Why Did Humans Advance Among Primates? Look to Ants For the Answer.

Biologist Edward O. Wilson explains how humans came to dominate all other large animals by adopting eusocial behaviors most often associated with insects.

In many of Edward O. Wilson's books, most notably his recent titles The Meaning of Human Existence and The Social Conquest of Earth, the famed biologist adopts a scientific lens to examine the quandaries of the human condition and other opaque areas of human knowledge. These are topics most typically explored by philosophers and sociologists, but Wilson approaches them with the scientific mind. For example, in the Big Think interview below, Wilson asks how Homo sapiens managed to separate from other primates and dominate the large animals of the world. Is this something science on its own can explain?


Sure, says Wilson. The key is called eusociality, and the best way to explain eusociality is to grab a magnifying glass and go looking for ants:

Wilson is one of the world's foremost experts on eusociality, a byproduct of him being the world's foremost expert on ants and ant society. Here's how he described eusociality in a 2005 paper:

"In eusociality, an evolutionarily advanced level of colonial existence, adult colonial members belong to two or more overlapping generations, care cooperatively for the young, and are divided into reproductive and nonreproductive (or at least less-reproductive) castes. The phenomenon is well marked and nearly confined to insects, especially ants, bees, wasps, and termites, where it has been subject to a large body of mostly specialized research scattered across disciplines from genetics to paleontology."

So in basic terms, eusociality is where evolutionary biology and sociology converge. Take the example of ants. Individual ants owe their survival to the colony's rigid social structure. Queens and reproductive males are put in charge of replenishing the colony's living capital. Various castes of worker ants fulfill necessary roles for maintaining the whole. As Wilson explains, this sort of high-level social organization is found in only 20 species of animals. What's important is that eusociality has allowed ants and termites to dominate the insect world much like humans reign over big animals. What Wilson argues, therefore, is that human beings exhibit qualities of eusociality as well, and could be classified as eusocial beings. 

But what do ants, termites, and humans all have in common that allowed for them to become eusocial? Wilson explains it like this: Pretty much every animal species is genetically inclined to reproduce, rear the offspring, and then at some point the offspring is compelled to disperse. Ants, termites, wasps, and naked mole rats each possess what's called a knockout of a gene that removes the tendency to disperse. It's like each of those species has a little genetic Al Green inside them forever singing "Let's Stay Together."

And according to Wilson, humans are the same way. Our genetic refusal to disperse allows us to eventually become eusocial. This, in turn, elevated us above other primates to a level of dominance among large animals. You and me and Edward O. Wilson aren't so different from ants, and that's a good thing.

Related Articles

Why Japan's hikikomori isolate themselves from others for years

These modern-day hermits can sometimes spend decades without ever leaving their apartments.

700,000 Japanese people are thought to be hikikomori, modern-day hermits who never leave their apartments (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images).
Mind & Brain
  • A hikikomori is a type of person in Japan who locks themselves away in their bedrooms, sometimes for years.
  • This is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, likely due to rigid social customs and high expectations for academic and business success.
  • Many believe hikikomori to be a result of how Japan interprets and handles mental health issues.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less