Biologist, conservationist, myrmecologist, Pulitzer prize winner, and evolutionary philosopher E. O. Wilson is among the growing number of scientists to have entered the intellectual arena of explaining art, ethics, religion, and even our sense of wonder as essentially scientific phenomena. Wilson interprets rapidly advancing research in a wide array of the sciences, including anthropology, genetics, and neurobiology as offering compelling new insights into the source of our humanity. His thoughtful essay in the current issue of Harvard Magazine explores a number of these subjects, offering fascinating empirical conjecture on a diverse array of subjects, from the origins of music to why we like houses that look down on water. My favorite paragraph is this, in which sociobiologist Wilson offers an evolutionary explanation on why humans seem wired for both compassionate cooperation and destructive conflict:
‟Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.
‟An inevitable result of the mutually offsetting forces of multilevel selection is permanent ambiguity in the individual human mind, leading to countless scenarios among people in the way they bond, love, affiliate, betray, share, sacrifice, steal, deceive, redeem, punish, appeal, and adjudicate. The struggle endemic to each person’s brain, mirrored in the vast superstructure of cultural evolution, is the fountainhead of the humanities.
Wilson's essay considers a way to reconcile the persistent divide between science and the humanities, a gulf that only grows wider as scientific research is based increasingly on mathematical computations. This is true even in a discipline like biology, which one might assume is based essentially on direct observation. In many cases, the sciences, at the level where their most profound truths are revealed, are conducted in a language most of us cannot hope to understand. Nevertheless, Wilson reminds us of the common ground shared by the arts and sciences. "Innovators in both . . . domains are basically dreamers and storytellers," he writes. "In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story." That road rapidly forks off, however, Wilson concedes: "The essential difference between literary and scientific style is the use of metaphor." The power of creative comparison has minimal value in science, but is the essence of the arts. Wilson, who has penned a novel in addition to his many other achievements, knows what he's talking about. "Lyrical expression," he writes, "is a device to communicate emotional feeling directly from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader."
Wilson ends his essay with an intriguing rumination on the biological basis of music:
‟Was music Darwinian? Did it have survival value for the Paleolithic tribes that practiced it? Examining the customs of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures from around the world, one can hardly come to any other conclusion. . . . The musical compositions of modern hunter-gatherers generally serve basically as tools that invigorate their lives. . . .
To create and perform music is a human instinct. It is one of the true universals of our species. To take an extreme example, the neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel points to the Pirahã, a small tribe in the Brazilian Amazon: “Members of this culture speak a language without numbers or a concept of counting. Their language has no fixed terms for colors. They have no creation myths, and they do not draw, aside from simple stick figures. Yet they have music in abundance, in the form of songs.”
Patel has referred to music as a “transformative technology.” To the same degree as literacy and language itself, it has changed the way people see the world. Learning to play a musical instrument even alters the structure of the brain, from subcortical circuits that encode sound patterns to neural fibers that connect the two cerebral hemispheres and patterns of gray matter density in certain regions of the cerebral cortex. Music is powerful in its impact on human feeling and on the interpretation of events. It is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms.
It is my hope the excerpts here will whet your appetite for the entire essay, which is well worth reading. Equally as interesting are the comments afterward, in which the Harvard community, never one to be cowed by a man's prestige, argues with nearly all of Wilson's opinions and assertions.