repetitive, and I read when I’m going to bed, so I fall asleep after only a few pages. So while I’m working on that one, the only other books I’m getting any time with are audio books.

This week, I finished E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth. I’d read about Wilson’s idea for a half-Earth ecology focus — setting aside half of the Earth for non-human life — in The Ministry of the Future. I wanted to learn more, and went to buy the book, where I read in the blurb that the author considered it the third in a trilogy of books, preceded by Social Conquest and The Meaning of Human Existence. So I decided to start at the beginning, with Social Conquest.

It’s a really interesting book. Wilson is a myrmecologist, that is, a biologist specialising in ants. He uses this lens to look at, and explain, the evolution of mutually supportive human social behaviour or eusociality, and how it parallels that of ants and other social insects. As a biologist, he digs deeply into the evolution of social behaviour, and names off the very few species that have developed sociality on Earth that we know of. He tells the story of how each evolutionary change moved our species towards social behavior, and how those changes can be seen, or not, in our insect cohabitants of Earth.

It’s in-depth. He talks about the experiments on species that are on the brink of social behaviour and ways that scientists have been able to trigger small communities into sociality, which we think mirrors how social behaviour actually evolves. But he also feels free to point out the minute differences between species that have evolved eusociality, like naked mole rats and tiny sponge-dwelling shrimp.

The discussion dives deep into the human biological experience, and then pulls up to ask, why is eusociality an adaptive behaviour? Why bother taking care of each other? Wilson considers a few options, including kinship preference, the dominant theory that says that by caring for near relatives like siblings or cousins, an organism can preserve the part of its own genetic code that’s shared with the beneficiary of their generosity. Wilson goes into minute detail about the faults with this theory, including how it doesn’t hold up to experimental evidence.

He chooses instead to concentrate on the concept of group fitness. In this framework, altruism isn’t necessarily good for the individual organism, but it’s good for the group itself, which can be considered a “super-organism” for the purpose of evolution. So, groups where the members are very altruistic have an evolutionary advantage over groups where the members are selfish.

The book’s kicker is the point that, because human social groups include multiple mating adults, unlike most other eusocial species where there is only one breeding female or “queen”, there’s also evolutionary pressure within the group to be selfish. We’re pulled in multiple directions: group evolution pushes us to collect food for all the children in the group, while individual evolution pushes us to save the best morsels off for ourselves and our offspring. He points out that this dichotomy is built into our evolutionary and social makeup. Unless our biology changes significantly, we will always have both selfish and altruistic behaviour in every group.

I liked a few other parts of the book; he mentions the idea of cultural universals, that is traits that have been observed in every known human culture. (For example, having words for the colours black and white, dancing, making promises, telling lies.) I also liked his mention of the three universal laws of good real estate: a house should be sited on high ground, have a clear view over savannah-like grasses, and be close to a body of water like a lake or river. It was an interesting perspective to think about as I mowed my lawn with earphones on. I’m going to try to remember it for my next home purchase.

Overall, I felt like it was two books in one. One of the books was a really detailed rejection of kin selection as an explanation of eusociality. That book was a good time, but very dry. The other book is a harder look at the sum of factors that make up our human condition; what we can get away from, and what we’re going to have to live with. Especially in our current times, in the pandemic and moving into the climate change Transition, it’s interesting to see how our self-interest and group-interest can be so at odds and so unavoidable.

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