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Fr. 639

June 9, 2015

In his “Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective”, Kant attempts to link the conflicting drives and tendencies in human society to its ongoing progress over the generations and so make of these drives and tendencies the very engine of progress. Whether the parties involved know it, they advance the cause of the species over and against that of other species. If this attempt meets with considerable skepticism, it is understandable and this from a number of perspectives. From a historiographical point of view, universal history may itself seem misguided, and, from the philosophical, teleological metaphysics of this kind no longer proves in favor with contemporary thinkers.

Yet these are not the only approaches to the question. Indeed, leading thinkers in empirical science have likewise taken aim at seemingly insoluble questions about humanity and its purpose. As per Edward O. Wilson, it appears that empirical science may itself have input on the question of our species’ success, as captured by the notion of eusociality and as highlighted here. The article recalls for the uninformed reader that:

In eusociality, an evolutionarily advanced level of colonial existence, adult colonial members belong to two or more overlapping generations, care cooperatively for the young, and are divided into reproductive and nonreproductive (or at least less-reproductive) castes. The phenomenon is well marked and nearly confined to insects, especially ants, bees, wasps, and termites, where it has been subject to a large body of mostly specialized research scattered across disciplines from genetics to paleontology.

More simply, eusociality is marked by existence of well-defined roles assigned to discrete individuals within a community. To that extent, the notion lies at the intersection of more standard accounts of evolutionary biology and the analysis of social structures as captured in the field of sociology. Accordingly, as a transdisciplinary concept, eusociality stands to benefit both from advances in science and sociology’s (somewhat) looser theoretical constructions.

Yet to understand more fully what this concept consists in, it is first necessary to establish more precisely how this notion makes itself manifest in insect populations. If you consider the case of ants:

Take the example of ants. Individual ants owe their survival to the colony’s rigid social structure. Queens and reproductive males are put in charge of replenishing the colony’s living capital. Various castes of worker ants fulfill necessary roles for maintaining the whole. As Wilson explains, this sort of high-level social organization is found in only 20 species of animals. What’s important is that eusociality has allowed ants and termites to dominate the insect world much like humans reign over big animals. What Wilson argues, therefore, is that human beings exhibit qualities of eusociality as well, and could be classified as eusocial beings.

Contrary to Kant’s account, on which asociability promotes competition and competition leads to innovations which advance human society, we here find an account that makes sense of the same developments from the opposed perspective. Following Wilson, what promoted the cause of the human species was not striving between discrete individuals or collections of individuals to prove themselves better but, rather, a social structure that brought them together, at least to some extent, to achieve some common end or other.

Certainly, it remains possible that early human societies did not manifest all the qualities characteristic of insect colonies. Perhaps, the hierarchy of casts was not fully realized therein, nor the division of labor so strictly defined. The fact remains that early human societies manifested something like these traits, all of which is brought out in their togetherness, for lack of a better term.

How are we to characterize this togetherness?

Wilson explains it like this: Pretty much every animal species is genetically inclined to reproduce, rear the offspring, and then at some point the offspring is compelled to disperse. Ants, termites, wasps, and naked mole rats each possess what’s called a knockout of a gene that removes the tendency to disperse […] according to Wilson, humans are the same way. Our genetic refusal to disperse allows us to eventually become eusocial. This, in turn, elevated us above other primates to a level of dominance among large animals.

In short, human biology is such that discrete individuals tend to remain together so as to form groups or collectives. The accretion of individuals in collectives over time is precisely that which allows Wilson to draw a powerful parallel between humanity and other eusocial species.

Some may object that human beings, particularly of contemporary stock, are not similarly aimed at a common end. If these opponents are right to suggest that common ends have largely been displaced from the focal point of public life following the experiences of the religious wars and the fashioning of the minimal, self-limiting common end of peaceful co-existence, their contentions prove largely irrelevant in that eusociality concerns humanity’s rise to the top of the evolutionary totem pole in the past. This past is precisely the period at which Kant’s account of conflict as dynamism takes aim, and the notion of eusociality poses an important challenge to that narrative. At the very least, we can say that Kant’s narrative stands to benefit from the critical eye afforded by empirical science’s correctives to the merely theoretical.

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