This week's Rational Hero is Edward Osborne Wilson, possibly the most prominent American evolutionary biologist alive. E.O. Wilson is widely recognized as a leading (if not THE leading) authority on myrmecology, i.e. the study of ants. His 1990 book The Ants, co-authored by Bert Hölldobler, won a Pulitzer Prize--a rare achievement for such a scholarly book. His contributions are much too numerous to do justice in this blog, so I recommend his wikipedia entry as a launch point for further study. In 1998 Wilson published Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge which examines synergies between disparate fields of knowledge such as art and biology; something of great interest to the "Do Ya Think?" blog. Wilson's in-depth understanding of ants figures in prominently with his interest in altruism. Charles Darwin considered altruism an important challenge to the theory of natural selection. After all, how can self-sacrifice without regard to selective advantage be explained in evolutionary terms? There have been numerous books and treatises on this subject and I recommend this link for an overview. Part of the controversy stems from the question of what is the "basic unit" of natural selection. Past theories have included selection at the "gene" level as championed by Richard Dawkins in his in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, to individual selection (which includes such concepts as kin selection and reciprocal altruism), and, group selection. Previously, Wilson was a proponent of kin selection, but his observations of animal behavior did not fit into that neat hypothetical box, and, like every good scientist, since the facts did not fit the theory, he changed his theories to account for the new-found reality. This led to the development of his concept of a form of group selection, described as "eusociality," which Wilson explores in his book The Social Conquest of Earth. Wilson's book, in my view, is a deeply profound and revelatory description of how the expansion of some of the most successful planetary species, including the social insects (bees, wasps and ants), naked mole rats, a species of beetle, and possibly humans, can be explained by the theory of eusociality. This blog cannot possibly do justice to this fascinating field, but I strongly recommend The Social Conquest of Earth to interested readers. Congratulations is extended to E.O Wilson as this week's Do Ya Think? Blog champion for rational thought.
Scot Bastian Ph.D. is a scientist and artist who lives in Seattle WA.