E.O. Wilson on the 'Knockout Gene' that Allows Mankind to Dominate Earth
Famed evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson argues that humans came to dominate the Earth thanks to a social condition called eusociality.
Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist (Myrmecology, a branch of entomology), researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism). Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular humanist ideas concerned with religious and ethical matters.
A Harvard professor for four decades, he has written twenty books, won two Pulitzer prizes, and discovered hundreds of new species. Considered to be one of the world's greatest living scientists, Dr. Wilson is often called "the father of biodiversity," (a word that he coined). He is the Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.
E.O. Wilson: One of the features of humanity that is diagnostic of humanity, meaning it's one of the identifying features of humanity, although it's not unique to humanity, is what we call eusociality. That’s E-U-sociality. And EU means good or true or whatever; it means the most advanced stage in the evolution of social behavior. And that advanced stage has, and this is a count that I've made back and forth because it's part of my field as far of sociobiology that I focused on being a student of ant behavior, and I have found going through the record of fossil animals, but primarily among animal societies that exist today, some 20 species, no more, or I should say lines of evolution that led to eusociality. What is eusociality? Eusociality is the condition of social behavior in which groups are organized into some caste or individuals that are fully reproductive and others that are a little or very much less reproductive, in the extreme becoming sterile workers. They divide labor, these less reproductive workers, to support the reproductive workers. So that you have a group that is fundamentally organized in that way with non-reproductive workers; think ants, think wasps, think termites, and think then about humans that can perform specialized tasks within the group. And then you have the foundation, the platform so to speak, for building immensely complex societies. It's those societies that are extremely complex that are other than not human, and yet are not intelligent because they don't have the size to have a big enough brain, are the ants. And that's one line of the 20, and termites, that's a second line of the 20, and those two groups alone dominate the insect world just as humans eusocial alone among all big animals, eusocial to a slight degree, but nevertheless a significant one, dominate the planet. And that's really what the significance of eusociality is.
And it's why in an earlier book I used the title The Social Conquest of Earth. So the question, then circling back to what is the meaning of humanity, is in part how did and why did we achieve eusociality alone among the African primates and alone among all the big animals we know about. And then it was never achieved, so far as we know, by any big animals going all the way back to the early mammals of the Cenozoic era 65 million years and almost into the age of dinosaurs. There were dinosaurs that ran around on two legs and had arms and hands that could manipulate things and heads that might have expanded with brain, yet something had happened to them that made higher intelligent Darwinian success. But that never happened. Nothing happened until about 3 or 2 million years ago. Finally an old-world primate line developed the present human condition. And now we come to the question why only 20 times? That's all I can find. And that's my specialty is studying social insects and related creatures that have high levels of social behavior. And why is this? And now I'm going to tell you. And this is a very important part of knowing the meaning of human existence.
Every one of those lines, 20 lines without exception, as far as we can determine, went through a stage of what we call preadaptation, that is they acquired other traits that were not really social, but set the stage to become eusocial. And that trait is the following. In large numbers of species of organisms, birds are an example, many kinds of insects, a female or a pair, a mated pair build a complicated nest, one that's valuable because of the effort and the usefulness of it, within which they raise young. And then in the vast majority of cases in which they get this far in evolution, they put food, in the case of a wasp that stings a big spider, paralyzes it, and then drops that into a nest that's built, lays an egg and then closes it so that the spider provides food for the full development of a new wasp. That's very common. In a small percentage of these cases when you look out over the millions of species of animals, a very small percentage, the female or the mated pair, think primitive wasp, think the wasp that gave rise to the ant, think cockroach-like insects that gave rise to the termite and so on, in a very small number of these percentage the female or the mated pair doesn't leave. They'd begin feeding the larva, the immature form until it grows up. And then this bunch of adults is at the nest and they disperse. Now what happens if, the geneticists call it knockout, you have a knockout of a gene that removes the tendency to disperse. Now they all stay together, mom, maybe dad, and the children. All adults now and they have no tendency to disperse.
And we know from other evidence they automatically organize themselves, for reasons I can explain, but I'm going to halt in trying to explain why that is an unintended consequence of a whole new other line of evolution, mom and dad become the dominants, primarily because they are first there and they're often the biggest. And the young become, their young, their first brood becomes the ones that goes out and forages, builds new nest cells and so on and we have a eusocial species. Twenty times only in evolution among the 8 million species, one of them finally, after all those hundreds of millions of years, it happened to be a big primate in Africa went across the line and pre-adapted that way and became eusocial.
Why did humanity, among all the species that have ever existed, come to dominate the Earth? Famed evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson argues it's on account of humanity's unusual genetic mutation, or "knockout gene," that gave rise to eusociality, or the social condition that allows non-reproductive members of a species to support its reproductive members. Wilson walks through the unusual historical evolution of eusociality and discusses how humanity is one of only 20 species in existence that currently exhibit the trait as well as the largest primate species to do so.
"They" has taken on a not-so-new meaning lately. This earned it the scrutiny it needed to win.
- Merriam-Webster has announced "they" as the word of the year.
- The selection was based on a marked increase in traffic to the online dictionary page.
- Runners up included "quid pro quo" and "crawdad."
A review of the global "wall" that divides rich from poor.
- Trump's border wall is only one puzzle piece of a global picture.
- Similar anxieties are raising similar border defenses elsewhere.
- This map shows how, as a result, "the West" is in fact one large gated community.
Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.
- Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
- Over the years, Facebook's hands-off ad policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its political ads.
- Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.
LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.
The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.
LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy
According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.
LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.
In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."
What Facebook’s policy risks
Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.
But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.
"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.
Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism
To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.
It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.
But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.