Our Eusocial DNA

Part III in the “Process Theology, Revisited” series…

Perhaps a more appropriate title to this series would be, Process Atheology, as there is no “theo-” in my proposed “-ology.”

As for the other two posts in this series, this topic is also covered in Guru (Chapter 5, pp 68-72), along with cultural evolution, and based hugely on E. O. Wilson’s, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), but not from the standpoint of Process Theology.

Humans are eusocial organism and characterized by altruistic (self-sacrificing) behavior, a character of eusocial species. Below are excerpts from my Guru (Chapter 5, pp 68-72) on eusocial species and evolution. Basically, we have two kinds of DNA from this perspective, our selfish DNA (see Dawson’s The Selfish Gene) and unselfish (eusocial) DNA. It is this unselfish DNA that offers a second solution to how a non-personal universe could “call” (think motivate or select for) humans’ (and other eusocial species’) altruistic behaviors. A personal Big Guy/Gal (a.k.a. personal God) up there telling us to be good and nice is an unnecessary hypothesis.

Below is from my Guru book explaining in a little more detail. I’ve edited it a little. Again, I am out on my vision quest and this is day two of the four day quest:

“I thought back to my check-in walk earlier this morning. I had

come across a large harvester ant bed and stopped to watch it for a few

minutes. Over toward one edge, well camouflaged by its desert-mottled

skin, sat a “horny toad,” as we called them when I was a kid growing

up in West Texas. I used to capture them and keep them as pets. They

are very docile, relatively slow-moving lizards, armored with spines

that protrude from their backs. Plus, they spit “blood” as a defense

mechanism, as well as puff up their flat bodies to make them bigger and

more difficult for a predator to eat, like a puff fish does. The “blood”

they spit actually squirts from two openings on their nose and contains

toxins from the venom of the harvester ants they consume as their

primary diet. More correctly known as horned lizards, and here in the

Chihuahuan Desert, the Texas Horned Lizard to be specific, they are

members of the Phrynosoma genus.

Harvester ants are a large species’ group of ants that harvest seeds and

whatnots, and store the seeds, etc., in their nests’ communal granaries.

This species’ group is comprised of several species that range in color

from reddish to black. The invasion of the dreaded fire ants greatly

diminished the harvester ant populations, which in turn diminished the

horned lizard populations. When I was a kid, harvester ants had been

plentiful, as had horned lizards. Now both are rare.

Harvester ants, as well as fire ants, are what is known as eusocial

species, as are virtually all ant, bee, most wasp, and termite species.

As a one-time honeybee keeper on our farm in South Carolina, I had a

lot of hands-on experience with eusocial insects, including a variety of

ant species (fire ants, red ants, carpenter ants, etc.), and wasps and bees.

We humans are also a eusocial species. Eusocial species build nests, combine multiple generations, and are

characterized by altruistic behaviors as part of their division of labor.

For the social insects, there is a queen who lays eggs, workers who do

the work in the colony, young of various ages, soldiers that guard and

defend, and a few token males that act as sperm donors. For example,

male honeybees, called drones, are just there as sperm donors, tolerated

by their all-female hive-mates. During winter and hard times, the drones

are kicked out of the hive, where they quickly die, or are outright killed

off by the all-female workers. For humans, there is family and extended

family: parents, children, often grandparents.

There are many important differences between the social insects

and humans. Among them are size, and numbers; and, very important,

each member of the human species is, would be, or has been capable of

participating in reproduction. Whereas in the social insects, only the

queen is capable of reproducing. Their hives can be thought of as super

individuals and all the queen’s offspring as phenotypic variants of her

genome. If the individuals develop from an unfertilized egg, they will be

genetic females like herself. If they are from a fertilized egg, they develop

into males.

The social insects, like bees and ants, exhibit phenotypic

plasticity, meaning the same genes can take a variety of different body

forms. In the case of honeybees, for example, individuals with the same

genes can be workers or queens, depending on what diet they are fed.

One of the important characteristics of eusocial species is their

altruism, defined as self-sacrifice. In evolutionary biology, altruism

means lowering our own Darwinian fitness as an individual, which

means sacrificing or lowering our own survival and/or reproduction

potential. Darwinian fitness is a measure of reproductive success.

The firefighter who goes into a burning house to save someone or even

a pet, is potentially going to get injured or maybe even killed. The

police officer, the first responder, soldiers in war, etc., are all acting

altruistically, endangering their lives for others. From an evolutionary

perspective, are they crazy!? This altruistic behavior and the genes for

it, though, are part of our eusocial heritage.

Darwin long ago reasoned that it made sense that, given two groups,

one composed of individuals who were willing to sacrifice themselves

for their group (read, tribe, village, town, etc.) and a second group that

would not self-sacrifice, the self-sacrificing group would have a higher

survival value. In other words, natural selection would favor the selfsacrificing

group. They would fare better, as a group, than the non-selfsacrificing

group. That is, natural selection could take place between

different groups, something called group selection. Enters the work

of E.O. Wilson’s extensive studies, along with those of others, which

have shown that group selection, as proposed by Darwin, can explain

not only our altruism, but also many of the traits of our complex and

highly evolved society and culture. The problem is, our DNA is basically

selfish.

How did we as a species get from our basically selfish DNA to

our altruistic, selfless DNA? This selfish vs. selfless DNA question has

everything to do with our spiritual growth and deals with a basic, inner

conflict of humanity’s genomic and cultural evolution. This conflict is

why we see such terrible atrocities committed by our human species,

such as acts of war, genocide, ethical cleansing, etc.; these also result

from our eusocial genes, because of this intergroup selection. This

shadow side of humanity is tribalism and is part of our tension as a

species in our spiritual journeys.

In our quest for spiritual growth, we are continually called upon to

balance out the conflicting demands between our primal selfish DNA

and our more newly evolved selfless DNA. The irony is that one of the

very things that made our species successful and able to show such

extremes of altruism, i.e., eusocial group selection, also is the one that

created our most evil and destructive tribalism side.

Our evolutionary heritage “tension” as a species has two sources.

First, at our most primal level, is the basic selfishness of our genes.

Second, as part of our eusocial genes, superimposed as they were

later in our species’ evolution onto our selfish DNA, is our tribalism.

Tribalism is group selection, where different groups (tribes) compete for

limited resources. Think here of the stories in the Bible’s Old Testament

Pentateuch chapters about how conquering armies would commit

genocide, killing men, women, and children, Germany’s Third Reich

persecution of Jews, the ethical cleansings of Africa, racism, the white

man’s near extermination of indigenous American Indians. Our list, as

a species, goes on and on.

(At the time of this writing, I must step out of our story relevant

to tribalism and note today’s coronavirus new world. Through this

pandemic, we can see that polarized tribalism is alive and well such

as, for example, the groups of people wanting to re-open the country

in spite of the scientific and medical warnings otherwise, and their

vocal persecution and threatened violence against those who, trying to

respect the science, say it’s too early and too dangerous. So too, we see

the destructive flames of tribalism being fanned by some politicians

for political gain, spreading divisiveness, violence, in-group versus outgroup

conflict.)

As stated earlier, from the genes’ DNA’s standpoint, the individual is

just a gene’s way of reproducing itself. At our core then are the individual

selected selfish genes. Wrapped around that core or added to that selfish

DNA are our eusocial selfless traits.

As Richard Dawkins so eloquently argued in his book The Selfish Gene, natural selection primarily acts at

the level of the individual. It is in our very DNA to be selfish, to look out

for number one, which includes our family because they carry our genes

too. It all comes down to basic survival and reproduction.

But along comes eusociality, a remarkable combination of traits of

cooperation, that results in selfless traits, such as altruism—and it changes

the ballgame. When the benefits of the selfless behaviors increased the

group members’ collective fitness sufficiently to override individual

selected selfish traits, selfless genes increased in the population and

species.”

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