The science of selflessness

April 16, 2012 By Alvin Powell, Harvard University
Group loyalty, renowned Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson (right) said, is at the root of both some of our finest and darkest impulses. Wilson discussed the concept of eusociality and his most recent book, "The Social Conquest of Earth," at a recent Harvard Museum of Natural History talk whose attendees included David Ellis (left), interim director of the museum. Credit: Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

In a talk at the Geological Lecture Hall on Thursday, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson outlined new thinking on how human social behavior evolved, saying that it was competition among groups of humans — made up of both related and unrelated individuals — that helped our society evolve and dominate the planet.

Wilson’s presentation focused on an extreme form of social behavior termed “eusocial” by scientists. Eusocial species are those in which some individuals act altruistically to benefit the group instead of selfishly to benefit themselves. Eusocial species have evolved just a handful of times — all of them relatively recently.

Eusocial species include ants and bees plus naked mole rats in Africa, some crustaceans, and humans. Though these species represent a tiny fraction of all species on Earth, their success has been breathtaking.

Humans have multiplied and risen to dominate the planet while ants are so successful that their biomass is greater than that of all nonhuman land vertebrates.

“It is in this very small array of evolutionary lines that the numerically most abundant and ecologically dominant creatures on Earth — at least on land — are found,” Wilson said.

In his talk, sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Wilson acknowledged that his theories have prompted “spirited dissent” within the biological community. For decades, eusocial behavior has been explained by the theory of kin selection, under which individuals act to benefit themselves and those they’re related to, with their willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of others declining for those more distantly related.

Proponents of kin selection have assailed Wilson’s ideas, which were developed in collaboration with Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics and of biology and director of Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, and Corina Tarnita, a researcher in the program. The three authored a 2010 paper in the journal Nature, which prompted several letters of dissent. Wilson further elaborated on those ideas in his recent book, “The Social Conquest of Earth.”

On Thursday, Wilson, who is Harvard’s Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus, said that the evolution of eusociality is better explained by group selection than kin selection. Under group selection, the primary competition is between groups of individuals, who band together to build, defend, and provision a nest. It is in the nest, Wilson said, that division of labor evolves, with some venturing outside to forage and others staying behind to care for the young.

While providing an overview of eusociality in general, Wilson focused his talk on human evolution and on the rise of our extreme “groupishness” — expressed today in our fervor for sports teams, clubs, and other groups that we join and whose competitions we follow. Natural selection — often in the form of intergroup violence — acted on human groups over the long reaches of history, favoring those that included individuals who would act altruistically, setting aside their own interests for the sake of the group.

That group loyalty, Wilson said, is at the root of both some of our finest and darkest impulses — our willingness to sacrifice for others and the xenophobia that underlies aggression against outsiders.

Wilson traced humankind’s rise from 6 million years ago when our ancestors split from the ancestors of modern chimpanzees. Early humans — largely plant eaters — radiated out into several species until one, Homo habilis, began to increase the proportion of meat in its diet, developing a larger brain.

A more recent ancestor, Homo erectus, had a brain that was larger still, lived in camps, foraged for food, had a division of labor, and was likely the first truly eusocial human, Wilson said. With groups formed, competition among them put natural selection to work, through attacks, vengeance raids, and other acts of violence.

“As William James said, ‘History was a bloodbath.’ We know this was true in history and prehistory,” Wilson said. “Groups consisting of altruistic individuals beat groups consisting of selfish individuals.”

Explore further: Groups are the driving force of human evolution, Edward Wilson says

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1 / 5 (2) Apr 17, 2012
The molecular biology of individual survival and species survival is the same from microbes to man. Nutrient chemicals calibrate individual survival and metabolize to pheromones that standardize and control the behavior of individuals in social niches.

Pheromones either contribute to maintenance of the social niche that was established by the availablility of nutrient chemicals or cause speciation. Evolution by natural selection is not driven by random mutation or the psychology of group selection. It's driven by nutrition and pheromones -- as detailed in the honeybee, a model organism that serves to explain cause and effect in mammals, including humans.

The honeybee is a model organism for studying eusocial behavior, human immunity, disease resistance, allergic reaction, circadian rhythms, antibiotic resistance, development of the brain & behavior, mental health, longevity, diseases of the X chromosome, learning and memory, as well as conditioned responses to sensory stimuli.

1 / 5 (2) Apr 18, 2012
I must have missed the data that you indicate suggest the role for lolly-pops and gumdrops, pogo-sticks and banana peals, perfume and porta-potties. Please cite it so I can include it in my next published work on the molecular mechanisms known to be directly involved in natural selection for pre-existing genetic variability.
1 / 5 (2) Apr 18, 2012
What current scientific approach supports natural selection for random mutation(s)-- compared to via pre-existing genetic variability? In microbes, honeybees, and threespine sticklebacks it's obviously pre-existing genetic variability. Perhaps you didn't get the memo. Or are you just a philosopher?
5 / 5 (1) Apr 18, 2012
What current scientific approach supports natural selection for random mutation(s)-- compared to via pre-existing genetic variability?
Perhaps you never heard of the powerful mutagen arsenic.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 18, 2012
Perhaps you never heard of the powerful mutagen arsenic.

Not in the context of natural selection. In the context of effects on organisms that are no longer able to naturally select nutrient chemicals and mates, I don't know how arsenic would promote any beneficial behavior. Please tell me how that works. Is there an animal model for that?
1 / 5 (1) Apr 18, 2012
Don't foncuse the boy. He's got his book done learnded and he gots his own underverse to lives in.

Actually, it's that I have my article published and a thoroughly detailed model of evolved behaviors from microbes to man to compare with stories from sarcastic individuals with little or no understanding of the basic principles of biology or levels of biological organization required to link sensory input to the evolution of species-specific behaviors.

Kohl, J.V. (2012) Human pheromones and food odors: epigenetic influences on the socioaffective nature of evolved behaviors. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 2: 17338. DOI: 10.3402/snp.v2i0.17338

EO Wilson might even approve of me using the honeybee as the eusocial organism linking microbes to man. Bees are a lot like ants, only different -- ya know?
1 / 5 (1) Apr 18, 2012
I would ask where you thought that this "pre-existing genetic variability" came from but I suspect that you would probably have a nervous breakdown.

No, I'd just cite the paper published in Nature: "The genomic basis of adaptive evolution in threespine sticklebacks" It's easier to suggest that people read something about the topic of discussion from a group like this one, because it's obvious they know what they're talking about, which also makes it obvious that you don't.
not rated yet Apr 18, 2012
I don't know how arsenic would promote any beneficial behavior. Please tell me how that works. Is there an animal model for that?
Time for you to go to school. Not bye-bull school either.
No, I'd just cite the paper published in Nature: "The genomic basis of adaptive evolution in threespine sticklebacks"
When you graduate you'll be able to form a hypothesis and defend it, instead of memorizing buzzwords and catchphrases to squeak out like a parrot.

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