Thoreau’s Meanly Men and Manly Ants

“We live meanly, like ants,” Thoreau tells us in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter of Walden, just after he’s divulged his reason for being in the woods: to distill life, then distill it some more, until he has more than 100 proof. And if life prove mean, then he will “publish its meanness to the world.” What does he mean by meanness? The opposite of simplicity, for one thing, letting the railroad ride over us, for getting off track is devalued; today Thoreau would use the automobile as the vehicle and mean man the asphalt. His discussion of living meanly anticipates the later episode of the war of the ants in the “Brute Neighbors” chapter. But there, the ants are anthropomorphized as warriors from antiquity. In the ants he sees meanness because in the ants he sees men. But what could be meaner than the mother who “had charged him to return with his shield or upon it”? Thoreau even imagines the ant armies with military bands blowing on the sidelines just as fiercely as the combatants. Yet Thoreau anticipates E. O. Wilson, whose newest work explains altruism, communication, and cooperation as fundamental to advanced social behavior successes, both in ants and men, as opposed to competition and meanness. The fittest may turn out to be the one who can best cooperate, sacrifice, and share. Wilson considers self-understanding as vital to survival of the species. Thoreau agreed. Thoreau leaves the pond when he does because he’s called by Mrs. Emerson to come care for her family while her husband will be away on a lecture tour. Thoreau leaves Walden quickly, with an attenuated conclusion.

The E. O. Wilson reference is to a interview with Wilson, “What Does E.O. Wilson Mean By a ‘Social Conquest of the Earth’,” by Carl Zimmer, March 22, 2012.

Related Posts:

Mapping a Reading of Thoreau’s Walden

Now is the Science of our Discontent

…ant, ant, ant, ant, and ant

Where we Freak Out! and blame it on the cat

Ever wonder where questions like these originate, questions like “What’s got into you?” or “What’s eating you?”

Turns out, these questions might be literal, not figurative at all.

What’s got into you, literally, according to an Atlantic article arriving via snailman yesterday, is cat parasite. You know the one, the reason moms-to-be should avoid cat feces. I’m not making this stuff up. You can read about it here: “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy, by Kathleen McAuliffe, about Jaroslav Flegr, a Czech evolutionary biologist, who argues that the cat parasite “may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons.” It’s one of those articles where you come away yelling, “I knew it! I knew this all along”!

Flegr’s hypothesis goes something like this: the cat parasite can’t reproduce in the human, so it needs to get back into the cat. Enter Frank Zappa and Suzie Creamcheese, for the parasite then tries to manipulate the host into releasing it back out into the wild, into the cat, thus driving the host to Freak Out! level. Well, that’s the idea (lay version), and it’s getting credible attention from the scientific community.

And not only that, but another article just in from Jonah Lehrer, my favorite neuroscience journalist, talking about E. O. Wilson’s turnabout on altruism, a reversal that has Dawkins and his supposedly Darwinian cohort up in arms, for the survival of the fittestists can’t explain altruism from their cornered point of view. As Jonah says in the article, “This is science with existential stakes.” Dawkins’s view is that genes are selfish, that human behavior is driven only by self-interest, by the will to survive. The opposing viewpoint, which Wilson seems to be inching toward, is that human behavior is driven at least as much by cooperation, and that the idea of cooperation might even exist at the gene level.

“Kin and Kind: A fight about the genetics of altruism,” the Lehrer article, is behind the New Yorker paywall, but I don’t have my hard copy yet, but I couldn’t wait, so I read it in the digital version, but which you need a subscription for, but I rarely go there, preferring the hard copy, and I couldn’t remember my user name and password and had to email Help (Freak Out!), resulting in about half a dozen emails, all of which took me longer than reading the article, and I began to wonder if the cat parasite wasn’t at work.

Note: On Wednesday, February 29th, at 3 P.M. E.T., Lehrer will answer readers’ questions in a live chat. Follow link to New Yorker site.


E. O. Wilson’s Happy Ant in Mary Midgley’s Primate Picnic

Now is the Science of our Discontent: E. O. Wilson and the Sacrifice of Science

Now is the Science of our Discontent: E. O. Wilson and the Sacrifice of Science

Why do humans sacrifice for one another, sometimes even giving their lives so that others may go on living? We are an exceptionally selfish species, if measured by our propensity to hoard, to covet power and control, to manipulate and coerce. Scientists appear to be part of the species. Nature published last August a new paper by E. O. Wilson, with Marin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, all of Harvard (Wilson, now 81), but we wonder what’s become of the peer review process when after publication 137 scientists see fit to call Wilson a heretic, signing a letter chastising Nature for publishing his argument. Of course there’s disagreement – no disagreement, no argument; no argument, no need to publish results. One would think the scientist would be the first to understand this. So what’s going on here?

Borrowing from the medical peer review scandal, about which we posted last October: In the Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman (November, 2010) said, “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it.” The motive appears to be funding. If you are a scholar at work on research on kin selection, it’s possible that Wilson’s breakaway article renders your work null and void. Yet most disturbing is the suggestion that many of the scientists signing the letter of discontent have not even read Wilson’s paper, or, if they have, have not studied the mathematics addendum, or if they have, have not understood the math. A Boston Globe interview (April 17, 2011) with Wilson, interestingly titled “Where does good come from?,” discusses the letter of discontent and his revised theory. According to the Globe, Richard Dawkins said, “It’s almost universally regarded as a disgrace that Nature published it.” That’s not a rebuttal; it’s an insult. Wired Science’s Brandon Keim summarized the support that does exist as well as opposing viewpoints: See “E. O. Wilson Proposes New Theory of Social Evolution.”

The crux of the matter was usefully stated by Robert B. Laughlin in A Different Universe (2005): “The pig-headed response of the science establishment to the emergent principles potentially present in life is, of course, a glaring symptom of its addiction to reductionist beliefs – happily abetted by the pharmaceutical industry, which greatly appreciates having minutiae relevant to its business worked out at taxpayer expense” (173). Laughlin defines emergence this way: “Emergence means complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules. Emergence means stable inevitability in the way certain things are. Emergence means unpredictability, in the sense of small events causing great and qualitative changes in larger ones. Emergence means the fundamental impossibility of control. Emergence is a law of nature to which humans are subservient” (200-201). Further, Laughlin explains, perhaps, both the medical research scandal and the dissing by so many scientists of Wilson’s paper: “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (215). What Laughlin is talking about is science that shifts in focus from explaining things based on “the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective” (208). And that is precisely the direction taken by Wilson’s new paper.

The threat of Wilson’s change in focus is to the dominance of the individual, the single gene as well as the single person. When humans come together, the resulting behavior of the group is something different from the behavior of each individual within the group. The same may be true of genes. This is what Dawkins can’t tolerate, for the focus changes from competition, which his work is bound to, to cooperation, which is probably an emergent phenomenon. If we are to have the truth, it appears that someone in the scientific community is going to have to make a sacrifice. Perhaps E. O. Wilson already has.