Allan Powell: Taking on naturalism vs. supernaturalism

September 20, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

Edward O. Wilson is one of the most creative, productive and interesting scientists. He has authored over 20 books and has traveled the world to study insects. His controversial publications and lectures generate heated reactions which, on one occasion ended with a pitcher of ice water doused on his head. It is predictable that his latest book, “The Social Conquest Of Earth,” will ignite more heat than light. Filled with vital information and scientific insights, this gem is not easy to read. However, the tenacious reader will be pleased and rewarded.

Wilson has a formidable task on his hands trying to convince the doubtful that both animal and human social behavior is governed by the principles derived from evolutionary biology. This requires a masterful combination of the evidence from biology, anthropology, psychology and history.

Wilson is up to the demand and traces the evolutionary trail of homo sapiens from their origins to their present development level. From this study he wanted to arrive at a suitable definition of what is meant by the terms “human nature” and “the human condition.” For this achievement he has been awarded the compliment of “a giant in science.”

A significant feature in the eventual dominance of homo sapiens came about from the realization of the continued growth in the size and complexity of the human brain that far surpassed any competitor. With this came a multidimensional intelligence, which, while general in function, it carried technical, social and historical additives, which permitted innovations needed for advanced social organization.

Of huge importance was the appearance of the human capacity to exercise altruistic behavior required for tribal (group) survival. Altruism, the ability and willingness to be concerned about the welfare of others, enhances the many cooperative activities which make societal interactions possible. The courage to defend members of the tribe and set aside egotism for the welfare of the group is a social necessity for survival. Natural selection works in tandem with social selection to advance the interests of the tribe. But, the vital bond which holds the group together in the daily grind of interaction is altruism. Our present upsurge of individualism will test the strength of this assumption.

Wilson based his thoughts on his studies of species that have created social systems which he calls, “eusociality.” Long before homo sapiens developed viable social systems, species of bees, ants and termites were quite able.

Of the more than 2,600 families of insects counted, only 15 are classed a eusocial. It is these eusocial traits that make us socially successful. However, there will probably never be agreement about how much we can learn from the study of insects.

Equally controversial is Wilson’s views regarding the origins of morality and religion. He asserts as an “iron law” of genetic — social evolution, “that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals”. We have only his word for that claim. For Wilson, moral expectations evolved over endless years of group (tribal) selection, accepted on the basis of utility to group unity and survival. He rejects authoritarian rules that are grounded on revealed authority.

Wilson shows a notable impatience with organized religion. He presents studies that show the inclination of scientists to reject religious beliefs. In 1910, 1933 and 1998, the number of scientists who believed God existed fell from 32 percent to 13 percent and then to 10 percent respectively. Among biologists in the 1998 study, believers numbered only 2 percent. His impatience is possibly aroused by the staying power of creation myths that contribute to the ignorance of scientific knowledge about human and social evolution.

Wilson retains his scrappy posture to his final words. He then asserts, “The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religion is irreconcilable. The chasm will continue to widen and cause no end of trouble as long as religious leaders go on making unsupportable claims about supernatural causes of reality.”

Edward O. Wilson has cut a wide swath in his career as a sociobiologist. He is probably correct in supposing that it is not likely there will ever be a resolution of the naturalism — supernaturalism divide. If one is looking for an intellectual challenge, they can read Wilson’s book to completion.

Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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