Wednesday, October 14, 2015

E. O. Wilson


On October 1 I watched a really interesting program on PBS.  I believe it was "Of Ants and Men."

(editorial comment -- Come on, E. O., your brain works better than that.  Of Ants and Humanity, perhaps??? !!!)

The program is about E. O. Wilson's life and career.  He has been an observational biologist since childhood, and has had a long and storied career, including being excoriated and persecuted (and physically attacked!) in the 60's for suggesting it was likely that human behavior had at least some biological basis.

He has had MANY really interesting thoughts, in his long life, and I was glad to be exposed to some of them.

I don't remember hearing about him in the past, though it seems impossible to me that he was not mentioned in the Human Behavioral Genetics class I took (in which we learned that basically all human traits, physical *and* behavioral, have at least some genetic basis).

One of the thoughts I took away from what I saw/heard on the 1st was about human cooperation.  I had heard before that humans are the most cooperative of primates.  On the 1st I saw video of a clever experiment that compared the behavior of human children and chimpanzees.  When offered an opportunity to cooperate to retrieve treats, if one individual receives the lions share of the treats, each chimp will eat as many treats as they get, while a child who gets more treats will share with the cooperating child.

The chimp who gets fewer treats will quit cooperating, but the children, who share, will go on and on and on, working together to get the treats, and making sure both get what was described as "a nearly equal" share.

Wilson said "People LOVE to cooperate, and they LOVE to observe cooperation."  This thought really struck me -- it is a common thread I'd never imagined or considered, that runs through so much that humans like to do.  Just think about how much cooperation is required to put on any sort of performance.  How many people need to agree to work on the project, how they agree to do different jobs, how they coordinate their schedules to make the performance possible........  How others love to come to view the performance (and will pay for the privilege)...............

And it's not just performances -- how many people have to cooperate in order that there can be schools.  Churches.  Commerce.  Cities.  Public transit.  On and on and on......

Another thought that was interesting to me is that while many kinds of animals are social (wolves, chimpanzees, English sparrows), only a very few kinds are eusocial.

Wikipedia:  Eusociality (Greek eu: "good/real" + "social"), the highest level of organization of animal sociality, is defined by the following characteristics: cooperative brood care (including brood care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labour into reproductive and non-reproductive groups.

Most of the species that are described as eusocial are ants, bees/wasps, and termites.  Naked mole rats are also in the group.

E. O. Wilson makes a convincing argument that humans are eusocial.

He goes on to argue that a colony of eusocial animals is like a super animal (my words, but his thought).  That colonies of eusocial animals compete with each other for resources, and can evolve.........  He said that eusocial animals have come to dominate the globe, mentioning in particular ants ... and humans..............

He talks about sports as the ultimate example of the way we humans love cooperation, but it seems to me that it is also a very compelling example of the way two "colonies" compete.  No wonder people love sports -- it takes a lot of cooperation to even have a game -- some agreement as to rules, a venue for playing (which may need construction and maintenance), a lot of individuals on each side who have agreed to the work of preparation, and to the division of labor, and to the possibility for injury, etc.

And then there's all that competition (which we also love), too....

Anyway.  If you are interested in animals, or biology, or behavior, or humans and how they interact (with each other, and/or with the rest of the planet), watch the program.

Highly recommended.


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