E. O. Wilson and Sociobiology Wilson’s Philosophy The Unit of Selection The Biology of Morality Lewis vs. Wilson
Wilson’s Philosophy • Like Skinner, Wilson is a physicalist: everything that exists (except perhaps the very beginning of the cosmos) is to be explained physically. • Skinner was an eliminationist: Wilson is a reductionist. Mind (value, purpose, meaning) is real, but it is ultimately a physical phenomenon.
Wilson and Teleology • Wilson clearly rejects any teleology that transcends the “purposes” of natural selection (including any cosmic or transcendent purpose): • “…no species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history…. they lack any immanent purpose or guidance from agents beyond their immediate environment or even an evolutionary goal toward which their molecular architecture automatically steers them.” (p. 2)
Is there a biological teleology? • Wilson suggests there is: “The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature.” (3) This suggests that it does have a goal internal to its biology (= the fulfillment of the adaptations that have been selected for.) • However, Wilson explicitly rejects the idea that this provides us with an ineluctable goal (eudaemonia). (“..we will have to decide how human we wish to remain.” p. 6)
II. The Unit of Selection • Four theories about what survives (i.e., what is the bearer of biological natures): • The species (or other population) • Organisms • Genes (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene) • Ecosystems, forms of life
Darwinism denies species-level selection • Nature does not select for species altruism. • Given two variants, one species-altruistic and one gene-selfish, it is the latter that will more successfully reproduce, since it receives all the benefits to the species produced by altruists, but pays none of the cost.
Why organisms aren’t the unit of selection either • Nature doesn’t care how long a given organism survives -- it is long-term reproduction that counts. • In species with sexual reproduction, organisms never produce exact duplicates of themselves. • Social insects include large numbers of sterile workers, yet nature favors this.
Gene Selection Theory • A bird is just a gene’s way of making another gene. • Dawkins: we are robots constructed by genes in order to reproduce themselves. • Everything in evolution is to be understood in terms of natural selection operating at the level of individual genes.
Some Objections to Gene Selection • One could argue, just as plausibly, that a bird is simply a nest’s way of building another nest. • It is the entire interdependent system that is reproduced (finally, entire ecosystems). • A gene isn’t a gene except as part of such a system. (Isolated DNA ≠ gene).
Darwin + Aristotle (one more time) • Just as Aristotle argued that we are social animals, it could be argued that we are ecological animals, that we can fulfill our natural end only in a properly functioning ecosystem. • The immanent teleology defined by natural selection can be used to define our proper functions (= adaptations).
Darwinian Eudaemonia • As Darwin essentially suggested, we could define eudaemonia as that state of activity that actualizes all of our proper functions. • If the disposition to develop moral virtues and religious sentiments have been selected for, the full development of these would constitute a large part of eudaemonia. • Similarly, nature may have selected for an open-ended curiosity (an aptitude and appetite for truth as such).
Wilson vs. Aristotle • Such a eudaemonistic theory presupposes that we are essentially human (as defined by our actual history): that our only “choice” is between being human (in this sense) and not being at all. • Wilson accepts no such constraint on our choice. We can choose to “tell our genes to go jump in the lake” (as Stephen Pinker puts it).
III. The Evolution of Morality • Mechanisms for explaining the adaptiveness of morality (the potential to develop a moral sense, virtue): • 1. Kin selection • 2. Reciprocal altruism • 3. Accidental by-product
Kin Selection(inclusive fitness) • Developed especially in studying social insects. Sterile worker ants. • Recognition needn't be perfect: sponges "cooperate" with nearby sponges, since they're usually related. • Expains affection, empathy for familiar (family-like) people.
Reciprocal Altruism • You scratch my back... • A sense of fairness, a disposition to demand and to take no more than is fair, a disposition toward honesty: all of these are adaptive. • Depends on recognition and exclusion/punishment of free-riders, cheaters. • Peacemaking is adaptive: strategies for containing and minimizing violence, such as territoriality.
Plato, Hobbes and Darwin • If the disposition to develop a sense of justice is an adaptation, and not merely an accidental by-product of evolution, then eudaemonia includes justice. The unjust person cannot be happy. • If justice is a mere by-product, then the Sophists and Hobbes are right: justice is the product of a social compromise.
Lewis vs. Wilson • Wilson seems to embrace a thorough-going value subjectivism. • He denies the existence of transcendent goals and he denies the authority of the immanent ones (assigned to us by the blind forces of evolution). • Moreover, Wilson seems to fit the profile of the Innovator and the Conditioner.
Wilson the Innovator • Unlike woolly-headed philosophers, biologists understand that all of our ethical practices and assumptions are nothing but the product of emotional “motivators and censors” which have developed solely for the purpose of gene reproduction. • This threatens to debunk all our values (Wilson’s “first dilemma”).
Selective Debunking • Nonetheless, certain values seem (miraculously?) to survive the universal acid of Darwinian skepticism: human equality, the suppression of violence, biodiversity. • Wilson assumes it makes sense to ask, “Which of the censors and motivators should be obeyed and which might better be curtailed or sublimated?” (p. 6, emphasis mine) Only biology will “allow us to make optimum choices among the competing criteria of progress.” (p. 7)
Wilson the Conditioner • Wilson proposes that we embrace exactly the kind of decision that (for Lewis) defines the task of the Conditioner: • “At some time in the future we will have to decide how human we wish to remain -- in this ultimate, biological sense - because we must consciously choose among the alternative emotional guides we have inherited.” (p. 6) • If Lewis is right, this conscious choice must be an amoral one.
Is Wilsonian Science Self-Defeating? • Wilson assumes that our knowledge of evolution undermines the validity of our supposed religious and moral knowledge: religion and morality are nothing more than beliefs produced by mechanisms that have (in the remote past) contributed to reproduction. • This is supposed to show that they can’t also be a kind of knowledge of real religious, ethical facts.
Won’t this apply to science itself? • Paradoxically, Wilson admits that evolution is quite indifferent about whether the human brain is fitted to acquire scientific knowledge: • “…the intellect was not constructed to understand atoms or even itself but to promote the survival of human genes… with all the drive, wit, love, pride, anger, hope and anxiety that characterize the species he will in the end be sure only of helping to perpetuate the same cycle.” (pp. 2-3)
Evolution, so conceived, is a “universal defeater” of human knowledge • If the human mind has no aptitude for scientific truth as such, then we have good grounds for doubting whether any of the scientific conclusions that persuade us of their truth really are true at all. • This applies as much to biology, including the theory of evolution, as to any other domain. “Darwin’s Doubt”
Why doesn’t Wilson consider this? • Wilson explains the resiliency of religious belief: • “Whenever an individual considers a given (mental) process as being too obvious to permit of any investigation into its origin, and shows resistance to such an investigation, we are right in suspecting that the actual origin is concealed from him -- almost certainly on account of its unacceptable nature.” (Ernest Jones, p. 176) • Wilson simply replaces religious dogma with scientific dogma. (Biologist as guru)