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The Social Conquest of Earth 1st Edition
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“Wilson’s examples of insect eusociality are dazzling… There are obvious parallels with human practices like war and agriculture, but Wilson is also sensitive to the differences… This book offers a detailed reconstruction of what we know about the evolutionary histories of these two very different conquerors. Wilson’s careful and clear analysis reminds us that scientific accounts of our origins aren’t just more accurate than religious stories; they are also a lot more interesting.”
- Paul Bloom, New York Times Book Review
“... a sweeping account of the human rise to domination of the biosphere, rounded out with broad reflections on art, ethics, language and religion.”
- Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times
“Religion. Sports. War. Biologist E.O. Wilson says our drive to join a group―and to fight for it―is what makes us human.”
“Wilson has done an impressive job of pulling all this evidence together and analyzing it. His interdisciplinary approach, his established scholarship, and his willingness to engage hot-button issues are all much in evidence in The Social Conquest of Earth…. His reflections on this subject are varied, original, and thought provoking―as is the rest of his book.”
- Carl Coon, The Humanist
“E. O. Wilson’s passionate curiosity―the hallmark of his remarkable career―has led him to these urgent reflections on the human condition. At the core of The Social Conquest of Earth is the unresolved, unresolvable tension in our species between selfishness and altruism. Wilson brilliantly analyzes the force, at once creative and destructive, of our biological inheritance and daringly advances a grand theory of the origins of human culture. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in the intersection of science and the humanities.”
- Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
“...a sweeping argument about the biological origins of complex human culture. It is full of both virtuosity and raw, abrupt assertions that are nonetheless well-crafted and captivating... it is fascinating to see such a distinguished scientist optimistic about the future.”
- Michael Gazzaniga, Wall Street Journal
“Once again, Ed Wilson has written a book combining the qualities that have brought his previous books Pulitzer Prizes and millions of readers: a big but simple question, powerful explanations, magisterial knowledge of the sciences and humanities, and beautiful writing understandable to a wide public.”
- Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel
“Wilson’s newest theory...could transform our understanding of human nature―and provide hope for our stewardship of the planet.... [His] new book is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities.... Its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers.”
- Howard W. French, The Atlantic
“A monumental exploration of the biological origins of the Human Condition!”
- James D. Watson
“The Social Conquest of Earth is a huge, deep, thrilling work, presenting a radically new but cautiously hopeful view of human evolution, human nature, and human society. No one but E. O. Wilson could bring together such a brilliant synthesis of biology and the humanities, to shed light on the origins of language, religion, art, and all of human culture.”
- Oliver Sacks
About the Author
Edward O. Wilson is widely recognized as one of the world’s preeminent biologists and naturalists. The author of more than thirty books, including Half-Earth, The Social Conquest of Earth, The Meaning of Human Existence, and Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson is a professor emeritus at Harvard University. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, he lives with his wife, Irene Wilson, in Lexington, Massachusetts.
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The problem with books of this sort is that they do not have a much, much broader reader appeal. To ultimately stimulate broad human concern, let alone action, the messages must be almost universally understood by the billions of human now on earth and the millions more to come perhaps sooner than for which humanity can usefully plan. Change portrayed in both books fits an exponential curve covering billions of years with an asymptote not far away from the present. Kurzweil and others suggest that to be in or around 2050 CE, about three decades from 2016.
In the beginning of the book, Wilson discusses eusociality, a stage of social evolution in which "group members are made up of multiple generations and are prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor." Humans are among the relatively few species on the planet ever to have evolved to a level of eusociality. (So are ants and bees, which are not given short shrift in the book.)
The main argument Wilson proposes is that eusociality has evolved by "group selection" and NOT by "inclusive fitness" (kin selection). Inclusive fitness was the accepted wisdom from around the 60s to the 90s. It says that, "kinship plays a central role in the origin of social behavior. In essence, it says that the more closely related individuals in a group are, the more likely they are to be altruistic and cooperative, hence the more likely are the species that formed such groups to evolve into eusociality." Inclusive fitness has "powerful intuitive appeal" but does not hold up to scientific scrutiny and mathematical evaluation, he argues.
Group selection, on the other hand, proposes that it is hereditary altruists forming "groups so cooperative and well-organized as to outcompete nonaltruist groups."
In the end, Wilson argues that human eusociality is a product of multilevel natural selection. "At the higher level of the two relevant levels of biological organization, groups compete with groups, favoring cooperative social traits among members of the same group. A the lower level, members of the same group compete with one another in a manner that leads to self-serving behavior. The opposition between the two levels of natural selection has resulted in a chimeric genotype in each person. It renders each of us part saint and part sinner." (p. 289)
The other important concept that is covered is that of "gene-culture coevolution," which deals with the causal relation between the evolution of genes and the evolution of culture--briefly, that "many properties of human social behavior are affected by heredity... and that the innate properties of human nature must have evolved as adaptations."
I've used mostly quotes from the book in writing this review because I didn't want to get it wrong. A couple of the chapters were difficult reading for me, so I read and re-read and looked stuff up on the Web to get a better understanding. It was definitely worth the effort.
This book should be one of the basic starting points for everyone who is interested in how humanity might understand itself better in order to leave aside some of the beliefs that are causing us to do so much damage.
The only flaw I found is that the book is a little dry in some places, as for example in the discussion of kin selection and inclusive fitness and the discussion of color perception in humans.
Also, there are two or three typos (such as writing "artificial conception" instead of "artificial contraception") and in a few places the pronouns used were not clear as to which noun they refer to. But I consider these editing problems, rather than the author's mistakes.
Finally, close to the end of the book, Professor Wilson writes, "Why, during the 3.5-billion-year history of the biosphere, our planet has never been visited by extraterrestrials?" Well, we don't know for sure that it hasn't. Maybe it has; we ourselves (Homo Sapiens) have been here for only a very tiny fraction of those 3.5 billion years. Maybe extraterrestrials came and didn't like it here, or simply changed their minds.
On the whole, a great read. Recommended for any one with an open mind and a love of learning.