In E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, the eminent sociobiologist seeks to answer the questions that have led philosophers, sages, and theologians to put their pens to paper since time immemorial: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Now it’s time for the biologist to have his say.
Wilson’s book, which outlines the biological origins of our advanced culture, is breathtaking in its scope. We are the way we are, Wilson argues, because we are one of a few species on earth that developed advanced social life. Advanced social life requires altruism–putting aside your personal interests for the interests of the group. Bees and ants are pros at this. Humans are not bad at it either.
That our ancestors developed the social instinct is practically a miracle. As Wilson writes, “Our ancestors were one of only two dozen or so animal lines ever to evolve eusociality, the next major level of biological organization above the organismic. There, group members across two or more generations stay together, cooperate, care for the young, and divide labor in a way favoring reproduction of some individuals over that of others.” As groups competed with each other for scarce resources, those that worked together best, that communicated most effectively, and that exhibited the most altruism thrived, winning more battles in the Darwinian war of life.
For human beings, who are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee (in psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s famous formulation), the cultural consequences of eusociality–of the hive-like mentality that is part of our nature–have been enormous. In fact, without it, there would be no culture to speak of.
So how did culture first emerge? Was its emergence a Darwinian process? Wilson thinks so.
Wilson explains that the creative arts needed language (i.e. abstract thought) in order to initially develop:
The creative arts became possible as an evolutionary advance when humans developed the capacity for abstract thought. The human mind could then form a template of a shape, or a kind of object, or an action, and pass a concrete representation of the conception to another mind. Thus was born true, productive language, constructed from arbitrary words and symbols. Language was followed by visual art, music, dance, and the ceremonies and rituals of religion.
Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how the creative arts initially arose. But the creation of stone tools seems to have been an indispensable step along the way. About 1.7 millions year ago, ancestors of modern humans were creating stone tools to cut up food. Half a million years ago, our other ancestors developed the hand ax. Then:
Within another 100,000 years, people were using wooden spears, which must have taken several days and multiple steps of construct. In this period, the Middle Stone Age, the human ancestors began to evolve a technology based on a true, abstraction-based culture.
So culture arose out of the creation of useful artifacts. But it wasn’t long before artifacts were being used for purposes other than mere utility. In a relatively short period of time, our ancestors started wearing jewelry and then performing rituals that were spiritually meaningful–a major turning point in the history of cultural evolution.
Here is Wilson on the rise of our aesthetic sensibility:
Next came pierced snail shells thought to be used as necklaces, along with still more sophisticated tools, including well-designed bone points. Most intriguing are engraved pieces of ocher. One design, 77,000 years old, consists of three scratched lines that connect a row of nine X-shaped marks. The meaning, is any, is unknown, but the abstract nature of the pattern seems clear.
And on death:
Burials began at least 95,000 years ago, as evidenced by thirty individuals excavated at Qafzeh Cave in Israel. One of the dead, a nine-year-old child, was positioned with its legs bent and a deer antler in its arms. That arrangement alone suggests not just an abstract awareness of death but also some form of existential anxiety. Among today’s hunter-gatherers, death is an event managed by ceremony and art.
These rituals must have arisen, as Wilson speculates, when the living asked “Where do all these dead people go?”
The answer would have been immediately obvious to them. The departed still lived, and regularly rejoined the living–in dreams. It was in the spirit world of dreams, and even more vividly in drug-induced hallucinations, that their deceased relatives dwelled, along with allies, enemies, gods, angels, demons, and monsters. Similar visions, as later societies found, could also be induced by fasting, exhaustion, and self-torture. Today, as then, the conscious mind of every living person leaves his body in sleep and enters the spirit world created by neuronal surges of his brain.
As the ceremonies surrounding death led to various religious rituals, yet another form of creative culture was coming on the scene: cave art.
The beginnings of the creative arts as they are practiced today may forever hidden. Yet they were sufficiently established by genetic and cultural evolution for the “creative explosion” that began approximately 35,000 years ago in Europe. From this time on until the Late Paleolithic period of over 20,000 years later, cave art flourished. Thousands of figures, mostly of large game animals, have been found in more than two hundred caves distributed through southwestern France and northeastern Spain, on both sides of the Pyrenees. Along with cliffside drawings in other parts of the world, they present a stunning snapshot of life just before the dawn of civilization.
Cave art was not only of big game, however. There was also an early form of what we’d today call finger painting:
There were also more figures of humans or at least parts of the human anatomy than are usually not mentioned in accounts of cave art. These tend to be pedestrian. The inhabitants often made prints by holding their hands on teh wall and spewing ocher powder from their mouths, leaving an outline of spread thumb and fingers behind. The size of the hands indicates that it was mostly children who engaged in this activity. A good many graffiti are present as well, with meaningless squiggles and crude representations of male and female genitalia common among them.
Did the hand art represent an early version of arts and crafts class? Was the graffiti the first form of pornography and “street art,” as it’s called today?
One question that arises when reading Wilson’s book is why–why would the creative arts have arisen? What evolutionary purpose could they have served?
At the beginning of his book, Wilson notes that the creation myth–and, hence, organized religion–is “a Darwinian device for survival.” Could the same be said of the creative arts? Were they survival mechanisms that arose from our ability to think into the future, our need to cope with the past, and our desire to make sense of the world, as our brains got bigger and our thoughts increasingly abstract?
When he is writing about another form of creative art–of music–Wilson considers this question:
The utilitarian theory of cave art, that the paintings and scratchings depict ordinary life, is almost certainly partly correct, but not entirely so. Few experts have taken into account that there also occured, in another wholly different domain, the origin and use of music. This event provides independent evidence that at least some of the paintings and sculptures did have a magical content in the lives of the cave dwellers. A few writers have argued that music had no Darwinian significance, that it sprang from language as a pleasant “auditory cheesecake,” as one author once put it.
So the question is: “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. Songs, usually accompanied by dances, are all but universal.
Citing evidence from existing hunter-gatherer societies, Wilson explains that the songs are often about myths and ordinary aspects of life, most notably hunting (i.e. survival).
Interestingly, music is the most universal of the creative arts–a human instinct–even though it is also the most complex. Hunter-gatherer societies that are limited in their use of language, have no creation stories, and no proficiency with the visual arts still have music. Music, then, is the evolutionary lingua franca, “powerful in its impact on human feeling and on the interpretation of events,” as Wilson writes. “It is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms.”
Like the other creative arts, music reinforces the social instinct that makes us what we are: “They draw the tribal members together, creating a common knowledge and purpose.” In that sense, music–and creative culture, which includes religious ritual–draws a person out of himself and into something larger and better, the community.