Survivors of the culture wars of the nineteen seventies will recall the profound influence of EO Wilson and his seminal Sociobiology. It was, said some, the first clear eyed picture of the biological roots of human behaviour. To others, it was the Devil’s work, accused of laying the intellectual foundations for such diverse creeds as Thatcherism, racism and biological determinism of all kinds-at least in the hands of some of his followers. Both positions utterly distorted the honest intellectual enquiry of a learned man, but he managed to unite both Marxists and Evangelical Christians into attacking him, some of them violently.*
All of which tells us he’s probably on to something.
Now in his ninety first year, he has thrown another massive rock into the pool, in the shape of a heavy tome called Genesis: the origin of societies. Drawing on the works of able thinkers such as Robin Dunbar, Maxime Derex and many others, he surveys a vast range of human societies, mainly from the point of view of evolutionary anthropology. And the picture is pretty bleak. Humans have always lived in closely related groups, suspicious of outsiders and indulging in endemic and violent intertribal wars. The main feature which distinguishes them from chimpanzees is the ability to organise in larger groups. This in turn was a result of larger brains and language, developed in long chats around the campfire. In the morning these tended to be practical in nature- agendas for which bison to hunt or where to find healthy foods. In the evening it was more story telling, with things like families neighbours and the crimes of evil foreigners high on the list.
Readers of LSS will surely groan-“here we go again! Are we once more condemned to live like programmed ants, fighting and hating until we vanish into some self-created nuclear armageddon?
But there are some crumbs of hope. Firstly, the myth of the Noble Savage can be laid to rest. People in their natural state really are brutish, violent, and self defeating. Proof of the latter is shown by the fate of hunter gather societies the world over when they meet better organised, and educated, groups. Secondly, the achievements of the educated in creating cooperative institutions like universities, corporations and science, or multinational entities, have made things marginally more pleasant. However much they are held to be against the grain of human nature. However much our side seems to be in retreat now, we have done the right things in the past, and may yet be able to again the future. Thirdly, like him or hate him, Wilson is a deeply honest and erudite man, whose first commitment is to finding the truth as he sees it. And so we hope and pray that this is not the last production from a man we call the Sage of Birmingham. (Alabama)
yourfirst link is in Spanish, so if you live in Birmingham or Barcelona, you’ll need your translator
#sociobiology #humanevolution #eowilson #kinselection #anthropology