March 23, 2013
to be posted on

Edward O. Wilson
Museum of Comparative Zoology Faculty Emeritus
Pellegrino University Professor, Emeritus
617 495 2315

Dear Professor Wilson:
I have read Sociobiology (Edward O. Wilson  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press Cambridge 1975) with pleasure and improvement; please consider this a fan letter.  I would like to explain the perspective from which I have studied it because that perspective is probably unique.

There is something that has become my obsession.  It gets into many things and just at present I am pursuing it from the standpoint of entomology.  If you like I should be happy to let you know about progress there, but now let me get into the topic this way:

Consider a valley with some rabbits.  One rabbit has a key chromosome or part of a chromosome in which we shall take an interest.  It has two offspring, each of which gets a copy as nearly identical as biology can produce and one of the two hops across the valley.  The climate changes abruptly so that a glacier divides the valley for two thousand rabbit generations.  In due course the glacier melts the offspring at generation 2,000 meet and mate.  But they cannot have fertile offspring themselves because over the passing years to many differences have accumulated in that chromosome lineage.  The two versions cannot do business.

If I am in error in this or in conflict with common knowledge I am not aware of it.

Now we set the clock back.  Instead of getting cold the climate is wonderful.  The valley can and does support a population of a thousand.  The rabbits roam freely and mate at random throughout.  But on average it will take two thousand generations for our two versions of the chromosome to reunite.  When they do they cannot do business so there are no fertile offspring.  Since this is true of every chromosome in every rabbit in the valley, the whole species dies out. 

Thus in seven lines I step beyond the call of madness.  Nobody has thrown water on me yet, but bright young people have screamed at me.  What nobody has done is to find a flaw in the reasoning beyond one: maybe it takes longer than that to undergo speciation.  My own evidence is summarized at
All of the evidence, massive though it is, is circumstantial.  What I wanted was somebody to say what a reasonable guess would be for how long speciation would take.  Then I read Daniel Lord Smail On Deep History and the Brain, University of California Press Los Angeles 2008.  The interest in the book closely conforms to Sociobiology; perhaps you would enjoy the book.  Smail does mention your book and sure enough I found the reference on page 569.  It’s two thousand generations; and none of my evidence goes back as far as 1975.  The next time somebody screams I can cower behind you. 

Of course evolution (or a Designer for that matter) is not going to let the rabbit scenario play out.  That would be contrary to the principle of survival of the fittest.  There must be some mechanism that evolution has placed to prevent a random mating population from lingering out past a size of about a thousand.  In other words, if a lineage goes past ten generations with no consanguinity at all, that population will drop, and evolution isn’t very sentimental.  The population may go extinct.  That will be bad for the local population, but it will spare the population elsewhere.  Two thousand generations is a long time.  There is going to be a lot of gene swapping throughout the species in that time period.  Sure enough, if you are curious enough to check the link, there does seem to be a disaster ready to pounce on a population that gets too big and that pouncing comes at about 10 generations. 

There is much else in your book relevant to the topic.  For instance on page 572 you mention that there has been a lot of warfare among humans such as in Europe during the Dark Ages, and much war is genocidal in nature.  You can easily see how such violence reduces the gene pool size.  Such violence is terrible, but if that is what it takes to maintain fertility then we should not be surprised when it happens.  That, in fact, is how I got drawn to the subject.  Why in the world do bright people fight stupid wars?  If it is just to keep birth rate up by keeping the mating pool size down, then there is obviously a cheap substitute.  I fear that the current impulse for global socialization will lead to some bad stuff. 

Other animals accomplish the same thing usually through less disastrous stratagems.  They are territorial.  Salmon return to the natal brook and penguins to the same plot of ground (deep beneath the ice) for breeding.  Where there must be cooperation of great numbers, as in bees, only a few are permitted to reproduce. 

On page 572 you point out that altruism depends on inbreeding.  That makes good sense.  If you have not visited I think you would enjoy it.  The interest of hbd chick is inbreeding and altruism and she brings to the discussion enormous energy and charm.  You fear that as inbreeding goes away (and usually inbreeding means consanguinity to a destructive degree; I just mean keeping the mating pool size reasonably small) we are going to lose our humanity.  That does not seem to me to be in the runes.  Tribalism will flourish because that’s the way to have babies.  Again, the goal could easily be achieved without the violence. 

I was much taken with your remark in your final sentence that we had 100 years to go.  I suppose you wrote that some time before the publication date of 1975 so you are fairly close to Isaac Newton’s prophesy of “something” happening in 2060.  When I look at fertility numbers, ages of first marriage and the historical record I come up with something similar for the last middle class baby being born.  My own approach does not afford a time resolution of less than fifty years.  No doubt all of this is coincidence but I do notice the Newton studied ancient history intensively and I found that data quite valuable as you could look up on the link.  On the other hand my own technique obviously does not extend past 300 years, so how could Newton have made a prediction so much earlier based on the same data?

Maybe it’s all fluff.  Or maybe Newton was smarter than I.  Or most likely both.  But while I’m at it, a truly global catastrophe depends at the very least on globalization, on world trade.  Newton, if what I have read is true, was eager for his global upheaval, and devoted his last years to creating of the English pound an honest currency that could propel globalization. 

But I have wandered, mixing idle speculation with hard data.  I much enjoyed your book.  Thank you for making clear what I had suspected. 


M. Linton Herbert MD
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