Making a Mountain Out of an Anthill

Making a Mountain Out of an Anthill: The Inner Drive for a Social Contract

I have been reading Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (NY: Harper and Row, 1975), and gotten as far as his third section, “Thought.” His premise is fascinating, that consciousness underlies all matter. Consciousness is thus omnipresent, and ever-increases with biological complexity. It flows from geosphere to biosphere, then—with the advent of intelligence—the noosphere. On its evolutionary journey it rises from elemental chance to reasoned choice. Père Teilhard attempts to reconcile divinity with evolution, teleologically pointing life towards what he terms the “Omega Point:” a sort of Mobius strip for life whereby all life eventually folds back and returns to its origins in God.

Interestingly, this morning’s NY Times (July 15, 2008) carried a somewhat related story about the Harvard scientist, Edward O. Wilson, who studies ant social behavior and extrapolates lessons for humanity. Wilson is currently writing a treatise on “social evolution,” a controversial argument that connects of social behavior and genetics.

Wilson sees an evolutionary impetus for cooperative, selfless behavior that favors the group over the individual. The Times article states, “In humans, these may include genes that underlie generosity, moral constraints, even religious behavior.” It goes on to say, “Morality and religion, [Wilson] suspects, are traits based on group selection. ‘Groups with men of quality — brave, strong, innovative, smart and altruistic — would tend to prevail, as Darwin said, over those groups that do not have those qualities so well developed,’ Dr. Wilson said.”

Wilson and like-minded colleagues have come under fire from others in the Sciences, such as Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene [Oxford U. Press, 1976] and The God Delusion [Bantam Books, 2006]). Dawkins and his camp narrowly see genetics, the “survival of the fittest” and natural selection in individual terms, as an organism’s single minded (“take no prisoners”) drive to survive and reproduce at all costs. Wilsonians, on the other hand, believe that natural selection works on many levels, including “multi-level or group-level selection”: in essence, an evolutionary process favoring the survival of the group over the needs of an individual.

For many reasons, I am most tempted to agree with Wilson’s view, not Dawkins’, as I’ve made abundantly clear elsewhere in other articles, such as “Turtles All the Way Down” and “Krishna’s Dictum.”

I’m not yet sure how closely Père Teilhard’s thesis overlaps with Wilson’s, but if Wilson can prove an evolutionary theory of morality, his work would certainly seem to harmonize with Teilhard’s belief that something greater than mechanical evolution is “afoot in the world.”

When I complete The Phenomenon of Man, I will surely have further observations to add. Stay tuned.

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