The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson

The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson

It is rare that I finish a book and upon closing it think, I am so glad that I read this book. Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth is one of those books.

This book seeks to answer the big questions: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Humans have grappled with these questions for as long as we have existed. Wilson contends that the true nature of the human condition can only be revealed through rigorous scientific scholarship. To get to the core of what he believes to be the human condition, Wilson relies on his long, distinguished career  – which includes two Pulitzer Prizes – studying ants and social behavior. Ants, like Homo sapiens, are one of the few eusocial (“true social condition”) species. Wilson states that members of eusocial species “belong to multiple generations. They divide labor in what outwardly at least appears to be an altruistic manner. Some take labor roles that shorten their life spans or reduce the number of personal offspring, or both. Their sacrifice allows others who fill reproductive roles to live longer and produce proportionately more offspring.”

Wilson argues strongly that altruism, acting selflessly in defense of others, is the key to understanding humanity’s rapid evolution and explosive growth in numbers. Existing theories of the evolution of altruism focus on the role of competition between members of groups and between groups themselves. Richard Dawkins, well known for The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, is a strong supporter of this explanation, known as kin selection and inclusive fitness. Wilson, however, finds these explanations to be unsatisfactory. Kin selection and its close cousin, inclusive fitness, may explain why a parent would die for his/her child or why a girl might save her drowning younger brother. However, Wilson contends that kin selection does not explain why a colony of bees sacrifice so much for the collective good or why someone might save an unrelated stranger from a burning building.

Wilson asserts that group selection, rather than individual selection, is responsible for humanity’s astoundingly fast evolution, our tribal nature, and the development of culture. He draws upon a figure no less well respected in the field of evolution than Charles Darwin, who said that tribes where members give of themselves for the greater good “would be victorious over most other tribes.” In other words, selfish individuals may beat altruistic ones, but altruistic groups are genetically destined to be more successful than selfish ones. The human condition, Wilson contends, arises from our struggle between selfishness and altruism. “The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual, but largely in opposition to each other,” he writes.

After laying out this new “eusocial” theory of human evolution, Wilson applies it to the question, “What are we?”. He offers (perhaps too) speedy explanations for the origins of language, the creative arts, morality, and religion. Wilson asserts the religion does not facilitate submission to God but “to no more than a tribe united by a creation myth.” He concludes his view of religion by stating that “A good first step for the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully, the claims of those in power who claim they speak for God, are a special representative of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God’s divine will.” For those familiar with Dawkins’ work this will not be an entirely unfamiliar take on religion. However, Wilson handles the subject with greater respect for the religious than Dawkins does.

On the whole this is an incredibly well written book. Wilson wrote with a general (educated)  audience in mind. I was able to follow along quite well with my International Baccalaureate biology from high school and microbiology from college. The Social Conquest of Earth is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the origins of humanity, evolution, or the development of culture.

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