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The Social Conquest of Earth 1st Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 242 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0871404138
ISBN-10: 0871404133
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Editorial Reviews


Religion. Sports. War. Biologist E.O. Wilson says our drive to join a group―and to fight for it―is what makes us human. (Newsweek)

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)

... 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)

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)

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)

Starred review. Never shy about tackling big questions, veteran evolutionary biologist Wilson (The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth) delivers his thoughtful if contentious explanation of why humans rule the Earth... Wilson succeeds in explaining his complex ideas, so attentive readers will receive a deeply satisfying exposure to a major scientific controversy. (Kirkus Reviews)

The Social Conquest of the Earth has set off a scientific furor... The controversy is fueled by a larger debate about the evolution of altruism. Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask? This is science with existential stakes. (Jonah Lehrer - New Yorker)

Starred review. With bracing insights into instinct, language, organized religion, the humanities, science, and social intelligence, this is a deeply felt, powerfully written, and resounding inquiry into the human condition. (Booklist)

That Wilson provides nimble, lucid responses to the three core questions, speaks volumes about his intellectual rigor. That he covers all of this heady terrain in less than 300 pages of text speaks volumes about his literary skill. (Larry Lebowitz - Miami Herald)

Wilson frames The Social Conquest of Earth as a dialogue with painter Paul Gauguin, who penned on the canvas of his 1897 Tahitian masterpiece: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” ...Wilson attempts to answer Gauguin... by embracing the existential questioning of the humanities without sacrificing the “unrelenting application of reason” at the core of empirical science. (Alyssa A. Botelho - The Harvard Crimson)

The Harvard University naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner angered many colleagues two years ago, when he repudiated a concept within evolutionary theory that he had brought to prominence. Known as kin selection or inclusive fitness, the half-century-old idea helped to explain the puzzling existence of altruism among animals. Why, for instance, do some birds help their parents raise chicks instead of having chicks of their own? Why are worker ants sterile? The answer, according to kin selection theory, has been that aiding your relatives can sometimes spread your common genes faster than bearing offspring of your own.

In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson offers a full explanation of his latest thinking on evolution. Group dynamics, not selfish genes, drive altruism, he argues: “Colonies of cheaters lose to colonies of cooperators.” As the cooperative colonies dominate and multiply, so do their alleged ”altruism” genes. Wilson uses what he calls “multilevel selection”―group and individual selection combined―to discuss the emergence of the creative arts and humanities, morality, religion, language and the very nature of humans. Along the way, he pauses to reject religion, decry the way humans have despoiled the environment and, in something of a non sequitur, dismiss the need for manned space exploration. The book is bound to stir controversy on these and other subjects for years to come. (Sandra Upson and Anna Kuchment - Scientific American)

Pretty much anything Wilson writes is well worth reading, and his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth, is no exception… Read the master biologist himself in this marvelous book... (Michael Shermer - The Daily)

With his probing curiosity, his dazzling research, his elegant prose and his deep commitment to bio-diversity, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist (The Ants) and novelist (The Anthill) Edward O. Wilson has spent his life searching for the evolutionary paths by which humans developed and passed along the social behaviors that best promote the survival of our species. His eloquent, magisterial and compelling new book offers a kind of summing-up of his magnificent career.... While not everyone will agree with Wilson’s provocative and challenging conclusions, everyone who engages with his ideas will discover sparkling gems of wisdom uncovered by the man who is our Darwin and our Thoreau. (Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. - BookPage.com)

Biologist E. O. Wilson’s brilliant new volume, The Social Conquest of Earth, could more aptly be entitled ‘Biology’s Conquest of Science’. Drawing on his deep understanding of entomology and his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the natural and social sciences, Wilson makes a strong case for the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. Understanding the biological origin of what makes us human can help us to build better theories of social and psychological interaction; in turn, understanding how other social species have evolved may help us to better understand the origin of our own. But the main reason that Wilson’s book is successful is that he also brings into biology the best of what social science has to offer. (James H. Fowler - Nature Magazine)

An ambitious and thoroughly engaging work that’s certain to generate controversy within the walls of academia and without… Provocative, eloquent and unflinchingly forthright, Wilson remains true to form, producing a book that’s anything but dull and bound to receive plenty of attention from supporters and critics alike. (Colin Woodard - Washington Post)

"Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Those famous questions, inscribed by Paul Gauguin in his giant Tahitian painting of 1897, introduce The Social Conquest of Earth. Their choice proclaims Edward O Wilson’s ambitions for his splendid book, in which he sums up 60 distinguished years of research into the evolution of human beings and social insects. (Clive Cookson - Financial Times)

Wilson is a brilliant stylist, and his account of the rise of Homo sapiens and our species’ conquest of Earth is informative, thrilling, and utterly captivating. (Rudy M. Baum - Chemical & Engineering News)

What Wilson ends up doing is so profound that the last eight chapters… could stand alone as a separate book, because what he ends up doing is no less than defining human nature itself. (Robert Knight - Washington Independent Review of Books)

Reading E. O. Wilson’s Social Conquest of Earth is a revolutionary look at who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. It’s very hopeful in that he suggests that we have the capacity to learn to live within the planet’s means. I personally call this the sweet spot in history. Never before have we had the knowledge and opportunity as good as we have now to make change. The great message Wilson conveys is that there’s still time. (Kate Murphy - New York Times Sunday Review)

I just finished The Social Conquest of Earth, a fabulous book. (President Bill Clinton - New York Times)

About the Author

Edward O. Wilson is widely recognized as one of the world's preeminent biologists and naturalists. The author of more than twenty books, including The Creation, 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 in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (April 9, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871404133
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871404138
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (242 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #155,827 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Edward O. Wilson's 'The Social Conquest of Earth'

The main argument: Since the dawn of self-awareness we human beings have struggled to understand ourselves. This struggle has found form in religion, philosophy, art and, most recently, science. The most pivotal turning point in science's quest to understand humanity came with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection in the mid 19th century. While the application of this theory to understand human behaviour has taken time (and engendered a great deal of controversy), enough progress has now been made to outline the story in full, and to fill in several of the details. It is just this task that legendary biologist E.O. Wilson takes up in his new book `The Social Conquest of Earth'.

For Wilson, understanding humanity must begin with an understanding of how we came to be the ultrasocial species that we are. Drawing upon evidence from other eusocial species (such as bees, wasps, termites and ants--the latter of which Wilson has spent much of his career studying), as well as numerous sciences focused in on humanity and its past, Wilson recreates this story. According to the author, the story reaches its first major turning point when our ancestors began establishing home-bases at which they raised their young, and near which they foraged and scavenged for food.
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Format: 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).
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In "Social Conquest," Wilson helps articulate and spread a few sober insights concerning the human condition. That's good. We must somehow digest such self-observations, individually, collectively, and pan-culturally, to the point where we actually are empowered by the resulting self-knowledge to "do something about ourselves." Scientific self-knowledge, unsettling and widely understood, seems the only hope for mitigating and ultimately halting the escalating human-caused calamities faced by our own adolescent and very tenuous civilizations, and by the earthly biosphere that supports us and so many other living wonders.

However, Wilson's "revolutionary" views on how we evolved to our current condition are highly suspect. This matters: not accurately understanding the basis of our condition in terms of its historical (evolutionary) causes will lessen our ability to navigate toward any real solutions. We cannot afford it.

Therefore, anyone reading this book who is interested in its purported "revolutionary" scientific content, specifically, Wilson's claims that we are better off abandoning William Hamilton's inclusive fitness theory as an important basis for understanding the design of the human psyche, should have easy access to the responses of Dr. Wilson's peers. So, here you go. There are five pieces in the journal Nature, collected under the heading, "Brief Communications Arising,"

Nature v471, issue 7339, pp. E1-E9 (24 March 2011).

These articles are brief and very readable. These pages also include a response by Wilson and his coauthors that, as far as I can see, just ignores all the specific criticisms.

Nature Publishing Group should make the full text of these comments freely available to the public in electronic form, via Nature.
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