Science: Evolving the human condition

Forget divine inspiration in the arts - in fact, forget divine. E O Wilson has a theory that art and religion are the products of Darwinian natural selection, and he makes a pretty good case for it.
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The Independent Culture
Edward O Wilson can claim membership of a unique club. The distinguished American biologist is one of the few atheists who has read the Bible from cover to cover - twice. Admittedly, he did this more than 50 years ago, when his devout religious beliefs were fortified with youthful vigour. Since then, his views on the possibility of a higher authority have undergone as radical a transformation as those of Charles Darwin, who famously became a non-believer after realising that his theory of evolution by natural selection had no need for a Creator. Wilson and Darwin, however, have a good deal more in common than their religious ambivalence.

E O Wilson is probably the world's greatest authority on ants. He is currently engrossed in a project to classify a group of ants which accounts for something like 20 per cent of the ant species living in the western hemisphere. Darwin too spent most of his time laboriously itemising and classifying what many people would describe as low life (one of Darwin's particular interests was the earthworm). And, like Darwin, Wilson is famous for a Big Idea that goes far beyond his own rarefied line of research.

Wilson, an emeritus professor at Harvard University, is the father of sociobiology, the title of his book published in 1975, in which he attempted to explain how the social behaviour of animals - including humans - can be shaped by evolution. His critics, like those of Darwin, vilified him, not so much for his arguments, but for what it meant about the human condition. Could we be simply the result of the blind forces of natural selection?

Wilson became a figure of hate and ridicule. The ``ant man'' was advised to stick to his six-legged friends, and not attempt to dabble in the higher arts. An understanding of Darwinian evolution from the perspective of an ant's minute brain, is no qualification for comprehending the almost mystical nature of the human condition, they said. Wilson's critics labelled him the arch reductionist, who put genetic determinism above free will. He championed brutish nature, but they knew it was sympathetic nurture that really mattered.

Anyone who has read Wilson's books would find it hard to understand why he has generated so much venom. His descriptions of the life and behaviour of the animals he has studied betray a deep love of creatures that many of us would dismiss as the creepy, the crawly and the downright nasty. He has remarked, in his wry way, how most people who enter a rain forest for the first time look up in wonder. He, however, is more likely to be seen crouching on all fours studying the bugs who make a home under the leaves of the forest floor.

He is probably the greatest expert writer of natural history alive today, just as Darwin was the best in his day. Any scientist, he says, who wants to have a full quiver to his talents must be able to write ``like a journalist''. Wilson goes one better than this, because he writes with his heart as well as his brain. So why do people like Roy Porter, the eminent science historian, denounce Wilson as a ``champion of scientific imperialism'' with the breathtaking presumptuousness to claim that ``all must kneel before science's throne''.

The answer, it seems, is Wilson's latest book, Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge, published this week. It is an attempt to bring together several strands of ideas, facts and information into a unified whole. ``It means the interlocking of cause-and-effect explanations across the disciplines,'' he drawls, in the distinctive tones he has retained from his southern Alabama childhood. ``To say that consilience is the mother's milk of the natural sciences is not an exaggeration.''

Wilson upsets people because of his resolute belief that much of human behaviour can be explained by our evolutionary history - 20 years ago it was called sociobiology, now it is termed evolutionary psychology, and has become a regular subject of debate at the London School of Economics. Scientific inquiry, and biology in particular, is on the verge of exploring the ``borderland'' area between the natural and social sciences, he says. Wilson sees consilience as the weaving together of the disparate threads of human knowledge into a new synthesis.

Take the way humans see colours, and what this tells us about how and why we create, and indeed appreciate, art: ``We know from experiments that people tend to invent and place colour terms in the least ambiguous parts of the colour spectrum.'' He supports what he says with the evidence that not every ethnic group has a rich array of terms to describe colour. Languages with only two basic colour terms invariably use them to distinguish black from white, those with three words use them to describe black, white and red, those with four describe black, white, red, and either green or yellow, and so on. In other words, our language and culture is ultimately influenced by how our eyes and the visual centres of the brain are conditioned to perceive the world around us.

The same goes for visual complexity, which Wilson says is instrumental in determining how pleasing a particular painting is perceived. ``There is an optimum level of complexity in visual representation, equivalent to a maze of about 10 or 20 turns. This gives maximum arousal.''

The point Wilson is making is that art, like any other sphere of human activity, can be traced back to our biological past, just as much as its roots can be found in our cultural history. Art, he says, is quite definitely the product of natural selection. Those early humans who first practised it continued to do so, because it gave them an advantage over other early hominids. ``We utilise art to enhance experience, to enhance display, and to gain control with powerful representation of the world around us. It's easy to see where art comes from because, if you look around the world, you see it in stones and the shape of a tree.''

Flowers, for example, are much loved in art, and in life, and when asked why, most people would say ``because they are beautiful''. But why should flowers be beautiful? The answer is that, for a fruit-eating primate, the presence of flowers provide a strong signal of future benefits. ``Flowers represent the fruitfulness of the environment. It would be a very wise strategy to be attracted to them,'' he says.

If art has its roots in evolution, can religious belief also be the product of natural selection? Some evolutionists have seriously proposed that religiosity is the need to believe in order to survive.

Wilson says that it might just be possible for cosmologists to find evidence of a higher authority, but in terms of life on Earth, the explanation is easy to see: ``The only way to make sense out of it, is evolution by self assembly. When you try to think of it otherwise, the explanations become extraneous. I have no need of that hypothesis, of a creator or a designer. It makes so much more sense to be self assembled.''

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