Group Selection

The central thesis of this narrative of human evolution is quite simple.  The distinguishing feature of our 6 million year old hominin Family from the beginning is the common heritage of evolution by a unique mechanism resulting from a rare and controversial form of natural selection that occurred at the level of small groups.  I will now carefully describe the idea of group selection because, having grasped it, you will be able to understand from the outset the general outline of how it is that God could have emerged on earth by means of a natural evolutionary process.

            E. O. Wilson’s specialty is entomology, which is the study of insects.  He has recently coauthored a book entitled The Super-Organisms (2009) on “eusocial” insects, which include bees, ants, wasps, and termites.   These relatively few groups of species, by virtue of their vast numbers are by far the most successful on our planet (except, as Steven Gould was so fond of pointing out, bacteria.)  The success of eusocial insects is related to Adam Smith’s insight that all wealth is produced by the division of labor through interdependent specialization. During the course of a hundred million years of evolution, group living achieved a sufficient level of interdependent specialization that the survival of a swarm or colony as a whole became more important to the survival of each individual insect than the competitive survival of each within their group.  This meant that with each generation, these insects were naturally selected not according to traits that increased their individual capacity to survive and reproduce, but according to their small contribution to their colony’s ability to survive and reproduce.  In a sense, a colony of ants becomes the organism which is submitted to natural selection and the individual ants become the “organs” of this “super-organism.”

            The central kernel of this narrative can be grasped by a thought experiment of imagining that you could ask an individual ant a philosophical question as to the meaning and purpose of her (it is sisters that do the heavy lifting) hard-working life.  Of particular interest would be her thinking about the source of her motivation to labor so intently.  Why is she working so hard? After slowly rubbing her antennae together in contemplation, she would tilt her head profoundly and explain that her entire conscious world consists of thousands of her relatives with whom she exists in a constant state of intimate communion, and that the source her motivation emanates from the whole of them as a single entity.  When asked what she calls this global source of her animation, she replies without hesitation, “God.”

About J.V. Wylie

Retired psychiatrist, who is writing a book called "How We Became Human"on the origin of the human mind. My blog, "Apes, Ants, and Ancestors" - is a "laboratory" for the ideas in the book.
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