The Social Conquest of Earth
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2012
"The Social Conquest of Earth" by E. O. Wilson. The theory of the evolutionary development of homo sapiens by an erudite and acclaimed biologist. HS's evolutionary development is attributed to eusociality--living together in groups and collaborating--a trait that we share with other successful species such as ants and bees, the study of which has been the author's major professional interest. Early passages compare human sociality and conquest to that of ants--he provides an exhaustive and exhausting survey of latin names for species and their distinguishing traits and of competing theories. There are some parts about ants taking up with sap-sucking aphids to eat their residue that are interesting, but there are also a lot of latin category names and criticisms of people with whose theories he disagrees that add little for the general reader. However, the heart of the book is Wilson's extension of his theory for the necessary stages for the combined cultural and genetic eusocial evolution of insects to HS. The first three stages are: i) formation of groups; ii) occurrence of a minimum and necessary combination of pre-adaptive traits that strengthen group formation; and iii) appearance of mutations that prescribe the persistence of the group. The development of a large brain made possible for HS an unique evolutionary development. Within this context Wilson interprets the meaning of human nature, how culture evolved, the origins of language, the evolution of cultural variations, the origins of religion, the origins of the creative arts, and his hope for a new enlightenment.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2014
One of those life changing books whose lessons echo through your every day life.

An important tweak to our standard understanding of evolution, natural selection and our "selfish" genes.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2013
Wilson's thinking about human socializing seems quite
unique and his analysis has explanatory power for
how humans have "conquered", overpopulated, and
crowed out other life forms
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2014
On p. 158 Wilson states his impatience with the social sciences and humanities as being supporters of the brain as a blank slate, thereby ignoring philosophers from Plato to Pereboom. That simplistic view is indicative of the scholarship in this book if one wishes to take its breadth as set by the title. Another glib dismissal on p. 96: "To advance from robot to human would be a task of enormous technological difficulty. But why would we even wish to try?...We do not need such robots, and we will not want them." This from the same Wilson who later suggests that cultural developments (like robotics?) act hand in glove with evolution, providing the opportunity for certain genetic departures to demonstrate competitive advantage. There are many bland and sometimes self-contradictory assertions like this with no exploration attempted. This book has many details about biology and evolution that might keep you reading it, but do not expect any philosophical enlightenment, and what is more disappointing, don't expect substantiation of Wilson's personal extrapolations.
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on June 1, 2013
The Social Conquest of Earth is a difficult book for a lay person such as myself to evaluate. The author is a renown Harvard professor and specialist in his field and writes in a style that is more academic than necessary. One problem I have with the book is that Professor Wilson starts and ends with the artist Paul Gauguin but he is irrelevant to the main thrust of the book and the reproductions of his paintings are poor. I did appreciate learning about social insects and marveled at their organization and effectiveness, yet I do not think we can make a direct connection between the behavior of these insects, which after all, is instinctual in comparison to human behavior which is largely based on conscious decision making. The ant has no choice, humans do and that is all the difference. I would also challenge the assertion that eating meat was a prerequisite for human development. Professor Wilson may be eminent in his field but he is hardly a nutritionist.

In sum I would say that a lay person can get some valuable information from this book but much of it will be difficult to understand.
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on March 5, 2013
Based on his lifetime of work in evolutionary biology, Wilson guides us through what major steps our species (and previous hominoids) took to get to the complex 'eusocial' human civilizations that permit our species to dominate the world. Using analogy to ants/bees/wasps (other eusocial species) he shows how these complex behaviors arise without complex brains. But the latter permit us to be self-aware. Our civilizations are complex interactions of individualism and altruism and that group level evolutionary forces are fundamentally responsible for our successes. This complexity will always be us and whether we destroy the world or adapt to it is not certain.
Wilson wrote this work for the lay audience but cannot get away from being a scientist, so some folks might have difficulty in working through the jargon (though he explains it along the way). He does lay out the various aspects of his overall thesis at a number of points along the way and repeats them as appropriate. In the end, you feel you have been given an extraordinary lecture. Definitely, this is Wilson's tour-de-force.
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on November 8, 2012
In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson expounds upon the theories that were set forth in his classic work Sociobiology. His main thesis is that group selection, not kin selection, drove evolution and helped us to develop societies. He compares the way human society developed to the way ant "society" developed (ants are his specialty). He suggests reasons why religion and xenophobia would have originally developed as protective characteristics of groups. This book covers a large swath of material...from ants to human prehistory, to history, to today. I think he did a pretty good job organizing the book considering what a wide topic he was covering. His theories were clear and for the most part convincing. I think Wilson is an atheist, but he did a pretty good job of stating his opinions in an agnostic sort of way to avoid insulting the faithful. I think the book was well-written, interesting, and approachable by a non-scientific audience. I had no issues with Hogan's narration--he read the book well, but it wasn't anything worth raving about.
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on January 3, 2015
I enjoyed the first third of this book where Wilson discusses human evolution. I did not enjoy the second third where he went into great depth about eusociality in insects, although I realise this was included to provide a basis for the group vs kin selection argument in the third part. Without inclusion of the mathmatical modelling from the quoted nature paper I had no way of assessing the validity of Wilson's argument, which is a major change to evolutionary theory. But something did not ring true, I had found myself questioning his definitions and examples of sociality in the second section and when he started to write about cave painting his eurocentic views lead him astray from my understanding.
Doing some research I found that far from being widely accepted as the casual mention of the nature paper implies, this part of Wilsons work is very much still in question by evolutionary theorists. It is an important book to read but be aware that there is another side to the argument.
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Is it science or philosophy? A defense of group selection theories or a criticism of alternate ideas? This work is many things and not always one. While I agree with much that Wilson has to say I feel his writing in this case is a complex puzzle to be unravelled by a diligent, and therefore probably consonant mind. Preaching to the scientific choir? No, that wouldn't be fair, but this is not the singular work which is destined to catch fire and spread to schoolteachers and farmers, CEO's and truck drivers. It's a scientific philosophy for scientific minds, and patient ones at that in our increasingly Twitterized world. Perhaps it will inspire another author, or politician to communicate this evolved perspective to a broader audience. I found it inspiring, although as I said, a bit loosely bound. Pour in entomology, biology, philosophy and stir. The results, though palatable, are a bit clumpy at times, and certainly not for everyone (but the message should be.)
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on November 6, 2014
This is my first book by Edward O. Wilson but, over the years, I have read many critical comments about his theories, meaning that I started this one with a good dose of skepticism, prepared for the worst. What I found was a very balanced and, at the same time, very comprehensive vision of human evolution. I completely believe in the role of group selection in explaining the constant tension, in each of us, between selfish and altruistic impulses. And Wilson's vast culture makes this book a pleasure to read.
Details can certainly be discussed (for example, his understanding of cave art: from what I've read elsewhere, people were not living in the painted caves and it is more likely that the paintings had the same role as those of the Australian aborigines). But this does not detract from the core of the book, which is probably the most convincing synthesis I've ever read on human nature.
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