How the human got his paintbrush

Philip Ball in Prospect Magazine:

PlantsEdward O Wilson, the octogenarian Harvard biologist and ethologist, is one of the most productive, broad-thinking and important scientists of the past century. The central question of his work is why animals do what they do, and how evolution has shaped their behaviour. His new book, The Origins of Creativity, seeks to draw lessons from that understanding about “the unique and defining trait of our species”: creativity, which he defines, not without controversy, as “the innate quest for originality.” Like Charles Darwin, Wilson’s research has mainly focused on non-human behaviour. His specialism is social insects, especially ants. His monumental book The Ants (1991), written with fellow myrmecologist Bert Hölldobler, won a Pulitzer Prize—his second such award—a testament to the fact that Wilson writes as eloquently as he thinks. His first Pulitzer was for On Human Nature (1978), in which his readiness to generalise the lessons of natural history to humankind made him both influential and notorious. He was a pioneer of evolutionary psychology, which explains our impulses and instincts from a Darwinian perspective. These are, in this view, hardwired into our brains because of the reproductive success they conferred on our ancestors. Public resistance to this idea, which he called “sociobiology,” has been widespread and vociferous. In the 1970s, Wilson was denounced as a crypto-fascist who was attempting to offer scientific justification for racism, sexism and bigotry. There were demonstrations at his lectures; during one talk he had water poured over his head.

Frustratingly, both sides seem more interested in trashing each other’s perspective than understanding it. For there is more than science at stake. To Dawkins, a gene’s-eye view of all evolutionary change is the currency of his success and reputation. Many evolutionary biologists, however, accept that natural selection can happen at many levels, not just the genetic. At the group level, it seems possible that cooperation between individuals not closely linked by kinship may sometimes boost their reproductive success. This modern version of group selection, however, if it happens at all, is probably rather rare—except in one species in which complex cultures create a propensity for selective pressure to depend on the specific circumstances of the group. That species is us. The Origins of Creativity shows why group selection matters so much to Wilson: because it enables a close and two-way interplay between evolutionary biology and culture. “It is impossible to overestimate the importance of group selection to both science and the humanities, and further, to the foundation of moral and political reasoning,” he writes

More here.