Tag: Edward O. Wilson

The Books That Influenced Edward O. Wilson

harvard guide to influential books

Too often life gets in the way of reading and thinking. Rarely are we given a chance to look back at what influenced our thinking. Sometimes these are small fragments — words, thoughts, marginalia, ideas, or even a book.

The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking contains an annotated listing of the books that mattered to over a hundred Harvard University faculty members along with some commentary on why.

Here is Pulitzer-winning writer and naturalist E.O. Wilson's contribution.

I was an adolescent, from fifteen to eighteen years of age, when I encountered the books that were to have the most profound and lasting influence on my life. Thereafter I read thousands of books, many of equal or superior quality, and put most to good use; but I have to confess that individually they have had a steadily declining effect on my world view, style and ambition. Hence I can only offer you works that might, either literally or as examples of a genre, influence a certain kind of young person to take up a career as a biologist and naturalist. More I cannot promise.

Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Even as a small child I dreamed of going on faraway expeditions to collect insects and other animals. This book set my imagination on fire, and I was thereafter a nesiophile, a lover of islands, the concrete symbols of new worlds awaiting exploration. The compulsion was one of the mental factors that led me in later years to develop (with Robert H. MacArthur) the theory of island biogeography, which has become an influential part of ecology.

Heredity and Its Variability by Trofim D. Lysenko

Although I was later to see Lysenkoism for what it was, false in conception, political in aim, and very nearly the death of Soviet genetics, I was enchanted by this little book when I encountered it at the age of sixteen. It appealed to my mood of rebelliousness. It seemed to me that Lysenko was offering a radical and effective challenge to conventional science, and that even the callow and inexperienced might have a chance to proceed directly to new realms of discovery.

An Essay on Morals by Philip Wylie

When I was a seventeen-year-old college student, these Menckenesque essays broke me out of the fundamentalist Protestant faith in which I had been raised and moved me toward the secular humanism with which I increasingly identify today. I still find Wylie a delightful read.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

The perfect young man's book: a vision of a pure life devoted to the search for scientific truth, above money grubbing and hypocrisy. How I longed to be like Arrowsmith, to find my mentor in a real Gottlieb. The feeling was intensified when I discovered Jack London's Martin Eden shortly afterward.

What Is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger

This taut little book, which I encountered as a college freshman, invited biologists to think of life in more purely physical terms. Schrodinger was right of course, as witness the rise of molecular biology soon afterward. For me his arguments suggested delicious mysteries and great challenges. (Later, I was especially pleased when a reviewer likened my own book Genes, Mind, and Culture, published with C. J. Lumsden in 1981, to What Is Life? saying that it offered a comparable challenge from biology to the social sciences.)

Systematics and the Origin of Species from the Viewpoint of a Zoologist by Ernst Mayr

By defining the biological species in strong, vital language and connecting the process of species formation to genetics, Mayr opened a large part of natural history to a more scientific form of analysis. This is an example of a very heuristic work, which invited young scientists to join an exciting quest in field research. More than forty years after its publication, I am still wholly involved in this effort.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I hope that I have not missed the editors' purpose entirely by listing books that affected one rather rebellious adolescent in the 1940s, but I was quite surprised myself when I came up with this list after careful reflection. Let me make partial amends by citing the work that I pull off the shelf most often, and gives me the greatest pleasure, now that I am in my fifties: Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. For this work reflects the point to which I have come, in company with such a magnificent spirit who “bears in mind that all that is rational is akin, and that it is in man's nature to care for all men, and that we should not embrace the opinion of all, but of those alone who live in conscious agreement with Nature.

The False Allure of Group Selection.

From Steven Pinker's edge.org article The False Allure of Group Selection.

Pinker argues that the more carefully you think about group selection, the less sense it makes, and the more poorly it fits the facts of human psychology and history.

Human Psychology and Bees?

So for the time being we can ask, is human psychology really similar to the psychology of bees? When a bee suicidally stings an invader, presumably she does so as a primary motive, as natural as feeding on nectar or seeking a comfortable temperature. But do humans instinctively volunteer to blow themselves up or advance into machine-gun fire, as they would if they had been selected with group-beneficial adaptations? My reading of the study of cooperation by psychologists and anthropologists, and of the study of group competition by historians and political scientists, suggest that in fact human are nothing like bees.

The huge literature on the evolution of cooperation in humans has done quite well by applying the two gene-level explanations for altruism from evolutionary biology, nepotism and reciprocity, each with a few twists entailed by the complexity of human cognition.

Nepotistic altruism in humans consists of feelings of warmth, solidarity, and tolerance toward those who are likely to be one's kin. It evolved because any genes that encouraged such feelings toward genetic relatives would be benefiting copies of themselves inside those relatives. (This does not, contrary to a common understanding, mean that people love their relatives because of an unconscious desire to perpetuate their genes.) A vast amount of human altruism can be explained in this way. Compared to the way people treat nonrelatives, they are far more likely to feed their relatives, nurture them, do them favors, live near them, take risks to protect them, avoid hurting them, back away from fights with them, donate organs to them, and leave them inheritances.[5]

The cognitive twist is that the recognition of kin among humans depends on environmental cues that other humans can manipulate.[6] Thus people are also altruistic toward their adoptive relatives, and toward a variety of fictive kin such as brothers in arms, fraternities and sororities, occupational and religious brotherhoods, crime families, fatherlands, and mother countries. These faux-families may be created by metaphors, simulacra of family experiences, myths of common descent or common flesh, and other illusions of kinship. None of this wasteful ritualizing and mythologizing would be necessary if “the group” were an elementary cognitive intuition which triggered instinctive loyalty. Instead that loyalty is instinctively triggered by those with whom we are likely to share genes, and extended to others through various manipulations.

The other classic form of altruism is reciprocity: initiating and maintaining relationships in which two agents trade favors, each benefiting the other as long as each protects himself from being exploited. Once again, a vast amount of human cooperation is elegantly explained by this theory.[7] People are “nice,” both in the everyday sense and the technical sense from game theory, in that they willingly confer a large benefit to a stranger at a small cost to themselves, because that has some probability of initiating a mutually beneficial long-term relationship. (It's a common misunderstanding that reciprocal altruists never help anyone unless they are soliciting or returning a favor; the theory in fact predicts that they will sympathize with the needy.) People recognize other individuals and remember how they have treated and been treated by them. They feel gratitude to those who have helped them, anger to those who have exploited them, and contrition to those whom they have exploited if they depend on them for future cooperation.

One cognitive twist on this formula is that humans are language-using creatures who need not discriminate reciprocators from exploiters only by direct personal experience, but can also ask around and find out their reputation for reciprocating with or exploiting others. This in turn creates incentives to establish and exaggerate one's reputation (a feature of human psychology that has been extensively documented by social psychologists), and to attempt to see through such exaggerations in others.[8] And one way to credibly establish one's reputation as an altruist in the probing eyes of skeptics to be an altruist, that is, to commit oneself to altruism (and, indirectly, its potential returns in the long run, at the expense of personal sacrifices in the short run).[9] A third twist is that reciprocity, like nepotism, is driven not by infallible knowledge but by probabilistic cues. This means that people may extend favors to other people with whom they will never in fact interact with again, as long as the situation is representative of ones in which they may interact with them again.[10] Because of these twists, it's a fallacy to think that the theory of reciprocal altruism implies that generosity is a sham, and that people are nice to one another only when each one cynically calculates what's in it for him.

Group selection, in contrast, fails to predict that human altruism should be driven by moralistic emotions and reputation management, since these may benefit of individuals who inflate their reputations relative to their actual contributions and thus subtract from the welfare of the group. Nor is there any reason to believe that ants, bees, or termites have moralistic emotions such as sympathy, anger, and gratitude, or a motive to monitor the reputations of other bees or manage their own reputations. Group welfare would seem to work according to the rule “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Ironically, Wilson himself, before he came out as a group selectionist, rejected the idea that human altruism could be explained by going to the ants, and delivered this verdict on the Marxist maxim: “Wonderful theory; wrong species.” Haidt, too, until recently was content to explain the moral emotions with standard theories of nepotistic and reciprocal altruism.


People punish those that are most likely to exploit them, choose to interact with partners who are least likely to free-ride, and cooperate and punish more, and free-ride less, when their reputations are on the line.

Tribal Warfare

In tribal warfare among non-state societies, men do not regularly take on high lethal risks for the good of the group. Their pitched battles are noisy spectacles with few casualties, while the real combat is done in sneaky raids and ambushes in which the attackers assume the minimum risks to themselves.[14] When attacks do involve lethal risks, men are apt to desert, stay in the rear, and find excuses to avoid fighting, unless they are mercilessly shamed or physically punished for such cowardice.

Early Empires

What about early states? States and empires are the epitome of large-scale coordinated behavior and are often touted as examples of naturally selected groups. Yet the first complex states depended not on spontaneous cooperation but on brutal coercion. They regularly engaged in slavery, human sacrifice, sadistic punishments for victimless crimes, despotic leadership in which kings and emperors could kill with impunity, and the accumulation of large harems, with the mathematically necessity that large number of men were deprived of wives and families.

Nor has competition among modern states been an impetus for altruistic cooperation. Until the Military Revolution of the 16th century, European states tended to fill their armies with marauding thugs, pardoned criminals, and paid mercenaries, while Islamic states often had military slave castes.[17] The historically recent phenomenon of standing national armies was made possible by the ability of increasingly bureaucratized governments to impose conscription, indoctrination, and brutal discipline on their powerless young men. Even in historical instances in which men enthusiastically volunteered for military service (as they did in World War I), they were usually victims of positive illusions which led them to expect a quick victory and a low risk of dying in combat.[18] Once the illusion of quick victory was shattered, the soldiers were ordered into battle by callous commanders and goaded on by “file closers” (soldiers ordered to shoot any comrade who failed to advance) and by the threat of execution for desertion, carried out by the thousands. In no way did they act like soldier ants, willingly marching off to doom for the benefit of the group.

To be sure, the annals of war contain tales of true heroism—the proverbial soldier falling on the live grenade to save his brothers in arms. But note the metaphor. Studies of the mindset of soldierly duty shows that the psychology is one of fictive kinship and reciprocal obligation within a small coalition of individual men, far more than loyalty to the superordinate group they are nominally fighting for. The writer William Manchester, reminiscing about his service as a Marine in World War II, wrote of his platoonmates, “Those men on the line were my family, my home. … They had never let me down, and I couldn't do it to them. . . . Men, I now knew, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory of any other abstraction. They fight for one another.”

What about the ultimate in individual sacrifice, suicide attacks? Military history would have unfolded very differently if this was a readily available tactic, and studies of contemporary suicide terrorists have shown that special circumstances have to be engineered to entice men into it. Scott Atran, Larry Sugiyama, Valerie Hudson, Jessica Stern, and Bradley Thayer have documented that suicide terrorists are generally recruited from the ranks of men with poor reproductive prospects, and they are attracted and egged on by some combination of peer pressure, kinship illusions, material and reputational incentives to blood relatives, and indoctrination into the theory of eternal rewards in an afterlife (the proverbial seventy-two virgins).[19] These manipulations are necessary to overcome a strong inclination not to commit suicide for the benefit of the group.

The historical importance of compensation, coercion, and indoctrination in group-against-group competition should not come as a surprise, because the very idea that group combat selects for individual altruism deserves a closer look. Wilson's dictum that groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals is true only if one classifies slaves, serfs, conscripts, and mercenaries as “altruistic.” It's more accurate to say that groups of individuals that are organized beat groups of selfish individuals. And effective organization for group conflict is more likely to consist of more powerful individuals incentivizing and manipulating the rest of their groups than of spontaneous individual self-sacrifice.

The Argument

Now, no one “owns” the concept of natural selection, nor can anyone police the use of the term. But its explanatory power, it seems to me, is so distinctive and important that it should not be diluted by metaphorical, poetic, fuzzy, or allusive extensions that only serve to obscure how profound the genuine version of the mechanism really is.

Still curious? Read E.O. Wilson's NYTimes article supporting multilevel selection. Also, check out some comments by Richard Dawkins and his take.