Phi Beta Cons

Re: Philosophy class dismissed

In the Atlantic article on E. O. Wilson that I referenced a few posts back, “E. O. Wilson’s Theory of Everything,” in which he dismisses the value of philosophy, Wilson is quoted as saying that those who have a gene that orients them toward larger identifications with others will be more successful in the long run over those who are driven by an individual-oriented gene. From the article, written by Howard W. French:

“Within groups, the selfish are more likely to succeed,” Wilson told me in a telephone conversation. “But in competition between groups, altruists are more likely to succeed. In addition, it is clear that groups of humans proselytize other groups and accept them as allies, and that that tendency is much favored by group selection.” Taking in newcomers and forming alliances had become a fundamental human trait, he added, “because it is a good way to win.”     

Here Wilson is giving a more biological basis for his theory of everything — not, as French suggested, that humans would deliberate about which of their evolved traits they wanted to emphasize, but rather how natural selection would work on the randomly evolved genes that produce individual competitiveness vs. group identification. Wilson believes that those who have the group gene would be more likely to be naturally selected and thus would win out in the struggle for survival.

Of course, a lot depends on what timeline we are envisioning here. But as things stand now, it does not seem that the people with the larger group and global orientations are winning out demographically over those whose identification starts with the self and, presumably, stays with entities closer to the self, such as family, clan, and tribe. Europe is no doubt the best example of identification with larger and larger entities, going beyond even the nation state, and Europe is dying out demographically. The counterargument might be that Europe is expanding itself to include and identify with its growing Muslim population, but this may well mean an erosion of the Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment principles on which Europe was built, and thus subsequent submersion of its identity altogether.  

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