Thought Leader: E. O. Wilson

January 25, 2013

E. O. Wilson

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with biologist, researcher, naturalist, and author E. O. Wilson, regarded as the "father of sociobiology."

DEVIN STEWART: What's morally distinct about the age we live in today?

E.O. WILSON: I believe that in addressing this very complicated and extremely important issue of global ethics, we have to take into account the exponential growth of almost everything in the world, good and bad. Science and technology, for example, continue to double every 10 to 20 years, depending on the discipline that you have in mind. Communication networks—globalization of information—is now becoming quickly, year by year, complete. We have a system in which, within a very short period of time—a matter of just a few years—virtually everything published of general interest is going to be available anywhere in the world, anytime, and on immediate notice, to anyone.

For example, let me just take my own field, the study of biological diversity. There's an Encyclopedia of Life [] which has been open and filling for the last seven or eight years, and its design is to record the characteristics, diagnostic, to allow anyone to identify any species of plant, animal, or microorganism in the world and to provide immediately online everything known about that species. The Encyclopedia of Life now is over half complete of the 1.9 million species. It's just an amazing feat. Very soon the great majority of species, regardless of where they are, can be pulled up, their characteristics found, information about biological diversity, identification made quickly possible. All of this will be a few keystrokes away.

Simultaneously, to continue this example of how fast science is growing and how fast globalization is occurring, there's the Biodiversity Heritage Library that has been in operation for the same amount of time. This is a scanning operation by a consortium of libraries that, together, have virtually all of the literature on biological diversity and related subjects in biology. They are putting that online, so that everything ever published—the original works, going all the way back, on every species and related subjects, related to biodiversity, are going to be available. An estimated 500 million pages will be available. I don't think they are at the halfway mark, but they are, I know, well into the tens of millions of pages now.

That's the kind of good thing that's happening. We really are becoming connected in a detail that most people don't appreciate. The opportunities, then, for learning, for research, for just having fingertip information and familiarity with almost anything in the world and all of its history, are about to become a reality.

Now, that's the good part. The bad part is that simultaneously, in concert with this extraordinary advance in our knowledge, our communication, our global economic systems, and so on, there is an accelerating destruction of the natural environment and, with it, of irreplaceable natural resources. Climate change, as almost everybody should understand now, has catastrophic potential if allowed to continue, particularly the carbon dioxide and methane and the other heating gases that have the potential for ruination. That's accelerating.

Then we should never put out of our minds something that is not accelerating, but is ever present which could be truly catastrophic in a fraction of a second, and that's the persistence of nuclear weapons and the possibility of rogue nations and terrorist organizations using them.

So we have a kind of death race going on for humanity. On the one side, our capacity to enlarge our vision and our knowledge, our capability, is being catapulted, and at the same time, partly as a result of that, we have more and more capacity to destroy everything that our lives depend upon.

DEVIN STEWART: Professor Wilson, what are the implications of these two phenomena?

E.O. WILSON: Well, it is that we had better get our global house in order. We have to think much more cogently and with greater information and care about making global decisions. We're nowhere close to that. We don't have a global ethic. There isn't really any such thing as a global ethic, except in a very few ethical precepts. The one that is universal, I believe anthropologists tell us, is the golden rule. That gets broken a lot, too.

A global ethic, which is absolutely necessary to meet the destructive forces that our intellectual and technological powers have given us to meet and solve the big problems that are promoted by it, depends upon a much more thorough knowledge of what we are.

I think the only solution in reaching a global ethic—and people like myself can talk about it in the abstract, in idealistic, what the goal would be and so on—we can talk about that endlessly. But it's pretty clear that we have to be more concerned right now with enabling it and to realize that a global ethic has to grow; it has to evolve.

In my judgment, there are three initiatives that we ought to have in mind of a global nature. I hope this could contribute, somewhat anyway, to the kind of discussion we need now if we're going to have a national ethic, much less a global ethic:

• First, I think an honest, thorough appraisal of what humanity, the human species, is, what the meaning of human existence really is.

• That can only be based on a dedicated pursuit and evaluation of factual, science-based information to answer the ancient questions of the philosophers, which we have never answered: Where did the species come from? Well, science is providing a good partial answer for that. But then, what are we?

• Finally, with this kind of understanding, universal and in-depth, we can ask the question that very much has at its core a global ethic: Where do we wish as a species, on this one small planet, to go?

Scholars and scientists and thinkers and the humanities have been up until now, I have to say, inept, entirely inept, in addressing these fundamental issues and then using the understanding and whatever agreement we can reach about them in applying ourselves.

The way I like to put it is that we really do have to understand that history, with which we're preoccupied. We all care about history, and we try to interpret ourselves on the basis of something like a maximum of 4,500 years of real history that literacy and literate records allow. But history makes no sense without prehistory, which goes back way beyond a couple of millennia to hundreds of millennia and even beyond. We have to take the knowledge of what we are and what happened during our history into account to explain what we are physically and mentally.

Then this prehistory makes no sense without biology because humanity is, above all—no matter how exalted we are and how smart we are and the almost miraculous things we're now being able to accomplish—a biological species in a biological world, and we really depend on a pretty stable environment unique to this planet, which we're destroying almost carelessly.

I believe that this kind of assessment—discussion, shall I say—that would be remarkable in its deliberateness and honesty, if it could be done, would be an unsparing, open, spoken assessment of the creation stories and other supernatural beliefs of each organized religion and each political ideology in turn. It's a taboo now to do that in most countries. In fact, in many countries it's a crime to try to do that, if the country has an authoritarian base.

At any rate, that open discussion, that assessment, should be one of the principal rules and the goals of higher education and scholarly and journalistic writing. We get almost none of it now, even in an open and literate society like the United States.

That level of honesty and persistence and pursuit of what the real story is, and self-examination as a species, is not going to be easy, of course. It hasn't even been taken seriously yet. But it's the only way I personally can see of achieving an authentic global ethic. Otherwise, the global ethic or whatever ethic is being recommended out of each society, each tribe in turn, is going to be filtered and colored and twisted to accord with the supernatural beliefs, the creation stories, that distinguish that organized religion, that tribal set of beliefs, that makes the identity of that group of people secure and gives them a sense that what they are doing is correct and that they are, in fact, superior in that regard to everyone else.

Just to conclude that answer—it's a long answer, but I think it's probably the best I can do—let's say that the search for human self-understanding—and, from it, maybe we can develop a global ethic—for solutions that work on a global scale, does not mean a uniformity of responsibility or what is expected of each part of the world, each society. That has to be determined a lot by the degree of its education, by its resources. It doesn't mean uniformity of effort or even of regional success around the world. It doesn't mean a uniformity of cultures by any means. But it does mean that we are—and we should recognize this—fundamentally tribal, instinctively tribal, and competition at the national and regional level is a deep human instinct.

What a global ethic would mean, then, if we can achieve it, is that future individuals and the equivalents of their tribes—we are so tribal (I can say that with confidence)—would operate within a global ethic. In other words, there would be a full understanding of the causes and consequences on which a general, human-wide ethic is based that would guide our behavior as individuals, that would provide restraints—"those wise restraints that make men free," to quote what the president of Harvard says each year in granting degrees of law here. Those restraints would be agreeable as universal, because that's based upon our understanding of what we really are.

A global ethic would come, not from a feel-good intuition that we're doing the right thing by these poor people over here or we're doing the right thing by not going to war over there—not that, not the promulgation of particular religious beliefs and premises and secular ideology, but from knowledge and understanding.

That's why I think education, including an education in science, building an interest in what we're learning through science and an interest in technology and what it all means, really has to be improved everywhere. I think most people would agree, including, fortunately, at the present time the president of the United States, that need is particularly acute in the United States.

DEVIN STEWART: On related topics, our founder, Andrew Carnegie, was an advocate of world peace, whatever that means. Do you think world peace is possible?

E.O. WILSON: Oh, yes. I'm very optimistic. There are signs. There's no question that nationalistic wars, which raged right through most of the 20th century, are declining, partly because of the fear of what could happen beyond just a clash of military forces. That was the kind of discovery that Japan made centuries ago when it got firearms. Similarly, the Maori in New Zealand discovered it. When they got firearms, they discovered they were so destructive, they would have to ban them. So it is that we have begun to ban nationalistic wars and take any means we have of avoiding them. That's far from concluded, but certainly that's a trend.

With that really achieved—I think it does have an endpoint, which will be the complete abolition of nationalistic wars, nation-based—then we have to turn our efforts in moral reasoning, as well as in methodology and new forms of diplomatic and political techniques, to insurrection and particularly to terrorism. There's good insurrection and there's bad insurrection. Bad insurrection seems, almost as a law of nature, to follow good insurrection.

But as those are addressed in terms particularly of a conscious attempt to develop a universal ethic, I think eventually we could have peace—except, of course, where we least want it, which is on the football field.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you implying that sports might be a substitute for aggression?

E.O. WILSON: Yes, they already are. It's a beautiful thing to see, the full power of tribalism and between-group aggression played out on the field, in blood sports, in any kind of activity—who can run the fastest 1,500 meters, which country, and so on.

That's a good thing. That is, groups form—it can be at the level of nations; it can be at the level of sporting clubs, local municipal sporting clubs, whatever—and can engage in the expression of a human instinct, which is not at all bad. It happens to be one of the nuclear sources of energy that lead to human creativity—that kind of competition, healthy competition.

The same is true in economics. That's why I said there's nothing wrong with different regions—if we are now continuing to talk about a global ethic—there's nothing wrong with different portions of a country, different states, different cities, different nations competing heartily in economic development and all of the technology and marketing genius that goes with that.

DEVIN STEWART: Professor, you said, if I understand correctly, that competition comes from almost a cellular level, a nuclear level. Is that what you're saying?

E.O. WILSON: Yes, I am. I believe there's not much question that—and this is a theme that I have developed. I'm sorry to mention one of my own books, but I can summarize it better and perhaps provide a footnote on where to find this argument developed fully.

In my recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth, I review—and I find myself in agreement with a lot, if not all, far from all—anthropologists, for example, especially those working in the origin of advanced social organization, in humans and other organisms, that a major driving factor in evolution has been between-group selection.

I won't take the time now to go into the full argument, but this is based, I think, on solid science now. It applies to all of the 17 known cases in evolution, in the whole history of life, in which organisms developed a society with a division of labor and forms of social organization dependent upon nonreproductive division of labor, in addition to who gets to reproduce and who doesn't. It's happened 17 times, and it always was preceded by situations in which group-versus-group competed.

That appears to be the case in humans as well. It took off for very special reasons, particularly having to do with changing to a meat diet, the development of campsites and so on with human beings about 2 million to 3 million years ago, with the rise of the habiline Homo, the first Homo in Africa.

In any case, that's a brief biological background. The evidence is overwhelming that group selection, contests between groups, is paramount. It was one of the suggestions made by Darwin, which has held up. But it's also the case that even scientists working on the subject haven't given enough thought to it.

It's also the case that individual-level selection is very powerful. Group solidarity and the ability of groups to compete with other groups tends to be countered by individuals competing against other individuals within groups.

Those two levels of natural selection, changing—as they do, whenever natural selection of any kind occurs—the frequencies of different genes and the rise and fall of mutations, are what created the genome of the human species. In my opinion, the constant ambiguity we have, the conflict of conscience we have that underlies so many of our problems, is the human condition. In fact, that's the subject matter of most of the humanities, that conflict and how we adjust to it constantly in our lives and between societies.

It also is an instinct-based conflict, in my opinion, that is the source of the creative energies in humanity, in both science and the humanities.

DEVIN STEWART: Professor, you mentioned earlier that a global ethic requires an honest appraisal of who we are, where we came from, and where we're going. Is your answer about individual versus group competition and the emergence of creativity or do you have another answer?

E.O. WILSON: That's an element in the answer that I and a number of other evolutionary biologists and specialists in the genetics of evolution are suggesting. It's an idea, I think, that is just beginning to take hold.

Science does not have the answer. Scientists, and social scientists particularly, have provided a lot of parts of the answer. They are learning more and more of them. The more they look carefully at both history and prehistory and the biology behind it, we're getting more and more of these elements. I think we can put a lot together now to give the kind of picture I just indicated.

But it's something that is just beginning. I would think that when we go a little farther with it, we're going to see that this naturalistic view—that's what you can call it if you wish to make a distinction, scientific and naturalistic view—of the human condition does not lower humanity to animal status. It says that, yes, we're kind of an animal, but we're a very special kind. It doesn't lower us. I think it ennobles us for what our evolution has achieved—our history, our evolution—and the remarkable capacity it has given us.

Plus freedom. We're free. We're responsible for what we are now. We inherited it, of course, a large part of it, but we're responsible for managing it. We're the conscience of the world, of the planet, of the biosphere—who knows?—a big part of the galaxy. We don't know yet. At any rate, we're responsible. We're the ones that know what's going on, that one species. And that ennobles us and it empowers us.

I think that's the right way to be looking at ourselves. That will entail a global ethic. Whether this is the right way to go—I'm convinced it is, but I have to say, being a scientist, time will tell.

DEVIN STEWART: One last question, and you might have already answered this. Part of our intention here is to create a kind of time capsule for future generations to understand what people were talking about in 2013. What's the idea that you would like to be most remembered for?

E.O. WILSON: It is that, while science and technology have given us tremendous new powers of discovery and self-understanding of our species, here in the year 2013 or 2014, when I guess others might be hearing this, we have just begun. We're still very inept. With a hard effort to be honest and factual about our own existence, our humanity and the basis of it—the history of it, the prehistory of it, the biology of it—we will arrive at a self image that will help develop that grail of a global ethic and a pacific and rapidly improving human existence.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much, Professor, for that optimistic ending. We really appreciate it, Professor Wilson.

E.O. WILSON: I appreciate the opportunity to be part of it.