Tagged: E. O. Wilson

The Sooner We Are All Mongrels, the Better

E.O. Wilson charges across the is-ought barrier with a zeal undiminished by his advancing years and promotes genetic diversity as a moral good in The Social Conquest of Earth:

Perhaps it is time…to adopt a new ethic of racial and hereditary variation, one that places value on the whole of diversity rather than on the differences composing the diversity. It would give proper measure to our species’ genetic variation as an asset, prized for the adaptability it provides all of us during an increasingly uncertain future. Humanity is strengthened by a broad portfolio of genes that can generate new talents, additional resistance to diseases, and perhaps even new ways of seeing reality. For scientific as well as moral reasons, we should learn to promote human biological diversity for its own sake instead of using it to justify prejudice and conflict.

This follows an analysis of the relative genetic differences between various racial groups of humans, concluding that subsaharan Africa contains the highest genetic diversity among human groups. Yet almost everything in our social and biological history suggests that we have formed social structures specifically to prevent out-breeding and limit the expansion of our genetic pool. This has always been a thorny subject for selfish genetics: why risk pairing your alleles with unknowns guessed at through proximal sexual clues like body symmetry or the quality of giant peacock tails? The risk of outbreeding is apparently lower than the risk of diverse infectious agents according to a common current theory, but we also see culture as overriding even the strongest outbreeding motivation by imposing mating rules based on familial and tribal power struggles. At the worst, we even see inbreeding depression in populations that consolidate power through close marriages (look at the sex-linked defect lineages in European royal families) or through long religious prohibitions on marrying outside of relatively small populations of the faithful. A few years back there was even a suggestion promoted in the popular press that autism might be caused by assortative mating by geeks and computer programmers.

We should all be latte colored or at least mongrels. The alternative is too much like what happens to highly bred dogs:

Hundreds of different dog breeds have now been established although the majority have only come into existence in the last two centuries. These breeds have largely been generated by the selection of gross phenotypic attributes particularly suited for work or decorative purposes, many being encoded by single gene mutations. A consequence of such a severe selection and inbreeding history is that many breeds have come from a relatively restricted gene pool.

As expected, the mongrels have the highest number of different alleles (22 out of 30 possible alleles tested).

But back to Wilson and the is-ought barrier: should we be obligated to promote genetic diversity across the species? There are several arguments embedded in Wilson’s statements that we can unpack:

  1. The species, as a whole, will be more likely to “generate new talents, [resist] diseases, and [create new ways of seeing reality].”
  2. Diversity will not be seen as a source of difference and conflict, and therefore will reduce conflicts based on differences.

So, for (1), can we really see this as a moral good for any individual or couple? Taken to the extreme, the guidance would suggest preferential mating with those most genetically diverse or at least different from you. Stuck on the “is” side of the barrier, however, there are also the standard proximate drivers for sexual attraction and the more “global” motivation for promoting species-level diversity might override those drivers. The net effect would probably be insignificant, however, because we can assume that affairs of the heart would kick in and minimize the impact. Still, it is a bit of an odd moral good to contemplate in its rawest form. More clarifying, however, might be the argument that immigration policies can have a similar effect over time because propinquity is the mother of all desire.

Eusociality, Errors, and Behavioral Plasticity

I encountered an error in E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth where the authors intended to assert an alternative to “kin selection” but instead repeated “multilevel selection,” which is precisely what the authors wanted to draw a distinction with. I am sympathetic, however, if for no other reason than I keep finding errors and issues with my own books and papers.

The critical technical discussion from Nature concerning the topic is available here. As technical discussion, the issues debated are fraught with details like how halictid bees appear to live socially, but are in fact solitary animals that co-exist in tunnel arrangements.

Despite the focus on “spring-loaded traits” as determiners for haplodiploid animals like bees and wasps, the problem of big-brained behavioral plasticity keeps coming up in Wilson’s book. Humanity is a pinnacle because of taming fire, because of the relative levels of energy available in animal flesh versus plant matter, and because of our ability to outrun prey over long distances (yes, our identity emerges from marathon running). But these are solutions that correlate with the rapid growth of our craniums.

So if behavioral plasticity is so very central to who we are, we are faced with an awfully complex problem in trying to simulate that behavior. We can expect that there must be phalanxes of genes involved in setting our developmental path (our nature and the substrate for our nurture). We should, indeed, expect that almost no cognitive capacity is governed by a small set of genes, and that all the relevant genes work in networks through polygeny, epistasis, and related effects (pleiotropy). And we can expect no easy answers as a result, except to assert that AI is exactly as hard as we should have expected, and progress will be inevitably slow in understanding the mind, the brain, and the way we interact.

Brain Size and Fitness

An interesting data point taken from E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth: bigger brains mean better adaptation to new environments. That seems trivial in a way because it is part of the “folk” evolutionary theory that seems to flow naturally from the assumption of human uniqueness and our ostensive position at the apex of the evolutionary mountain.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A very narrowly adapted organism could conceivably outcompete an intelligent generalist. The generalist requires massive physiological commitments to the energetic requirements of behavioral plasticity. The specialist is economical, efficient. So it has largely been an article of projective faith in folk theory that the human condition is explainable.

So it is always refreshing when I learn that there is empirical evidence that brings clarity to issues like this:

Big brains are hypothesized to enhance survival of animals by facilitating flexible cognitive responses that buffer individuals against environmental stresses. Although this theory receives partial support from the finding that brain size limits the capacity of animals to behaviourally respond to environmental challenges, the hypothesis that large brains are associated with reduced mortality has never been empirically tested. Using extensive information on avian adult mortality from natural populations, we show here that species with larger brains, relative to their body size, experience lower mortality than species with smaller brains, supporting the general importance of the cognitive buffer hypothesis in the evolution of large brains.

From Sol et. al., Big-brained birds survive better in nature. The emphasis in the title on “nature” suggests that perhaps they fail in captivity? Avian ennui?

Nesting and Spring-loaded Parasitism

While enjoying your eggs, you should consider what primitive social insects do with theirs. Why? Because it may be essential to our understanding of social behavior and, hence, the notion of moral and ethical behavior. I’m reading Nowak, Tarnita, and E.O. Wilson’s 2010 article (and 43 pages of supporting materials), “The evolution of eusociality” from Nature (466/doi:10.1038/nature09205).

This is a contentious paper, I should add, because it postulates “multilevel selection” that operate at the group or species level. It is remarkable in several ways. First, it uses mathematical terminology to explain aspects if the theory of eusociality (literally: “good sociality” but, theoretically, the highest levels of social interaction) that we rarely see in papers on evolutionary theory. Specifically, ideas like “global updating” are introduced to explain why traditional methods of explaining eusociality are plagued by false assumptions about the spatial distribution of mating opportunities. I’m reminded of my own critique of the microevolution versus macroevolution distinction that pervades anti-evolution arguments: why would nature (or God for that matter) prevent hybridization of species while making it easy for genetic drift within a species? We either have a failure of imagination, the deliberate introduction of barriers to hybridization just to fool all of us or maintain a prescribed order, or we have a continuous transition from micro to macro effects (hint: there is actually no real distinction).

But back to eggs. E.O. Wilson and colleagues suggest that the earliest forms of sociality were among the parasitic wasps, like the Tarantula Hawk. Accumulate prey, stuff eggs into them, and then move on. Next, icky stuff happens in the prey. One allele change can turn the move on behavior off when the local environment is sufficiently rich, however, and then moms and offspring hang around in colonies together. Not mathematical is the use of “spring-loaded pre-adaptations” to describe this transition. The loss of wings among worker ants is a spring-loaded trait, as is the inability of fire ants to recognize aliens from other colonies; they can’t go anywhere or accurately target others for attack.

The 43 pages of supporting materials demonstrates that modern scientific theories, like the “Dark Matter” work previously described, are just not very simple. They are, arguably, just simple enough and no more so. Still, the more than 130 evolutionary biologists who objected to the Wilson paper argue that the previous theory (kin selection) was a simple solution that demanded no additional complexity. The naked mole rat and termites may object, but perhaps a synthesis is forthcoming.