Where does good come from?

Dr Wilson is in the news again.  I've always been drawn to his work.   My Division I work at Hampshire College in 1983 was on social spiders – and I found that E.O. Wilson had done much of the research on the subject – despite his "claim to fame" in the domain of ants.

Spiders have a reputation for being a solitary lot – and some female spiders eat their mates after they are "finished."  Yet other spiders like each other – and for some reason – as a reasonably solitary college student in 1983 – I was drawn to this work.  

Now Wilson questions some theories that he supported for decades – and he's creating a big stink – alienating many of his former colleagues.  

But to me – his stuff just makes sense (again).  The base of the argument seems to be that the prevailing theories (with mathematical "proofs" that are waay over my head) support species' (including humans') predilection to do good things for relatives – even if it means self-sacrifice – but not for those with whom we are unrelated.

Wilson's current argument is that we needn't be related to form a group with whom we compete with other groups .. and we will "do good" for OUR group – even if it's not comprised of our kin.

I don't get why that's so controversial.  I've not read the science here – and I am sure that there is a pile of data from ants and monkeys and turtles that support this hypothesis.  But there's a lot to reflect on human history where these theories are borne out as well.

As I look at health care – both in the US and elsewhere – much of what defines the most successful people is the right balance of selflessness and self preservation:  we need to think and act beyond ourselves – and focus on the needs of the population – yet if we think TOO selflessly – our efforts are not sustainable.

Kin are convenience groups – since we have good connections with them – for a very long time.  But I would agree with Wilson that IN ADDITION TO (not instead of) our kin – we can/should/do perform "good" acts for others for the sake of being good.  This is not about "getting something back" – and now there is at least one famous biologist who thinks there is a scientific basis for such actions.  

Amid the resurgence of Ayn Rand – and her nutty philosophy – I'd prefer to think of humans as inherently generous.

One Reply to “Where does good come from?”

  1. Amen! (so to speak) “What we’ve done is clear the way for a new period of research, unencumbered by the doctrinaire aspects of kin selection theory.” And thanks to E.O. Wilson for being able to say, uh, this was what I was thinking and this is what I am thinking. The insecurity of doctrinaire and silo’ed scholarship is one huge obstacle to the advancement of knowledge.

    Aside from everything else, the perpetuation and potential magnification of genetic defects through an excess of kin-selection should be example enough to demonstrate the value of Wilson’s tipping over the cart.

    And, aside from that, Wilson’s shift provides a great lesson in the basic operation of science. I still remember being called into a cross campus meeting in 1959 for everyone taking biology courses. The chair of the department got up and said, more or less, ‘you can pretty much forget everything we’ve taught you and everything you learned in high school about heredity – this is new and exciting and we’re all going to be learning together.’ The ensuing lecture on the double helix was fascinating, but the most important lesson was that that being open to new knowledge, for him, trumped ego, turf and all the rest.

    Not sure what to do with the Ayn Randians – kin-selection gone very wrong?
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