Last summer, I was stung by a metaphor. Literally so, for while I was on holiday in France a gang of paper-wasps guarding their shared nest went on the attack. That ended in my collapse on the steps of a nearby municipal hospital, which put me in bed on an anti-histamine drip overnight. One form of co-operation had been mitigated by another.
Those who use animals to explain human behaviour often consider the ants, wasps and bees. Edward O. Wilson is the world’s greatest exponent of the first of those groups (and has even written a novel titled Anthill). For many years he followed the standard view that their extraordinary societies, in which a single queen produced a legion of sterile female slaves, were based on shared genes.
In the leaf-cutter ants, a queen may produce 150 million female offspring in her life, together with a few males, whose only job is to replenish her sperm supply. Kin selection (as the process of helping a relative to spread shared genes is called) remains popular as an alibi for animal behaviour (and perhaps even that of ourselves), but Wilson now dismisses it as a mathematical fantasy and – worse – as a denial of the facts.
Ants and wasps have an odd means of deciding who is born male and who female, for females have two copies of every chromosome, and males just one. This skews patterns of kinship and means that daughters are more closely related to their mothers than they would be to their own offspring, should they have any. As a result, it pays them to become nurses and social workers, ensuring that the colony is kept safe and clean, that outsiders (British holidaymakers most of all) are driven off, and that the über-mother is helped in her mammoth reproductive task.
All very good for the acolytes of kinship, but termites do just the same thing and they have perfectly ordinary patterns of relatedness. To balance that, many insects with skewed kinship live solitary lives. Wilson argues instead that each colony is in effect a single organism, the queen its reproductive system and the workers its teeth, claws or eyes. Like our own organs, they share the genes of their parent and are best seen as extensions of the mother rather than independent creatures, with no need for altruism.
To build such societies is not easy, and it has arisen only a dozen or so times in the history of life. Even so, its practitioners have found success, for the social ants of the world weigh as much as do its human inhabitants.
What lies behind such behaviour? Wilson turns to the power of general co-operation over that of kinship. Evolutionary competition takes place between colonies. A single selfish individual may outwit an altruist, but a group of successful collaborators will almost always prevail over a similar number of individuals whose only interest is in themselves.
He suggests that some species are almost programmed to build complex societies. They start with a shared home – a nest, a den or a campsite. There, several generations live in harmony. Often, they specialize in particular tasks – one hunts, while the other might stay to guard the colony (and such habits are commoner in places, such as tropical forests, where there are lots of predators).
Then, a mutation arises that makes it hard to leave home, perhaps because wings have withered away. Under such circumstances, specialized castes may emerge, not because they are genetically distinct but because they have had different experiences during development (which is exactly why some human cells grow into teeth and others into brains).
The book ends with a primate superorganism: ourselves. It makes the case that waspish group selection has made us what we are. The process explains the origin of language, for members of any society need to interpret the intentions of others and to explain their own. It also helps spot members of other colonies: “The men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said nay, then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth; and he said Sibolleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him.”
Religion, too, has strong elements of group-think, as does communism and, for that matter, fascism. With a glance into the future, Wilson predicts that only group thinking by the population as a whole will put paid to global warming.
On my return to Britain from my punctured holiday, I was, thanks to the group solidarity manifest as the National Health Service, given a long series of injections of wasp venom; a course completed a few weeks ago with the help of a beatific smile from the nurse as she assured me that I was now a more tolerant individual than I had been before. She was wrong, for as an indicator of the power of selfishness, I plan to buy an insecticide bomb next time I am in France and to spray every paper-wasp nest I see.