A sweeping history of life and a great read. Despite his special interest in entomology, Wilson is a great generalist who is able to combine evidence from the sciences and the humanities to give us a new look at human nature and an understanding of its consequences, both for us and the rest of life on this planet. Having evolved by both individual selection and group selection, we are torn between selfishness and altruism. These two driving forces make us what we are, for better or for worse. Defined by these opposites, we struggle for a balance between our creativity and our destructivity. "The brain ... is an organ not merely divided into major parts but divided against itself." This dichotomy has given rise to all of our great art, music, literature and science, but it has now brought us to the brink of disaster.
"The struggle to control vital resources continues globally, and it is growing worse. The problem arose because humanity failed to seize the great opportunity given it at the dawn of the Neolithic era. It might then have halted population growth below the constraining minimum limit. As a species we did the opposite, however. There was no way for us to foresee the consequences of our initial success. We simply took what was given us and continued to multiply and consume in blind obedience to instincts inherited from our humbler, more brutally constrained Paleolithic ancestors."
This book is a perfect companion to Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update
. Using Gauguin's great painting "Where Did We Come From? What Are We We? Where Are We Going?" as an outline, Wilson, in tackling that last question, comes to the same conclusions as the authors of Limits, who first warned us of them back in 1972, that we are "destroying our birthplace":
"The evidence for climate warming, with industrial pollution as the principal cause, is now overwhelming. Also evident upon even casual inspection is the rapid disappearance of tropical forests and grasslands and other habitats where most of the diversity of life exists. If global changes caused by HIPPO (Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, Overpopulation, and Overharvesting, in that order of importance) are not abated, half the species of plants and animals could be extinct or at least among the 'living dead'--about to become extinct--by the end of the century. We are needlessly turning the gold we inherited from our forebears into straw, and for that we will be despised by our descendants."
After acknowledging that myths and gods have been the well springs of much great art, Wilson rightly condemns today's organized religions because "they encourage ignorance, distract people from recognizing problems of the real world, and often lead them in wrong directions into disastrous actions." But then he confesses to his own blind faith: "Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay."
Unfortunately this faith is not supported by the evidence. Wilson is not taking into consideration the rapidly closing window of opportunity to turn things around. As Limits to Growth shows, population, non-renewable resource depletion and pollution are growing exponentially, overshooting the ability of the global ecosystem to sustain them. Their computer models, using current data, show a collapse of the industrial system around 2050, just as their 1972 models did. The one thing Wilson overlooked in his examination of Homo sapiens' evolution is that our brains and our cultures have developed during long periods when rates of change were very slow compared to the present. We're not wired to deal with problems beyond our own generation. By the time our politicians and corporations see it coming, it will be too late. Yes, we have the technology to begin converting to long-term sustainability right now, but it's not happening. We are creatures of the moment. Selfishness comes first, altruism later, both for individuals and nations. If it were otherwise, as Wilson says, we would be social robots like the ants. But "acceptance of what we truly are" may be our only hope, and in that sense books like these are of great value.