E.O. Wilson is one of the world’s most famous biologists, an Alabama boy whose fascination with ants expanded into some remarkable insights about humans.
In the process, he invented some new words. In 1986, he coined “biodiversity”, and his earlier notion of “sociobiology” from 1975 revolutionized our understanding of the profound importance of biology in shaping our behaviour.
As for ants, Wilson says they constitute about 16,000 of the estimated 10 million species two million are identified. Ants, of an approximated total population of about 100 trillion, weigh about as much as the entire human population. As a 150 million year old species, they belong to a class of only 19 that are “eusocial”; that is, they live together in a group for more than two generations, specific adults are designated to care for the young, and the various classes of members have a clear division of labour. The result, for ants, termites, bees, wasps and 12 other insect species, is a collection of altruistically functioning individuals that form a collective consciousness or a so-called “superorganism”.
It is the amazing organizational power of this “superorganism,” a characteristic common to both ants and humans, that inspired Wilson to write Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.
The book advances the theory that “sociobiology” shapes our human behaviour — that human nature is innate. Over the course of a million years, our minds and our emotions evolved in ways to benefit the collective wellbeing of the group, and that biology — not ethics, religion or philosophy — developed and bound us together as social animals.
Needless to say, this idea created a storm of controversy, comparable to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Wilson, however, defended his idea patiently, thoughtfully and courteously. It is, perhaps, our best explanation for altruism, the sacrifice individuals will make for others or for the group in which they belong — precisely the behaviour we see in other eusocial species.
Unlike ants, which behave as programmed automatons, human behaviour is complicated by two distinct and conflicting innate loyalties: an instinct for the survival of the individual, and an instinct for the survival of the collective — sometimes we save ourselves, sometimes we will sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of the group.
Wilson’s notion of sociobiology is perhaps the most credible explanation for tribalism, “one of the most deeply rooted of all human behaviours.” He describes it as a sort of communion, a collective euphoria or ecstasy that comes from “bonding together in a greater cause.” We find this “primordial group instinct” in martial structures, in sports teams and in any exclusive organization. Religion, Wilson suggests, “is the highest expression of our tribal urge to belong.” Its opposite, of course, is exclusion, intolerance and hatred.
Perhaps Wilson, as a biologist and a humanist, is most eloquent when considering the larger implications of his ideas.
“Our redemption lies in understanding ourselves,” he suggests. And this involves understanding nature. “We are still part of Earth’s fauna and flora, bound to it by emotion, physiology and deep history.”
He seems remarkably astute when he writes, “the natural world is where we belong — we need it because it is our home.”