Friday, February 15, 2013

The social conquest of the Earth

Regular readers will know that our life on the island has been a constant battle against termites, which seems to be pretty much standard in the tropics. The termites consider our house a repast spread for their delectation.

Here's a pic of one of their own domiciles, which my granddaughter and I came across in the bush (click to enlarge). A lot of work went into constructing this social metropolis. I must admit that the thought passed through my mind: "Ah, now's my time for revenge." A big stick or a few large rocks and I could do to their house what they try to do to mine.

But, of course, I didn't. The termites chewing away in my door jambs have no sense of moral responsibility and therefore no guilt. They would be acquitted in a human court of law. Whereas my destruction of their nest would be purely spiteful, an act of environmental vandalism. Which brings us, willy-nilly, to a topic we have been reading about a lot lately –- the origins of morality.

Evolutionists evoke some version of group selection to account for human morality: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Religious fundamentalists maintain that if God had not directly communicated moral commandments, with eternal reward or punishment to back them up, we would all act like animals. Well, I don't believe in heaven or hell and I still didn't knock over the termite nest. Every survey I've come across suggests that atheists and agnostics are in general as moral as anyone else. Which suggests a natural origin for morality rather than divine nurture.

So why? With all my cause for revenge, why did I leave the termite nest intact? E. O. Wilson calls it "biophilia," a love of life, all life, and proposes an evolutionary origin. Interspecies altruism is harder to explain by the group selection dynamic, so I'll leave the evolutionary arguments to the evolutionists. All I can say is I admire whatever instinct instructs tiny insects to construct such complex edifices, and I have no desire to gratuitously kill any living thing.

Except when I catch them eating my house.