While the passing this week of towering human rights champion Bishop Desmond Tutu stands as the most significant globally, a more recent death has occured of another seminal figure, entomologist Dr. E.O. Wilson, hailed by many as one of the greatest scientists of our time for his contributions in the areas of conservation, biodiversity and the planet.
I drew from Dr. Wilson’s work in my best selling book, “Extraordinary Hearts, Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization” (Lethe Press, 2013), citing Dr. Wilson’s groundbreaking contributions on the central role of altruism in societies and the role of that in defining LGBTQ identity. Quoting extensively from my book here:
Chapter Title: ”In Nature We Are Different for a Reason”
Our society remains trapped in a male chauvinist paradigm. Boys are raised to be soldiers, either in real wars or in a colorless corporate world, and girls are raised to serve their men and nest. All are held, through relentless cultural and religious bombardment, in a matrix of debt slavery. With student loan debt, mortgages and the costs of raising a family, an illusion of freedom is really debt slavery defining the parameters of “normative” lives. Freedom is limited to choice of beers.
The work of E.O. Wilson cited the central concept of “group selection” as an explanation that most evolutionary biologists now dismiss because “the advantages of generosity are much less tangible than the benefits of selfishness.” But Wilson thinks it is the key to understanding altruism. In cases of “cooperating” microbes, plants and even female lions, “clumps of cooperators thrive and replicate, while selfish groups wither and die,” Wilson wrote in 2007. “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”
He concludes that “what makes us human is that our history is shaped by both (altruistic and selfish) forces.”
Altruism as a concept, in the context of normative, fundamentally selfish male dominated society, is akin to the preponderant traits of non-normative types, and is indispensable for the success of society. That accounts for us.
The thought-through implications of the bio-evolutionary and genetic evidence for what can be called “altruism” as a central, indispensable component for the successful survival and evolution of species are truly astounding and revolutionary, especially as they bear upon questions of the normalcy and necessity of same-sex erotic attraction…
Jonah Lehrer’s article about the discoveries of entomologist E.O. Wilson in the March 5, 2012 edition of The New Yorker moved the conversation far beyond the commonly held interpretations of Charles Darwin’s “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” notions of evolution.
Wilson’s work focused on “the advantages of generosity” versus the “benefits of selfishness” in the success of species observed in nature, and found that the former trumps the latter when it comes to the ability of groups to “thrive and replicate…”
The stunning discovery being introduced is that the genus of same-sex erotic attraction is not a variant of the heterosexual reproductive impulse at all. Instead, it is a manifestation of “species love.”
Evidence from history has shown since ancient Greece a strong connection between such “species love” and social progress. It is a connection inclined to overthrow arbitrary tyranny in favor of an extension of institutions of justice (including for women, orphans and slaves), legally-constituted democracy, negotiation over war, and the promotion of invention, science and universal education against tyrannically imposed superstition and fear.
This connection represents in human evolution and progress the operation of the same kind of “altruism” that Wilson observed in his natural studies. As with Wilson’s studies, that impulse is in constant tension with that of selfishness, and especially with a selfishness prevailing in “might makes right” and “survival of the fittest” assertions by the strongest, most always aggressive and deadly males among a species.
This tension exists throughout nature and throughout human history. Its pervasiveness and permanence accounts for why forces of “altruism” have always fought to establish lasting institutions as bastions of strength and perseverance against perennial onslaughts of “might makes right” tyrannical impulses….and the best leaders of the Enlightenment saw crafting democratic constitutions as important to overthrowing tyrannies as the revolutions themselves.