A few months ago, The Atlantic published a piece called “E.O. Wilson’s Theory of Everything”. The title caught my eye, but I’ll just come right out and say it: the piece was dense and confusing – or maybe it was the theory itself, I’m not sure. You could tell there was something significant being said, but what exactly required more brainpower than us non-evolutionary biologists usually care to casually expend on a pop-science article. Enter Jonah Lehrer, who profiled Wilson (and the waves he’s currently making) for The New Yorker this past week. The issue at hand is altruism, which has long been a thorn in the side of evolutionary biology/psychology/mathematics, and is worth a look if only to see how these guys keep stumbling onto a Christian anthropology despite themselves. That is, all evidence points to a post-Fall baseline of self-centeredness that has never fully shaken the inherited image of a beneficent creator. Or maybe they’ve just been watching The Wire.

Despite his detractors (and his outspoken ambivalence about religion), Wilson seems to be offering a helpful corrective in the neverending tug of war between nature and nurture, that kindness, like malice, is not a purely social phenomenon, that perhaps there’s a genetic component as well. We talk so often on here about depravity, that we sometimes overlook the positive side of the equation, that just as no sector of human existence is untouched by sin, no sector is comprised entirely of it either. There’s a difference between a human and an orc, after all.

As a side note, Wilson’s willingness to admit his past errors is pretty compelling/revealing. While the hard sciences pride themselves on objectivity, doing an about-face when the data suggests something contradictory is extremely rare, esp when it comes to established thinkers. Just check out the furor that Wilson’s change of mind has provoked, in particular the religious terminology being used to describe it. If nothing else, the field seems as shackled by pre-determined outcomes than ever (see the recent attempts to assign ‘purpose’ to depression and anxiety).

Suffice it to say, the debate certainly casts the miraculousness of a self-sacrificing creator (and savior!) in an interesting light. I’ll spare you (most of) the scientific mumbo jumbo:

Charles Darwin regarded the problem of altruism–the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost–as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection. After all, if life were such a cruel “struggle for existence,” then who could a selfless individual ever live long enough to reproduce? Why would natural selection favor a behavior that made us less likely to survive? In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote, “He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.” And yet, as Darwin knew, altruism is everywhere, a stubborn anomaly of nature. Bats feed hungry brethren; honeybees commit suicide with a sting to defend the hive; birds raise offspring that aren’t their own; humans leap onto subway tracks to save strangers. The ubiquity of such behavior suggests that kindness is not a losing life strategy… [Ed note: anyone else spot the huge leap there?]

[William] Hamilton referred to his model [for the evolution of altruistic behavior] as “inclusive fitness theory,” since it expanded the Darwinian definition of “fitness” — how many offspring an individual manages to have– to include the offspring of surviving relatives. The math seemed to solve the biological problem, but in doing so it opened up a moral problem: altruism, it suggested, isn’t really altruistic at all; rather it is just another means of spreading our genes…

But now, in an abrupt intellectual shift, Wilson says that his embrace of Hamilton’s equation was a serious scientific mistake. “I’m going to be blunt: the equation doesn’t work,” he says. “It’s a phantom measure. It can’t explain nearly as much as people think it can. Back when I first read Hamilton, inclusive fitness seemed to make sense of so many different mysteries. But now we know more. And I’m not afraid to admit I was wrong.” Wilson’s apostasy, which he lays out in a forthcoming book, “The Social Conquest of the Earth,” has set off a scientific furor. The vast majority of his academic colleagues are convinced that he was right the first time, and that his recantation has damaged the field. There have been denunciations in the press and signed group letters in prestigious journals; some have hinted that Wilson, who is eighty-two, should retire. The controversy is fueled by a larger debate about the evolution of altruism. Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask? This is science with existential stakes. [Ed note: yes, yes, yes and yes.]

And so the argument continues, with both sides [the inclusive fitness camp and Wilson's more genetic model] promising new papers that will prove the other side wrong. The problem, of course, that it’s hard to imagine what such proof might look like. Despite the impressive tool kit of modern biology, this is still a debate about distant history, shot through with ambiguous facts and contested first principles. Meanwhile, nobody seems to have noticed the irony of the situation: they are fighting over the origins of kindness.

In a 2007 paper that he co-authored, he summarizes his new view in three terse sentences: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

Wilson’s larger point is that, to the extent that altruism exists, it isn’t an illusion. Instead, goodness might actually be an adaptive trait, allowing more cooperative groups to outcompete their conniving cousins. In a field defined by the cruel logic of natural selection, group selection appears to be the rare hint of virtue, the one biological force pushing back against the obvious advantages of greed and deceit. “I see human nature as hung in the balance between these two extremes,” Wilson says. “If our behavior was driven entirely by group selection, then we’d be robotic cooperators, like ants. But, if individual-level selection was the only thing that mattered, then we’d be entirely selfish. What makes us human is that our history has been shaped by both forces. We’re stuck in between.”