Friday, January 9, 2015
Insects and humans are not that different
I don’t know if the title of this post gives an optimist or a pessimist message. On the one hand, I believe that we should not exaggerate the superior intelligence of humans, or at least the enhanced efficiency of the superior intelligence of humans, which as we know can serve disastrous outcomes. That is the pessimistic part: I don’t think that humans are much better than insects. On the other hand, social insects are amazingly efficient, and have brilliantly solved institutional problems at the collective level. That is the optimistic part: we can be good at solving collective problems. Bernard Crespi contends that humans have evolved convergently to social insects with regard to key selective pressures and genetic substrates favouring care by individuals in addition to the mother (henceforth referred to as extra-maternal care). As a result of this convergent evolution, humans are actually more similar to social and cooperatively-breeding insects than to most social vertebrates, for a suite of interacting social and reproductive traits. Groups of both humans and social insects have discrete boundaries and cues of unique identity (culture and language, or chemicals), that allow individuals to readily distinguish members versus non-members. Conflicts are well-documented, within groups, between sets of individuals harbouring divergent fitness interests (e. g., parents and offspring, or factions of kin), but they are usually more or less resolved and tend to impose low costs on total group reproductive output. In this sense, human religions may be interpreted as evolving a sense of cohesiveness in large groups that is similar to the cohesiveness of groups of social insects such as ants or bees.