On reading this again after a couple of decades, I am struck with how brilliantly it is written. The subtlety and incisiveness of Wilson's prose is startling at times, and the sheer depth of his insight into human nature something close to breath-taking. I am also surprised at how well this holds up after twenty-three years. There is very little in Wilson's many acute observations that would need changing. Also, it is interesting to see, in retrospect, that it is this book and not his monumental, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), that continues to serve as an exemplar for later texts. For example, Paul Ehrlich's recent book on evolution was entitled On Human Natures (2000), the plural in the title demonstrating that it was written at least in part as a reaction to Wilson. I also note that some other works including Matt Ridley's The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature.(1993), Robert Wright's The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life (1994), and most recently, Bobbi S. Low's Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior (2000), are organized intellectually in such a manner as to directly update chapters in Wilson's book.
On Human Nature was written as a continuation of Sociobiology, greatly expanding the final chapter, "Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology." In doing so, Wilson has met with reaction from some quarters similar to the reaction the Victorians gave Darwin. Wilson's sociobiology was seen as a new rationale for the evils of eugenics and he was ostracized in the social science and humanities departments of colleges and universities throughout the United States and elsewhere. Rereading this book, I can see why. Wilson's primary "sin" is the unmitigated directness of his expression and his refusal to use the shield and obfuscation of politically correct language. Thus he writes on page 203, "In the pages of The New York Review of Books, Commentary, The New Republic, Daedalus, National Review, Saturday Review, and other literary journals[,] articles dominate that read as if most of basic science had halted during the nineteenth century." On page 207, he avers, "Luddites and anti-intellectuals do not master the differential equations of thermodynamics or the biochemical cures of illness. They stay in thatched huts and die young."
In the first instance, he has offended the intellectual establishment by pointing out their lack of education, and in the second his incisive expression sounds a bit elitist. But Wilson is not an elitist, nor is he the evil eugenic bad boy that some would have us believe. He is in fact a humanist and one of the world's most renowned scientists, a man who knows more about biology and evolution than most of his critics put together.
I want to quote a little from the book to demonstrate the incisive style and the penetrating nature of Wilson's ideas, and in so doing, perhaps hint at just what it is that his critics find objectionable. In the chapter on altruism, he writes, "The genius of human sociality is in fact the ease with which alliances are formed, broken, and reconstituted, always with strong emotional appeals to rules believed to be absolute" (p. 163). Or similarly on the next page, "It is exquisitely human to make spiritual commitments that are absolute to the very moment they are broken." Or, "The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool" (p. 167). He ends the chapter with the stark, Dawkinsian conclusion that "Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function" than to keep intact the genetic material.
In the chapter on aggression, he posits, "The evolution of warfare was an autocatalytic reaction that could not be halted by any people, because to attempt to reverse the process unilaterally was to fall victim" (p. 116). On the next page, he quotes Abba Eban on the occasion of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, "men use reason as a last resort."
In the chapter on religion, he argues that the ability of the individual to conform to the group dynamics of religion is in itself adaptive. As he avers on page 184, "When the gods are served, the Darwinian fitness of the members of the tribe is the ultimate if unrecognized beneficiary."
It is easy to see why some people might be offended at such a frank and penetrating expression. But one of the amazing things about Wilson is that he can be bluntly objective about humanity without being cynical. I have always found his works to be surprisingly optimistic. He has the ability to see human beings as animals, but as animals with their eyes on the stars. In the final chapter entitled, "Hope," Wilson presents his belief that our world will be improved as scientific materialism becomes the dominate mythology. Note well this point: Wilson considers scientific materialism, like religion and the macabre dance of Marxist-Leninism, to be a mythology. His point is that there is no final or transcending truth that we humans may discover; there is no body of knowledge or suite of disciplines that will lead us to absolute knowledge. There are only better ways of ordering the environment and of understanding our predicament. He believes that toward that end scientific materialism will be a clear improvement over the religious and political mythologies that now dominate our cultures.
No one interested in evolutionary psychology can afford to miss this book, even though it is twenty-three years old. It is a classic. Anyone interested in human nature (yes, one may profitably generalize about human nature, as long as one understands what a generalization is, and appreciates its limitations) should read this book, one of the most significant ever written on a subject of unparalleled importance.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Understanding Evolution and Ourselves"
on April 23, 2007
An oldie but a goodie. Published in 1978, On Human Nature completes Wilson's self-declared "trilogy" (The Insect Societies, 1971, and Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 1975) that proposes the scientific search for genetic explanations for social behavior in animals, including humans.
Then and now, Wilson has been criticized by both religious and atheistic folks for reducing human behavior to the cold and limiting science of genetics. However, I didn't read it that way at all. Over and Over Wilson emphasizes the complexity, and that these are merely tendencies that are indeed influenced by environment (nurture). Consider that men tend to be faster than women, but that a female Olympic runner will always beat the average man in a race.
Some people in my book club had difficulty with some of the science, but I didn't at all (partially due to a minor in anthropology, and a cultivated layman's interest in science), so I doubt the average skeptic would have difficulty reading and fully understanding this book.
While this book was rather groundbreaking when it first came out, further developments in evolutionary psychology make it look rather dated, as do passages like these:
"There is, I wish to suggest, a strong possibility that homosexuality is normal in a biological sense, that it is a distinctive beneficent behavior that evolved as an important element of early human social organization. Homosexuals may be the genetic carriers of some of mankind's rare altruistic impulses. The support for this radical hypothesis..."
Hmmm, not so radical these days. This one's even better:
"...note that it is already within our reach to build computers with the memory capacity of a human brain. Such an instrument is admittedly not very practical: it would occupy most of the space of the Empire State Building and draw down an amount of energy equal to half the output of the Grand Coulee Dam. In the 1980's, however, when new "bubble memory" elements already in the experimental stage are added, the computer might be shrunk to fill a suite of offices on one floor of the same building."
Tee hee hee.
But most of Wilson's book still have powerful and provacative messages for today's readers. The preface and first four chapters prove to be a bit of a slow setup, but the next four: "Aggression", "Sex", "Altruism", and "Religion" vividly suggest naturalistic explanations for moral and ethical tendencies in each of these areas. Wilson deals with all the juicy issues: racism, male-female roles, good-n-evil, etc. This is great stuff to memorize for debates with absolute moralists. The chapter on "Religion" is sort of a precursor to Daniel Dennet's new book Breaking the Spell. Although Wilson's ultimate conclusion is clear: no amount of naturalistic explaining of religious belief will stop people from believing. Here's a bold statement coming from a scientific humanist:
"The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature."
Wilson spends a good amount of time explaining and giving examples of an interesting concept called "hypertrophy" or as it is defined in the Glossary:
"The extreme development of a preexisting structure. The elephant's tusk, for example, represents the hypertophic enlargement and change in shape through evolution of a tooth that originally had an ordinary form. In this book it is suggested that most kinds of human social behavior are hypertrophic forms of original, simpler responses that were of more direct adaptive advantage in hunter-gatherer and primitively agricultural societies."
It is fascinating, to say the least, to read about the enslavement of women compared to an elephant's tusk (hypertrophy via genetic tendency plus extreme cultural exaggeration). Almost as cool as seeing human self-sacrifice compared with that of bees and wasps.
on June 11, 2002
Let me add my econium for this wonderful book, which received the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, and is likely the best introduction into the emergent field of sociobiology (of which E. O. Wilson is progenitor).
The book is deftly, wittily, and elegantly written with great confidence and assuredness. The first half of the book introduces the reader to the promising field of evolutionary psychology, which, for the first time, promises to ground psychology on science rather than ideology. The book rings the death knell to Freud, Jung, pop-psychology, and other pie-in-the-sky notions that have mascaraded as a "human science."
The second half of the book addresses four of the most focal concerns of human nature: Aggression, sex, altruism, and religion, on the basis of sociobiology theory. The emergence of this endeavor begins with genes, evolution, and human enculturation, not with theories about infantilism, phallocentrism, and neuroticism. The topics are sufficiently covered in enough detail to keep the reader's interest and sustain the arguments, but with the intent of being introductory and accessible rather than sallying into the esoteric and academic.
The consequence is a wholly different orientation toward what is meant by "human nature." The concept is no longer the stuff of speculative metaphysics by armchair philosophers and psychologists, but a true science evolving out of the science of evolutionary theory and genetics. The implications are not quasi-scientific, but truly scientific. Humans do indeed have a "nature," and it is based on nature, not in the imaginations of wishful thinkers.
No one, not already exposed to sociobiology, will finish reading this book unaffected for the better. Wilson, the author of "Sociobiology," "Consilience," "The Future of Life," and other enjoyable works, will find a plethora of other authors and books flooding the market with scientific insights into man's true "human nature," including "The Adaptive Mind," "The Moral Animal," "Non-Zero," and "Unto Others."
This book is destined to remain a classic. The quest to understand the role of humanity in Nature will be ongoing for some time to come. Edward Wilson's synthesis tells us why the study of human evolution should be pursued to its fullest extent. Discussing the roots of human behaviour and why we need to study them in greater depth, Wilson's book is an appeal for extensive research and comparative analysis.
Wilson's literary and scientific skills are brought fully to light as he takes us through the universals of human behaviour. He addresses the topics of heredity, aggression, religion, altruism and other aspects of what we are in nature. He isn't constricted to simply delineating where we came from, he sees the entire exercise as providing guideposts for our future existence. As he argues, "The only way forward is to study human nature as part of the natural sciences, in an attempt to integrate the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities."
At the outset, he acknowledges how formidable his proposed task is for those who will likely be effected by it. Sociology, anthropology, psychology are all well-established disciplines that will be discomforted by what he's proposing. As the concluding book in his trilogy to build a definition of the science of sociobiology, he's already suffered reaction to his ideas. Wilson, however, is seeking construction, not dissolution. A new field of study on human behaviour can only be achieved by a merger of the established research areas. He knows that the study of humans is almost a divine mandate in the eyes of its practitioners. They have already contended that there isn't enough data to build a new science. He acknowledges that existing evidence is scanty, but suggests that our ignorance is the fullest reason to pursue the work. We mustn't be constrained by those who argue against the existence of our natural roots. With admirable foresight he anticipates his later critics. As he puts it, ". . . no intellectual vice is more crippling than defiantly self-indulgent anthropocentrism."
His final chapter, Hope, is his message about the future. Having examined religion as a human universal, he notes its failures through splintering and conflicts. Objects of worship have shifted from the divine to the philosophic. "Visionaries and revolutionaries set out to change the system" which has proven too arbitrary and absolutist. "Human nature," he stresses, is the "potential array" that can be applied by knowledgeable societies to consciously design a better future than appears likely now. The principal task is to measure biological constraints on decision making, to understand them and apply cultural evolution to biological evolution to create a "biology of ethics." The result, Wilson argues, will be a "more deeply understood and enduring code of moral values."
These are challenging concepts, requiring serious, dedicated effort. Wilson recognizes that old mythologies, particularly "self-indulgent anthropocentrism," must be swept away. A new and better mythology, the evolutionary epic, will emerge. It will be forged from the biological and social sciences, thereby forcing honesty and reject dogma. He paints an appealing image for scholars and researchers to consider. Many have done so, but die-hards remain entrenched. Those who will benefit the most from his ideas are those who avoid heeding the "small number of [those] who are committed to the view that human behaviour arises from a very few unstructured drives." In other words, avoid the false spectre of "genetic determinism" raised by Wilson's critics and read him directly. There are many rewards in this book and it deserves careful attention. It deserves a place on your shelf to help you along your path to a valid future, untrammeled by false mythologies or barran reasoning.
on November 11, 2000
E.O. Wilson composed this towering essay nearly 25 years ago to further develop ideas and relationships proposed in the final pages of his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. A quarter of a decade later, it continues to startle: in the clarity of its exposition, the aptness of its metaphors, the range of its learning, and, finally, the monumental power marshaled in support of its argument--that human behavior is largely controlled by our species' biological heritage.
For social scientists, one of Wilson's most provocative, and useful, proposals is that biology should serve as the "anti-discipline" to the social sciences; that is, evolutionary biology is at an adjacent level of disciplinary organization, operating underneath the social sciences with the potential for reorganizing the disciplines above it according to its own principles. To a great extent, in the ensuing quarter decade, largely because Wilson and his colleagues have successfully defended the perspective of sociobiology, this has become the case in at least two fields: the new discipline of evolutionary psychology has flourished, and a new generation of anthropologists have also taken up evolutionary biology as part of their methodological toolbox. On the other hand, economists, political scientists, and sociologists have arguably lagged behind in making the relevant connections.
To understand where the social sciences need to go in the 21st century, On Human Behavior remains an indispensable key (together with and Mitch Waldrop's Complexity, still the most successful introduction to complexity science, although the competition is strong). Moreover, this book (and Waldrop's) should be on every undergraduate's reading list. Even if you decide you disagree with Wilson's argument and conclusions, in toto or in part--and I do (in part), believing, for example, that Wilson lets reproductive strategies overdetermine human behavior, leading him to undervalue cultural evolution (although I surmise he would deny this)--you should purchase this book for the elegance of its writing, which will ease you into a confrontation with your own dearly held views about the constituents of "human nature."
Edward Wilson is probably the best writer on scientific subjects since Thomas Henry Huxley. He writes in a style that combines trenchant lucidity with mastery of exposition. Even the subtlest and most confusing intricacies of human nature are rendered easily accessible by Wilson's deft and engaging pen. He is especially good at providing apt metaphors to illustrate what might otherwise be difficult scientific conceptions. Behavioral tendencies in human nature are described, for example, as various channels, some of which are shallow (and can therefore more easily be overcome), while others are much deeper (and therefore much more resistant to efforts to counteract them). As befitting a man of science, Wilson supports his views, not with abstruse argumentation, but with facts collected and verified by practicing scientists.
Yet despite the solidity of Wilson's research, when "On Human Nature" first came out, it was viciously attacked by left-wing ideologues who violently disagreed with Wilson's conclusions regarding the limitations of man's nature. The Left, of course, wants to believe that human nature is largely fluid and malleable. Man, leftists argue, is the product, not of genetics or biology, but of social conditions, which can be changed. Under a "just" society, human nature would become transformed and evil would virtually disappear from the world. Wilson's "On Human Nature" thoroughly demolishes all these sterile hopes for man's secular salvation. Using scientific evidence, he demonstrates that most human behavior is genetic (or related to or influenced by genetics) and therefore unalterable. The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto has probably described this view of man most trenchantly when he wrote: "The centuries roll by, and human nature remains the same!" In "On Human Nature," Wilson shows us why Pareto is right.
on January 21, 2002
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this book in providing a basis for understanding our very selves, and the world that we have created.
With surgical precision, Wilson dissects the motivations behind those behaviors most troublesome to our evolution: agression, sex, altruism and religion, and plainly shows their value in serving the ultimate purpose of our genetic promotion.
Human behavior has a sound basis in human physiology and its evolution, and the open acknowledgement of this is the first step toward moving the hard sciences and the humanities forward, united. Science can no longer play the aloof wallflower. The Humanities cannot proceed floating on scientific air, without sound biological substantiation. Their futures lie intertwined, converging.
Understanding our sociobiological mental underpinnings does not take away from our humanity, any more than understanding botany takes away the beauty of the flower. To the contrary, we stand all the more awe-struck in our understanding of how we have come to be what we are, and why we behave as we do.
Sociobiology in general, and this masterful work in particular, are nothing less than the key to understanding who we are, and we are greatly enriched in the knowing.
on May 24, 2000
I read this book a number of years ago and loved Wilson's overview of human nature through his observations of human behaviour across cultures. I am amazed at how the previous reviewer politicized Wilson when he is anything but political. Wilson does not exclude the influences of societal attitude and the changes in human behaviour from small to large groups. His review of treatment of women in different societies -- from equal partner in small groups to chattel as the struggles for power emerge in larger groups is an example of Wilson's wonderful eye for human behaviour. Although Wilson is the father of sociobiology, he does not exclude such patterns of human nature that can be attributable to societal interactions, not unlike Jane Goodal's observations of chimpanze behaviour as situational. While it is clearly obvious that our essential makeup is genetic, it is equally clear that as learning beings, our behaviour also has a nurture element, and Wilson is clear about this.
One must read Wilson with an open mind,not cluttered by political preconceptions as the previous reviewer. Wilson makes a point of not politicizing science, and to find a political context to "On Human Nature" one must create it as Wilson certainly does not.
on June 28, 2010
This Pulitzer Prize winning work is the third of a trilogy that this great man wrote in the 1970, including, in addition to the current volume, The Insect Societies (1971), and Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975). The first of these established Wilson's reputation as the leading expert on the social organization of ants, bees, wasps, and termites. The second is a masterpiece of entomology, and extension of biosocial theory to cold-blooded vertebrates, birds, and mammals, with sub-categories ungulates (critters with hoofs) and elephants, carnivores, nonhuman primates, and finally to Homo sapiens himself. E. O. Wilson is, I believe, the first to conceive of sociobiology as a general field of study covering the manner of live of all social species. Prior to Wilson, several animal behaviorists (a.k.a. ethologists), indeed even in Darwin himself, had written about communalities behavior and emotions across species. But unlike his predecessors, from Charles Darwin to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, Wilson's focus is on the organization of social life across species as well as the effect of this organization on the constitution of the species.
When I read Sociobiology, the second of the trilogy, in 1975, I loved it in every way, and it, along with George Williams' Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966), started my life-long effort to integrate biological thinking into economics and sociology. I had no problem with the biological argument because I had spent the last seven years or so being a proponent of Karl Marx's early work, especially his Manuscripts of 1844, which developed the idea that there is an innate human nature (Gatungswesen or species-being) which is subject to alienation (Entfremdung) when not supplied with its conditions for full realization (this theory is close to Amartya Sen's approach to `human flourishing,' if you want to see a contemporary version). The only part of this theory that I have given up is the part that says capitalism leads to alienation. That now appears to me to be completely wrong-headed; capitalism plus liberal democracy are the prerequisites in the contemporary world of personal liberation. Of course, there are illiberal and undemocratic capitalisms that entail alienation and worse. Mais, je divague....
Edward Wilson wrote this book, he tells us, in response to the bitter and violent reaction against the final chapter of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which was the only chapter in the book to deal with Homo sapiens. The criticism was far from impersonal, as the main critics were faculty at Harvard (where Wilson taught), MIT, and other Boston-area academics, some of whom had impeccable scientific credentials. I was a graduate student at Harvard from 1961 to 1969, and member of the Harvard faculty from 1969-1976, so witnessed the events surrounding the political formation of these critics. The anti-Vietnam war and the civil rights movements severely damaged the complacent liberal world-view of many academics who matured between World War II and the Vietnam war. Those with training in the humanities and social sciences for the most part became liberal supporters of the anti-war and civil rights movements, but those with training in the natural sciences, including biology, fell under the spell of Marxian social theory and identified with movements for socialism in the advanced capitalist countries and in the Third World. Many of those members of Boston-Cambridge academia formed Science for the People and other groups purporting to reveal the falsities of bourgeois thought and explain the necessity of a transition to socialism to combat domestic racism and international imperialist wars. The critical point about these groups was their commitment to critique not just bourgeois society, but bourgeois science as an emanation of bourgeois society.
I found this aspect of Science of the People and related groups to be both abhorrent, yet fascinating. I considered myself a Marxist, but I had never encountered "bourgeois science" in my years of studying mathematics, physics, and biology. I had always believed that science is science, and unless distorted by an oppressive state or religious power, produces truth (or warranted belief) through open debate, public discourse, and the reward of excellence. I had read about Lysenko in the Soviet Union, who gained the confidence of the country's Communist (and scientifically illiterate) leadership by claiming that Darwinism was "bourgeois science," who had dissidents from his Lamarckian views shot and exiled, and whose wild ideas eventually led to agricultural crisis in the Soviet Union. I therefore had nothing but contempt for the Science for the People group, and often noted that few were professionally trained in the areas they glibly wrote about, and their critiques were simple-minded and naïve. Moreover, the idea that they could speak of "bourgeois science" and "socialist science" gave me chills. These were highly intelligent, highly sophisticated (at least in natural science) academics at the top of the academic heap. Is this what our country was headed for? Would social change bring us Lysenko's all over the place?
Of course, I was far from alone being a progressive academic who refused to play the Science for the People game. Noam Chomsky, Hilary Putnam, and many others did not participate. But the Science for the People crowd had a very loud voice. Accusing Edward Wilson of racism and right-wing fascist sentiments, critics claimed that sociobiology was political ideology, not science. In November 1975, a Science for the People offshoot, the Sociobiology Study Group spearheaded a violent and multi-pronged attack on Edward Wilson, the co-signers of the group's first public statement (appearing in the New York Review of Books) including Wilson's prominent colleagues, Richard C. Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould.
The attack on Edward Wilson expanded country-wide. He was assaulted by Maoist activist students while he was speaking at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. Ironically, Stephen Jay Gould was co-speaker at the event. Gould took the microphone, apologized to Wilson, and denounced the perpetrators, quoting Lenin's critique of misplaced violence. Wilson recalled, however, that after the attack "No one asked [the attackers] to leave the premises, no police were called, and no action was taken against them later."
In fact, the argument concerning humans in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis is carefully considered, measured, and temperate, hardly justifying the venom of Wilson's critics. Sociobiology supports comparative studies across species of such aspects of social behavior as cooperation and reciprocity, conflict and cheating, and kinship and mating. Such behaviors have a strong genetic basis in that rarely would a member of one social species have the proper predispositions and capacities to operate successfully in the social context of another, and animal societies tend to be strikingly similar even when widely separated in time and space. Moreover, because all social species are the product of Darwinian evolution, the same must be true of human societies, and since social cohesion in human societies depends on sharing common ethical norms, morality itself must be the product of evolution.
Critics of sociobiology are fond of labeling any argument in which genes affect social behavior "genetic determinist.'' Wilson certainly recognizes the effect of genes on behavior, but is equally insistent on the effect of culture on genes. "If culture has evolved for millennia under the influence of a biological human nature, it is equally true that human nature has evolved... Gene-culture coevolution, the synergistic coupling of the two forms of evolution was inevitable.'' (p. xi) Later, he reinforces this point by offering an observation that has come to be central to evolutionary game theory, "sociobiological theory can be obeyed by purely cultural behavior as well as by genetically constrained behavior." (33) However, Wilson infuriates his critics by claiming that "the humanities and social sciences shrink to specialized branches of biology," but he means this in the same sense that chemistry is a specialized branch of physics and biology is a specialized branch of chemistry. I find it quite misleading to use the term "specialized branch" in this way. Chemistry introduces numerous central concepts that are absent from physics, and biology has many more that are absent from chemistry. Similarly, the humanities cannot in any sense be reduced to social science, nor can social science be reduced to the natural sciences.
Typical of Wilson's mode of argumentation is his use of Chomsky's theory of "deep grammar" to explain how a universal human predisposition to understand deep grammar can be compatible with huge cross-cultural variation in the actual linguistic behavior of groups. He could have added, as an example of gene-culture coevolution, that the physiology of language production (tongue, lips, facial muscles, and larynx) evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to facilitate verbal and facial communication.
Wilson clearly recognizes in On Human Nature that the fact that humans are not infinitely malleable is a fundamental emancipatory message. Whereas Utopians have for centuries dreamed of creating the perfect society based on inculcating prosocial values and suppressing selfish and antisocial values, Wilson recognizes the totalitarian implications of ideologies, such as Marxism and some forms of liberalism. Wilson argues that we evolved our human morality in small hunter-gatherer societies over hundreds of thousands of years, and the hunter-gatherers of the Pleistocene tended to be egalitarian and tolerant, thus explaining the universal attraction of democracy and civil liberties. He argues, for instance that such institution as slavery and communal child-rearing have reappeared throughout history, they are not in fact very compatible with human nature, so they tend to be short-lived and to disappear.
Typical of Wilson's mode of analysis, he argues that humans, especially males, are predisposed to being aggressive, but aggression can be kept to a moderately low level through good laws. Wilson even offers the now standard argument that women were not subordinated to men in most hunter-gather societies, so that the idea of gender equality is quite compatible with basic human nature. He argues that the relaxation of discriminatory norms against the full participation of women in public life would release a huge reservoir of talent, but enforced equality of outcome between genders would be unlikely to work in many areas of social life. He argues that homosexuality is found in many animals and must be considered a common sexual variant in humans. He even offers a "kin-selection" theory of how homosexuality can maintain itself in a biological population. Concerning altruism, Wilson speculates that most human altruism among non-kin is the "soft altruism" called by Robert Trivers "reciprocal altruism," but he also speculates that "hard altruism" of the sort analyzed by Darwin, in which individuals sacrifice inclusive fitness for the group, might have evolved and may be important in modern society.
Naturally, Wilson gets in his licks against his critics, briefly in the Preface and at greater length towards the end of On Human Nature. "The strongest opposition to the scientific study of human nature," he observes, "has come from a small number of Marxist biologists and anthropologists who are committed to the view that...nothing exists in the untrained human mind that cannot be readily channeled to the purposes of the revolutionary socialist state. When faced with the evidence of genetic structure, their response has been to declare human nature off limits to further scientific investigation." (191)
In his concluding chapter, Wilson offers three areas in which sociobiology might contribute to making a better world for humans. First, "a biology of ethics will make possible the selection of a more deeply understood and enduring code of moral values." (196) Second, he argues that "a correct application of evolutionary theory also favors diversity in the gene pool as a cardinal value." This implies that "master race" politics, eugenics, and other "genetic improvement" schemes should be rejected. Finally, and following the Enlightenment thinkers, he argues that "universal human rights" can be defended on the basis of a "universal human nature."
There has been an explosion of sociobiological research in the three decades since Edward O. Wilson wrote On Human Nature. My interpretation of the evidence is that it strongly supports Wilson's moderate statements almost perfectly, and gives the lie to his critics of all stripes.
on November 22, 2000
I concur with all of the other reviewers that this is a splendid book, one of the best in its field, elegantly written and closely argued.
Especially good, in my opinion, is Wilson's discussion of the 'two dilemmas' of our post-Darwinian age. The first is the loss of transcendental goals and hopes due to the scientific deconstruction of religion. Unlike many positivists who see nothing but good in the end of illusion, Wilson acknowledges (correctly, I believe) the tremendous psychological and social burdens that it imposes.
The second dilemma concerns our discovery of the intractable circularity of ethics: we must choose among the elements of human nature in accordance with intuitions that well up in us due to... the elements of human nature. Wilson faces up to this conundrum, and boldly makes his calls: for universal human rights, for the preservation of diversity, and for the transference to the scientific project of the psychic energy formerly organized around myth.
The final few sentences, a quotation from Aeschylus, could keep you thinking for the rest of your life.