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4.0 out of 5 stars An Ambitious and Worthy Effort, June 1, 2012
This review is from: The Social Conquest of Earth (Hardcover)
This book sets out to answer three perennial questions about man's existence: What are we? Where did we come from? And, Where are we going? In the last chapter the author answers his own questions in an uncharacteristically optimistic way, one that is very much contrary to his controversial and mostly pessimistic analysis given throughout the book. He says for instance that: "we came out of biology, we are the greatest of all animals and because of our heightened social skills--our special human eusociality--we are being driven to greater cooperation and together will conquer the ills of the world."

Synthesizing the latest research in anthropology, evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, among others, Edward O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, poses and then attempts to answer for himself, his own questions. And as usual his answers are controversial and are unlikely to go without kicking up the normal academic dust storm.

His story, which he admits (and would have been easy to see even if he had not admitted it) has many speculative parts, is essentially this: There is only one creative story of mankind, and it is not the one told to us through religious myths, but the one science is telling us today. This new story of science that is rapidly gaining consensus among academicians, is that it is man's sociality that constitutes the critical event in his evolutionary development. It was what Wilson calls eusociality that made it possible for man to navigate the evolutionary maze and survive to become one of the two co-inheritors of the earth.

Not coincidental to Wilson's story, Earth's other conqueror is another parallel eusocial animal, the insect. Wilson, the reader may recall spent the better part of his career studying the behavior of ants.

More by the accident of the evolutionary draw, than anything else, and using an entirely different strategy than insects (which depended on robotic instincts rather than cooperative bonding), man, primarily through a series of what Wilson calls six pre-adaptations, has been able to survive, colonize, and now is destroying, the earth.

Wilson's six pre-adaptations are: being able to live on the land; having a body size suitable for large-scale brain development; being able to use our hands to fashion tools; switching from plant eating to meat eating animals; controlling fire; developing agriculture; and living in groups where cooperative bonding led to a division of labor. These six pre-adaptations, coupled with the need for advanced intellect and the increased brain size (that resulted from these very same pre-adaptations), according to Wilson, is what ultimately allowed man to thread the needle to survival and eventual to co-domination, with insects, over the earth.

However, unlike insects that have evolved slowly enough to co-evolve with their environment, man has evolved so rapidly that the possibility of co-evolution with its environment has left him with fewer limiting controls and thus often have left him at the mercy of his own worse instincts, such as his greed, which currently and inexorably, is leading him to ecological disaster.

The centerpiece of the book seems to be Wilson's discussion about the relationship between man, the individual, and, man the group member. Here he notes that man's power to form groups was not a recent invention but is universal within the species, and thus has the clear mark of instinct. Accordingly, people must have tribes, because it gives them an identity, a purpose, and social meaning. Part and parcel to this meaning however is the law of bias governing group membership: to love those within the group and hate those outside it. In a somewhat radical departure from his previous work, the author now claims that it is "group selection" rather than "individual selection" that is responsible for man's rapid evolutionary development. However, the value of an individual to a group and vice versa must be weighed against what either could do without the other's contribution. The gap in either direction has been the source of most of human conflict.

And while this is no small matter, it pales in comparison to the earlier mentioned unwritten law of tribalism: to hate outsiders and to love insiders. The inherent tendency for group members to blindly adhere to this law constitutes the darker side of human nature. And according to this author, has been responsible for most of the drama of man's cruelty to man. From internecine intra-family squabbles, to cross tribal vendettas, to wars, political struggles and even genocide, it is the unwritten laws of group behavior that continue to constitute the darker side of man's nature, and is responsible for so much sorrow in human existence.

Although the author stuck closely to the canons of science in the first half of the book, during the second half, his free-lance speculation seemed to get further and further away from accepted or canonical wisdom. And since he failed to use footnotes in the book, this left the reader with nowhere to turn. Although I read quite a bit of lay materials in the fields which this substance covers, I am by no means an expert or up on the latest research in this fast-moving area. After chapter eight, the book seemed to have veered off its main themes and thus (at least for me) seems to have lost much of its sense of unity and its linear flowing logic. Despite this, there is still enough between the lines for the reader to be able to fashion for himself a reasonably logical and continuing concluding thread. Four Stars
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