Interview with Edward O. Wilson: The Origin of Morals
Part 2: 'Kin Selection Doesn't Explain Anything'
SPIEGEL: You say that this so called group selection is vital for the evolution of humans. Yet traditionally, scientists explain the emergence of social behavior in humans by kin selection.
Wilson: That, for a number of reasons, isn't much good as an explanation.
SPIEGEL: But you yourself have long been a proponent of this theory. Why did you change your mind?
Wilson: You are right. During the 1970s, I was one of the main proponents of kin selection theory. And at first the idea sounds very reasonable. So for example, if I favored you because you were my brother and therefore we share one half of our genes, then I could sacrifice a lot for you. I could give up my chance to have children in order to get you through college and have a big family. The problem is: If you think it through, kin selection doesn't explain anything. Instead, I came to the conclusion that selection operates on multiple levels. On one hand, you have normal Darwinian selection going on all the time, where individuals compete with each other. In addition, however, these individuals now form groups. They are staying together, and consequently it is group versus group.
SPIEGEL: Turning away from kin selection provoked a rather fierce reaction from many of your colleagues.
Wilson: No, it didn't. The reaction was strong, but it came from a relatively small group of people whose careers are based upon studies of kin selection.
SPIEGEL: Isn't that too easy? After all, 137 scientists signed a response to your claims. They accuse you of a "misunderstanding of evolutionary theory".
Wilson: You know, most scientists are tribalists. Their lives are so tied up in certain theories that they can't let go.
SPIEGEL: Does it even make a substantial difference if humans evolved through kin selection or group selection?
Wilson: Oh, it changes everything. Only the understanding of evolution offers a chance to get a real understanding of the human species. We are determined by the interplay between individual and group selection where individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. We're all in constant conflict between self-sacrifice for the group on the one hand and egoism and selfishness on the other. I go so far as to say that all the subjects of humanities, from law to the creative arts are based upon this play of individual versus group selection.
SPIEGEL: Is this Janus-faced nature of humans our greatest strength at the end of the day?
Wilson: Exactly. This inner conflict between altruism and selfishness is the human condition. And it is very creative and probably the source of our striving, our inventiveness and imagination. It's that eternal conflict that makes us unique.
SPIEGEL: So how do we negotiate this conflict?
Wilson: We don't. We have to live with it.
SPIEGEL: Which element of this human condition is stronger?
Wilson: Let's put it this way: If we would be mainly influenced by group selection, we would be living in kind of an ant society.
SPIEGEL: ... the ultimate form of communism?
Wilson: Yes. Once in a while, humans form societies that emphasize the group, for example societies with Marxist ideology. But the opposite is also true. In other societies the individual is everything. Politically, that would be the Republican far right.
SPIEGEL: What determines which ideology is predominant in a society?
Wilson: If your territory is invaded, then cooperation within the group will be extreme. That's a human instinct. If you are in a frontier area, however, then we tend to move towards the extreme individual level. That seems to be a good part of the problem still with America. We still think we're on the frontier, so we constantly try to put forward individual initiative and individual rights and rewards based upon individual achievement.
SPIEGEL: Earlier, you differentiated between the "virtue" of altruism and the "sin" of individualism. In your book you talk about the "poorer and the better angels" of human nature. Is it helpful to use this kind of terminology?
Wilson: I will admit that using the terminology of "virtue" and "sin" is what poets call a "trope". That is to say, I wanted the idea in crude form to take hold. Still, a lot of what we call "virtue" has to do with propensities to behave well toward others. What we call "sin" are things that people do mainly out of self-interest.
SPIEGEL: However, our virtues towards others go only so far. Outside groups are mainly greeted with hostility.
Wilson: You are right. People have to belong to a group. That's one of the strongest propensities in the human psyche and you won't be able to change that. However, I think we are evolving, so as to avoid war -- but without giving up the joy of competition between groups. Take soccer ...
SPIEGEL: ... or American football.
Wilson: Oh, yes, American football, it's a blood sport. And people live by team sports and national or regional pride connected with team sports. And that's what we should be aiming for, because, again, that spirit is one of the most creative. It landed us on the moon, and people get so much pleasure from it. I don't want to see any of that disturbed. That is a part of being human. We need our big games, our team sports, our competition, our Olympics.
SPIEGEL: "Humans," the saying goes, "have Paleolithic emotions" ...
Wilson: ... "Medieval institutions and god-like technology". That's our situation, yeah. And we really have to handle that.
Wilson: So often it happens that we don't know how, also in situations of public policy and governance, because we don't have enough understanding of human nature. We simply haven't looked at human nature in the best way that science might provide. I think what we need is a new Enlightenment. During the 18th century, when the original Enlightenment took place, science wasn't up to the job. But I think science is now up to the job. We need to be harnessing our scientific knowledge now to get a better, science-based self-understanding.
SPIEGEL: It seems that, in this process, you would like to throw religions overboard altogether?
Wilson: No. That's a misunderstanding. I don't want to see the Catholic Church with all of its magnificent art and rituals and music disappear. I just want to have them give up their creation stories, including especially the resurrection of Christ.
SPIEGEL: That might well be a futile endeavour ...
Wilson: There was this American physiologist who was asked if Mary's bodily ascent from Earth to Heaven was possible. He said, "I wasn't there; therefore, I'm not positive that it happened or didn't happen; but of one thing I'm certain: She passed out at 10,000 meters." That's where science comes in. Seriously, I think we're better off with no creation stories.
SPIEGEL: With this new Enlightenment, will we reach a higher state of humanity?
Wilson: Do we really want to improve ourselves? Humans are a very young species, in geologic terms, and that's probably why we're such a mess. We're still living with all this aggression and ability to go to war. But do we really want to change ourselves? We're right on the edge of an era of being able to actually alter the human genome. But do we want that? Do we want to create a race that's more rational and free of many of these emotions? My response is no, because the only thing that distinguishes us from super-intelligent robots are our imperfect, sloppy, maybe even dangerous emotions. They are what makes us human.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Wilson, we thank you for this conversation.
Interview conducted by Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle
- Part 1: The Origin of Morals
- Part 2: 'Kin Selection Doesn't Explain Anything'
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