See Also: Book Notes, (me), Righteous Mind, Happiness Hypothesis, Consciousness: Confessions, Blank Slate, Info Viz & Perception, On Intelligence, The Quest for Consciousness, The Stuff of Thought, Neuroscience of Human Relationships, Human: Makes Us Unique, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Meca Loop

The Social Conquest of Earth

E.O. Wilson (2012) ISBN 978-0-87140-413-8 - 277 pages text, 24 pages of references, 4 pages of index.

Follows human evolution thru a social lens, advocating group selection as a complement to natural selection. There are many eusocial (super social) species, for example bee hives. Wilson considers humans to be eusocial. [ See Haidt 90% chimp 10% bee ] There is plenty of controversy about group selection. The question for me is, can kin selection or inclusive fitness really explain how "groupish" we are or our ingroup/outgroup morality module.

These are all direct quotes from the book. This is in no sense a summary - these are only some of the bits I want to remember. I am definitely keeping this book on my shelf. I recommend it, but, it is not a MUST read.

p. 17 - Also, human groups are formed of highly flexible alliances, not just among family members but between families, genders, classes, and tribes. The bonding is based on cooperation among individuals or groups who know one another and are capable of distributing ownership and status on a personal basis.

The necessity for fine-graded evaluation by alliance members meant that the prehuman ancestors had to achieve eusocialitv in a radically different way from the instinct-driven insects. The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups. The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit.

p. 23 - The first preadaptation was the aforementioned large size and relative immobility that predetermined the trajectory of mammalian evolution, as distinct from that of the social insects. The second preadaptation in the human-bound timeline was the specialization of the early primates, 70 to 80 million years ago, to life in the trees. The most important feature evolved in this change was hands and feet built for grasping.

p. 25 - The bipedal revolution was very likely responsible for the overall success of the australopithecine prehumans - at least as measured by the diversity they achieved in body form, jaw musculature, and dentition. [ speed (not faster than 4 legged, but we can run marathons), throwing, carrying. . .]

p. 29 - The next step taken on the road to eusocialitv was the control of fire. Ground fires spreading from lightning strikes are a commonplace in African grasslands and forests today. [ flushes out animals, cooks them ] (p.93 45 KYA fire used to drive & capture game)

p. 31 - The next step, and the decisive one for the human eusociality, if we accept the evidence from other animals, was the gathering of small groups at campsites. The assemblies were composed of extended families and also, if surviving modern-day, huntergatherer societies are a guide, included outsider women obtained by exchange for exogamous marriage.

From abundant archaeological evidence, we know that campsites were used by both early African Homo sapiens and its sister European species Homo neanderthalensis, as well as their common ancestor Homo erectus. Hence the practice dates back at least one million years.

p. 33 - The australopiths were vegetarian, subsisting on a diet of leaves, fruit, underground tubers, and seeds. The Homo species also gathered and consumed vegetable food, but in addition they ate meat, most likely sharing carcasses of larger prey brought down by other predators, as well as by catching smaller animals they could handle themselves. That change, entering one available branch in the evolutionary maze, was to make all the difference.

p. 44 - To put the matter as simply as possible, it pays to be socially smart. Without doubt, a group of smart prehumans could defeat and displace a group of dumb, ignorant prehumans, as true then as it is today for armies, corporations, and football teams.

The cohesion forced by the concentration of groups to protected sites was more than just a step through the evolutionary maze. It was, as I will elaborate later, the event that launched the final drive to modern Homo sapiens.

p. 54 - The genetic fitness of a human being must therefore be a consequence of both individual selection and group selection.

p. 56 - The expected consequences of this evolutionary process in humans arc the following:

  1. Intense competition occurs between groups, in many circumstances including territorial aggression.
  2. Group composition is unstable, because of the advantage of increasing group size accruing from immigration, ideological proselytization. and conquest, pitted against the opportunities to gain advantage by usurpation within the group and fission to create new groups.
  3. An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.
  4. The perfecting of quick and expert reading of intention in others has been paramount in the evolution of human social behavior.
  5. Much of culture, including especially the content of the creative arts, has arisen from the inevitable clash of individual selection and group selection.

In summary, the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted the evolution processes that created us.

p. 57 - People must have a tribe… [ social meaning in a chaotic world… modern humans..system of interlocking tribes ]

p. 79 - . . . biological taxonomist call "diagnostic" unique traits:

  • A productive language . . .
  • Music . . .
  • Prolonged childhood . . .
  • Anatomical concealment of female genitalia and the abandonment of advertisement of ovulation, both combined with continuous sexual activity. The latter promotes male-female bonding and biparental care, which are needed throughout the long period of helplessness in early childhood.
  • Uniquely fast and substantial growth in the brain size . . .
  • Relatively slender body form, small teeth, and weakened jaw muscles indicative of an omnivorous diet.
  • A digestive system specialized to eat foods that have been tenderized by cooking

p. 91 - . . . Thus groups selection drove the evolution of culture.

p. 96 - [ Human like robot ] . . . Even after robots far exceed our outer mental capacities, they will not have anything resembling human minds. in any case, we do not need such robots, and we will not want them. The biological human mind is our province. With all its quirks and irrationality, and risky productions, and all its conflict and inefficiency, the biological mind is the essence and the very meaning of the human condition.

p. 100 - The stereotypes by which inhabitants of nations, cities and villages are often characterized might also have some hereditary basis in fact. . . but the average between such populations of such personality traits is hugely outweighed by their variation within each population. . . . Big 5 Personality Traits

p. 145 - "in effect, workers are robots [ the queen ant ] has generated in her image to allow her to generate more queens.

p. 209 [ I love details of humans & color ! ! ! ] the combinations of basic color terms as a rule grow in the following hierarchical fashion:

  • Languages with only two basic color terms use them i<> distinguish black and white.
  • Languages with only three terms have words for black, while, and red.
  • Languages with only four terms have words for black, white, red, and either green or yellow.
  • Languages with only live terms have wools for black, white, red, green, and yellow.
  • Languages with only six terms have words for black, white, red, green, yellow, and blue.
  • Languages with only seven terms have words for black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, and brown.
  • No such precedence occurs among the remaining four basic colors, purple, pink, orange, and gray, when these have been added on top of the first seven.

p. 250 - People gain visceral pleasure in more than just leveling up and cooperating. The also enjoy seeing punishment meted out to those who do not cooperate.

In the brain, the administration of such "altruistic punishment" lights up the bilateral anterior insula, a center of the brain also activated by pain, anger, and disgust. Its payout is to society in greater order and less selfish draining of resources from the public commons. It does not come from a rational calculus on the part of the altruist. He may at first include in his ruminations the ultimate impact on himself and his kin. Authentic altruism is based on a biological instinct for the common good of the tribe, put in place by group selection, wherein groups of altruists in prehistoric times prevailed over groups of individuals in selfish disarray. Our Species is not Homo oeconomicus. At the end of the day, it emerges as something more complicated and interesting. We are Homo sapiens, imperfect beings, soldiering on with conflicted impulses through an unpredictable, implacably threatening world, doing our best with what we have.

p. 259 - No religious leader ever urges people to consider rival religions and chose one they find one they find best for their person and society [ WRONG. I know UU ministers who have doe just that ]
The goal of religions is submission to the will and common good of the tribe.

p. 267 - These benefits require submission to God, or his Son the Redeemer, or both, or to His final chosen spokesman Muhammad. This is too easy, it is necessary only to submit, to bow down, to repeat the sacred oaths. Yet Let us ask frankly, to whom is such obeisance really directed? Is it to an entity that may have no meaning within reach of the human mind - or may not even exist? Yes, perhaps it really is to God. But perhaps it is to no more than a tribe united by a creation myth. If the latter, religious faith is better interpreted as an unseen trap unavoidable during the biological history of our species. And if this is correct, surely there exist ways to find spiritual fulfillment without surrender and enslavement. Humankind deserves better.

p. 277 - Picasso: Art is a lie that helps understand the truth.

p. 289 - Now, except for behaving like apes much of the time and suffering from genetically limited lifespans, we are like gods.

p. 291 - When our remote ancestors acquired a full recognition of their personal mortality, probably 100,000 to 75,000 years ago, they sought an explanation of who they were and the meaning of the world each was destined soon to leave. They must have asked, Where do the dead go? Into the spirit world, many believed. And how might we see them again? It was possible to do so at any time by dreams, drugs, or magic, or self-inflicted privation and torture.

p. 292 - Why, then, is it wise openly to question the myths and gods of organized religions? Because they are stultifying and divisive. Because each is just one version of a competing multitude of scenarios that possibly can be true. Because they encourage ignorance, distract people from recognizing problems of the real world, and often lead them in wrong directions into disastrous actions. True to their biological origins, they passionately encourage altruism within their membership, and systematically extend it to outsiders, albeit usually with the additional aim of proselytization. Commitment to a particular faith is by definition religious bigotry. No Protestant missionary ever advises his flock to consider Roman Catholicism or Islam as a possibly superior alternative. He must by implication declare them inferior.

Yet it is foolish to think that organized religions can be pulled up anytime soon by their deep roots and replaced by a rationalist passion for morality. More likely it will happen gradually, as it is occurring in Europe, pushed along by several ongoing trends. The most potent of the trends is the increasingly detailed scientific reconstruction of religious belief as an evolutionary biological product.

p. 293 - A good first step toward the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully, the claims of those in power who say they speak for God, are a special representative of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God's divine will, Included among these purveyors of theological narcissism are would-be prophets, the founders of religious cults, impassioned evangelical ministers, ayatollahs, imams of the grand mosques, chief rabbis, Rosh yeshivas, the Dalai Lama, and the pope.

p. 294 - Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have. The evidence for climate warming, with industrial pollution as the principal cause, is now overwhelming. Also evident upon even casual inspection is the rapid disappearance of tropical forests and grasslands and other habitats where most of the diversity of life exists.

p. 295 - Science belongs to everybody. Its constituent parts can be challenged by anybody in the world who has sufficient information to do so. It is not just "another way of knowing" as often claimed, making it coequal with religious faith. The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religions is irreconcilable. The chasm will continue to widen and cause no end of trouble as long as religious leaders go on making unsupportable claims about supernatural causes of reality.

Another principle that I believe can be justified by scientific evidence so far is that nobody is going to emigrate from this planet, not ever.

p. 8 - [Science & Religion] Can these two worlds ever be reconciled? . . . no.
[jch, Too Black & White!!! IMHO, there is more to Reality than can be proved, but, we must make group decisions based on empirical evidence! It has stirred me up about religion. I agree with almost everything Wilson says about the destructive influences of religion. However this sentiment:
"But perhaps it is to no more than a tribe united by a creation myth". Belonging to a religious community is near and dear to me, altho, I could not buy into the dogma of any fixed religion. Unitarian Universalism does not force me to choose. See Why I am UU

The book ends with a plea for us to create heaven on Earth, which, if we put our minds to it [ jch - AND AGREED WHAT THAT MEANT - ] we could do it.

Which leads back to Gaugain: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

P.S. E. O. Wilson and Christof Koch, the Harvard Biologist and the Chief Scientist at a $100 M Brain Research Institute, Attempt to Find Answers to Gauguin's Questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

model of cultural evolution mechanisms - inspired by trying to model group selection! (Homework assignment for visit to Ben)YON

The Meaning of Human Existance

NY Times Book Review of E.O. Wilson's book.

p. 149

The brain is made for religion and religion for the human brain. In every second of the believer's conscious life religious belief plays multiple, mostly nurturing roles. All the followers are unified into a vastly extended family, a metaphorical band of brothers and sisters


..we are only aware of minute slivers of space-time. and even less of the energy fields, in which we exist. The conscious mind is a map of our awareness in the intersection only of those parts of the continua we happen to occupy. It allows us to see and know those events that most affect our survival in the real world, or, more precisely, the real world in which our prehuman ancestry evolved. To understand sensory information and the passage of time is to understand a large part of consciousness itself. Advance in this direction might prove easier than previously assumed.

The final reason I'd like to suggest for optimism is the human necessity for confabulation. Our minds consist of storytelling. In each instant of present time, a flood of real-world information flows into our senses. Added to the severe limitation of the senses is the fact that the information they receive far exceeds what the brain can process. To augment this fraction, we summon the stories of past events for context and meaning, We compare them with the unfolding past to apply the decisions that were made back in time, variously right or wrong. Then we look forward to create - not just to recall this time - multiple competing scenarios. These are weighed against one another by the suppressing or intensifying effect imposed by aroused emotional centers. A choice is made in the unconscious centers of the brain, it turns out from recent studies, several seconds before the decision arrives in the conscious part. Conscious mental life is built entirely from confabulation. It is a constant review of stories experienced in the past and competing stories invented for the future. By necessity most conform to the present real world as best it can be processed by our rather paltry senses. Memories of past episodes are repeated for pleasure, for rehearsal, for planning, or for various combinations of the three. Some of the memories are altered into abstractions and metaphors, the higher generic units that increase the speed and effectiveness of the conscious process.

random artifact of OCR ( [ spurts of trace time