Wilson says selfish people, altruistic groups win: interview

Bloomberg News
Posted4/17/2012 7:52 AM

We have created a Stars Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology," says Edward O. Wilson, and that's a dangerous combination.

In his most recent book, "The Social Conquest of Earth," Wilson argues that it's science, rather than religion or philosophy, that will help us understand human nature and create a more rational future.


Ant specialist, passionate conservationist, professor emeritus at Harvard and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of more than 20 books, Wilson also shows that group-selection rather than kin-selection is the evolutionary principle at work in altruism.

We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.

Lundborg: You say religion is a product of natural selection -- how does that work?

Wilson: Religious beliefs evolved by group-selection, tribe competing against tribe, and the illogic of religions is not a weakness but their essential strength.

Organized religion -- with creation stories at the center -- is where all the trouble comes from. Each tribe considers its own creation story superior, which makes them the chosen people.

Evangelicals for whom the Bible is their creation story can't accept evolution. Two thirds of Muslims refuse to believe in evolution as well.

Lundborg: You created a paradigm shift in evolution theory from kin-selection to group-selection. What was the response?

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Wilson: I fluttered the dovecote. In 2010, my two Harvard mathematician colleagues and I dismantled kin-selection theory, which was the reigning theory of the origin of altruism at the time.

We have not had a single direct challenge to the mathematical proof of it, and we have not had a single challenge, even though they're fussing about it, to my biological argument that it has to be group-selection.

Lundborg: You were a proponent for a time, so what changed your mind?

Wilson: I used kin-selection as one key idea in the 1970's. It seemed Newtonian to me, in that you could explain a lot with a simple formula. But, as I discovered, there was a wrong assumption at its basis.

Basically, it's a question of probability and outcome.

Lundborg: Your theory says altruistic groups and selfish individuals prosper -- can you explain?

Wilson: Competing is intense among humans, and within a group, selfish individuals always win. But in contests between groups, groups of altruists always beat groups of selfish individuals.


Wall Street

Lundborg: What about Wall Street?

Wilson: If you have an organization composed of people just looking after themselves, taking from the group's production for themselves, it will lose against companies that are better organized.

Companies that are willing to share, to withhold in order to further the growth of the company, willing to try to get a better atmosphere through a demonstration of democratic principles, fairness and cooperation, a better product, those will win in the end.

Lundborg: Are you a pessimist regarding endless human conflict?

Wilson: Not really. We're not perfectible -- only social conservatives believe that we are.

The only way to be perfect is to be completely individualistic or completely robotically social -- solitary individuals versus ants.

Once we see there's no stable solution, we can resort more confidently to reason and reaching agreements, even though we still dislike each other.

Sin and Virtue

Lundborg: You say "Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group-selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue." So human beings are doomed to feel stressed forever?

Wilson: We're always conflicted and the product of that is what we call conscience. The failure of it, probably due to a brain defect, is psychopathic, and about 2 or 3 percent of the population can't feel empathy.

Lundborg: Do you think world leaders are mainly psychopaths?

Psychopathic Leaders

Wilson: Sure. How can you be a full-blown, aggressive dictator like Stalin or Hitler without being a psychopath?

Lundborg: What about the evolutionary paradox in humans destroying their own biosphere?

Wilson: Humans succeeded by destroying nature -- it's been a human advantage since the late Paleolithic to destroy environments.

That's been our problem, and, though we're still doing huge damage, I'm optimistic since the world has become aware of the harm we're doing.

Lundborg: Can humans change fast enough to avoid the biodiversity crisis?

Wilson: To succeed, we have to telescope it and personalize it as much as we can. We need to get to know the species that are on the brink of extinction, and see what's happening to them.

Lundborg: Sports are clearly a tribal activity, with nearly naked maidens cheering on the conquering heroes.

Wilson: Sports are ritualized warfare. Team sports are simple, understandable and inspire deep loyalty.

There is a score at the end, cheering and whomping on the back, odd costumes, painted faces, which is pretty similar to Papuan natives going out with spears on one of their confrontations, except they do it for real.

Lundborg: Why do we like belonging to our tribes so much?

Wilson: The other thing that's peculiar among humans is the fact that we're so intensely interested in each another, the reading of intentionality, facial expressions, words, body language.

It's highly developed in humans, from hunter-gatherers to boards of billion dollar companies -- they're just sitting around gossiping and evaluating other people. It's known as social intelligence.

To buy this book in North America, click here.

Information about saving the biosphere: http://www.eowilson.org.

Today's Muse highlights include a review of "White House Burning," and executive staff salaries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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