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Social ants and social humans

Book>> The social conquest of earth• by Edward O Wilson • Liveright publications • Rs 1,040

By Urmila Apte
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

bookFor all who love the natural world, a new Edward O Wilson book is something to look forward to. For the uninitiated, Wilson is an expert on social insects, discoverer of new species and passionate advocate of biodiversity. He is best known for his groundbreaking work on animal behaviour.

Wilson once famously wrote, “Karl Marx was right. Socialism works. It is just that he had the wrong species in mind.” He was alluding to Ants. Their biology has fostered the social behaviour of ants. The sterile worker ants and the male drones gravitate towards the fertile female and submit to her dictates—much like some human societies submitting to socialist dictators.

Wilson returns to his favourite topic—why individuals of certain species show greater propensity towards cooperation and how human and insect behaviour converge—in his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. Many animals have social organisations but very few species have made the leap from merely social to what Wilson calls eusocial—truly social. To qualify as eusocial, in Wilson’s definition, animals must live in multigenerational communities, practise division of labour and behave altruistically, ready to sacrifice “at least some of their personal interests to that of the group”.

Eusociality, Wilson writes, “was one of the major innovations in the history of life”, comparable to the conquest of land by aquatic animals, or the invention of wings or flowers. Eusociality, he argues, “created superorganisms, the next level of biological complexity above that of organisms.” The spur to that exalted state, he says, was always a patch of prized real estate, a focal point luring group members back each day and pulling them closer together until finally they called it home. “All animal species that have achieved eusociality, without exception, at first built nests that they defended from enemies,” Wilson writes. An anthill. A beehive. A cave in which the early humans lived to fortresses and apartment complexes.

The vigour with which humans guard their homes makes them similar to insects. Many other animals have similar attachment: to territory. But humans and insects go a step further in their love for homes and nests. These are abodes where the altruism of humans and insect species reach their acme.


Wilson makes some radical claims about the origins of our eusocial natures. For ants, he argues that workers are “robotic extensions of the mother’s genome”. But humans compete for reproductive resources. So how did we get to be such social animals? Richard Dawkins’ theory of “the selfish gene” would have it that there is no real difference between an animal’s interest and that of its kin. Hence a gene that guides an animal to help its relatives could spread through the population even if this helping was costly to the animal itself.

Wilson was once a proponent of this view but has modified his views. He believes a gene for helping behavior can thrive even if it’s disadvantageous for the individual, so long as it gives the individual’s group an advantage over other groups. In doing so, Wilson is extending Darwin’s argument that a tribe that has a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members always ready to warn each other of danger, would do better than competitors which have fewer such members.

But Wilson also says that eu¬sociality is rare precisely because “group selection must be exceptionally powerful to relax the grip of individual selection”. For Wilson “group impulses” are responsible for all of our virtues (“honour, virtue and duty”), while “individual selection” produces nothing but sin (“selfishness, cowardice and hypocrisy”). It has, however, long been known that individual and group impulses cannot be viewed as neat watertight categories. More importantly, social scientists—and human history—have taught us that people we cooperate with are not necessarily our kin. Wilson begins well by showing similarities—and differences—between the social nature of humans and insects. One hopes he had nuanced his arguments further by engaging with social scientists.

Urmila Apte is an entomologist based in Philadelphia, US

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