A UNITED BIOLOGY: E.O. WILSON (p3)
The time will come when we'll have to move education to broaden its base for everyone. That includes far more science than is now taught on average. The best way to treat science—I've had 41 years of experience teaching beginning students at Harvard, both biology majors and non-science students, so I can speak to this—is to take it from the top down. Put the big questions to them and show them how science can or cannot answer those questions.
Ask the questions right from the beginning of the freshman class: What is the meaning of sex? Why do we have to die? Why do people grow old? What's the whole point of all this? You've got their attention. You talk about the scientific exploration of these issues and in order to understand them you have to understand something about the whole process of evolution and how the body works.
You say that we're going to deal with two great principles that are the substance of biology and which you must know: One, that everything that's in the body, including the brain and the action of the mind, is obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry as we understand it. And two, that the body, the species, and life as a whole evolved by natural selection. You take it from there and explain as best we can what we know about science, recognizing that there are still unanswered questions. If you sensibly ask what the meaning of life is, you don't have to worry about science haters or mathophobes. You've got 'em.
Lately I've been circling back to the large issue of consilience, the notion that there is a unity of the sciences through a network of cause and effect explanations in physics, biology and even the lower reaches of the social sciences. To that end, in addition to doing systematic, basic biodiversity research I'm conducting a reexamination of the basic theory and contents of sociobiology, beginning with insects and eventually coming back to humans.
In sociobiology, the social insects—ants, bees, wasps, termites—are so especially congenial to analysis, experiments, and theory that we can find paradigms of this kind of explanation that range from the genome, through the organism, through the colony, and through the ecosystems in which colonies live. By enriching the databases of each of those biological levels of organization, and developing middle level theory in concert with that data accumulation as we go along, we can get a much clearer and quicker picture through the social insect of how social behavior evolved in the higher vertebrates.
We can define how this works by considering ant, termite, wasp, and bee colonies as superorganisms. A superorganism is an aggregation of highly organized individuals into colonies. In the case of the social insects we have a set of criteria that we use called eusociality, which has three criteria. First, there are two major castes—a queen, or sometimes a king, which constitutes a reproductive caste, and workers that don't reproduce as much if at all. Second, you have generations of grown, mature adults living with other grown mature individuals in the same community. And finally, you have mature adults that take care of the young. Those three elements are the primary criteria of what makes an advanced insect colony.
Insect eusocial colonies are superb systems that most people find intrinsically interesting. However, they are also superb study objects for the evolution of social existence. A lot of things have been happening for the last 20 years in experimental research on social organization, division of labor, communication, and genetic evolution, so the time has come for a new synthesis. I did one in 1971, pulling together most of what we knew about insect societies at that time, and rebuilt explanatory systems on the foundation of population biology. This was the beginning of sociobiology. I defined sociobiology then as the systematic study of the biological behavior of the social behavior in all kinds of organisms, and suggested that the way to make a real science of it was to base it on the study of the biology of population, recognizing that a society is a little population. This worked out very well. I also did a new synthesis called The Ants with Burt Holdobler in 1990, and we are now reexamining everything based on some remarkable things that we have learned in the last ten years.
We're beginning to get some revolutionary new ideas about how social behavior originated, and also how to construct a superorganism. If we can define a set of assembly rules for superorganisms then we have a model system for how to construct an organism. How do you put an ant colony together? You start with a queen ant, which digs a hole in the ground, starts laying eggs, and goes through a series of operations that raise the first brood. The first brood then goes through a series of operations to breed more workers, and before long you've got soldier ants, worker ants, and foragers, and you've got a teeming colony. That's because they follow a series of genetically prescribed rules of interaction, behavior, and physical development. If we can fully understand how a superorganism is put together, we'll come much closer to general principles of how an organism is put together. There are two different levels—the cells put together to make an organism, organisms put together to make a superorganism. Right now I'm examining what we know to see if there are rules of how superorganisms are put together.