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The Social Conquest of Earth Paperback – April 15, 2013
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New York Times Bestseller and Notable Book of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Book of the Year (Nonfiction)
Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence (Nonfiction)
From the most celebrated heir to Darwin comes a groundbreaking book on evolution, the summa work of Edward O. Wilson's legendary career.Sparking vigorous debate in the sciences, The Social Conquest of Earth upends “the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover). Refashioning the story of human evolution, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to demonstrate that group selection, not kin selection, is the premier driving force of human evolution. In a work that James D. Watson calls “a monumental exploration of the biological origins of the human condition,” Wilson explains how our innate drive to belong to a group is both a “great blessing and a terrible curse” (Smithsonian). Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, the renowned Harvard University biologist presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere. 90 illustrations
― Carl Coon, The Humanist
"I just finished The Social Conquest of Earth, a fabulous book."
― President Bill Clinton, New York Times
"Wilson offers a full explanation of his latest thinking on evolution. . . . The book is bound to stir controversy on these and other subjects for years to come."
― Sandra Upson and Anna Kuchment, Scientific American
"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
"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
"A monumental exploration of the biological origins of the Human Condition!"
― James D. Watson
"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
"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
"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
About the Author
- Publisher : Liveright; Reprint edition (April 15, 2013)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 352 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0871403633
- ISBN-13 : 978-0871403636
- Item Weight : 9.9 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #200,731 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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The book will tell you the complete story of what this quote represents in a concise format.
It’s definitely meant for an average reader, doesn’t require deep scientific knowledge but certain level of scientific literacy for sure.
You’ll love the book. Enjoy.
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.
Explains the concept of eusociality - meaning the caste organization of certain species (like the bee and the ant) and how that relates to us humans. Contains insights on how we homo sapiens have become social creatures and why other species haven't. Points out in so many ways how we developed from simplistic creatures to the complex order that we find ourselves now. So many surprising facts about human development as well as development of other life forms.
Stick with it and you'll be rewarded with a great fascinating look at humanity; even some facts that might apply to you personally!
Top reviews from other countries
Wilson should not only apologise, but he should also give full credit to those who gave us the idea of group selection long ago, in particular the Scotsman Sir Arthur Keith, who very expertly laid out the theory of group selection in his book 'A New Theory of Evolution' in 1948! Keith went on to justify war, and describe man as having a dual code which he called the 'Amity Enmity complex'. Keith saw war between tribes and cultures as essential . Wilson has stolen these ideas wholesale, and even uses the terms in-group and out-group, which Keith invented - without even a mention of Keith! I hurts to see Wilson being credited with a new idea! Wilson is bad crediting earlier workers in general, and non of the key names in sociology, psychology, or ethology appear in the index. No mention of Konrad Lorenz, famous founder of Ethology who wrote many books on human behaviour; or his famous disciples Nicolaas Tinbergen and Eibl Eibesfeldt (mentor of David Attenborough), or the key phenomenon of 'imprinting' studied by these workers (not to be confused with the unfortunate use of the term imprinting in epigenetics which though possibly part of the mechanism is not the phenomenon). Wilson talks of 'prepared learning' but with no mention of the imprinting concept or of the 'critical periods' involved (Lorenz famously realised that geese took the first thing they saw to be their mother, no matter how ridiculous, and later took it as their object of sexual attraction too.) John Bowlby, psychologist and Mary Ainsley identified what is known as 'attachment' in babies which involves a similar critical period.)
Wilson still talks of a 'gene for altruism', but since the reading of the human genome in 2000, everything in the world of genetics has changed. There are only 22,000 'genes' and half of those code for 'structural proteins' - the basic building blocks common to most creatures, and most of the rest are shared with other life forms - there are just non left to code for all the complexity of human life. Geneticists now talk of gene expression, and a whole new science of epigenetics has grown up over the last fifteen years, as has a whole new science of RNA - micro RNA's, long non-coding RNA and so on and on. Experts I have spoken to have said to me "ten years ago I thought I understood how genes work - now I haven't a clue". That's the general view; that it's much much more complicated than we ever dreamt! The idea of a 'gene for a characteristic' however you define 'gene', is dead! Wilson also talks of alternative 'alleles', but most genes only have at most a few alleles, and where they affect development it is generally for simple things determined by a change of protein, like eye colour, not subtle optimisation for survival.
What Wilson is good at is comparing humans to ants - he is of course the acknowledged expert on hymenoptera. I like the way he points out that an extraterrestrial landing on earth three million years ago would have been amazed by leaf-cutter ants, but considered australopith man to have little future (I paraphrase). He has brought us a very good understanding of how ant societies do not function as human ones do because of a big difference - selection does not occur between workers, who therefore do not compete among themselves; they are a function of the queen's genes. His idea that sociality requires a 'nest', which was initially the fire around which people gathered, is interesting, as is the fact that an ant could never start or carry fire - a matter of scale and getting burnt - and could therefore never build a technology.
Reading his mature work just now I feel his activist detractors (Profs Rose, etc.) should be ashamed of their conduct.
Social Conquest is a triumph of dogged research work and enlightening to scientists in other fields, as well as young entrants in gis own field.