E.O. Wilson on the ‘Knockout Gene’ that Allows Mankind to Dominate Earth


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, 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 cast 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 never the less 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 three or two 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, build a complicated
nest 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 knock out, 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 unattended 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 eight 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.

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