Edward O. Wilson, Biologist, Sees Hope for Human Race

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An octogenarian who is nearing the end of one of the most illustrious careers in science isn't quite through yet. Edward O. Wilson has a few questions he would still like to answer before he hangs up his Harvard robe.

There's nothing particularly startling about the questions, and most of us have asked them ourselves from time to time. Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Wilson's obsession, laid out in his upcoming book, "The Social Conquest of Earth," in which he walks readers through the human pageant from beginning to what he worries may be the end, had humble beginnings.

It all started with a nest of ants.

As a young boy in Alabama who had lost one eye in an accident, he figured he would be better equipped to look at small creatures rather than large. In ants he found a social structure that would lead him to believe that the true story of life, even the rise of homo sapiens, could be seen in the tiniest of animals, the insects that so many others had ignored.

Humans rose to dominate the earth through evolution, he says, but it was a journey with many paths, any one of which could have led to a world without humans.

"Our prehuman ancestors were not chosen, nor were they great," he writes. "They were just lucky." One wrong turn along the way, just one mutation that left us weaker, or the lack of one that made us stronger, and we might have been eliminated from the field.

But early on they learned to walk upright, giving them a better view of the resources around them. They were blessed with relatively large size, and hands that could grasp. Then came fire, the control of it, and the availability of brain-building red meat. And finally, the nest.

Like the ants that intrigued him so early, the creation of a nest was among the most important changes in the human story. Someone had to tend the nest. Someone had to defend it. Someone had to provide the resources.

Indeed, nesting provided an answer to a problem that plagued Charles Darwin. Why do people do kind things and help others when the end goal of natural selection is to survive and conquer? Because (with apologies to Barbra Streisand) people need people. For the nest to prosper, some even needed to lay down their lives. Today we call them warriors.

Call it a nest, or a state, or a country, or a profession, or a religion, or by any other name, like our earliest ancestors, we all belong to tribes.

"To form groups, drawing visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship, and to defend the group enthusiastically against rival groups -- these are among the absolute universals of human nature and hence of culture," Wilson argues.

One curse of all of that, he concludes, was war.

Among the small number of insects that truly maintain a social organization, all share a need to protect the nest at all costs. This goes way beyond the common conception of guarding the territory, or sharing parenting responsibilities. Most species are territorial, but very few are truly social with diversified assignments throughout the workforce. It all comes down to the nest.

In fact, according to Wilson, once you leave the kingdom of insects and a couple of small rodents, you travel all the way up the evolutionary line to humans before encountering another truly social animal.

So what are we? We are not, he insists, a collection of genes that determine all of our features and actions. Genes are important, but the control of genes involves far more than heredity. Genes are not, as he put it, "hardwired." Genes are controlled – even turned on and off – by "epigenetic rules," the body of human experience, including learning and nurturing, that gives us a voice in our own destiny.

We are not genetic robots. We are humans, blessed with abstract thought, creativity, linguistics, culture, and even tribalism, which forced our ancestors to learn to depend on each other, much like ants.

All of which led Wilson to some rather grim conclusions.

"The origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck – good for our species for a while, bad for most of the rest of life forever," he writes.

Despite the knowledge he has gained over his 83 years, Wilson remains mystified over part of what we have become. As a biologist, he is alarmed by the impact we are having on the planet. No other animal has attained the capability of destroying the world that allowed him to evolve to such a lofty height.

With each disappearing species, we grow poorer, he maintains. In us, alone, may well lie the future of life on earth.

But in the end, he can't resist optimism. He has written more than 25 books, including two that won Pulitzers, and he ends this one with a ray of hope:

"So, now I will confess my own blind faith. Earth, by the 22nd century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay."