There is no grail more elusive or precious in the life of the mind than the key to understanding the human condition. It has always been the custom of those who seek it to explore the labyrinth of myth: for religion, the myths of creation and the dreams of prophets; for philosophers, the insights of introspection and reasoning based upon them; for the creative arts, statements based upon a play of the senses.
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Once a group has been split off and sufficiently dehumanized, any brutality can be justified, at any level, and at any size of the victimized group up to and including race and nation. Russia’s Great Terror under Stalin resulted in the deliberate starvation to death of more than three million Soviet Ukrainians during the winter of 1932–33. In 1937 and 1938, 681,692 executions were carried out for alleged “political crimes,” of which more than 90% were peasants considered resistant to collectivization.
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In the old, conventional image, that of kin selection and the “selfish gene,” the group is an alliance of related individuals that cooperate with one another because they are related. Although potentially in conflict, they nonetheless accede altruistically to the needs of the colony. Workers are willing to surrender some or all of their personal reproductive potential this way because they are kin and share genes with them by common descent. Thus each favors its own “selfish” genes by promoting identical genes that also occur in its fellow group members. Even if it gives its life for the benefit of a mother or sister, such an insect will increase the frequency of genes it shares with the relatives. The genes increased will include those that produced the altruistic behavior. If other colony members behave in similar manner, the colony as a whole can defeat groups composed of exclusively selfish individuals.
Responsibility is divided among specialists, including soldiers, builders, clerks, and priests. With enough population and wealth, the public services of art, sciences, and education can be added—first for the benefit of the elite and then, trickling down, for the general public. The heads of state sit upon a throne, real or virtual. They ally themselves with the high priests, and clothe their authority with rituals of allegiance to the gods.
Any excuse for a real war will do, so long as it is seen as necessary to protect the tribe. Hence the war against terrorism and axis of evil. Remembrance of past horrors has no effect.
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From April to June in 1994, killers from the Hutu majority in Rwanda set out to exterminate the Tutsi minority, which at that time ruled the country. In a hundred days of unrestrained slaughter by knife and gun, 800,000 people died, mostly Tutsi. The total Rwandan population was reduced by 10%. When a halt was finally called, two million Hutu fled the country, fearing retribution.
Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when the experimenters created the groups arbitrarily, then labeled them so the members could identify themselves, and even when the interactions prescribed were trivial, prejudice quickly established itself. Whether groups played for pennies or identified themselves groupishly as preferring some abstract painter to another, the participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their “opponents” to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent. The prejudices asserted themselves even when the subjects were told the in-groups and out-groups had been chosen arbitrarily.
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In every game of evolutionary chance, played from one generation to the next, a very large number of individuals must live and die. The number, however, is not countless. A rough estimate can be made of it, providing at least a plausible order-of-magnitude guess. For the entire course of evolution leading from our primitive mammalian forebears of a hundred million years ago to the single lineage that threaded its way to become the first Homo sapiens, the total number of individuals it required might have been one hundred billion.
Wherever humans saturated wildlands, biodiversity was returned to the paucity of its earliest period half a billion years previously. The rest of the living world could not coevolve fast enough to accommodate the onslaught of a spectacular conqueror that seemed to come from nowhere, and it began to crumble from the pressure.
Perhaps, the traditional argument goes, the challenges of new environments gave an advantage to genetic types able to discover and use novel resources to avoid enemies, as well as the capacity to defeat competitors for food and space. Those genetic types were able to innovate and learn from their competitors. They were the survivors of hard times. The flexible species evolved larger brains. How well does this familiar innovation-adaptiveness describe other animal species? One analysis made of 600 bird species introduced by humans into parts of the world outside their native ranges, and hence into alien environments, seems to support the idea. Those species with larger brains relative to their body size were on average better able to establish themselves in the new environments. Further, there is evidence that it was done by greater intelligence and inventiveness.
The war, conducted over ten years, was eerily human-like. Every 10 to 14 days, patrols of up to 20 males penetrated enemy territory, moving quietly in single file, scanning the terrain from ground to the treetops, and halting cautiously at every surrounding noise. If a force larger than their own was encountered, the invaders broke rank and ran back to their own territory. When they encountered a lone male, however, they piled on him in a crowd and pummeled and bit him to death. When a female was encountered, they usually let her go. This latter tolerance was not a display of gallantry. If she carried an infant, they took it from her and killed and ate it.
Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good?
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It is highly unlikely that primary states emerged around the world as the result of convergent genetic evolution. It is all but certain that they appeared autonomously as elaborations of already existing genetic predispositions shared by human populations through common ancestry and dating back to the breakout period some 60,000 years ago.
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A single case of eusociality is known in ambrosia beetles, and others have been discovered in aphids and thrips. Amazingly, eusocial behavior has originated three times in shrimps of the genus Synalpheus of the family Alphaeidae, which build nests in marine sponges. Such rare or relatively unstable originations could easily have gone undetected in the fossil record. Also, the multiplicity of eusocial origins in the Synalpheus shrimps has been discovered only recently.
The origin and evolution of eusocial insects can be viewed as processes driven by individual-level natural selection. It is best tracked from queen to queen from one generation to the next, with the workers of each colony produced as phenotypic extensions of the mother queen. The queen and her offspring are often called superorganisms, but they may equally be called organisms. The worker of a wasp colony or ant colony that attacks you when you disturb its nest is a product of the mother queen’s genome. The defending worker is part of the queen’s phenotype, as teeth and fingers are part of your own phenotype. There may immediately seem to be a flaw in this comparison. The eusocial worker, of course, has a father as well as a mother, and therefore partly a different genotype from that of the mother queen. Each colony comprises an array of genomes, while the cells of a conventional organism, being clones, compose only the one genome of the organism’s zygote. Yet the process of natural selection and the single level of biological organization on which its operations occur are essentially the same. Each of us is an organism made up of well-integrated diploid cells.
The pre-humans, now distinguishable as a group of species called the australopithecines, took the trend to bipedal walking much farther. Their body as a whole was accordingly refashioned. The legs were lengthened and straightened, and the feet were elongated to create a rocking movement during locomotion. The pelvis was reformed into a shallow bowl to support the viscera, which now pressed toward the legs instead of being slung, ape-like, beneath the horizontal body.
About a million years ago the controlled use of fire followed, a unique hominid achievement. Meat, fire, and cooking, campsites lasting for more than a few days at a time, and thus persistent enough to be guarded as a refuge, marked the next vital step. Such a nest, as it can also be called, has been the precursor to the attainment of eusociality by all other known animals. With fireside campsites came a division of labor.
Individual selection, defined precisely, is the differential longevity and fertility of individuals in competition with other members of the group. Group selection is differential longevity and lifetime fertility of those genes that prescribe traits of interaction among members of the group, having arisen during competition with other groups.
During Mesozoic times many evolving lines of dinosaurs attained at least some of the necessary prerequisites: human-sized, fast-moving carnivores, pack hunters, bipedal gait, and free hands. None took the final step to reach even primitive eusociality.
There are five basic human personality traits: extroversion versus introversion, antagonism versus agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Within populations each of these domains contains substantial heritability, mostly falling between one-third to two-thirds. This means that of the total variation of scores in each domain—the fraction due to differences in genes among individuals—falls somewhere between one-third and two-thirds. So from inheritance alone we would expect to find substantial variation in a population such as that in the Burkina Faso village. Added to differences in experience from one person to the next, especially during the formative periods of childhood, we should expect to find even greater variation, but more or less consistently from village to village, and from country to country. Does such substantial variation exist universally, and is it the same from one population to the next, or different? The variation turns out to be consistently great and universally to the same degree across populations. Such was the result of an extraordinary study conducted by a team of 87 researchers and published in 2005. The degree of variation in personality scores was similar across all of 49 cultures measured. The central tendencies of the five domains of personality differed only slightly from one to the next, in a way that was not consistent with prevailing stereotypes held by those outside the cultures.
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Science is not just another enterprise like medicine or engineering or theology. It is the wellspring of all the knowledge we have of the real world that can be tested and fitted to preexisting knowledge. It is the arsenal of technologies and inferential math needed to distinguish the true from the false. It formulates the principles and formulas that tie all this knowledge together.
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Smaller mammals on average were able to buffer themselves better than large mammals, including humans, against extreme environmental changes. Their methods included burrowing, hibernation, and prolonged torpor, adaptations not available to large mammals. Paleontologists have determined that the turnover in species is still higher in mammals that form social groups. They have pointed out that social groups tend to stay apart from each other during breeding, thus creating smaller populations, making them subject to both quicker genetic divergence and higher extinction rates.
Chiefs or “big men” rule by prestige, largesse, the support of elite members below them—and retribution against those who oppose them. They live on the surplus accumulated by the tribe, employing it to tighten control upon the tribe, to regulate trade, and to wage war with neighbors. Chiefs exercise authority only on the people immediately around them or in nearby villages, with whom they interact as needed on a daily basis. In practice this means subjects who can be reached within half a day traveling by foot. The reach is thus a maximum of 25 to 30 miles. It is to the advantage of chiefs to micromanage the affairs of their domain, delegating as little authority as possible in order to reduce the chance of insurrection or fission. Common tactics include the suppression of underlings and the fomenting of fear of rival chiefdoms.
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They lack grasping hands and soft-tipped fingers. They remain four-legged, dependent on their carnassial teeth and fur-sheathed claws.
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Wilson then goes on the explain why the bee waggle dance and other communications of other animals is not a language. Some reasons why human language is are that we can make reference to objects and events not in the vicinity or that even exist. We emphasize particular words to invoke emphasis and mood. We can be indirect and insinuate instead of saying something baldly and leave open plausible deniability.
Anatomical concealment of female genitalia and the abandonment of advertisement of ovulation, both combined with continuous sexual activity. The latter promotes female-male bonding and biparental care, which are needed through the long period of helplessness in early childhood.
What drove the hominins on through to larger brains, higher intelligence, and thence language-based culture? That, of course, is the question of questions.
There is no certain way to decide on the basis of existing knowledge whether chimpanzee and humans inherited their pattern of territorial aggression from a common ancestor or whether they evolved it independently in response to parallel pressures of natural selection and opportunities encountered in the African homeland. Humans and chimpanzees are intensely territorial. That is the apparent population control hardwired into their social systems.
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Societies are mistaken to disapprove of homosexuality because gays have different sexual preferences and reproduce less. Their presence should be valued instead for what they contribute constructively to human diversity. A society that condemns homosexuality harms itself.
To use such hands and fingers effectively, candidate species on the path to eusociality had to free them from locomotion in order to manipulate objects easily and skillfully. That was accomplished early by the first prehominids who, as far back as when our presumed ancient forebear Ardipithecus, climbed out of the trees, stood up, and began walking entirely on hind legs.
The question of exactly when anatomically modern Homo sapiens arrived in the New World, with its catastrophic impact on the virgin fauna and flora, has gripped the attention of anthropologists for many years. From genetic and archaeological studies across Siberia and the Americas, it now appears that a single Siberian population reached the Bering land bridge no sooner than 30,000 years ago, and possibly as recently as 22,000 years. Around 16,500 years before the present, the retreat of the ice sheets cleared the way south, and a full-scale invasion through Alaska began. By 15,000 years before the present, as revealed by archaeological discoveries in both North and South America, the colonization of the Americas was well under way. It appears likely that the first populations dispersed along the recently deglaciated Pacific coastline, along land still exposed by the incomplete withdrawal of the ice sheets but nowadays mostly underwater.
For the immediate future, however, emigration and ethnic intermarriage have taken over as the overwhelmingly dominant forces of microevolution, by homogenizing the global distribution of genes. The impact on humanity as a whole, even while still in this current early stage, is an unprecedented dramatic increase in the genetic variation within local populations around the world. The increase is matched by a reduction in differences between populations. Theoretically, if the flow continues long enough, the population of Stockholm could come to be the same genetically as that in Chicago or Lagos. Overall, more kinds of genotypes are being produced everywhere. This change, unique in human evolutionary history, offers a prospect of an immense increase in different kinds of people worldwide, and thereby newly created physical beauty and artistic and intellectual genius.
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The best, the only way our forebears could explain existence was a creation myth, which without exception, affirmed the superiority of the tribe that invented it over all other trips. Every religious believer saw himself as a chosen person. To question the sacred myths is to question the identity and worth of those who believe them. That is why skeptics, even those committed to equally absurd myths, are disliked and can risk imprisonment or death.
Apparently multilevel natural selection of group and individual selection combined. This is why we are conflicted – feeling the pull of conscience, of heroism against cowardice, of truth against deception, of commitment against withdrawal. It isour fate to be tormented with large and small dilemmas as we daily wind our way through the risky, fractious world that gave us birth.
First, in all of the animal species that have attained eusociality—all of them, without known exception—altruistic cooperation protects a persistent, defensible nest from enemies, whether predators, parasites, or competitors. Second, this step having been attained, the stage was set for the origin of eusociality, in which members of groups belong to more than one generation and divide labor in a way that sacrifices at least some of their personal interests to that of the group.
Natural selection at the individual level, with strategies evolving that contribute maximum number of mature offspring, has prevailed throughout the history of life. It typically shapes the physiology and behavior of organisms to suit a solitary existence, or at most to membership in loosely organized groups. The origin of eusociality, in which organisms behave in the opposite manner, has been rare in the history of life because group selection must be exceptionally powerful to relax the grip of individual selection. Only then can it modify the conservative effect of individual selection and introduce highly cooperative behavior into the physiology and behavior of the group members. The ancestors of ants and other hymenopterous eusocial insects (ants, bees, wasps) faced the same problem as those of humans. They finessed it by evolving extreme plasticity of certain genes, programmed so that the altruistic workers have the same genes for physiology and behavior as the mother queen, even though they differ drastically from the queen and among one another in these traits. Selection has remained at the individual level, queen to queen. Yet selection in the insect societies continues at the group level, with colony pitted against colony. This seeming paradox is easily resolved. As far as natural selection in most forms of social behavior is concerned, the colony is operationally only the queen and her phenotypic extension in the form of robot-like assistants.
The creation of new groups by humans, at the present time and all the way back into prehistory, has been fundamentally different. Their evolutionary dynamics is driven by both individual and group selection.
Altricial bird species—those that rear helpless young—have a similar preadaptation. In a few species young adults remain with the parents for a while to help care for their siblings. But no bird species has gone on to evolve full-blown eusocial societies. Possessing only a beak and claws, they have never been equipped to handle tools with any degree of sophistication, or fire at all. Wolves and African wild dogs hunt in coordinated packs in the same manner as chimpanzees and bonobos, and African wild dogs also dig out dens, where one or two females have a large litter.
States, the final step up in the cultural evolution of societies, have a centralized authority. Rulers exercise their authority in and around the capital, but also over villages, provinces, and other subordinate domains beyond the distance of a one day’s walk, hence beyond immediate communication with the rulers. The domain is too far-flung, the social order and communication system holding it together too complex, for any one person to monitor and control. Local power is therefore delegated to viceroys, princes, governors, and other chief-like rulers of the second rank.
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The behaviors created by epigenetic rules are not hardwired like reflexes. It is the epigenetic rules instead that are hardwired, and hence compose the true core of human nature.
When in experiments black and white Americans were flashed pictures of the other race, their amygdalas, the brain’s center of fear and anger, were activated so quickly and subtly that the conscious centers of the brain were unaware of the response. The subject, in effect, could not help himself. When, on the other hand, appropriate contexts were added—say, the approaching black was a doctor and the white his patient—two other sites of the brain integrated with the higher learning centers, the cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral preferential cortex, lit up, silencing input through the amygdala. Thus different parts of the brain have evolved by group selection to create groupishness.
National academy of sciences, an elite elected group, were approaching complete atheism. Only 10% testified to a belief in either God or immortality, with just 2% of them biologists.
How to think out and deal with the eternal ferment generated by multilevel selection is the role of the social sciences and humanities. How to explain it is the role of the natural science, which if successful, should make the pathways to harmony among the three great branches of learning easier to create. The social sciences and humanities are devoted to the proximate, outwardly expressed phenomena of human sensations and thought. In the same way that descriptive natural history is related to biology, the social sciences and humanities are related to human self-understanding. They describe how individuals feel and act, and with history and drama they tell a representative fraction of the infinite stores that human relationships can generate. All of this, however, exists within a box. It is confined there because sensations and thought are ruled by human nature, and human nature is also in a box. It is only one of a vast number of possible natures that could have evolved. The one we have is the result of the improbably pathway followed across millions of years by our genetic ancestors that finally produced us. To see human nature as the product of this evolutionary trajectory is to unlock the ultimate causes of our sensations and thought. To put together both proximate and ultimate causes is the key to self-understanding, the means to see ourselves as we truly are and then to explore outside the box.
A good first step toward the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate 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. Among these purveyors of theological narcissism are would-be prophets, the founders of religious cults, impassioned evangelical minsters, ayatollahs, imams of the grand mosques, chief rabbis, Rosh yeshivas, the Dalai Lama and the pope. The same is true for dogmatic political ideologies based on unchallengeable precepts, left or right, and especially where justified with the dogmas of organized religions.
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In the last part of the Jurassic period, some 175 million years ago, the first termites, primitively cockroach-like in anatomy, appeared, followed about 25 million years later by ants. Even then, and continuing to the present time, the origin of other eusocial insects, or eusocial animals of any kind, has been rare. Today there are approximately 2,600 recognized taxonomic families of insects and other arthropods, such as the common fruit flies of the family Drosophilidae, orb-weaving spiders of the family Argiopidae, and land crabs of the family Grapsidae. Only 15 of the 2,600 families are known to contain eusocial species. Six of the families are termites, all of which appear to have been descended from a single eusocial ancestor. Eusociality arose in ants once, three times independently in wasps, and at least four times—probably more, but it is hard to tell—in bees.
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Kin selection says parents, offspring, and their cousins and other collateral relatives are bound by the coordination and unity of purpose made possible by selfless acts toward one another. Altruism actually benefits each group member on average because each altruist shares genes by common descent with most other members of its group. Due to the sharing with relatives, its sacrifice increases the relative abundance of these genes in the next generation. If the increase is greater than the average number lost by reducing the number of genes passed on through personal offspring, then the altruism is favored and a society can evolve. Individuals divide themselves into reproductive and nonreproductive castes as a manifestation in part of self-sacrificing behavior on behalf of kin.
Organized religions preside over the rites of passage, from birth to maturity, from marriage to death. They offer the best a tribe has to offer: a committed community that gives heartfelt emotional support, and welcomes, and forgives. These beliefs in immorality and divine justice give comfort and steel resolution and bravery. Religions have been the source of much of the best of creative arts.
In its power and universality, the tendency to form groups and then favor in-group members has the earmarks of instinct. It could be argued that in-group bias is conditioned by early training to affiliate with family members and by encouragement to play with neighboring children. But even if such experience does play a role, it would be an example of what psychologists call prepared learning, the inborn propensity to learn something swiftly and decisively. If the propensity toward in-group bias has all these criteria, it is likely to be inherited and, if so, can be reasonably supposed to have arisen through evolution by natural selection. Other cogent examples of prepared learning in the human repertoire include language, incest avoidance, and the acquisition of phobias. If groupist behavior is truly an instinct expressed by inherited prepared learning, we might expect to find signs of it even in very young children. And exactly this phenomenon has been discovered by cognitive psychologists.
It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It makes the environment less disorienting and dangerous. The social world of each modern human is not a single tribe, but rather a system of interlocking tribes, among which it is often difficult to find a single compass. People savor the company of like-minded friends, and they yearn to be in one of the best—a combat marine regiment, perhaps, an elite college, the executive committee of a company, a religious sect, a fraternity, a garden club—any collectivity that can be compared favorably with other, competing groups of the same category.
By the time of Homo erectus, all of the steps that led this species to eusociality, save the use of controlled fire, had also been followed by modern chimpanzees and bonobos. Thanks to our unique pre-adaptations, we were ready to leave these distant cousins far behind.
The immediate causes for the bloodbath were political and social grievances, but they all stemmed from one root cause: Rwanda was the most overcrowded country in Africa. For a relentlessly growing population, the per capita arable land was shrinking toward its limit. The deadly argument was over which tribe would own and control the whole of it. Many of those who attacked their neighbors were promised the land of the Tutsi they killed.
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In mammals such a finesse was not possible, because their life cycle is fundamentally different from that of insects. In the key reproductive step of the mammal life cycle, the female is rooted to the territory of her origin. She cannot separate herself from the group in which she was born, unless she crosses over directly to a neighboring group—a common but tightly controlled event in both animals and humans. In contrast, the insect female can be mated, then carry the sperm like a portable male in her spermatheca long distances. She is able to start new colonies all by herself far from the nest of her birth. The overpowering of individual selection by group selection has not only been rare in mammals and other vertebrates; it has never been and will likely never be complete. The fundamentals of the mammalian life cycle and population structure prevent it. No insect-like social system can be created in the theater of mammalian social evolution.
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A more realistic view is that the creative explosion was not a single genetic event but the culmination of a gradual process that began in an archaic form of Homo sapiens as far back as 160,000 years. This view has been supported by recent discoveries of the use of pigment that old, as well as personal ornaments and abstract design scratched on bone and with ocher dating from between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago.
And so it will forever be unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. Human beings and their social orders are intrinsically imperfectible and fortunately so. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides.
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Homo erectus, with a culture advanced well beyond that of its apish ancestors, and more adaptable to new and difficult environments, expanded its range to become the first cosmopolitan primate. It failed to reach only the isolated continents of Australia and the New World and the far-flung archipelagoes of the Pacific Ocean. Its great range buffered the species against early extinction. One of its genetic lines acquired potential immortality by evolving into Homo sapiens. The ancestral Homo erectus still lives.