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David Sloan Wilson
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David Sloan Wilson

Professor of Biology & Anthropology - Binghamton University

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The Phenomenon of Humanity

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A few years ago I read The Phenomenon of Man, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and was amazed by its current relevance. Teilhard was a Jesuit Priest and famed paleontologist at a time when science was regarded as a suitable path to God. Teilhard’s path was too radical for the Catholic Church, however, and his best-known work was not published until after his death in 1955. Over the decades, Teilhard was largely forgotten as a scientist but remained widely read for his spiritual quality. What did I, a practicing evolutionary scientist, find so relevant about his work?

Teilhard wrote that humans are both a biological species and a new evolutionary process. As a biological species, we are little different from our primate cousins, and there was no divine spark in our origin (this did not play well with the Catholic Church!). As a new evolutionary process, however, our origin was almost as momentous as the origin of life. Teilhard called the human-created world the noosphere, which slowly spread like a skin over the planet, like the biological skin (the biosphere) that preceded it. He imagined “grains of thought” coalescing at ever-larger scales until they became a single global consciousness that he called the Omega Point.

I tell Teilhard’s story in a chapter of my book The Neighborhood Project titled “We Are Now Entering the Noosphere,” where I also say that reading his book was like the strings of a musical instrument resonating to the strings of another instrument being played nearby. Teilhard anticipated, far ahead of his time, the concept of an evolutionary process built by evolution. Today, this concept is sometimes called a “Darwin Machine,” and it is described with great clarity in a book titled Evolution in Four Dimensions, by Eva Jablonka and Miriam Lamb. They remind us that Darwin’s theory of natural selection requires heredity, not genes. Genes constitute one mechanism of heredity. Genes as we know them were not the starting point of evolution; before genes there was evolution without replicators. Genes, in turn, produced other mechanisms of heredity, including epigenetic mechanisms (involving the expression of genes), learning mechanisms, and systems of symbolic thought that are trans-generational. The second (epigenetics) and third (learning) dimensions of evolution exist for many species, but the fourth (symbolic thought) is nearly uniquely human. Moreover, the symbolic inheritance system rivals genetic inheritance for its combinatorial diversity. There are nearly an infinite number of genotypes in a sexually reproducing species, each potentially producing a different phenotype for natural selection to act upon. Similarly, the diversity of imagined worlds is nearly infinite, and each “symbotype” potentially motivates a different suite of actions in the real world for natural selection to act upon. Thanks to this combinatorial diversity, our ancestors spread over the planet, adapting to all climatic zones and hundreds of ecological niches, displacing countless biological species along the way, for better or for worse. Culturally, we are more like an entire adaptive radiation, similar to the dinosaurs, birds, and mammals, than a single biological species.

Teilhard called the human-created world the noosphere, which slowly spread like a skin over the planet, like the biological skin (the biosphere) that preceded it. He imagined “grains of thought” coalescing at ever-larger scales until they became a single global consciousness that he called the Omega Point.

Teilhard also anticipated the concept of multilevel selection, which happens to be my academic specialty. Traits that are “for the good of the group” seldom maximize relative fitness within the group and therefore require a process of between-group selection to evolve. When between-group selection becomes very strong compared to within-group selection, a species becomes ultra-social, which is jargon for “very, very cooperative.” Social insect colonies are the classic example of ultra-sociality (also called eusociality, especially when there is a reproductive division of labor). One of the greatest discoveries in the history of evolutionary thought (due to Lynn Margulis in the 1970s) is that nucleated cells are ultra-social groups of bacteria. This is something that Darwin never imagined! Multi-cellular organisms are ultra-social groups of nucleated cells. The concepts of “organism” and “highly cooperative society” have literally become one and the same.

Only during the last decade have evolutionists begun to realize that we are an ultra-social primate species and that this accounts for virtually all of the differences that set us apart from our primate cousins. Mechanisms evolved in our ancestors that suppressed the ability of individuals to succeed at the expense of members of their own group, causing succeeding as a group to become the primary evolutionary force. We are designed to be team players in ways that penetrate so deeply into our subconscious that we are only beginning to understand the proximate mechanisms, even though we play them out every moment of our lives.

For thousands of generations, the ultra-social groups were small groups—what Teilhard called “grains of thought.” Then, with the advent of agriculture, cultural group selection increased the scale of human society by many orders of magnitude, resulting in the mega-societies of today. It is important not to romanticize the increasing scale of society—it was due largely to the carnage of warfare. In addition, most people will probably always feel most at home in small groups. It is part of our genetic heritage. If society must exist at a large scale, let it be multi-cellular. Finally, the mega-societies of today must become still larger to solve our largest and most recalcitrant problems at a planetary scale. We have not yet reached the Omega Point.

Insofar as Teilhard portrayed the Omega Point as inevitable, that is the biggest thing that he got wrong....Call it social engineering or stewardship, it is up to us to turn the earth into the super-organism that Teilhard had in mind.

In deference to new-age sensibilities, let’s call the updated version of the Phenomenon of Man the Phenomenon of Humanity. What does it auger for the future? For one, I look forward to a coalescing of academic disciplines, especially those that have been divided in the past on issues such as genetic determinism and social constructivism. Our capacity for open-ended change, which is so often conceptualized as outside the orbit of evolution, is far better understood as an elaborate product of genetic evolution and an evolutionary process in its own right. When the study of humanity (life? all academic disciplines?) becomes conceptually unified in the same way as the study of the biological sciences, we will have reached an intellectual Omega Point of sorts.

Becoming an ultra-social species at the planetary scale—another kind of Omega Point—will be much more difficult, although theoretically possible. The first step is for everyone to realize that it will not happen spontaneously. Insofar as Teilhard portrayed the Omega Point as inevitable, that is the biggest thing that he got wrong. Dozens of contemporary theorists speculate about the global brain emerging spontaneously from the Internet, as if complexity and inter-connectivity are the only necessary ingredients. That’s wrong, and the sooner we reach a consensus on this point the better. Multi-level selection states very clearly that adaptation at level X requires a process of selection at that level and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels. We can’t expect natural selection to operate at the scales required to solve our largest and most recalcitrant problems, so the only alternative is policy selection. Call it social engineering or stewardship, it is up to us to turn the earth into the super-organism that Teilhard had in mind. We will not succeed without a sophisticated knowledge of our species as a product of genetic evolution and a process of evolution in our own right.

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I believe we are somewhat off tract so far and that we could and should consider some return species. However, we need to first look at the circumstances surrounding their extinction.

Firstly, we will tend to find that humankind had a large part to play in this extinction. If mankind is going to sponsor the reintroduction perhaps he first needs to consider whether he himself is in severe overpopulation of the world and has overly impacted upon the extinct species and other species at the same time!If he agrees with this suggestion then what is he suggesting doing about it?

It is also likely that one of the reasons man affected their extinction was that he had either changed his practices in relationship to the species or that he had simply become too numerous and competitive for shared regional environmental conditions.

We also have to look at the possibility of climate change and possible environmental degradation in the area where the species previously existed. Again we have to look to the changes to that environment in the meantime whether caused by mankind or by other forces. Is there a companion species of particular relevance to this species, or did a relationship with that occur that would make its return impossible without the return of its companion species at the same time?

Again, we need to look at whether or not some species have occupied the niche previously occupied by this species in the past.

Not only must we look to these few factors but we should make sure that the niche made available is sufficient in size to support a genetically viable population.

If we wish to be particularly scientific about this effect we should look also to the possible effect that this reintroduction will have upon species that have either occupied that niche made vacant or other species of a similarly competitive nature that have themselves developed/originated since that species became extinct.

As far as whether or not this reconstituted species would be in some way different this is probably not a matter about which we need to be concerned as such minor adjustments would readily be made possible in the early stages.a reintroduction oversight program would monitor these effects.

In consideration of how easily it would be for this animal to conform in consideration of the fact as I have mentioned above I believe we should most certainly bring back the Tasmanian tiger.
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This concise, clear essay raises essential points and its tone engenders thoughtful reflection. We need more discussions like this. Thank you.
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I really like the emphasis on heart-thought as as principle. And, again agreeing, we must deeply consider what we value, not simply for today, but forever.
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This is good to hear -- yes, it is so important that we think into "the Seventh Generation." Only then will our decisions arise from the fullness of time. "Heart-though as a principle" -- what a beautiful way to integrate it into daily life. Thank you.
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Nice
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Bringing back mammoths is just cool science. Of course there are a million more ethical uses for the resources, but one could say the same thing for the amount of time, money and resources spent on car racing and going out to night clubs. Seeing a truly long-extinct animal (and I thought the youngest mammoth carcasses were more along the lines of 3,000 years old found on some Siberian island?) does more than thrill us with how alien they are, it reminds us that impossible things can be done, and that things like world peace and ending world hunger are much bigger, complex, and time-consuming objectives.

By all accounts, mammoths were hunted for (mostly) their meat for eating. It's possible that mammoths might be quite tasty to the human palate. Given the short growing season, paucity of plant life and the endemic cold weather of this animal's historic grazing grounds, maybe it could actually become a cash cow for northern or high altitude farmers. That whole rack of ribs that tips over the Flinstone's car could get that much closer to reality.
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The California Condor program to save them from extinction began in 1987 at roughly the cost of $5 million dollars per year ($5,000,000(2015-1987)) supposedly totaling over $140 Million. At tens of millions of dollars invested in California Condors over 28 years, what value did this bird return to the tax payer/public and the economy to improve our lives or increase human survival potential well into the future?

This of course is a rhetorical question that applies to all the other animals Dr. Harry W. Greene loves with all his heart, chiefly the Wooly Mammoth, that most fail to articulate the intrinsic value of restoring to life. Since Dr. Greene doesn’t plan to pay for this himself, who should we enslave to build this Biological Pyramid of Giza?
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Alison Hawthorne Deming, can you possibly have watched the ending of my video response, the part about the rhino, and imply that I'm "heartless"? And what about the CA Condor, would you have preferred to allow that species to remain extinct in the wild?
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It seems to me that the wish to resurrect the dead might for some, in whole or in part, originate in curiosity or the will to command. But, probably for most folks, the idea comes from feelings of deep loss and longing--even love. The de-extinction impulse gives us the chance, first and foremost, to reflect on what it means to be a human being. Here is an opportunity to consider what it means to be the "new kind of people" for whom Aldo Leopold called. He believed we needed a new kind of people more than a half-century ago. How much more this new kind of people is needed today as a human-dominated age continues unfolding more dramatically on a planet characterized by the unintended consequences of that human domination. Paradoxically, the new people we need to be are humble. And, we need to think complexly--historically and ecologically--as Curt--and Ben and Harry--and the others of this series are helping us to do.
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Thanks Julianne for acknowledging that there are at least TWO potential underlying motivations for exploring de-extinction, including Pleistocene rewilding--I've been astonished that some people whom I've never met confidently label me some sort of arrogant technophile, something with which I doubt anyone who's ever taken my natural history classes would agree!
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Little consideration given to the ecosystem as whole as entire species go extinct or very nearly and the damage it can cause. Preserve what we have and foster the rebirth and regeneration of those endangered!!!
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Random Thots:
1. Elizsabeth lives in an area that is a hotbed of anti GMO fervor. GMO'd elephants?
2. Harry elephants? That's a lot of Rogaine
3. As a member of a species that is one of the most if not the most invasive and destructive, at least in this epoch, we are the real elephant in the room. What's the solution there? 7 billion now soon to be 20 billion.
4. If evolution gives some evolving species an advantage for survival in a given environment, and we can't control our environment, what's going to happen? And, would bringing back extinct species into the present environment, be cruel and not usual? The worst part about dying, for me as a science nut, is in not being around to find what's going to happen.
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Excellent article! Added to these issues is the investment of millions of dollars to save charismatic species. The problem is that instead of looking for more sustainable solutions, a large part of the world's funding for conservation projects responds to specific interests or to try to "solve" deeper problems with "fast" solutions. We need to re-evaluate not only how we are interacting with nature, but also how we are interacting with other people. Extinction and the degradation of ecosystem do not occur in a vacuum, so it's time we start having more of these conversations in our society to try to find more holistic alternatives to try to mitigate this kind of problems. Only when we allow ourselves to lose the pride of being humans and honestly reconnect with nature, then we might be able to say that we need more funding for more sustainable projects, instead of just funding artificial solutions.
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I fully agree.
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Teihard Chardin always kept his faith in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Do any of you realize all the "scientific evidence you are uncovering is just verifying the will of God?
Too much "science" these days seems to want to "search for something without the so called "bias" of belief. Why? Why aren't we actually "discovering things that we find beautiful as we have great minds looking into the very details of "how things happen" as part of God's Creation". I see Science as a process too. And the evidence you present to support what Teihard is saying seems to uncover the very basis of what I see as the real purpose of science.
However....In James Mitchner's book "Hawaii" he presents the rise of the islands not as one surge above the waves, but as a succession of thrusts and retreats giving the land a slow upheaval above the water.
So to it has been with mankind and humanity. And the "higher" we approach the "Omega" the easier it is to fall back down.
Nuclear weapons can bring us back to the start, or even "annihilate the rise of humanity and all life here. The crash of Andromeda and the Milky Way can do the same.
I think the reach for omega does not just lie on earth, but in existence. It dwarfs the individual and mind to think of the vastness given to it. Yet this same vastness has yet to be conceived in belief. Our verification of cause and or end is far from over. Do you believe, as the song says, "Is that all there Is?
Those that feel frustration of not discovering and have the "need to "know empirically" what was the cause to have some idea of direction using only what today is referred to as "scientific investigation" limit themselves and ultimately will reach an frustration of feeling they never solved it.
I believe in God because to find the meaning for everything one has to see that each "thing DOES MATTER. We, and everything that is, are "moving" somewhere. We can see it in our bodies, in our microscopes and in our skies. That very movement of everything means something also.
But we should also look to the NON material things to find what "is". Science can analyze color, light, even energy and matter. But can you analyze the human reflection on thought and the very fact that we "seek explanation?
That explanation kept Teihard believing in God. His Alpha to Omega is more an expression of faith than of science. The movement from and to is more than simply process, it is purpose. Hawaii was built and became an island after so many tries of going above the waves. I think just that action shows what Teihard spoke of when he stated the Alph ato Omega.
The very fact we CAN believe is part of that process itself. Belief has Always been present with humanity. The denial of it has always put humanity yet "below the waves. It is the constant refining of belief, the constant "movement to verify that belief that too has been present in humanity. The constant reflection on moments when we have denied its existence by our actions that has made us slip back.
Are we Alone? Maybe. Are their others out in existence who are also on this "journey? Maybe. We need not find them. That does not mean we will not try. But if we do, my bet is that they too will recognize the "Alpha to Omega.
I thank God/ Jesus/Holy Spirit for trying to help us, in OUR world, make our way.
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You are spot on, Emilian. Too often we look towards the “easy answers” and find ourselves scapegoating. This strategy immediately places blinders on our ability to see the larger more systemic issues at hand. Our sensitivities to the intricacies of our human & nature relationships become covered in a film of “get the job done!” How heartbreaking really. Perhaps instead, next time we find that “invasive species" we might dig deeper and look further back into time and place to see how our actions, policies and worldviews have laid the groundwork for nature's loss, and then perhaps learn another lesson, in humility.
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This is an important essay with implications not only for lost species but also for efforts to control existing ones. Easy answers and a focus on a single value (usually anthropocentric) led to the introduction of countless species into environments that then became degraded, often irreversibly so. Asian Carp in the Mississippi River system, for example. Or European Starlings across the U.S. Ironically, instead of using measures that control invasive species as an opportunity to talk about the virtue of humility and the implications of our interconnectedness with the environment, we again focus on a single value -- the invasive species' negative value on the ecosystem -- as our guide. It is certainly the "correct" value in this situation, but our approach doesn't challenge the one-dimensional value thinking that created and will continue to create problems in the first place.
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As much as I admire these insights (and your book The Ethics of Species), I’m left wondering about translating philosophy into conservation action. Isn’t the claim that initiatives to prevent Polar Bear extinction would fail to save “crucial ecological and evolutionary relationships” rhetorically strong but weak on underlying reality, like one heard during the 1980s, that a bird in a zoo is only 15% California Condor? How do you know Polar Bears can’t be restored to a habitat such that they would again participate in predation and other ecological processes? Wouldn’t restored Polar Bears be subject to selection, gene flow, and other evolutionary processes? California Condors went extinct in the wild in 1987 but today ~400 fly over Western North America, keeping open the possibility they might someday again exist free of management. If you had to personally take responsibility for this case, would you rule against saving them? And you close with “If we really want to take heroic steps to save species, the best way—by far—is to change our lifestyles and our eco-social systems, which put so many species in peril in the first place.” Heroic indeed, and a massively complex task too. Are you confident we can do that in the short time window remaining to save some large mammals, or do you personally not value them as worthy of exceptional conservation efforts? I’d like to see ethicists address specific cases, such as this one posed in my own response to the Center’s over-arching question about extinction: What if the only possible remaining elephants on Earth would be in a North American herd, derived from zoo-raised Asian ancestors and spruced up with some mammoth genes for cold-hardiness? Would we prefer that scenario, or one in which there are no longer any elephants?
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A thoughtful, compelling essay but "first do no harm" seems problematic in the messy real world, for both medicine and conservation. Having been a civilian ambulance driver when we had far less to work with than now in terms of equipment and training, I was in situations in which strict adherence to that principle would have meant some lives weren't saved out of fear of making a mistake. Likewise for conservation, doing nothing beyond the proven routine is not risk free, although it will keep practitioners (and philsophers) above criticism when we lose a species. This leads to the question, since the California Condor is an example of ongoing de-extinction at substantial costs, would you argue against that initiative?
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Yes, this is a nice summary of the extra issues around de-extinction. Last year, I created a short podcast exploring some of these concerns, including legal ones, in a New Zealand context. It aired on Radio New Zealand in early January 2015.

You can listen to it here: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ourchangingworld/audio/20160900/preparing-for-de-extinction-are-we-there-yet
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Thanks for this terrific, thoughtful commentary.

Your point about the risk of not wrestling with the questions generated by a potential technology before it is an in-use tool is very important. (Which is also why the best science-fiction writing is all about ethics and morality.)
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Thanks for this wonderful, thought-provoking essay, and of course I especially appreciate that you are clear on the nuanced complexity of the debate--much more useful than gross over-simplification!
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Why? Is today's eco system suitable for these animals habitat? And..why?
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It's really a sickening level of conceit for our culture to be teaching itself re-animation, all the while sending the entire biosphere ever deeper into a death spiral. The same urge to mastery is behind both initiatives, despite how opposite they may appear.

In the end our lust for power will be satisfied by acquiring the *ability* to de-extinguish species. There will be no need or motivation or even opportunity to actually use that power extensively, on account of the resource cost of returning habitat to ecosystems as would be needed to sustain viable wild populations. We are far too attached to monopolising the landscape for our projects, to leave any of it for ecosystems. Much more likely is a few novelty specimens at zoos -- at best, some isolated sanctuaries holding highly managed semi-wild populations. Both of which are really human vanity projects, not genuine ecological restoration.

So really I don't think we can seriously consider ourselves worthy of considering the questions you raise, for now.
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You say "The same urge to mastery is behind both initiatives" and I wonder how you know what motivates those of us who raise the prospects of anything other than traditional "ecological restoration"?
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To me, Harry's approach steers clear of any grand claims about how much can be accomplished. There's no hint of the technofantasy—“We’ll bring ’em all back, and nature can be made whole again!!!” Really, the argument rests on a fundamentally pessimistic view of how humans are changing nature—“We’re losing everything. If the only way to save some of these creatures were through human interventions, reintroducing, even relocating, even attempting some biotechnological changes to keep representatives of these species around, would we do it?” The argument is fundamentally about love of nature rather than fascination with technology—in fact, it might be sort of a begrudging, resigned acceptance of the technology. By my lights, it’s a much more thoughtful and moving way of arguing for de-extinction than one often finds.
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I'm with you, Harry-- recent extinctions in particular have been so arbitrary.

I was among those who helped the eastern Peregrine return, and yes, they were of mixed subspecies. But evolution never stops and is once again molding the new birds to their habitat.

Bring 'em back, American lions, Passenger pigeons, Thylacines, mammoths; bring 'em all back.
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This is a fascinating concept that would be very important in our understanding of human nature. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it. Would you say that humans and our cultures evolve separately through both genes and memes? What puzzles me is how we expect a newborn to become an adult today compared with a a hundred thousand years ago. The culture has evolved, specialized and diversified in countless ways. Is the human body evolving genetically to facilitate or implement our evolving culture?

Anyway, many thanks for addressing this important topic!
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In much of the discourse regarding humans and nature, there is little mention about human nature. When it does make an appearance, it is often received with suspicion. One of the wnderful things of evolutionary theory is that it presents a story of the kinship of life. We are all related. Sooner or later we come upon common ancestors until we reach the origins of life. Often overlooked in the narrative of "competition and survival of the fittest" is the other side of the coin which Dr. Sloan Wilson so rightly points out: that of cooperation. Multicellualr organisms are communities of cooperation. We exist because cooperation has been a strategy that increases fitness. But noly at the cellular level. Kin selection has been a strategy of cooperation created by natural selection engendering feelings of love and caring. But also beyond kinship groups, intra and inter-specific reciprocal altruism has also emerged by natural selection. And it seems that this has been a slow but inexorable movement (I might even agree with Teilhard de Chardin that it is inevitable!) of life in nature. Maybe the Omega Point is when this process becomes conscious and we recognize the advantage of reciprocal altruism with the rest of life.
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We at the Center are deeply interested in human nature. Stay tuned for more Questions exploring this important area!
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" before genes there was evolution without replicators." you say.

You may like our paper

"Evolution before genes", but which has holistic replicators not template ones.

Cheers,
Chrisantha

http://www.biology-direct.com/content/7/1/1/
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Your suggestion of Co-operativeness or Super-Sociality (developed through Group Selection) as the genuinely unique Mark of Man – the main source of our strange extension worldwide - delights me. I had almost given up hope of finding any such single mark that accounted so well for the odd fate of our species. Of course theorists haven’t been eager to name natural helpfulness and friendliness as our Mark because it isn’t something you can boast of. It has to be something you take for granted. But it surely does go far to explain our worldwide cultural proliferation.

There is something odd about it, however, in that it divides us so sharply from our primate cousins, who hardly ever seem interested in working together. I wonder what you think of the recent suggestion that this change may have been due to the influence of dogs? with whom we have long been linked, and who certainly do have co-operation as part of their heritage?

But the thing that most worries me about this idea is a trouble that you touch on – the fact that group-selection largely works by conflict. The in-group cohesion seems to depend on having an outside enemy. And, as you say, society has indeed largely grown to its present scale by `the carnage of warfare’. What’s more, the development of technology, along with the mere scale of current conflicts, keeps making these interactions more and more destructive.

Does it seem possible to you that we should somehow break this powerful link between love and hatred? Or that we can find cultural devices to control it? As you point out, we can’t rely on this change just happening `in the course of evolution – on `a global brain emerging spontaneously from the internet’. Evolution isn’t that kind of force; it works by selection. What are your predictions?

Yours, much impressed,

Mary Midgley
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