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Posted April 15, 2012
HIGHLY TOXIC! I grew distressed when I read a novel written by
I grew distressed when I read a novel written by my erstwhile hero, E. O. Wilson, called Anthill (2010.) In it religion is clearly a malignant force, but most upsetting is that he clearly draws parallels between ants and humans in depicting colonies of ants in a state of chronic war at the end of which the victorious colony decimates the vanquished one down to the last individual. The theory behind this transparent allegory is expounded this book the authority of which is largely based on the mathematical formulas of a younger colleague at Harvard named Martin Nowak. Dr. Nowak has written a book for the layman, called Super Cooperators (2011), in which he waxes grandiloquently on the transcendent, Platonic status of mathematics.
Based on Nowak’s God-like math, Dr. Wilson now thinks the super-cooperation of eusocial insects resulted from defending their nests and speculates that similar human cooperation arose mainly as a result of defending campsites as a result of controlling fire. This is an image of human nature in which the deepest expression of who we are is Caesar avenging Hannibal by completely annihilating the civilization of Carthage down to the last person and flattening all their dwellings.
Dr. Wilson’s abandonment of the well established genetic science of kin selection, and his embracing of the defense of camp sites as the wellspring of human nature amongst warring groups (read races) has an eerily familiar ring to it. This is an old poison in a brand new bottle, and its name is Social Darwinism, and this time around, it comes with mathematical “proof.” The main issue is the degree that competition between pre-human groups was the essential ingredient of our cooperative nature. This is a warning to the gullible readers of this book that Wilson is disinterring a highly toxic ant myth about human nature.
For a very different vision of human nature, also with plenty of evidence, visit Apes, ants and ancestors.
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Posted April 8, 2012
A Brief Summary and Review
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. This development itself was largely a result of a genetic modification that led our ancestors to rely more and more on meat in their diet (and was later spurred on by the ability to control fire).
Once human beings had established nests, environmental pressures began selecting for traits that increasingly drew group members into cooperative relationships with one another (which cooperation was beneficial in such enterprises as hunting expeditions). This added cooperation not only contributed to the extent to which these early humans could reap resources from the environment, but also helped them in competition with other groups--especially in warfare. The benefits of cooperation and cohesion in allowing groups to out-compete other groups eventually allowed group-level selection to add a layer of tribalist sentiment to the members of our species. This tribalist sentiment eventually set the stage for the development of the first religions.
Backing up in our story just a bit, for our in-group cooperation to occur, added mental equipment was needed (and evolved) that allowed humans to understand each others' intentions and work together to achieve goals. This added mental ability drew upon earlier increases in brain capacity that our ancestors had used first for life in the trees, and later for life on the ground, to fashion rudimentary tools. Eventually, the added mental capacity evolved into the ability to understand abstraction, and to use arbitrary symbols for communication, thus leading to the evolution of language.
Once the capacity for abstraction and language were established, the capacity for culture exploded and our ancestors were set on the fast track that led to our current way of life. Specifically, the explosion of culture led to technology that eventually gave rise to agriculture, and then chiefdoms, and finally states. Additionally, the stage was set for the development of art and music, and all of the other trappings of culture that we know and enjoy today. A full summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com on or before Monday, April 16; the information in the article will also be avail. in a condensed version as podcast soon
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Posted May 8, 2012
Great book, a must read
I came to read this book in a round about way. I purchased "Did Man Create God" by David E. Comings. That book referenced "Eight little Piggies" by by Stephen Jay Gould. I bought for the reference. "Eight little Piggies" referenced this book. I bought this book for the reference. All three books are excellent. If you like anthropology, who we are, where we come from and where we are going, this is a must read. I recommend reading this book, then reading "Eight Little Piggies" followed by "Did Man Create God"
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Posted August 11, 2012
What is the nature of human nature? Does the development of cul
What is the nature of human nature? Does the development of culture follow the same rules as the evolution of species? Are cultural attributes subject to natural selection and "survival of the fittest" in the same was as population traits are?
E. O. Wilson, noted authority on ants and social animals in general, has in The Social Conquest of Earth, attempted to extend to the general public the most up-to-date findings of biologists, psychologists and anthropologists on the evolution of "eusociality", or "true" sociality, that rare occurrence among animals in which the group rather than the individual becomes the "organism" that occupies some ecological niche and in which individuals assume specific roles within a "culture", some of which involve a degree of altruism that is counter to their own reproductive success. The author is unabashedly attempting to derive a biological theory equivalent to physic's general relativity. While Wilson may very well be right this book is not that likely to sway large numbers of the general public. The author, commendably, scrupulously avoids the techno-babble of biological scientific literature, but, in spite of these efforts, his explanations are often rather dense and inaccessible.
Wilson coins the term "multi-level selection" to describe the process by which natural selection operates on groups - simultaneously selecting some "cultural" traits that benefit the group and some that benefit the individual. He contrasts this as a "style" of natural selection that is in sharp contrast to theories of inclusive fitness based on kin selection. Ironically while emphatically disassembling kin selection he includes an extended quote of Haldane's that, as a piece of scientific propaganda, is much better written than most of this book. The consequence of multi-level selection, Wilson argues, is that humans exhibit a dual nature, both saints and sinners - a dual nature that is an essential and inseparable part of the human condition.
In his final chapter, in an attempt to present an alternative "rational morality", Wilson mounts a no-holds-barred attack on traditional religions, which is, unfortunately, not backed up by an equally passionate defense and explanation of his alternative.
The book provides extensive, semi-annotated references.
As a work of popular science, The Social Conquest of Earth is worth reading for its insights in the behavior of the social insects, etc. However, the book is not the be-all-that-ends-all explanation that will sway public to the extent that the author wishes.
Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University
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Posted May 17, 2012
Well worth reading
As usual Edward Wilson presents interesting new ideas. The book is well written and maintains one's interest throughout
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Posted July 27, 2013
A theory in search of a problem
As of now group selection which is the heart of this book is not thought to be probable by the scientific consensus of those in the field of evolutionary theory. You'd never know it reading this book because Mr. Wilson never addresses the scientific objections to his work.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
He never really discusses the evidence to support his hypothesis just points to things in the human condition and asserts group selection must have been at work. He reminds me of the theists he detests pointing at the human eye asserting only God could have done it.
Lastly not once does he mention recipricol altruism which is an alternate explanation for the human traits he says can only be explained by group slection. In a scientific work not to not include counter arguments makes this work a non-informative polemic I wish I hadn't bought or read.
Posted December 22, 2012
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Posted August 14, 2013
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Posted May 25, 2012
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