science | March 06, 2013

Our Inner Struggle Defines Us As Humans: Edward O. Wilson On Morality

"Only the understanding of evolution offers a chance to get a real understanding of the human species," science speaker Edward O. Wilson says in a new interview. "We are determined by the interplay between individual and group selection where individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue." In Spiegel International, the two time Pulitzer Prize-winning author and biologist explains that he has recently changed his views on the way that human beings evolved. His shift away from a kin selection theory mindset, and towards one of group selection, also marks a massive overhaul of the way he believes our morality originated and how we form societal groupings. The theory of kinship suggests we make social bonds strictly based on blood relationships, and that our moral actions stem from these bonds. When you move away from that, it paints a different picture of how society organizes itself, and how we determine whether to act within the interests of the group—or cater to our own interests.

It's the dynamic of individual versus group selection that he believes defines how we interact and, in turn, defines our moral struggle. This inner conflict, he also adds, is what makes us distinctly human. "This inner conflict between altruism and selfishness is the human condition," he says. "And it is very creative and probably the source of our striving, our inventiveness and imagination. It's that eternal conflict that makes us unique." Our political ideologies reflect this struggle, says Wilson. "Once in a while, humans form societies that emphasize the group, for example societies with Marxist ideology," he notes. "But the opposite is also true. In other societies the individual is everything. Politically, that would be the Republican far right."

Delving into the reasons we do the things we do is an important component to better understanding human nature. In his ground breaking research and keynotes, Wilson draws parallels between humans and other creatures on the planet to paint a detailed picture of life on Earth. If we better understand where we came from and how we evolved, we can better predict how things will change in the future.

Up Next

innovation | March 05, 2013