Notes from E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology


Termite Mound aka Termitary

I recently came across a copy of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (the textbook, 1977 edition) at the secondhand shop.

In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker gives about the best recommendation I can think of for Wilson’s book:

At Harvard there were leaflets and teach-ins, a protester with a bullhorn calling for Wilson’s dismissal, and invasions of his classroom by slogan-shouting students. When he spoke at other universities, posters called him the “Right-Wing-Prophet of Patriarchy” and urged people to bring noisemakers to his lectures. Wilson was about to speak at a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science when a group of people carrying placards (one with a swastika) rushed onto the stage chanting, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” One protester grabbed the microphone and harangued the audience while another doused Wilson with a pitcher of water.

Pretty intense for a guy whose career is mostly about ants.

Since it is easier to remember what you have read if you take notes and then transcribe them, and this thing is 574 pages long, I’ll be transcribing some of my notes here as I go along.

The book gives lots of interesting examples of different concepts. For example, in the section on parasitism, there’s an example of a variety of termite that moves into and eats the nests of other termites, thus making a termite mound-in-a-mound, I suppose. To be fair, some termite mounds are about as big as a house and so this is a totally reasonable thing for termites to do.

Chapter 1: The morality of the Gene

Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide.

That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. …

From now on, let’s use “” instead of blockquotes.

Chapter 2: Elementary Concepts

“Genes, like Leibnitz’s monads, have no windows; the higher properties of life are emergent. To specify an entire cell, we are compelled to provide not only the nucleotide sequences but also the identity and configuration of other kinds of molecules placed in and around the cells. To specify an organism requires still more information about both the properties of the cells and their spacial positions. And once assembled, organisms have no windows. A society can be described only as a set of particular organisms, and even then it is difficult to extrapolate the joint activity of this ensemble from the instant of specification, that is, to predict social behavior. …

“Society: a group of individuals belonging to the same species and organized in a cooperative manner. … Yet aggregation, sexual behavior, and territoriality are important properties of true societies, and they are correctly referred to as social behavior. … Since the bond of the society is simply and solely communication, its boundaries can be defined in terms of the curtailment of communication.”

EvX: I have been thinking for a long time about language as effective barriers of culture. Not that culture can’t cross language barriers (movies get dubbed all the time,) but it’s much harder. And since some languages are easier to learn than others, (eg, Finnish is harder than German if you speak English,) cross-language communication is probably easier between some groups than others. The Finns (and a few other European groups) speak non-Indo-European languages, which might make them more functionally isolated within the European context than, say, their neighbors in Sweden.

Back to Wilson:

“Individual: Any physically distinct organism… The distinction between the individual and the colony can be especially baffling in the sponges. … [Hah.]

“Population: A set of organisms belonging to the same species and occupying a clearly delimited area at the same time. This unit… is defined in terms of genetic continuity. In the case of sexually reproducing organisms, the population is a geographically delimited set of organisms capable of freely interbreeding with one another under natural conditions. …

“In sexually reproducing forms, including the vast majority of social organisms, a species is a population or set of populations within which the individuals are capable of freely interbreeding under natural conditions. By definition the members of the species do not interbreed freely with those of other species, however closely related they may be genetically. … In establishing the limits of a species it is not enough merely to prove that genes of two or more populations can be exchanged under experimental conditions. The population must be demonstrated to interbreed fully in the free state.”

[Example: Lions and Tigers can interbreed, yet even in places where their ranges historically overlapped, no one ever reported finding wild ligers or tigons. While they can interbreed in zoos, their behavior is different enough in the wild that it doesn’t happen.]

EvX: And here’s where people ask about Sapiens and Neanderthals. Yes, they interbred. But it looks like they didn’t interbreed much (while they bred plenty with their own,) and it also looks like there’s been a fair amount of selection against Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, winnowing down the genes passed on to us. For example, there’s pretty much no Neanderthal DNA on the Y chromosome, suggesting that any sons of Neanderthal-Sapiens unions were infertile (or didn’t make it at all.) There’s also no (known) Neanderthal mtDNA, suggesting that the matings that did happen involved Neanderthal men with Sapiens women–or if the opposite pairing happened, those children were brought into Neanderthal tribes. At any rate, the pattern is far from complete interfertility.

Back to Wilson:

“A population that differs significantly from other populations belonging to the same species is referred to as a geographic race or subspecies. Subspecies are separated from other subspecies by distance and geographic barriers that prevent the exchange of individuals, as opposed to the genetically based “intrinsic isolating mechanisms” that hold species apart. Subspecies, insofar as they can be distinguished with any objectivity at all, show every conceivable degree of differentiation from other subspecies. At one extreme are the populations that fall along a cline–a simple gradient in the geographic variation of a given character. In other words, a character that varies in a clinal pattern is one that changes gradually over a substantial portion of the entire range of the species. At the other extreme are subspecies consisting of easily distinguished populations that are differentiated from one another by numerous genetic traits and exchange genes across a narrow zone of intergradation.

The main obstacle in dealing with the population as a unit… is the practical difficulty of deciding the limits of particular populations.”

EvX: I would like to point out that humans made up these words to carve up a part of reality that doesn’t always carve that easily. For example, it may be obvious that a wolf species that ranges over thousands of miles is pretty different at the far east and far western extent of its range, but there may be no exact spot in between where the eastern type ends and the western type begins. By contrast, sometimes in human societies you have groups of genetically and culturally distinct people separated for centuries by little more than a road, a wall, a religion, or a language. There is no a priori reason to think that one of these cases fits the definition and the other does not.

But the language we use to delineate groups of ants or wolves or fungi is not the language we use to delineate humans, not just because we wish to be inaccurate, but also because we generally wish to show each other respect. We do so by avoiding language normally reserved for non-humans and using special terms for humans, eg, my offspring are normally referred to as my “children.”

Back to Wilson.

“What is the relation between the population and the society? Here we arrive unexpectedly at the crux of theoretical sociobiology. The distinction between the two categories is essentially as follows: the population is bounded by a zone of sharply reduced gene flow, while the society is bounded by a zone of sharply reduced communication. Often the two zones are the same…

The Multiplier Effect

Social organization is the class of phenotypes furthest removed from the genes. It is derived jointly from the behavior of the individuals and the demographic properties of the population… A small evolutionary change in the behavior pattern of individuals can be amplified into a major social effect by the expanding upward distribution of the effect into multiple facets of life. …

“Even stronger multiplier effects occur in the social insects. … The structure of nests alone can be used to distinguish species within the higher termites.”

EvX: There follows an interesting description of how termites build their mounds, also known as “termitaries.”

“Multiplier effects can speed social evolution still more when an individual’s behavior is strongly influenced by the particularities of its social experience. This process, called socialization, becomes increasingly becomes increasingly prominent as one moves upward phylogenetically into more intelligent species, and it reaches its maximum influence in the higher primates. Although the evidence is still largely inferential, socialization appears to amplify phenotypic differences among primate species.

S”ocialization can also amplify genetically based variation of individual behavior within troops. The temperament and rank of a higher primate is strongly influenced by its early experiences with its peers and its mother.”

EvX: This is a really interesting idea. We hear constantly that ideas like race and gender are social constructs, but what exactly a social construct is we hear far less often. The implication–at least as the phrases are employed–is that they are not real at all, that they are make believe, that we have chosen some random and arbitrary place to carve up reality and that we could use some other random place just as well, but Wilson provides a much better conception: “social constructs” are really amplified ideas about the world around us. In other words, they’re exaggerated stereotypes.

For example, let’s imagine a world in which the average male is taller than the average female, but there’s a lot of variety in height and so there are many individual men who are shorter than a good chunk of women, and likewise many women who are taller than a decent chunk of men. The idea that “men are taller than women” is of course true on average, but also an exaggeration. Men who are particularly short and women who are particularly tall may dislike the fact that they don’t match this Platonic ideal.

Back to Wilson:

“The Evolutionary Pacemaker and Social Drift

“…when evolution involves both structure and behavior, behavior should change first and then structure. In other words, behavior should be the evolutionary pacemaker. … Social behavior also frequently serves as an evolutionary pacemaker. The entire process of ritualization, during which a behavior is transformed by evolution into a more efficient signaling device, typically involves a behavioral change followed by morphological alterations that enhance the visibility and distinctiveness of the behavior.

“The relative lability of behavior leads inevitably to social drift, the random divergence in the behavior and mode of organization of societies or groups of societies. …

“The amount of variance within a population of societies is the sum of the variations due to genetic drift, tradition drift, and their interaction. … Even if the alteration to social structure of a group is due to a behavioral change in a key individual, we cannot be sure that this member was not predisposed to the act by a distinctive capability or temperament conferred by a particular set of genes …

“…Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1973) have suggested that in human social evolution the equivalent of an important mutation is a new idea. If it is acceptable and advantageous, the idea will spread quickly. If not, it will decline in frequency and he forgotten. Tradition drift in such instances, like purely genetic drift, has stochastic properties amenable to mathematical analysis.”

EvX: Good old memes. How I love them.

Adaptive Demography

“All true societies are differentiated populations. When cooperative behavior evolves it is put to service by one kind of individual on behalf of another, either unilaterally or mutually…

“The proportions of the demographic classes [like old and young people] also affect the fitness of the group and, ultimately, of each individual member… a deviant population allowed to reproduce for one to several generations will go far to restore the age distribution of populations normal for the species.”

EvX: By “deviant population” he means a population that has more or less of a particular class than is ideal, like if an ant colony lost half of its workers in an accident or a plague wiped out most of the children in a society.

Nature_trees_dark_night_forest_moon_1920x1200“Only if its growth is zero when averaged over many generations can the population have a chance of long life. There is one remaining way to be a success. A population headed for extinction can still possess a high degree of fitness if it succeeds in sending out propagules and creates new populations elsewhere.”

EvX: Your destiny is the stars.

And with that, I’m taking off for the evening.


3 thoughts on “Notes from E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s