Wilson chapter notes

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Wilson, Prologue, Chapters 1 and 2

  • Gaugin painting: Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
  • 7: Star Wars culture from Stone Age emotions
  • Do myths explain origins or do origins explain myths? -- Strong claim for latter position.
  • Our evolutionary equipment for survival predates our capacities for self-reflection on that equipment. Claims science can solve the riddle of Gaugin's painting.
  • Evolutionary Account:
  • pre-human evolutionary lines -- most went extinct
  • Dates for invertebrates: 220 million years ago for termites; 150 million for ants; bees 70-80 million years. Stabilized around 65 million years ago.
  • Dates for homo sapiens: several 100 thousand years ago; diaspora (out of Africa) 60,000 years ago; neanderthals, homo floresiensis (hobbits!); agriculture 10,000 years ago;
  • Eusocial: lives with multiple generations and altruistic; diffs: culture, language, intelligence, empathy, judging intentions, mental maps of social space.
  • How to explain differences? large size and low mobility --

Wilson, Chapter 3, The Approach

  • Some points to make about evolution (paralleling Wilson a bit): What does it mean to say evolution is "radically contingent" but also involves "design". Concept of "design space" and Wilson's concept of "preadaptation."
  • Preadaptation (22): a step in evolution which opens up (or closes off) other possibilities.
  • Major pre-adaptations leading to culture:
  • Large size and relative immobility
  • Large brain
  • Emphasis on sight over smell.
  • Bipedalism, freeing up the hands. (australopithicenes rock)
  • Sweat glands and long distance running (Racing the Antelope)
  • Control of fire (not available to insects and aquatic life)
  • Big step toward eusociality: camping! Seriously, campsites (what's valuable about a campsite?) cf. hives, nests

Wilson, Chapter 4

  • Dietary changes: Australopithecenes were vegetarians, Homo species (Habilis and later, Sapiens) scavenged meat before hunting.
  • Changes marking Homo Habilis: facial structure, similar neocortex wrinkling to moderns, Broca and Wernicke areas of brain grow.
  • Traditional explanations for growth of Hominins vs. recent speculation: 37-39: "innovation-adaptiveness hypothesis" -- why that favors the variability of grasslands and savannahs; variety of ways to make a living. Limits to hypothesis: Finarelli & Flynn study.
  • Meat and hunting. Protein consumption.
  • Wilson's emphasis on the "nest" and, for Hominins, the campsite. Defensive architecture and lifestyle in modern culture.
  • Importance of nests: division of labor, defense, sharing food, group competition.

Wilson, Chapters 5 & 6

  • More lists of "pre-adaptations":
  • Land (allowing for fire)
  • Large size (allowing for large brain)
  • Grasping hands with soft "spatulate" fingers & and free to use (not needed for walking)
  • Meat -- cooperation to get it --
  • Cooking
  • Nest/Camp
  • Division of Labor

Wilson, Chapter 6

  • More on encephalization: australopithicenes 500-600 cubic centimeters --> Homo Sapiens 1500-1700!
  • Kin Selection: Altruism benefits group members proportionally to genetic similarity.
  • Note: Wilson believes he and some colleagues have disproven kin selection, but not everyone agrees, and that's an understatement. Distinguishing the part that's mainstream from where he tries to write himself into history).
  • Multi-level selection: A broader range of scientists believe in multi-level selection (individual and group), whether they agree that kin selection is true.
  • Group Selection: Holds that group competition affects the fitness of individuals.
  • Traits such as group size, "tightness" and "cooperativeness" (quality of communication and division of labor) matter.
  • Group selection advocates think this is a meaningful question: How do the costs and benefits of membership in a group affect my fitness (ability to pass on genes)?
  • 54: If costs (of group membership) exceed benefits (of group membership), defection will increase.

Wilson, Chapter 7

  • Tribalism -- examples from Sports
  • Research on in-group and out-group judgements (59)
  • Is this nurture or nature? "pre-pared learning" (like language, incest, other ev. psycho traits)
  • Ethnocentrism -- in experience and in the lab. implicit racism


Wilson, Chapter 20, "What is Human Nature?"

  • approaches to human nature: denial of stable nature, transcendent view (pope). Problem of explaining the HRAF social behaviors associated with human culture.
  • Wilson: not determined by genes alone.
  • Def: "Inherited regularities of mental development common to the species." Epigenetic rules that evolve between genes and culture.
  • examples (193): how we perceive color, acquire fears and phobias, bond with infants, conjugally, lactose tolerance.
  • epigenetic: not hardwired, like startle reflex, more like "prepared learning"
  • promethean gene hypothesis:
  • lactose tolerance: fairly recent
  • incest avoidance: ancient. achieved through exogamy.
  • Westermark effect: reduced probability of intermarriage from natal group. minor marriages in China, key threshold at 30 months, prior to that low birth rate and high adultery rate. Kibbutz peer groups don't intermarry. Suggests a universal mental adaptation: Don't have sex with people you were raised with.
  • Comparison to "susceptibility" factors like for cancer, alcoholism, chronic depression. Don't determine the outcome, but in combination with particular environments, they produce effects.
  • Definition of epigenetic: "changes in the regulation of gene activity and expression that are not dependent on gene sequence," including "both heritable changes in gene activity and expression and also stable, long-term alterations in the transcriptional potential of a cell that are not necessarily heritable" (204)
  • color vocabulary: Berlin and Kay tests in the 1960s with Munsell array; and the progression of color classifications. We know color isn't in nature. If color classification were cultural, there wouldn't be so much agreement in placement of color terms or progression.
  • Since color perception is strutured by "prelearning" and expressed in language it also supports a weak version of the Spair-Whorf hypothesis. Language structures what we perceive.


Wilson, Chapter 21: How Culture Evolved

  • example of chimp culture
  • Yanomano fishing with poison, catching fish by hand, downrigging (deep sea fishing).
  • Culture: trait, behavior invented, learned, transmitted
  • Experiments in transmission of new techniques for obtaining food in chimps. sponge fishing in dolphins.
  • Importance of long term memory: what dies with us and what survives? (discussion ex.)
  • Studies of memory in different animals: retention of items, images
  • "cognitive archaeology" - abstract thought/syntax >= 70,000 years ago. stone adze, spears, sophistication of manufacture, suggested significantly more complex understanding of materials and techniques.
  • inferences from competition of Homo Sapiens with Neanderthals: both language, N's larger brains, so far no evidence or ornamentation or technology progress over 200,000 period. Conjecture from cog/arch on advantage for homo sapiens
  • end of chapter merely asserts group selection. Kind of undeveloped claim.


Wilson, Chapter 22, "The Origin of Language"

  • expresses problem of origins of language in terms of explaining increase in brain size
  • campsites, meat, and fire not enough.
  • Endorses "cultural intellgence" hypothesis of Michael Tomasello (check out his you tube lecture)
  • importance of social-pragamatics in language development
  • reading intentions, theory of mind ("recognition that their own and others mental states would be shared by others")
  • research compares child / primate intelligence. Looking for specific differences in social cognition.
  • Language is derived, not basic.
  • Ability to create and understand "detached representations" Gives rise to subtleties (p. 230)
  • Contrast with Chomsky.


Wilson, Chapter 23, "The Evolution of Cultural Variation"

  • How do we explain "plasticity" (and lack of plasticity -- what Gramsci calls "hegemony" or the "historical block" (see GramsciTerms.pdf) in cultures? Example of individuality of fingerprints. Effect of diversity in genetic expression.
  • Example of high variation, highly local, low epigenetic bias. underdetermined by genes: Fashion. We have genetic disposition to express emotion, but this gives us a wide range of choices of fashion. Fashion matters to the success of an individual - correct signalling of rank and status.
  • Example of low variation, universal, high epigenetic bias (supposed). Westermark effect (against incest).
  • Plasticity in ants. Even genetically identical ants vary in role by amount of food given, size.

Additional notes on Dual Inheritance Theory and related phenomena

  • Wilson and Lumsden's work has been criticized as overly formal (I couldn't make much sense of the diagram at the end of the chapter.) Some more recent work in Dual Inheritance Theory might help give examples here and even connect with Gramsci.
  • Dual Inheritance Theory -- suggests that parallel to genetic (and epigenetic) evolution, there is "cultural evolution" which depends upon our capacity for social learning. The underlying capacity for social learning is genetic/epigenetic, but the key point is that it enables stable cultural transmission of norms and values that have fitness effects. In other words, once a cultural norm is established (such as drinking milk into adulthood), it can have selection effects. Whether these effects are on individuals, genes, or groups, depends...

Wilson, Ch. 24, "Origins of Morality and Honor"

  • Our natural history gives us a mixture of values that leaves an unavoidable tension at the heart of moral life.
  • Individual selection vs. Group selection. Diff. values / strategies
  • Self individuals win over altruistic individuals (suckers), but altruistic groups (which includes altruistic punishers) beat selfish individuals.
  • If the tension weren't there, we'd have become asocial or like ant colonies
  • A key part of the natural history of this tension is our development from small group life (30-150 individuals, to mass societies and complex social networks, including technology assisted networks like Facebook.
  • Discussion: What are some of the problems/possibilities inherent in new social network technologies?
  • Claim: The tension Wilson claims for moral behavior (individualism vs. altruism) is found at the neurological level in moral decision making.
  • Pfaff, Neuroscience of Fair Play
  • Fear and fear suppression in moral decision making. role of information loss.
  • Factors that maintain cooperative values as "stable strategies" (ESS from previous class)
  • status seeking
  • leveling of high status individuals
  • punishment (including altruistic punishment) and retribution
  • Emotions underlying cooperation:
  • other-condemning: contempt, anger, disgust
  • other-praising: gratitude, elevation, moral awe
  • other-suffering: sympathy, compassion, empathy
  • self-consciousness: guilt, shame and embarrassment