16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Not Quite Convincing,
This review is from: The Social Conquest of Earth (Hardcover)
I'm not a biologist, but I have taken an amateur interest in this subject for 20+ years. So I was able to follow the discussions in the book, but they ended up leaving me confused. I followed this up by reading the NATURE article which is referred to several times in the book as being the "mathematical proof" or the argument he is making.
It's just not clear exactly what Wilson is doing, but I think it's essentially a bait-and-switch. He takes a very narrow definition of "eusocial" and "inclusive fitness" and argues that inclusive fitness is not the best predictor of eusocial behavior. Then he suddenly makes sweeping conclusions about all of social behavior and altruism, claiming that inclusive fitness explains none of it. This is like saying: "Sheila is not a man, therefore no men exist." Um, what???
I think that in general the concept behind inclusive fitness (which is to say that if we help out our relatives then we help spread our own genes, because our relatives also share our genes) is not only valid but necessary to explain why social species (such as humans) can be the product of natural selection. And this book doesn't disprove that! Wilson has been sidetracked by a particular question about how certain types of bees evolved to be eusocial and lost sight of the big picture.
Furthermore, he keeps talking about how he "mathematically proved" that inclusive fitness doesn't work, but I just read his NATURE paper and I sure wasn't convinced of that. Nor were the literally hundreds of other authors who wrote replies to his NATURE article, most of which said essentially the same thing that I just said in this review.
All that having been said, the book is still a very interesting and useful description of how social behavior interacts with natural selection. If he hadn't spent so much time trying to draw what seemed to be a meaningless distinction between inclusive fitness and what he dubs the "standard model" of group selection, then it would have been a more understandable and useful book for the non-specialist reader.
I will also note that toward the end of the book he goes on some wild tangents, such as why religion is an outgrowth of the evolutionary pressures of social living. I think he nails this perfectly (although he isn't the first to do so), but he knows this explanation is almost certain to be instantly rejected by religious readers. So I'm not sure why he bothered to include it in the book.
He also talks a bit about environmentalism and even his assertion that we should give up wasting money on manned space exploration because robot probes could do better space science. I think he fears the idea that we may feel like we can just use up the resources of the Earth and move away to somewhere else, so he wants to stop all such activity. (But if we are never going to leave the Earth, why bother sending out the robot probes anyway?)
All in all it is a book with a lot of really good information in it, as well as some very interesting speculation. But the speculation and the information are just a bit too muddled together, making it hard to be sure where one ends and the other begins. This is a serious flaw in a science book.