Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Social Conquest of Earth

Disturb ants’ nests and soldiers boil out, mandibles gnashing, ready to fight. Workers move larval grubs to deeper sanctuaries. The queen abides in her chamber, poised to generate more eggs to replace fallen comrades. Disturb human communities, as the raging High Park fire is doing in northern Colorado, and fire fighters swarm to action. Relief workers provide food and shelter. The wealth of individuals and a nation buys resources to protect lives and limit damage. According to E. O. Wilson, Nobel Prize winning scientist and author, both ants and humans are demonstrating the amazing power and adaptive success of eusociality—the altruistic behavior of multi-generational social groups to defend home and hearth. Wilson outlines his latest ideas in The Social Conquest of Earth (W.W. Norton, 2012).

For some people, being compared to an insect the size of a rice grain may not be appealing. Others may only attend to ants when they invade a picnic basket or kitchen. Ants, though small, wield large ecological clout. Wilson estimates the combined worldwide weight of ants and humans to be roughly equal. Other insects belong to the eusocial club, including termites and some species of wasps and bees. Among vertebrates—animals with backbones—only naked mole rats, a few bird species, and perhaps African wild dogs flirt with effective, multi-generational eusocial behavior. Humans stand out because they have combined their primate social skills with enormously enhanced brainpower. They pass on their skills not only through the relatively slow mutation of genes, but also through the rapid dissemination of memes:  ideas transmitted through the cultural tools of art and language.

Genetic changes have molded social insects over hundreds of millions of years. In the process, ants, termites, and bees have flourished, but they have also solidly integrated themselves into the living world—the biosphere. Ants farm fungi and milk aphids for a sugar boost. They jealously protect food and shelter their preferred plants from other animals. Ants return the dead to the earth and succumb to predation themselves, entering food chains at several levels. Plants enlist ants, bees, and other insects to assist in their sex lives. The success of social insects is reflected in the success of the communities they inhabit. They demonstrate the fact that cooperation among different species is often as—or more important than—the competition between them.

We humans took a fast track to eusociality that, while highly successful in the short term, plagues us with conflicting loyalties. Wilson says, “The origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck—good for our species for awhile, bad for the rest of life forever.” Selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy serve individual survival, but honor, virtue, and duty serve our group survival. He claims these contrary impulses will always be at war with each other. But he does hold out hope that we can overcome our flaws. He’s encouraged by the ways we are becoming more interconnected as one global, rather than many tribal, communities.

The High Park fire threatens the home of a teacher friend. Her recent e-mails to 67 friends and family members apprising them of her situation demonstrates this hopeful trend. Offers of help poured in—from neighbors, from acquaintances and colleagues, and from individuals who have put time and sweat into helping her and her family build this home. She also received a lot of prayers and words of hope—from Christians, Buddhists, spiritualists of other persuasions and even atheists. And now that the fire has consumed over 80,000 acres, help from State and national political organizations continues to arrive.

Humans excel at providing help to others during crises. In the deep past, it was the tribe that rallied its chiefs and priests and the gods they nurtured to bring aid and comfort. Later, cities and nation states did the same, protecting their own, while often coming into conflict with other political and religious groups. Today, we are slowly forging world-wide person-to-person connections that are breaking divisive barriers: barriers erected by differences in politics, religion, sexuality, and race that have served us reasonably well in the past as ways to preserve regional social groups—but have NOT served well at all to integrate our species effectively into the global web of life.

We get into trouble when politics leads to dogmatism and inaction.

We get into trouble when religion leads to tribalism and irrationality.

We get into trouble when science creates power without responsibility.

We get into trouble when language and art confuse rather than inspire.

I truly appreciate Wilson’s comment that “History makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology.” We too often forget that we are not the masters of the world we are its consciousness. Because of our social success we are like a hippo thrashing around in a rose garden—where HIPPO stands for Habitat destruction, Invasive species dispersal, Pollution, Population excesses, and Overharvesting of resources. If we can effectively rally our considerable smarts, Wilson sees a bright future. “If we save the living world,” he says, “we automatically save the physical world, because in order to achieve the first we must also achieve the second.”

Although Wilson is a rationalist, he admits to a certain amount of blind faith—perhaps a product of the eusocial talents he, like the rest of us, possesses. “Earth,” he believes, “by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one.” The tools we will need are an ethic of treating each other with simple decency (the Golden Rule), the unrelenting application of reason (the scientific demand for testable proof), and an acceptance of what we truly are: an intelligent, socially adept fragment of an old and continuously evolving biosphere.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Following the Shadow of Venus

Next Tuesday, June 4, the shadow Venus slowly plows across the face of the sun. Although not super spectacular to watch, this regularly occurring cosmic show provides scientists with lots of valuable information. In the 18th century, precise measurements of the event gave astronomers an accurate estimate of the size of the solar system. Today's scientists are using light from the event reflected off the moon to help calibrate their techniques for finding Earth-like planets around other suns. Read the details at