E.O. Wilson, Eusociality & the Limits of Science

While a post-doc at Penn State (2011-13), renowned sociobiologist E.O. Wilson gave a lecture on eusociality – an understanding of the evolution of social cooperation and alturism among insects, such as ants, through: i) cooperative care of offspring; ii) overlapping generations within a colony of adults; and iii) a division of labour into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. Wilson extends these observations to human interactions and evolution.

To explain the link to human sociality, Wilson used Paul Gauguin’s “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” According to Wilson, Gauguin’s three questions are the central questions of religion and philosophy. However neither is equipped to answer them.


“Paul Gauguin – D’ou venons-nous” by Paul Gauguin – Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wilson asserts that religions do not have the necessary scientific understanding of the universe. And since the decline of logical positivism, philosophy has “scattered in a kind of intellectual diaspora and into those areas not yet colonized by science”. Not afraid of a non-sequitur, Wilson concludes – “by default therefore, the solution to the great riddle, if it has an answer, has been left to science”.

Wilson claims that eusociality and evolutionary biology provide the best answer to Gauguin’s questions. Rather than address the veracity and usefulness of Wilson’s eusociality, I want to focus on the type of answer that Wilson’s eusociality is and whether it address Gauguin’s questions.

Gauguin’s “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” is considered to be his most significant work. It is also reported that he intended to commit suicide after its completion, a fact relayed by Wilson. Gauguin was approximately fifty at the time of completing the work, however its title and origins go back to his childhood when he was a student under the Bishop of Orléans, Félix Antoine Philibert Dupanloup.

Dupanloup developed a catechism for his young students to encourage them to reflect on the nature of life. The catechism revolved around three questions: where does humanity come from, where is it going to, how does humanity proceed?

While Gauguin disliked his school years and later clashed with the Catholic Church, these three questions held a lasting significance for him.

In painting a scene of life moving from birth to death, the viewer is prompted to question with Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Clearly many answers are possible to these questions, including Wilson’s eusociality. However, in response to the question, ‘what are we?’ different disciplines will provide different answers. A biologist can explain the anatomical structure and relation to the surrounding environment, but this does not address the existential character of the question.

In asking ‘what are we?’ or ‘who am I?’ the question directs our inquiry beyond descriptive facts of biology or anatomy to philosophical and ethical notions of identity and self-understanding. These answers certainly include the biological, identity and self-understanding are not abstracted from the body, but nor are they reduced to it.

In his lecture, Wilson describes the task of science as discovering “the knowledge of the real world [that] can be tested and shared with every person”. This is a fine description if by “real world” Wilson means the

"Plos wilson" by Jim Harrison - PLoS. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plos_wilson.jpg#/media/File:Plos_wilson.jpg

“Plos wilson” by Jim Harrison – PLoS. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plos_wilson.jpg#/media/File:Plos_wilson.jpg

physical or sensible world. But if “real world” means the world of human interaction and concepts, such as freedom, morality, and meaning, then Wilson either misunderstands science or misunderstands the way non-physical ideas operate in the world.

In discussing Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, Michael Sandel describes the role of science as capable of investigating “nature and inquire into the empirical world, but it cannot answer moral questions or disprove free will. That is because morality and freedom are not empirical concepts. We can’t prove that they exist, but neither can we make sense of our moral lives without presupposing them.” (Justice, 2009: 129)

It is important to be aware of the boundaries separating disciplines and the different questions they seek to answer.

In recent years, some popular scientists have “colonized” questions that go beyond the empirical and physical. In using the methods of natural science, questions of morality and meaning have been flattened and reduced to biophysical explanations (for an example of where these issues are currently unfolding see neuroethics). In so doing, the scope of possible answers are reduced to the empirical, or alternatively questions that extend beyond the empirical are discounted. This is Dawkins’s approach, describing questions of why as “silly“.

Scientists have answered many questions, helping us to better understand the physical world and our place in it. But while natural science is a powerful tool, it is not the only tool we have and it is not always the most appropriate.

Questions such as ‘why are we here?’, ‘where are we going?’, or ‘what is the purpose of existence?’ are significant questions that have occupied humanity for millennia. Importantly, these questions remain unanswered, not because there are no answers, or philosophers have used the wrong method, or that we have not applied ourselves with the necessary vigor, but because of the nature of the question does not allow for stable or final answers.

Some questions are for answering, and some are for wrestling.

Gauguin wrestled with these questions, not in anticipation of a final answer. I will not speculate on the kind of answer that would have satisfied Gauguin, but I will venture to suggest that Wilson’s eusociality would not have sufficed. This is not because eusociality is necessarily wrong, but that it is an answer to a different question. Eusociality tries to describe how social interaction evolved. For Wilson, the ‘why’ of human social organization is that it is adaptively advantageous. This may be correct but it does not and cannot address questions about why this is so, who we are and what should we do.Gauguin’s questions are about existence, meaning and purpose, not description, process or mechanism. As evidenced by Gauguin’s own approach, they are to be wrestled with over a lifetime.

The increasingly popular appeal to science to solve questions of ethics, politics and aesthetics not only risks providing final yet inadequate answers, but also limiting the possibility of wrestling with and struggling through deep questions of life: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

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