Click to enlarge

"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

John Gray

Life's Greatest Achievement

The Social Conquest of Earth
By Edward O Wilson (W W Norton 330pp 18.99)

'The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual but largely in opposition to each other.' Combining an aura of scientific rigour with magisterial obscurity, this dictum conveys the flavour of much of what Edward O Wilson's publisher describes as 'the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition'. Wilson's thesis is easily articulated, and not unfamiliar: morality is a product of evolution, emerging as a result of the interaction of two kinds of natural selection. Individual selection 'shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish', while group selection 'shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another'. The moral conflicts with which philosophers and dramatists have struggled for millennia can at last be resolved by science. 'Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.'

Stupendous in its ambition, Wilson's formulation does come with some problems. As anyone who has read Aristotle's Ethics will know, morality has not always been equated with altruism. The good life for Aristotle was one in which individuals - leisured, property-owning male individuals, at any rate - realised their distinctively human potential. He recognised that individual development required a social context, but there is nothing in the ancient Greek philosopher's work of the notion that concern for others is the heart of the good life, which comes only much later with Christianity. Again, the idea of sin is a Judaeo-Christian inheritance, involving not just acting wrongly but disobeying divine commands. The dualism of humankind's higher and lower natures is also theistic in origin. In so many ways shaped by religion, the very idea of morality that Wilson takes for granted is a relic of monotheism.

Wilson's use of theistic concepts is telling, since much of the book is a polemic against religion. 'The illogic of religions', he writes, 'is not a weakness in them, but their essential strength.' One might say the same of evolutionary theories of morality and society. Bright volumes promising evolutionary solutions to perennial human difficulties are among the top bestsellers. Evidently, the genre meets a powerful need - the same need to find meaning in the flux of events that has in the past been met by religions. The difference is that meaning is now served up with the blessing of science. 'We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence,' Wilson writes, 'and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life. Religion will never solve this great riddle.'

It is not the first time that science has been invoked to solve the great riddle. In 1899 the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel published The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century, an immensely influential text that formed the basis of a new evolutionary religion, an unsavoury mix of pantheism and racism called Monism that Haeckel successfully promoted throughout central Europe. Around the same time, the English sociologist Herbert Spencer was promoting evolution as the basis of an ultra-individualist philosophy of minimum government and unfettered capitalism. Whether it was supposed to replace religion or provide a new basis for politics, evolution was embraced as a guide to life.

The irony of the latest wave of evolutionist fervour is that there can no longer be any doubt that evolution is a value-free process. We know a great deal more than was known a century ago: while there remain questions about the mechanism of natural selection, Darwin's true achievement - to expel purpose and design from nature - is more secure that it has ever been. A process of drift governed by chance and necessity, natural selection contains nothing that can satisfy the hunger for meaning. Yet once again, evolution has become a secular religion. 'By any conceivable standard,' Wilson intones, 'humanity is far and away life's greatest achievement. We are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and - who can say? - perhaps the galaxy.' It is a declaration reminiscent of Teilhard de Chardin's proclamation of the Omega Point, the end-state of maximum complexity and consciousness to which the Jesuit thinker believed the cosmos was evolving. However, unlike Wilson, the Harvard founder of sociobiology, the renegade man of the cloth understood that he was promoting not science but a heterodox brand of mysticism.

When people look to religion for the meaning of life, they eventually find mystery. When they look to science for meaning they end up in mere incoherence. Memes - the conceptual units that in some popular accounts drive what is described as cultural evolution - are no more actually existing things than was phlogiston. But there are surely tropes that recurrently distort thinking, and the notion that evolution can be our guide in ethics and politics is one of them. Spanning the emergence of social cooperation in insects (where Wilson draws on his vast expertise as an entomologist), through to the development of human codes of honour, The Social Conquest of Earth is one of the supreme examples of evolutionist writing. In chapters on tribalism as a basic human trait and what he calls 'war as humanity's hereditary curse', Wilson confronts the most intractable human evils. He does so in beautifully clear and graceful prose. But the historically complex varieties of human conflict and belonging are not greatly illuminated by his fascinating account of insect development, any more than the tragic collisions of duties and values in ethics can be clarified by talk of multilevel selection. The lucidity of Wilson's writing masks a fundamental confusion in thinking.

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, are a special representative of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God's divine will.

Scepticism towards religious authorities may be a useful turn of mind. But what of those who speak for humanity, who represent themselves as the special representatives of the species and claim the authority of science for their pronouncements regarding the human good? Wilson wants to emancipate humanity from irrational belief, which for him means anything that cannot be justified in scientific terms. Science and religion, he tells us repeatedly, are irreconcilably at odds. He has not noticed that his belief that science can deliver the world from unreason is equally at odds with his account of humans as deluded, tribal, war-mongering animals. Wilson looks forward hopefully to a possible future in which the species lives sustainably on the planet. To his credit, Wilson acknowledges that this prospect has little basis in reason: 'I will confess my own blind faith. Earth, 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.' But like so many others in the murmuring congregations of evolutionists, he seems not to realise that he is basing his hopes on a transmutation in human nature that in strictly scientific terms can only be described as a miracle.

Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!

John Gray's most recent book is The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death (Penguin).


John Murray