Men and Insects

Emergent Evolution and the Development of Societies. By William Morton Wheeler. (W.W. Norton & Co.)

THIS recent addition to the New Science Series presents a very large idea in a very small space. Admirable as is the author’s extraordinary economy in saying what he has to say, it is nevertheless a bit amusing at times, considering that the purpose of the Series is “to present for the ordinary under authentic accounts of the discoveries, conclusions and trends of science in all its phases.” Dr. Wheeler, the author, is Professor of Entomology at Harvard University, and is one of the most distinguished authorities of the world in his special field. Now and then, his making swift and easy allusions to details of his specialty, the author seems quite unconscious of the fact that he has run away and hidden from his anxious lay reader, who must wait helplessly until the Professor returns, looking exactly as though he had never been away at all.

Nevertheless, the central idea of the book may be grasped by any fairly careful reader. It is an idea that will grow in obvious importance as new applications for it are sought. The conception is not new, but its modern application is; and within the past three years various important works have been published setting forth the idea in various relations — notably Gen. J. C. Smuts’ “Holism and Evolution,” Whitehead’s “Science and the Modern World” and J. E. Boodin’s “Cosmic Evolution.” Dr. Wheeler himself shows that the idea was held in the 18th century, and certainly all genuine artists from the beginning of creative art have had a working understanding of the principle involved.

This much may seem dull enough; but it is the purpose of Dr. Wheeler here to apply the idea in the evolution of human society through the integration of individuals.

As an entomologist, Dr. Wheeler has studied the process of emergent evolution in insect societies, and he suggests that the ascertained laws governing emergent evolution among insects may be, and seem to be, operative also in the evolution of human society. Having reached this point, he allows himself the cheerless luxury of admitted guess at the possible future of the human race, though he is far too competent a thinker to venture into definite prophecy. Also, one suspects that he has a healthy sense of humor.In this connection, he shows how every advance in social integration among insect colonies involves the atrophy of powers in the component individuals, which become more and more highly specialized in function and significant only as parts of the new organism, the colony. Then, says Dr. Wheeler: “Turning to man, we notice a similar regressive development of the individual as civilization proceeds. There is a decline in the sense organs, there are anomalies in the epidermal structures, the absence of any demonstrable improvement in the brain cortex and intelligence during historic time, the greater activity of the visceral nervous system and endocrine glands as shown by the higher emotivity, increasing insanity, criminality, and mob psychology in our larger cities, etc. Add to all this the atrophy or subatrophy of our organs and tissues brought about by the ever-increasing specialization in our activities, and we can hardly fall to suspect that the eventual state of human society may be somewhat like that of the social insects — a society of very low intelligence combined with an intense and pugnacious solidarity of the whole.”

There are those who, resenting any comparison of human with other forms of life, will refuse to see anything at all suggestive in the forgoing. Others, troubled by the rapid increase of mass imitation in our day, may think the passage highly suggestive. There are still others who, though granting the possible significance of Dr. Wheeler’s suggestion, will remember that insects have no science with which to create powerful destructive agencies such as men are certain to employ against their own social organisms long before any such extreme social integration as Dr. Wheeler suggests could possibly come about.