The Social Conquest of Earth

The Social Conquest of Earth - Edward O. Wilson

“Humans are successful not because of an elevated general intelligence, but because of an inborn propensity to specialize in social skills.  By cooperating through communication and the reading of intention, groups accomplish far more than the effort of any one solitary person” 

The Value of Knowing Our Origins

"Humans are the actors in an unfinished epic.  The answer to the existential questions must lie in history.  But the conventional history by itself is truncated, in both its timeline and its perception of the human organism.  History makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology.  All of life’s entities and possessions are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry; and all of life’s entities and processes have arisen through evolution by natural selection.  The more we learn about our physical existence, the more apparent it becomes that even the most complex forms of human behavior are ultimately biological"

Human Intelligence is Social Intelligence

Humans are one of only a handful of "Eusocial" species.  Other eusocial species include various species of insects, the most famous example being the ants.  "Eusocial" is defined as “group members containing multiple generations and prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor”.   Eusociality is the balance struck between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups and the relative success of groups among other groups.  Our social behaviors are highly calibrated to reflect this balance.  We cooperate and compete, dominate and reciprocate, and we deceive and defend.  


To be a player in a eusocial game, a higher intelligence is required.  The human brain rose to the challenge of developing social intelligence.  The cortex became larger, more folded, and more integrated as our ancestors evolved the capacity to take account for possible consequences of every action.  The resultant modern neocortex allows for alternate plans to the ones proposed by the amygdala, the autonomic nervous system, and the other, more primitive parts of our nervous system.  Our intelligence didn’t develop by simple random chance – it was foreordained by the circumstances that our pre-human ancestors found themselves in.  Likewise, our "nature", or the cumulative model for our behaviors, both physical and psychological, has evolved as our species traversed this foreordained path of evolution by natural selection.  

We'll return to the topic of intelligence, but first we must traverse the path that directly shaped the modern human form.  Walking through our ancestral past is the best way to truly grasp what it means to be human, what it means to be intelligent, and why it is we so desperately need to connect with one another.  

Where We Come From: The Pivotal Developments

The relatively large bodies and limited mobility or our pre-human ancestors made tribalism a necessity for our ancestors.  They had to work together to compete for survival in the harsh world of 100 million years ago

Our primate ancestors of 80 million years ago lived in trees.  This lifestyle was crucial in our evolutionary history because living in the trees required hands built for grasping.  Eventually, the hand and fingers were modified to include an opposable thumb, finger nails, and highly sensitive innervations.  Our ancestor’s life in the trees also made three-dimensional vision a necessity.  In order to avoid predators, navigate the forest and hunt down food, our ancestors relied on binocular and color vision as well as a larger, more complicated brain. 

Eventually, a phylogenetic group of our ancestors abandoned their life in the trees in favor of life on the ground.  This ground-dwelling life necessitated the development of bipedalism – of walking on two feet.  As a result, the legs grew stronger, the feet longer, and the spine straighter. 

Our bipedal ancestors were marathon runners, not sprintersPrey tracking was how they made their living because they didn’t stand a chance at competing with the sprinters of the animal kingdom. 

Evolution of brain and body

The next step, the control of fire, catalyzed the rapid development of our sociality.  It’s important to note that we were uniquely capable of harnessing fire because of our large brains, physical size, and uniquely dexterous appendages.  No other animal has ever been able to control fire. 

Controlling fire led to the development of the campsite – a home base for the previously nomadic tribes.  This practice dates back to nearly 1 million years ago and our pre-human ancestors homo neanderthalis and homo erectus.  All species that evolve eusociality, without exception, at first built nests that they defended from enemies.  The campsite is the human nest. 

The cradle of humanity is the savanna forest of Africa.  This environment represents a complex mosaic of different local habitats including rainforest, desert, and grassland.  The first humans were born in these uniquely complicated savanna forests in Africa. 

Ancestral Societies - The Incubators of Intelligence

60,000 years ago, Homosapiens broke out of Africa and spread around the world as tribes.  This spreading was accompanied by the acquisition of the skeletal dimensions of the contemporary human. 

60,000 years ago marks the end of what we don’t know about ancient human culture.  Dramatic climate change erased the cultural and physical record left by our ancient ancestors.  However, this period of climate change forced our ancestors to flex their problem solving abilities and quickly adapt to a harsher world.  After this ice age, human culture either started or restarted in an autocatalytic fashion.  The more advances were made, the more likely even more advances would be made. 

10,000 years ago marks the beginning of the dominance of agriculture.  Agriculture had been around for 20-30,000 years before this time, but with the help of hollow objects and the mastery of stone tool craftsmanship, agriculture became the norm. 

Once agriculture took hold, the sprint to modern civilization began.  The first chiefdoms started to appear.  These rank societies had an elite stratum of overseers and social rank was often passed down by hereditarily. 

When multiple chiefdoms began to cooperate instead of compete, the first states took shape.  With states came rapidly increasing social complexity.  Specialization and the subsequent integration of specialized components made the state the fastest growing and progressing social enterprise in the history of our species.  We still operate as states. 

Perhaps the next accelerant to human progress will be a global unification and the subsequent development of a global culture that is both more specific in its specializations and more integrated than the current system of nation-states. 

The Evolving Intelligence

Between 2 and 3 million years ago, our ancestors began to eat meat in addition to their existing vegetable diet.  The homo habilus, the first omnivores in our ancestral lineage, had brains that were no more than half the size of a modern human’s.  However, the shift towards omnivorous diets marks the beginning of the sprint to the modern human condition.

Including meat in the diet required the development of a hunting method that relied heavily on cooperation.  This cooperation strengthened the tribe, the campsite and placed higher demand on the ability to communicate and empathize.  A sharp sense of empathy made cooperation and manipulation possible.  It strengthened the group relative to other groups and individuals relative to their fellow group members.

With the advent of cooperative hunting, labor could be divided amongst group members more effectively.  No longer was the campsite a resting place for groups of overwhelmingly individuals.  The division of labor made specialization possible.  As differentiation became a trend, so too did integration.  It was around the campfires of our primitive, homosapien ancestors that eusociality emerged. 

"This was an incredible stroke of luck – good for our species for a while, but bad for the rest of life forever."

Language is the grail of social evolution.  While it is true that language represents a major difference between humans and other primates, we believe that it actually derives from the uniquely human abilities to read and share intentions with other humans.  These same abilities underlie other uniquely human skills like declarative gestures, collaboration, pretense, and imitative learning. 

“The genetic basis of human language acquisition did not coevolve with language, but primarily predates the emergence of language.  As suggested by Darwin, the fit between language and its underlying mechanisms arose because language evolved to fit the human brain, rather than the reverse.” 

Intelligence - The Incubator of Culture

Cultural evolution tends to smother genetic evolution.  For example, the cultural variation in color vocabulary is actually the greatest source of variation in color sensitivity between individuals.  Certain cultures hypersensitized themselves to minute differences in perceived color and as a result, are far more capable of noticing those differences even though the genetic development of their visual hardware is identical to that of other cultures’. 

The evolution of culture follows a predictable pattern because of the uniquely human capacity to remember things for a long time.  First, imitation permits the rapid spread of memes within the group.  The human capacity for long term memory makes the human society uniquely capable of incubating and propagating units of culture through time.  This long-term memory doesn’t exist by accident. 

“The great gift of the conscious human brain is the capacity to build scenarios.” 

These scenarios can only be built upon the set of possible outcomes stored in our accumulated memory.  The components of culture that have survived longer than any other are all components that build on concepts of conformity, religious fervor, fighting ability, and morality.  When these inherently survival advantage conferring ideas are combined with imagination and are allowed to grow and differentiate in the long term memory, they survive through time and grow stronger as each generation of thinking builds on the last. 

Sociality & In-Born Traits: Language and Tribalism

If language is humanity's hereditary blessing, than tribalism is its hereditary curse.  Both enabled the social conquest of earth, but language continues to push us towards a harmonious future while tribalism restrains us to primitive behavior.  

“We simply took what was given to us and continue to multiply and consume in blind obedience to instincts inherited from our humbler, more brutally constrained Paleolithic ancestors.”

Tribalism is fundamentally human because for as long as humans have lived in tribes, there have been other tribes to compete with.  A predisposition to favor members over non-members is extremely advantageous in terms of a tribe’s success relative to other tribes.  This tribalism isn’t simply a product of our environment, but more accurately characterized as an in-born trait.  Every human enters the world with a nervous system that’s predisposed to develop tribal behaviors over non-tribal behaviors just like every human enters the world ‘prepared’ to learn the syntactical structure of human language, avoid incest, and develop certain phobias.  

While tribalism has profound in-group benefits, our tribal behavior is also our greatest hereditary curse.  Tribalism is the root of war, hate, and genocide.   Virtually all creation myths (the primitive equivalents to modern religions) have an inherent notion of superiority to other creation myths.  When a tribe is unified under this notion of superiority, there exists the tendency to treat non-group members as less then human.  Even today, big wars have been replaced with smaller, more ideological wars.  The petty competition that dominates the twenty first century’s global society occurs on the same scale as the conflicts that played out thousands of years ago between our typical hunter-gatherer and primitively agricultural ancestors. 

Multilevel Selection: The Roots of Human Nature

Multilevel Selection - The Iron Rule of Genetic Social Evolution

“Selfish individuals between altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.”

While the unit of selection is neither the individual nor the group he/she belongs to, selective trends can be identified on both scales.  It's the overlap of individual and group selection that houses the roots of our human nature.  On the one hand we're driven by individual selection to be selfish, even to our fellow group members.  On the other hand, each individual must abide by the laws of the group as to boosts the groups chances of survival through time.  Every individual wants to survive, but individuals can't be purely selfish about it.  Implicit in our circumstance is the understanding that as much as we may want to, we can't go it alone.  In turns out that acts of selflessness performed in effort to strengthen the group are almost equally selfish.  We find ourselves in a constant state of balanced tension - we're being pulled in two directions but neither side pulls hard enough for us move from the center.  

The Dual Forces of Social Evolution

Darwin from “The Descent of Man”

Now, if some one man in a tribe, more sagacious than the others, invented a new snare or weapon, or other means of attack or defense, the plainest self-interest, without assistance of much reasoning power, would prompt the other members to imitate him; and all would thus profit.  The habitual practice of each new art must likewise in some slight degree strengthen the intellect.  If the new invention were an important one, the tribe would increase in number, spread, and supplant other tribes.  In a tribe thus rendered more numerous there would always be a rather better chance of the birth of other superior and inventive members.  IF such men left children to inherit their mental superiority, the chance of the birth of still more ingenious members would be somewhat better, and in a very small tribe decidedly better.  Even if they left no children, the tribe would still include their blood-relations; and it has been ascertained by agriculturists that by preserving and breeding from the family of an animal, which then slaughtered was found to be valuable, the desired character has been obtained.

Edward O. Wilson's Elaboration: 

“The genetic fitness of each member, the number of reproducing descendants it leaves, is determined by the cost exacted and benefit gained from its membership of the group”

Good and Evil - The Roots of Morality

"Are people innately good or evil?  The answer is both.  This will forever be the case because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore is an unchangeable part of our nature.  In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides."

Perpetual war between honor, virtue and duty, the products of group selection on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other.  These are the seeds out of which the jungle of culture emerged.  

The victory of either side can never be complete.  If selfishness wins, society dissolves.  If altruism wins, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies

“The brain is an organ not merely divided into major parts but divided against itself.  The primal fear triggered by stressful or anger producing stimuli is a response becoming well understood at the molecular and cellular levels.  It is counterbalanced by an automatic shutdown of fear inducing thought when altruistic behavior is appropriate.  Sliding toward hostility, the individual loses himself psychologically.  In the clash of emotions, he transfers his own identity a little bit to the other person.

Emerging Emotions

From Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: 

  • Condemning emotions (contempt, anger, and disgust) prompt one to punish cheaters
  • Praising emotions (gratitude, moral awe, and elevation) prompt one to reward altruists
  • Suffering emotions (sympathy, compassion, empathy) prompt one to help a needy beneficiary
  • The self conscious emotions (guilt, shame, embarrassment) prompt one to avoid cheating or to repair its effects. 

Science: The Creation Myth of Creation Myths

Every human culture has a creation myth.  Whether the culture was rudimentary and grown in a cave 50,000 years ago, or highly complex and incubated in the minds of modern humans, all cultures have invented stories to explain what we are, where we come from, and what we need to do.  The problem with mythmaking is that mythmaking alone is an insufficient means to discover the origins of humanity.  However, reversing the process is very possible.  Discovering the origins of humanity is completely sufficient to discover the origins of mythmaking.  The problem with myths is the tendency for dogma to invade the minds of the believers – the tendency to believe on insufficient evidence.  Science not only reveals the origins of the creation myths, but also provides the foundation for an informed attempt to answer the questions of what we are, where we come from, and what we need to.    

Science v. Religion

The conflict began when scientists started to explain religion to its foundations—not as an independent reality within which humanity struggles to find its place, not as obedience to a divine presence, but as a product of evolution by natural selection.  Was man made in the image of god or is the opposite the case?  If the opposite is the case, then religious devotion should be much lower than it currently is. 

Where Religion Comes From

Religion is an expression of tribalism.  Every religion teaches its adherents that they are a special fellowship and that their creation story, moral precepts, and privilege from divine power are superior to those claimed in other religions.  Charity and other altruistic acts done onto their coreligionists serves to proselytize and strengthen the tribe and its allies.  This strong tribalism often acts as an accelerant to wars and conflict.  

No religious leader ever urges people to consider rival religions and choose the one they find best for their person and society.  The power of organized religions is based upon their contribution to social order and personal security, not to the search of truth.  The goal of religions is submission to the will and common good of the tribe.

The illogic of religions is not a weakness in them; it’s their essential strength.  Acceptance of the bizarre creation myths hinds the members together.  For an outsider to criticize these conceptions is considered a personal insult and breach of privacy.  For an insider to doubt such dogmas is to be deemed a heretic.

The cores of traditional organized religions are their creation myths.  Some were drawn in part from folk memories of momentous events.  Emigrations to new lands, wars won and lost, of great floods and volcanic eruptions.  Each story reworked and ritualized over generations through the passing of time.  The existence of divine beings is made possible by the personal though processes of the prophets and believers.  They expect the gods to have the same, or at least similar emotions, motives, and reasoning to their own.  This humanness is also projected to animals.  Many of these of visions and myths are born out of altered states of consciousness.  Fasting, exhaustion, ritualistic psychedelics and accidental ingestions of psychoactive compounds all served to lend to power to the myths and visions in the eyes of the perceiver. 

The Evolution of Religion

The earliest known burial sites are 95,000 years old.  This can be used as an indicator of the beginning of our reflection on our mortality.  The humans of that time must have asked questions like “where do all these dead people go?”.  The answer must’ve seemed obvious.  The dead constantly come back to visit the living in dreams and hallucinations.  So is born the spirit world of the gods.  We enter this same spirit world every time we enter REM sleep or ingest a psychedelic compound. 

As social complexity grew, so did the responsibility of the gods for maintaining social stability.  This increased responsibility took the form of priestly, political incarnates of the gods to institute top-down control of society.  Dogma therefore, was both traditional and firm.  This pattern has been repeated with every religion, major and minor, ancient and contemporary. 

The early humans needed a story of everything important that happened to them, because the conscious mind cannot work without stories and explanations of its own meaning.  The best (and only way) our ancestors could manage to explain existence itself was a creation myth.  And every one of these myths, without exception, affirmed the superiority of the tribe that invented it over all other tribes. 

Putting Religion in its Place

The benefits that religion provides require a submission to god, his son the redeemer, or both, or to his final chosen spokesman, Muhammad.  This is too easy.  Let us frankly ask to whom such obedience is really directed.  Is it to an entity that has no meaning within reach of the human mind—or may it not even exist? Perhaps it really is god.  But perhaps it is no more than a tribe of bald apes united under a creation myth.  If the latter, religious faith is better interpreted as an unseen trap unavoidable during the biological history of our species.  If this is the case, surely there exists ways to find spiritual fulfillment without surrender and enslavement.  Humankind deserves better. 

Science - A New Enlightenment 

"The benefits of religion are numerous.  Religions preside over rites of passage (birth to maturity, maturity to marriage, marriage to death)  They offer the best a tribe has to offer; a committed community that gives heartfelt emotional support, and welcomes, and forgives.  Belief in the gods, whether single or multiple, sacralize communal actions, including war.  Beliefs in immortality and ultimate divine justice give priceless comfort, and they steel resolution and bravery in difficult times.  For millennia, organized religions have been the source of the best in creative arts."

But:  "Religion is stultifying and decisive.  Religion encourages ignorance, distracts people from the recognizing problems of the real world, and often leads in them in wrong directions with disastrous consequences.  In fact, commitment to any particular faith is by definition religious bigotry.   The current path of homogenization of the human race will inevitably weaken confidence in creation myths and sectarian dogmas.  A good first step toward the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully, the claims of those in power who say they speak for god."

"Praise science as the search for objective truth.  Science is not a just another enterprise like medicine or engineering or theology.  It is the wellspring of knowledge we have of the real world that can be tested and fitted to preexisting knowledge.  It is the arsenal of technologies and inferential mathematics needed to distinguish the true from the false.  It formulates principles and formulas that tie all this knowledge together.  Science is for everyone."

Edward O. Wilson on Free Will: 

"Likely it is the product of the subconscious decision making center of the brain that gives the cerebral cortex the illusion of independent action.  The more the physical processes of consciousness have been defined by scientific research, the less has been left to any phenomenon that can be intuitively labeled as free will.   We are free as independent beings, but our decisions are not free of all the organic processes that created our personal brains and minds.  Free will therefore appears to be ultimately biological, there’s nothing spooky about it.  Except for behaving like apes much of the time and suffering genetically limited life spans, humans of today are godlike."