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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Between a rock and a hard place, April 19, 2012
This review is from: The Social Conquest of Earth (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 19, 2012, 9:57:49 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 20, 2012, 2:07:28 AM PDT
Mr. Criswell writes: "Having evolved by both individual selection and group selection, we are torn between selfishness and altruism."
This highly misleading statement is an example of the kind of confusion Wilson creates even for the most intelligent non-specialist readers when he, really quite inexplicably, promotes biological (genetic) group selection theory, as an alternative to inclusive fitness theory, supposedly as the best foundation for understanding human psychology. (See my review and the comment stream that ensues.) Individual selection which, largely thanks to W.D. Hamilton, we now see is identical to selection to maximize individual inclusive fitness over a lifetime, can account for all the heartfelt - albeit ultimately, on average, inclusive fitness enhancing - altruism we see manifest in the human and non-human biological worlds, as well as the more overtly selfish behaviors swirling around us. On the other hand, if, which is doubtful, a form of group selection has acted on humans that is not just a mathematical equivalent to kin selection (kin selection is just another name for the aforementioned selection on individuals to maximize their inclusive fitness), it would *not only* produce altruism. Such group selection would be all about entire groups outcompeting other entire groups, and so would drive the evolution of very bad behavior toward out-group members, e.g., genocidal inclinations, not just in-group altruism. -- Dr. Paul J. Watson, 19 April 2012

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 20, 2012, 5:04:34 PM PDT
Elementery, my dear Watson! --Sorry, I couldn't help myself. But Dr. Watson is correct. Different aspects of selfishness and altruism derive from *both* individual and group selection. I didn't want to get into the Hamilton Inequality vs. Wilson's new theory of group selection argument. As interesting and enlightening as that is, it doesn't alter our chimeric nature, no matter which side you agree with. And it's a side issue to the main question of this book, which so many reviewers seem to miss: Where are we going? --Warren

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 21, 2012, 1:25:10 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 23, 2012, 5:10:47 PM PDT
If your interest, understandably, is where the human race is going, as Wilson's "Conquest" purports to divine, then consider this: evolutionary biology is not much of a predictive science. It is not meant to be. Rather, it does a wonderful job of elucidating the historical path that got us to our - or any species' - present design and that design's purpose(s) vis-à-vis cooperative and competitive relationships with other inhabitants of the same ecosystem. So, evolutionary biology is more of a historical science. Wilson is indulging in more unnecessary and weak self-glorification when he appoints himself the job of predicting our species' future.

I wonder if Darwin ever tried to predict biological futures. I do not think so. All he predicted were future scientific advances, including some specific ones. W.D. Hamilton predicted some things about our species' future, e.g., sad results if we fail to allow natural selection to act on us and keep us strong. For example, I cannot remember where, he pointed out that attaining zero population growth, a popular ecological goal, would doom us to extinction because even just keeping up in the antagonistic coevolutionary arms race with pathogens and parasites requires tons of "surplus individuals" who succumb (die) each generation, and, in so doing, serve as disposal units for immuno-ineffective genes. Didn't mean to ruin your Earth Day.

(Evolutionary biologists, of course, do predict the outcome of observations and experiments based on knowledge of a species' natural history and relevant bits of evolutionary theory. But such predictions are aimed at testing hypotheses about the *current design* of evolved systems, not their futures.)

To see the truth of my view above, just consider Wilson's own maze metaphor in the early chapters of "Conquest." It nicely illustrates how unlikely our evolution was. (Achtung! Like Wilson, I am not intending to open the door to folks who might wish to claim that "getting to human" would have required the occasional guiding hand of an interventionist god.) At the same time, the maze metaphor shows that at various stages in our line's evolution, it would have been quite impossible to reliably predict what turn would be made in the maze and, moreover, at the time a given turn was taken, whether the forward path (e.g., toward humanness) would have remained open or become soon or immediately blocked - a function of whether other semi-independently evolving ecosystem inhabitants or abiotic features of the environment (e.g., climate perturbations) would accommodate our ancestors "cashing in" on its new matrix of "preadaptations" along the "chosen" evolutionary pathway or not.

Wilson does a pretty good job of presenting the idea of a species' evolution as a trip through a constantly shape-shifting maze, where there are passages not only multiple paths to "choose" from at any given intersection, but whose passages are sometimes conveniently and often inconveniently opening and closing, due to diverse abiotic and biotic changes, both in front of and behind the evolving species. But, this same metaphor teaches us that we cannot predict where we are going, even under the tutelage of a wannabe soothsayer like Wilson.

The problem of predicting our cultural or genetic evolutionary future is compounded when you do not even know the current state of the organism. And this is why the issue of evolutionary mechanisms, e.g., group versus kin selection, is not a side issue. If we now exist with some mental mechanisms designed by group selection, that means that we have the potential to really sacrifice our individual (inclusive) fitness for the sake of group fitness. That would mean, potentially, that we could find ways to convince people that "we are all one group" bound to a common fate, and that such a narrative might activate altruistic behaviors for the sake of our species longevity without the individual caring about assurance of some worthwhile payback (with interest). Thus, bully-pulpit appeals to group and metagroup interests really could help us avoid a global tragedy of the commons. For example, lectures promoting non-reproduction or reduced food and energy consumption could gain real traction without the "what's in it for me" question being asked, however subconsciously.

However, if our minds are exclusively the product of individual selection for maximization of inclusive fitness (over a lifetime), then the situation is altogether different. People will *not* be convinced in significant numbers to make substantive sacrifices for the good of the metagroup of all humanity. They will be instinctively looking for assurance of a payback, in fact a reproductive profit. To extract short, medium, or long term sacrifices that are good for humanity and its habitat, the Earth, from a creature with a mind bent on maximizing inclusive fitness will take a very different ad campaign than if we are dealing with a mind capable of "true altruism."

So, the bottom line is, when trying to sell an idea or agenda, know the mind of your customer. Here, Wilson, in his zeal to go out with a big bang rather than a muffled sputter (?), misleads us.

I have written this rather quickly and with an openness to sincere discussion. So, just as in my classroom, I do not mind anyone pointing out flaws in my thinking. Indeed I appreciate it. And, thank you for stimulating me to think and write. Perhaps all the above is too obvious... but that won't stop me from making one more point.

PS: I would like to point out that "true altruism," the kind group selection might foster in relation to a perceived in-group, might well *feel* the same as "selfish altruism," the kind guaranteed by kin selection. The desire to do good would probably be just as heartfelt. I cannot go into the reasons for this claim now. The point is that there would be no reason to trust one's feelings as an indication of whether one was acting in the name of true versus selfish altruism. We are built to have a subjective socially efficacious (fitness enhancing) experience of inner and outer reality.

Dr. Paul J. Watson
Albuquerque, NM, USA
21 April 2012

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 21, 2012, 11:16:12 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 21, 2012, 11:20:06 AM PDT
"We are built to have a subjective socially efficacious (fitness enhancing) experience of inner and outer reality." So you share Wilson's optimism, expressed in his "blind faith" statement at the end-- even though you know, as he does, that the two are often in conflict. It's this conflict that characterizes our species. Like all other organisms, we have stumbled through the evolutionary maze--or to borrow a more apt metaphor from Borges, through our garden of forking paths. If we had taken the path of inclusive fitness we'd be like the baboons, if by group selection we'd be social robots like the ants. Our unprecedented success, our "conquest of Earth," is due to our combination of these opposites. It's an "inconvenient truth" to admit that this success may now be leading to our colossal failure, but as a scientist you have to face the facts, physical as well as biological.

Wilson is not so much predicting the future as issuing a warning, via one of those bully pulpits you mentioned. Good luck, btw, with this method of transforming us--farmers, politicians, CEOs, etc.--into altruistic beings who will magically stop the destruction of our life support systems for the benefit of future generations. You haven't addressed my last point-- the closing window of opportunity for this to happen, and how our brains have not evolved to deal with that kind of time span. I realize that to a biologist Wilson's "big bang" is an important issue, and I agree, but this is why I called it a side issue--not to Wilson but to the global problem. "We have met the enemy, and he is us!"

Thank you too, Dr. Watson, for the discussion! Your classroom gives you a bully pulpit of your own, and if you can enlighten and inspire even one student about these problems, who knows?--it might make all the difference. Ignorance may be a bigger obstacle than selfishness.


PS. The global industrial collapse, if it happens, might not be as catastrophic an event as the end of the Mesozoic. Unlike the dinosaurs, we might not go extinct. The biosphere would gradually heal itself, "due to diverse abiotic and biotic changes, both in front of and behind the evolving species," during which the human survivors would maybe adapt, genetically and culturally, to coexistence rather than conquest. They might think of those who didn't make it as "surplus individuals," necessary victims of an experiment gone bad. But who knows what fork in the path we may stumble into next?

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 21, 2012, 4:03:54 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 21, 2012, 4:11:10 PM PDT
Warren and All,

There are multiple interesting elements in your last comment I would like to respond to, often agreeing, at least in part. Presently, I'm just going to take a moment to offer, again, that Wilson's theoretical-level error concerning the process(es) behind human evolution potentially is not a "side issue," because one thing worse, and more essential and urgent to realize than, "We have met the enemy and he is us," is the more accurate, IMO, statement that, "We have not met the enemy, and he is us."

Regards, Paul

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 21, 2012, 5:22:31 PM PDT
Very true, Paul. Knowing ourselves is the hard part, whether individually or as a species. I'm just saying that whether you or Wilson is right about the mechanics of evolution, we are where we are and time is running out.

(Speaking of knowing ourselves, another book you might like is "The Speciation of Modern Homo sapiens," edited by Tim Crow. The authors tackle the problem of our origin using not only genetics and evolutionary theory but also palaeontology, archaeology, linguistics and cognitive science.)


In reply to an earlier post on Apr 23, 2012, 6:19:22 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 24, 2012, 7:31:27 AM PDT
Let me try to address the weak and unfortunate "blind faith" remark by Wilson at the end of "Conquest."

I am a staunch materialist, but one who nevertheless believes that we humans have little idea how far we can advance our intelligence and sensitivity relative to our day-to-day automatically generated levels. But, we all know, or can know, a little about how quality of consciousness varies... and that matters. It negates the need for blind faith.

The problem with such an esteemed scientist declaring blind faith, in anything, is that it gives everyone license - encouragement, actually - to indulge in and actively promote any lunatic vision of how we make a future that they happen to feel is true, all the while with the contents of their consciousness under virtually complete control of their unconscious limbically-based value systems (sensu, Gerald Edelman, 2000, "A Universe of Consciousness").

Wilson knows enough about people to know that we need faith in something. Was his only choice to offer "blind faith?" Maybe, I don't him. But, I doubt that Wilson really just has blind faith. He has faith, based on his richly lived experience, in the power of learning, and increasing consilience amongst fields of objective and subjective learning, to move us collectively toward a more enlightened and caring state. He shows this, perhaps too half-heartedly, in the very last sentence of the current book.

Wilson's blind faith remark, IMO, is contra the advancement of the many humanitarian and pro-biospheric projects he believes in. He tells us he *blindly* hopes for universal interpersonal common decency as part of our salvation; also, "just growing up;" and too, the "Star Trek" flavored virtue-generating synergism between everything from gene mapping to poetry? Notions of "blind faith" and "just growing up" make any basis for hope for these movements taking hold strongly enough to promote decent biospheric survival seem about as lame as Nancy Reagan's anti-drug (or was it anti-unmarried sex?) "just say no campaign."

I am pretty sure that such "blind faith" leads nowhere except to places we've essentially already been. As Warren points out, there is no time for us to be running in such circles anymore; the biosphere is quickly deteriorating.

What we need is a thorough, pan-cultural, increasingly skilled intrapsychic housecleaning, one that especially takes the great new evidence-based "objectifying influences" of the evolutionary social and neurosciences and uses them to help us discern which combinations of contemplative practices and humanitarian and scientific courses of study increase consciousness (i.e., for me, the amount of knowledge and feeling we can bring to bear together, including contradictions, when processing an impression of ourselves or some aspect of outer reality). Experientially-based faith in consciousness is the only useful grounding and lasting inspirational source for a human being. I think, given the pain one has to bear knowing the things that Wilson knows (despite his errant and handicapped theoretical perspectives), that he would have given up a long time ago if he did not have some of that variety of unblind faith driving him.

Paul J. Watson
23 April 2012
revised 4-24-12

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 23, 2012, 10:16:33 PM PDT
I agree, Paul. I don't think Wilson really has this faith he expressed anymore than I think you really have "experientially-based faith in consciousness." I understand the need for an "inspirational source," something greater than ourselves, as Wilson does. But science and faith don't mix-- even if it's faith in science. As you know, our species is facing an existential crisis, and it's going to take more than "contemplative practices and humanitarian and scientific courses of study"--as important as those are--to get us through it. I'm afraid that once it dawns on us that global altruism IS selfishness, thus providing an incentive to our politicians and corporations, it will be too late. If it's not already. Consciousness might turn out to be one of those dead ends in the evolutionary maze.


PS. Again, I would encourage you and your students to take a look at "Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update."
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