Republic of Insects


There is a scene in Plato’s socratic dialogue, Phaedo, in which Socrates and a handful of his followers are discussing reincarnation. Phaedo, by way of explanation, is a moving dialogue which discusses the topic of immortality. Part of what makes it so moving is that it occurs on the eve of Socrates’ execution by the Athenian democracy for practicing a form of philosophy that many Athenians felt was a threat to their very existence: questioning its gods, its morality, its way of life.

In the scene discussing reincarnation, Socrates is trying to argue that where the soul of an individual finds itself in the next life is directly tied to its virtue, or lack of virtue, practiced in its’ prior life. Classic karma: human beings who practice virtue, but not philosophy, during their lives will have the happiest of lives to follow of all but the philosophers. He defines the happiest life this way:

Socrates: “I suppose the happiest people, and those that reach the best destination, are the ones who have cultivated the goodness of an ordinary citizen, so-called ‘temperance’ and ‘justice’, which is acquired by habit and practice without the aid of philosophy and reason”.

Cebes: “How are they the happiest?”

Socrates: “Because they will probably pass into some kind of social and disciplined creature like bees, wasps, and ants; or even back into the human race again, becoming decent citizens.” (141) [emphasis added].

The fact that Socrates thinks the better part of humanity, again excluding the philosophers, who he thinks will get off the wheel of birth-death-rebirth permanently, will find themselves in the bodies of bees, wasps, or ants and not what we would more likely consider a more noble animal- say lions, or wolves, or some such thing, probably strikes most of us as odd. Maybe Socrates is having a little fun at Cebes expense, we might ask?  After all, why in the world would any good person, even if they weren’t a philosopher, want to live the life of an ant?

One person who might understand what Socrates (or Plato speaking for Socrates) was getting at, who might even want to, if only for a brief period of time, actually live the life of an ant (who in fact did, imaginatively, in a section of his novel, Anthill) is the famed biologist, E.O. Wilson, who has made the study of ants and other social insects his life passion.  But Wilson is not merely “the king of the ants” .

Wilson is a public intellectual of the first order bringing the findings of the biological sciences to a general readership since the late 1960s. A scientist with a deep respect for the arts, he has tried to bridge the gap between science and the humanities (Consilience), and science and religion (The Creation).

He has also not been without controversy, being the founder of the field of sociobiology that attempts to explain human behavior from the standpoint of genetics and evolution (Sociobiology & On Human Nature).  The effort to explain human behavior in terms of biology, which Wilson helped start back in the 1970s, quite rightly, engendered a period of spirited opposition given the horrors that had emerged from the Nazi embrace of biological and evolutionary theories regarding the nature and future of humanity only a generation before. In our own day, these debates appear to be largely forgotten, and sociobiology has proven able to hold its own against less biologically inclined schools of social thought. Wilson’s latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, however, might have the unintended result of reigniting these controversies, and leads one to doubt if the dangers implicit in socio-biological thinking are not as potent as ever.

At 83, Wilson’s, Social Conquest, may be his last major work. Its ambition certainly makes it seem that way, for in his book, he not only offers a major (and controversial) revision of the theory of evolution, he sets out to explain humanity itself- its culture, religion, art, and good and evil duality- all within the context of his new evolutionary theory.

What he did not intend was to give us insight into the meaning of Utopia, especially the earliest and most powerful Utopia ever conceived- Plato’s Republic. With Utopia being one of the subjects with which this blog is mostly concerned, I will ultimately focus on that, but let me begin by explaining what Wilson was definitely trying to say with his Social Conquest.

This, with some simplifications, is the way Wilson tells his story: Socio-biologists have, since the beginning, attempted to explain animal, and much more so, human behavior, in reference to evolution. They were able to make great strides, but one problem kept popping up, the problem of “goodness”, or better, they had no ironclad way to explain why goodness, or to use the fancier phrase- altruism- was so prevalent in the natural world. To state the matter crudely:  If everything in nature was supposed to be about passing on genes, then why, do people help others when there is no clear reproductive benefit in doing so? Why do firemen rush into burning buildings to save children who are not their own?

Many socio-biologists thought they had the solution when they came up with an idea called “kin-selection”. The idea is that people help others because they share identical genes, or that such aid somehow contributes to passing on their genes. The firefighter seems to risk his own reproductive future, but is actually trying to save it because the children in the burning building are really his nieces and nephews. If they are not, in fact, his nieces and nephews perhaps he is “confused”: his idea that he should save them a kind of hold over from the period in history when human societies were so small that any children he knew would have likely been close relatives.

The problem for socio-biologists is that, although the theory seemed to hold up pretty well for almost all animal behavior, (cute pictures of mother dogs raising tiger cubs aside) there were a lot more anomalies to the theory of kin-selection than just the case of brave firefighters when it came to human beings. To give just a short list of examples: how does one explain any war above the tribal level,  or celibate classes such as priests, or homosexuality? Shouldn’t there be pretty strong evolutionary pressure for individuals to distinguish between who is a relative and who is not, and only sacrifice their own reproductive future for the former? Socio-biologists kept tying themselves in knots trying to explain why human beings just didn’t seem to act like the theory of kin-selection said they should act. Wilson, thinks he has figured out how to untie these knots, and he has done it, no surprises, by looking at bugs.

Things is, in addition to human beings, who socio-biologists had a devil of a time fitting into their model of kin-selection, there is a very small group of insects who similarly resisted explanation under that same model. These insects who resisted explanation under the theory of kin-selection are the so-called eusocial insects. In terms of insect species they are a mere handful among millions and are largely composed of the: ants, termites, bees, and wasps (which, with the exception of termites, are exactly the “social and disciplined” insects Plato seems to hold as analogous to humans in his Phaedo.) Though only a small number in terms of species, their biomass is rivaled only by us human beings.

What makes eusocial insects so unique is not only that these insects live in colonies, but that the vast majority of their colonies’ populations foregoes any sort of reproduction at all. Instead, individuals devote themselves to the survival and “prosperity” of the colony as a whole: something that not only throws those the kin-selection crowd for a loop, but appears impossible under the theory of evolution as currently understood.

Wilson thinks he has found the solution to this conundrum, and in the process to have uncovered the root of human nature as well. His solution is something called group-selection. The long and short of it is that eusocial groups are under evolutionary pressure to develop altruism internally and competition externally. Species that have obtained a high level of internal altruism are poised for a remarkable level of complexity, and scale. (If you doubt it just take a look at the Leaf Cutter Ant). More of their collection of genes survive, and therefore, while any particular “individual” is likely to take a reproductive hit by belonging to such a group, in the aggregate more genes survive.  Eusociality is, therefore, an extremely effective evolutionary strategy. The reason it is so rare is that it takes a very peculiar evolutionary path to reach it because it flies against the grain of the standard evolutionary imperative for the individual to reproduce at all costs. Wilson claims that we humans too are one of those rare species that exhibit this quality of eusociality.

In his Social Conquest, Wilson lays two parallel journeys followed through what he describes as an “evolutionary maze” to reach the improbable state of eusociality by both the social insects and ourselves. I will not go into the details, but needless to say, Wilson sees the same forces of group selection he identifies in the eusocial insects to be going on in us. Human groups do better against other human groups if their members are less selfish towards one another and willing to sacrifice even to the point of surrendering the opportunity to reproduce- for instance someone willing to risk their life, before having children, in war.

But, if Wilson proposes that we are restrained, even to the point of sainthood to those of our “tribe”,  he holds it is a moral free-for-all outside because we are evolutionarily wired to be aggressive against outsiders, for here our evolutionary, individualistic imperatives take precedence. Wilson sees these contrary pulls as the origin of the angel/demon duality that appears a defining feature of the human condition.

Wilson writes in The Social Conquest :

The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual but largely in opposition to each other. …

Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic towards one another (but not towards members of other groups). Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and better angels of our nature. (241)

Here I think we can see some of Wilson’s Baptist upbringing shinning through. I have multiple objections to this reading of human morality, not the least of which is that most sins are committed against people we know. Bad husbands beat their wives, not the women in a neighboring village etc. Nor, is there mention at all in Wilson’s book that his theory is opposed by the majority of socio-biologists and is thus scientifically controversial.  But I will set these moral and scientific objections aside for I think Wilson has provided us with a very important window into the idea of Utopia, so let me continue with that.

There is no mention of Plato in The Social Conquest, nor does the word Utopia occur even once, though, both, certainly should. Plato, as I will try to show anticipates Wilson’s Eusocial theory by 2,500 or so years, and in turn has placed the conflict between “group and individual selection” at the heart of the Utopian tradition from its very inception.

To provoke flashbacks of your Philosophy 101 course in college; Plato’s Republic lays out the structure of what Plato believed to be the perfect state. Now, in what follows, I do not want to suggest that the Republic is merely some piece of ancient entomology projected onto human society- I am well aware that the Republic is much, much more than that. I am merely pointing out that Plato wants to resolve something like the eusociality/individual Selection conflict that Wilson draws our attention to. More than that, Plato wants to solve it once and for all and make the new society unchangeable, like a bug frozen in amber.  To identify and solve this problem Plato had many models available, and as the Phaedo quote above makes clear, one of these models Plato had on hand was an entomological one, and he even used it directly in the Republic as I will show in a minute.

The Republic imagines a three tiered society composed of philosopher-rulers, the Guardians, the military, Auxiliaries, and under them a much larger producer class which will contain artisans, farmers and the like. While it is unclear what exact arrangement obtains for the producing class, Plato achieves almost perfect eusociality for his Guardians/Auxiliaries (who because Guardians emerge from the Auxiliaries the two can be treated as one in most respects).

Individual selection, that is the tendency for individuals to chose in favor of the reproduction of themselves and their own genes, is completely stripped from the Guardians/Auxiliary class through the control of breeding- that is, the mates of  Guardians/Auxiliaries are chosen based on social rules and regulations for breeding the healthiest offspring- not based on the individual’s choice of or ability to win a mate. The genetic origin of children are hidden from the Guardians/Auxiliaries, so that they will not show particular favor to their own offspring, and private property among the Guardians/Auxiliaries is eliminated, again, so this class is discouraged from following individualistic ends.

This extremely cohesive eusocial class of Guardians/Auxiliaries sits on top of a much larger producer class, much like the queen sits atop an insect colony. It is clear that the survival/propagation of the Guardians is the main purpose of Plato’s social arrangement,
just as the insect queen is protected and provided for by warrior and worker insects.

Plato severely limits the size of ideal state, which leads one to wonder what will happen if the producer class grows too large as long as we assume that their breeding too is not regulated by the Guardians? The idea of the danger of “drones” is found throughout the Republic– indeed Plato characterizes the disintegration of the non-ideal state as a growth in the population of human drones. (Drones are insect members of a hive that contribute nothing to the hives’ overall well- being, indeed can attack and destroy the hive from which they get their sustenance.)  We can get an idea for what Plato’s Guardians/Auxiliaries will do with human drones who get too numerous, fail to produce, or engage in criminal behavior/rebellion in his advice to the statesman:

…. and the State-physician, or legislator, must get rid of them, just as the bee-master keeps the drones out of the hive (Republic, 507).

In my reading of it when the producers get too numerous, or when some producers refuse to work or rebel they will be expelled from the Republic, and one can expect that if for some reason they can’t be expelled they would likely face an even worse fate.

The eusociality which Plato discovered, perhaps in part by looking at the social organization of insects, has been a hallmark of many Utopias ever since. But one is left to wonder whether Plato, and now Wilson, have really articulated something true about the human societies or merely found an example, in the world of insects, of the kinds of perfectly hierarchical and harmonious societies they wish human beings lived in, and in the process imagined us as more like insects than is actually the case.

One should never forget that democracy effectively murdered Plato’s friend and mentor, and thus became the target of revenge for an unparalleled genius able to articulate compelling visions of its opposite. Wilson, for all his genteel reasonableness in a world of fanatical hotheads appears to be no fan of democracy. Writing to second the views of the mathematical theorist Herbert A. Simon, Wilson states in The Social Conquest:

…hierarchies work better than unorganized assemblages and that they are easier for their rulers to understand and manage.  Put another way, you cannot expect success if assembly-line workers vote at executive conferences or enlisted men plan military campaigns” (99)

Such a statement might not amount to any kind of anti-democratic claim against Wilson, after all, even the most participatory form of democracy ever known, Plato’s Athens, thought experts should direct certain areas of human life, though they judged areas where true expertise existed, and thus should be deferred to, to be quite limited. But, given that the word “democracy” appears not even once in The Social Conquest, given that Wilson only mentions ancient Athens in the context of their brutal massacre of the Milesians, we might reasonably start to have our doubts.

Accusations that Wilson was misapplying what he had learned from his thoughtful gaze into the alien world of insects onto the much more complex society of human beings, and by such  simplifications was implicitly providing a naturalistic justification for the most insidious, if not necessarily most brutal, forms of hierarchical control and oppression, are nothing new and have been around since the 1970s.

Sadly, what may very well be Wilson’s last great work has done nothing to dispel such suspicions.

* Explanation for the picture above: According to Greek Mythology the Myrmidons (or “ant-people”, also “ants-nest”. ), according to one legend, were a people created when Zeus took the form of an ant and seduced the Princess Phthia. The Myrmidons were a fierce warrior-people, and their name later came to mean “a loyal follower, especially one who executes orders without question, protest, or pity – unquestioning followers.”

The illustration above is a science-fiction style rendering of a Myrmidon by the artist Russell M. Hossain.


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