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5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing, Credible Answers and Theories, April 7, 2012
This review is from: The Social Conquest of Earth (Hardcover)
'Where Did We Come From?,' 'What Are We?'' and 'Where Are We Going?' are the three fundamental questions raised in Wilson's latest book. Author Wilson's work challenges one of the central tenets of evolution - that natural selection acts far more strongly on individuals and genetic relatives than on broader social groups. "The Social Conquest of Earth" also reverses his prior view that the evolution of altruism was driven by kin selection rather than group selection. As cooperative colonies dominate non-cooperative ones and multiply, so do their alleged 'altruism' genes.

Much of the author's logic is derived from social insects like bees, ants, and termites. Mr. Wilson contends that the competition of one group against others favors self-sacrificial behaviors in individuals that benefit the group - even those that aren't related. The 'bad news' for the real devotees of the topic, is that more than 130 of his peers wrote a public letter last year contending his latest thinking is wrong. Wilson, however, isn't bothered - also declaring that the function of this new book is to upset the current thinking, and that he expects to be lambasted.

The term 'eusocial' plays a large role in the book. It is used to describe situations with reproductive division of labor (with/without sterile castes such as ants, bees, wasps, termites, naked mole rates), overlapping generations, and cooperative care of the young. Wilson contends that eusociality is one of the major innovations in the history of life, spurred originally by nests (birds), burrows (moles, etc.), and campsites (humans).

Roots of society begin with offspring remaining with parents long term, each tolerating the other, and the group then growing to include additional generations, aunts, uncles, and even unrelated individuals. These pre-humans not only had to be altruistic/sharing, but murderous as well, at times - fighting off other groups.

Side Bits: Eusocial insects evolved well over 100 million years ago, while humans have evolved only over the past half million years. Neanderthals became extinct only 30,000 years ago - Wilson challenges us to imagine the racial discrimination issues if their lineage had continued through today.

Humans' ultimate success rests on our being a large terrestrial animal (supports a big brain, allows the use of fire), and having grasping hands with opposable thumbs.

The bulk of 'The Social Conquest of Earth' consists of explanations for how humans evolved. For example, we learned/developed walking on our hind legs and then running to catch prey, learning to throw (eg. spears), living around campsites (similar to birds' nests, fox burrows, lion prides), and becoming meat-eating helped expand our brains to develop and implement complex strategies (eg. wolves, lions). Living at campsites encouraged job specialization and sharing.

The destructive consequences of incest is a general phenomenon in humans, plants, and animals. Among all 19 social species whose mating patterns have been studied, young individuals leave the group they were born in and join another - in some species it is the males that leave, in other the females, and in a few both sexes depart. In humans, exogamy occurs in the form of young adults, usually women, being exchanged between trives. Secondly, little sexual activity takes place between closely related individuals. Other examples have led Wilson to conclude that humans develop little sexual interest in those known closely during their earliest years.

Wilson also covers the origins of religion, language, culture (spread largely by imitation within groups), and the birth of sociality, though not in great detail. Every religion teaches that its adherents are a special fellowship and that their moral precepts and privileges from divine power are special. Charity and altruistic acts are concentrated on their fellow believers; when extended to outsiders it is usually to proselytize and boost their numbers. Hallucinogenic drugs play an important role in the creation of genesis myths. Wilson sees religions as encouraging ignorance, even of other religions, distracting people from recognizing problems of the real world, and often leading them in wrong directions.

Where are we going? Scientific knowledge and technology double every 1 - 2 decades, making the future hard to predict beyond a decade. Science will eventually upend religion by demonstrating its man-made origins. Wilson cites declining percentages of scientists believing in a supernatural being; evolutionary biologists are down to only 2%.

Ending, Wilson says it is time to ask seriously why, during the 3.5 million year history of Earth our planet has never been visited by extraterrestrials or even received a message from outer space. We should also stop the dangerous delusion that emigration into space is a solution when we have used up this planet.

Wilson's latest book and the controversy it has engendered also tells us that we are in the midst of expanding/revising evolutionary thinking.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 8, 2012 4:44:48 AM PDT
Extremely helpful review! Thank you! E.O. Wilson is the man. One thing though -- he did not so much "reverse" his thinking on inclusive fitness or kin selection so much as come to the realization that it is unnecessary. As Nowak and Highfield say in their book SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed that if you develop a model that is truly gene-centered, there is no need for the concept of inclusive fitness at all. He says all we need to do is ask whether a gene linked with social behavior will win out with a gene linked with solitary behavor and the concept of inclusive fitness evaporates. So I think the inclusive fitness idea evaporated for E. O. Wilson via this sort of process. It was more of an evaporation than a reversal -- though my real point of course is to show how this could happen by how you look at the problem.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 13, 2012 7:27:09 AM PDT
Thank you for this comment. I agree with you on E.O. Wilson.
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