The Social Conquest of Earth

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Overview

New York Times Bestseller
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 ...

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Overview

New York Times Bestseller
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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

This landmark work on human evolution has already been called the culmination of Edward O. Wilson's momentous 60-year career. Drawing on decades of research finding, The Social Conquest of Earth argues that humans rule the Earth because of "group selection" and cooperation. In this revelatory book, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author (On Human Nature; The Ants) explains how the rise of social insects over 100 million years ago prefigures today's planetary domination by land-dwelling invertebrates. Wilson's thesis is certain to be controversial: It refutes the dominant "kin selection" or "selfish gene" explanation of evolution.

Vicki Powers

Nature
“Biologist E. O. Wilson’s brilliant new volume, The Social Conquest of Earth, could more aptly be entitled ‘Biology’s Conquest of Science’. Drawing on his deep understanding of entomology and his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the natural and social sciences, Wilson makes a strong case for the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. Understanding the biological origin of what makes us human can help us to build better theories of social and psychological interaction; in turn, understanding how other social species have evolved may help us to better understand the origin of our own. But the main reason that Wilson’s book is successful is that he also brings into biology the best of what social science has to offer.”— James H. Fowler
Chemical & Engineering News
“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
James H. Fowler - Nature
“Biologist E. O. Wilson’s brilliant new volume, The Social Conquest of Earth, could more aptly be entitled ‘Biology’s Conquest of Science’. Drawing on his deep understanding of entomology and his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the natural and social sciences, Wilson makes a strong case for the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. Understanding the biological origin of what makes us human can help us to build better theories of social and psychological interaction; in turn, understanding how other social species have evolved may help us to better understand the origin of our own. But the main reason that Wilson’s book is successful is that he also brings into biology the best of what social science has to offer.”
President Bill Clinton - New York Times
“I just finished The Social Conquest of Earth, a fabulous book.”
Jared Diamond
“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.”
Henry L. Carrigan
“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.”
Stephen Greenblatt
“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.”
New York Times Book Review - Paul Bloom
“Wilson’s examples of insect eusociality are dazzling… There are obvious parallels with human practices like war and agriculture, but Wilson is also sensitive to the differences… This book offers a detailed reconstruction of what we know about the evolutionary histories of these two very different conquerors. Wilson’s careful and clear analysis reminds us that scientific accounts of our origins aren’t just more accurate than religious stories; they are also a lot more interesting.”
New York Times - Jennifer Schuessler
“A sweeping account of the human rise to domination of the biosphere, rounded out with broad reflections on art, ethics, language and religion.”
Nature - James H. Fowler
“Biologist E. O. Wilson’s brilliant new volume, The Social Conquest of Earth, could more aptly be entitled ‘Biology’s Conquest of Science’. Drawing on his deep understanding of entomology and his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the natural and social sciences, Wilson makes a strong case for the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. Understanding the biological origin of what makes us human can help us to build better theories of social and psychological interaction; in turn, understanding how other social species have evolved may help us to better understand the origin of our own. But the main reason that Wilson’s book is successful is that he also brings into biology the best of what social science has to offer.”
The Atlantic - Howard W. French
“Wilson’s newest theory...could transform our understanding of human nature—and provide hope for our stewardship of the planet.... [His] new book is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities.... Its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers.”
Wall Street Journal - Michael Gazzaniga
“A sweeping argument about the biological origins of complex human culture. It is full of both virtuosity and raw, abrupt assertions that are nonetheless well-crafted and captivating... it is fascinating to see such a distinguished scientist optimistic about the future.”
New Yorker - Jonah Lehrer
“The Social Conquest of the Earth has set off a scientific furor... The controversy is fueled by a larger debate about the evolution of altruism. Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask? This is science with existential stakes.”
Miami Herald - Larry Lebowitz
“That Wilson provides nimble, lucid responses to the three core questions, speaks volumes about his intellectual rigor. That he covers all of this heady terrain in less than 300 pages of text speaks volumes about his literary skill.”
Washington Post - Colin Woodard
“An ambitious and thoroughly engaging work that’s certain to generate controversy within the walls of academia and without… Provocative, eloquent and unflinchingly forthright, Wilson remains true to form, producing a book that’s anything but dull and bound to receive plenty of attention from supporters and critics alike.”
Financial Times - Clive Cookson
“"Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" Those famous questions, inscribed by Paul Gauguin in his giant Tahitian painting of 1897, introduce The Social Conquest of Earth. Their choice proclaims Edward O Wilson’s ambitions for his splendid book, in which he sums up 60 distinguished years of research into the evolution of human beings and social insects.”
The Humanist - Carl Coon
“Wilson has done an impressive job of pulling all this evidence together and analyzing it. His interdisciplinary approach, his established scholarship, and his willingness to engage hot-button issues are all much in evidence in The Social Conquest of Earth…. His reflections on this subject are varied, original, and thought provoking—as is the rest of his book.”
New York Times - Bill Clinton
“I just finished The Social Conquest of Earth, a fabulous book.”
Scientific American - Sandra Upson and Anna Kuchment
“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.”
Chemical & Engineering News - Rudy M. Baum
“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.”
Jennifer Schuessler - New York Times
“A sweeping account of the human rise to domination of the biosphere, rounded out with broad reflections on art, ethics, language and religion.”
Newsweek
“Religion. Sports. War. Biologist E.O. Wilson says our drive to join a group—and to fight for it—is what makes us human.”
Paul Bloom - New York Times Book Review
“Wilson’s examples of insect eusociality are dazzling… There are obvious parallels with human practices like war and agriculture, but Wilson is also sensitive to the differences… This book offers a detailed reconstruction of what we know about the evolutionary histories of these two very different conquerors. Wilson’s careful and clear analysis reminds us that scientific accounts of our origins aren’t just more accurate than religious stories; they are also a lot more interesting.”
Carl Coon - The Humanist
“Wilson has done an impressive job of pulling all this evidence together and analyzing it. His interdisciplinary approach, his established scholarship, and his willingness to engage hot-button issues are all much in evidence in The Social Conquest of Earth…. His reflections on this subject are varied, original, and thought provoking—as is the rest of his book.”
Michael Gazzaniga - Wall Street Journal
“A sweeping argument about the biological origins of complex human culture. It is full of both virtuosity and raw, abrupt assertions that are nonetheless well-crafted and captivating... it is fascinating to see such a distinguished scientist optimistic about the future.”
Howard W. French - The Atlantic
“Wilson’s newest theory...could transform our understanding of human nature—and provide hope for our stewardship of the planet.... [His] new book is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities.... Its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers.”
James D. Watson
“A monumental exploration of the biological origins of the Human Condition!”
Oliver Sacks
“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.”
Jonah Lehrer - New Yorker
“The Social Conquest of the Earth has set off a scientific furor... The controversy is fueled by a larger debate about the evolution of altruism. Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask? This is science with existential stakes.”
Booklist
“Starred review. With bracing insights into instinct, language, organized religion, the humanities, science, and social intelligence, this is a deeply felt, powerfully written, and resounding inquiry into the human condition.”
Larry Lebowitz - Miami Herald
“That Wilson provides nimble, lucid responses to the three core questions, speaks volumes about his intellectual rigor. That he covers all of this heady terrain in less than 300 pages of text speaks volumes about his literary skill.”
Rudy M. Baum - Chemical & Engineering News
“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.”
New York Times
“I just finished The Social Conquest of Earth, a fabulous book.”— President Bill Clinton
New York Times Book Review
“Wilson’s examples of insect eusociality are dazzling… There are obvious parallels with human practices like war and agriculture, but Wilson is also sensitive to the differences… This book offers a detailed reconstruction of what we know about the evolutionary histories of these two very different conquerors. Wilson’s careful and clear analysis reminds us that scientific accounts of our origins aren’t just more accurate than religious stories; they are also a lot more interesting.”— Paul Bloom
The Humanist
“Wilson has done an impressive job of pulling all this evidence together and analyzing it. His interdisciplinary approach, his established scholarship, and his willingness to engage hot-button issues are all much in evidence in The Social Conquest of Earth…. His reflections on this subject are varied, original, and thought provoking—as is the rest of his book.”— Carl Coon
Wall Street Journal
“A sweeping argument about the biological origins of complex human culture. It is full of both virtuosity and raw, abrupt assertions that are nonetheless well-crafted and captivating... it is fascinating to see such a distinguished scientist optimistic about the future.”— Michael Gazzaniga
The Atlantic
“Wilson’s newest theory...could transform our understanding of human nature—and provide hope for our stewardship of the planet.... [His] new book is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities.... Its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers.”— Howard W. French
New Yorker
The Social Conquest of the Earth has set off a scientific furor... The controversy is fueled by a larger debate about the evolution of altruism. Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask? This is science with existential stakes.”— Jonah Lehrer
Miami Herald
“That Wilson provides nimble, lucid responses to the three core questions, speaks volumes about his intellectual rigor. That he covers all of this heady terrain in less than 300 pages of text speaks volumes about his literary skill.”— Larry Lebowitz
Sandra Upson and Anna Kuchment - Scientific American
“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.”
Colin Woodard - Washington Post
“An ambitious and thoroughly engaging work that’s certain to generate controversy within the walls of academia and without… Provocative, eloquent and unflinchingly forthright, Wilson remains true to form, producing a book that’s anything but dull and bound to receive plenty of attention from supporters and critics alike.”
Clive Cookson - Financial Times
“"Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Those famous questions, inscribed by Paul Gauguin in his giant Tahitian painting of 1897, introduce The Social Conquest of Earth. Their choice proclaims Edward O Wilson’s ambitions for his splendid book, in which he sums up 60 distinguished years of research into the evolution of human beings and social insects.”
Scientific American
“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
Washington Post
“An ambitious and thoroughly engaging work that’s certain to generate controversy within the walls of academia and without… Provocative, eloquent and unflinchingly forthright, Wilson remains true to form, producing a book that’s anything but dull and bound to receive plenty of attention from supporters and critics alike.”— Colin Woodard
Financial Times
“"Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Those famous questions, inscribed by Paul Gauguin in his giant Tahitian painting of 1897, introduce The Social Conquest of Earth. Their choice proclaims Edward O Wilson’s ambitions for his splendid book, in which he sums up 60 distinguished years of research into the evolution of human beings and social insects.”— Clive Cookson
Colin Woodard
…an ambitious and thoroughly engaging work that's certain to generate controversy within the walls of academia and without…Provocative, eloquent and unflinchingly forthright, Wilson remains true to form, producing a book that's anything but dull and bound to receive plenty of attention from supporters and critics alike.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this wide-ranging book, Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Harvard scientist (The Ants), addresses the large question of “why advanced social life exists at all, and has occurred so rarely in the history of life.” Wilson, the world’s leading expert on ants, compares the evolutionary similarities between the social insects—“2 percent of the one million known species of insects”—and humans. Much of this material has been recycled from Wilson’s previous work. He triggers more interest when he argues that biologists have been seriously mistaken about the way evolution operates. Instead of the current paradigm stressing the importance of individual and kin selection (as kin carry many of the individual’s genes), Wilson believes that human evolution is driven by individual and non–kinship-based group selection (prehumans living in groups cared for their young and divided labor; groups competed against each other on one level of selection, and within a group, individuals competed to reproduce). Wilson believes that complex patterns of social behavior are the result of selection at both group and individual levels, but he doesn’t go into enough depth (which would include mathematical analysis) to be completely persuasive. He does, however, explore the factors leading to the development of morality, religion, and the creative arts in human society. 90 illus. Agent: John Williams, Kneerim & Williams Agency. (Apr.)
Alyssa A. Botelho - The Harvard Crimson
“Wilson frames The Social Conquest of Earth as a dialogue with painter Paul Gauguin, who penned on the canvas of his 1897 Tahitian masterpiece: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” ...Wilson attempts to answer Gauguin... by embracing the existential questioning of the humanities without sacrificing the “unrelenting application of reason” at the core of empirical science.”
Washington Independent Review of Books
What Wilson ends up doing is so profound that the last eight chapters… could stand alone as a separate book, because what he ends up doing is no less than defining human nature itself.— Robert Knight
The Daily
Pretty much anything Wilson writes is well worth reading, and his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth, is no exception… Read the master biologist himself in this marvelous book...— Michael Shermer
Nature Magazine
Biologist E. O. Wilson’s brilliant new volume, The Social Conquest of Earth, could more aptly be entitled ‘Biology’s Conquest of Science’. Drawing on his deep understanding of entomology and his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the natural and social sciences, Wilson makes a strong case for the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. Understanding the biological origin of what makes us human can help us to build better theories of social and psychological interaction; in turn, understanding how other social species have evolved may help us to better understand the origin of our own. But the main reason that Wilson’s book is successful is that he also brings into biology the best of what social science has to offer.— James H. Fowler
Robert Knight - Washington Independent Review of Books
“What Wilson ends up doing is so profound that the last eight chapters… could stand alone as a separate book, because what he ends up doing is no less than defining human nature itself.”
Michael Shermer - The Daily
“Pretty much anything Wilson writes is well worth reading, and his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth, is no exception… Read the master biologist himself in this marvelous book...”
James H. Fowler - Nature Magazine
“Biologist E. O. Wilson’s brilliant new volume, The Social Conquest of Earth, could more aptly be entitled ‘Biology’s Conquest of Science’. Drawing on his deep understanding of entomology and his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the natural and social sciences, Wilson makes a strong case for the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. Understanding the biological origin of what makes us human can help us to build better theories of social and psychological interaction; in turn, understanding how other social species have evolved may help us to better understand the origin of our own. But the main reason that Wilson’s book is successful is that he also brings into biology the best of what social science has to offer.”
The Harvard Crimson
Wilson frames The Social Conquest of Earth as a dialogue with painter Paul Gauguin, who penned on the canvas of his 1897 Tahitian masterpiece: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" ...Wilson attempts to answer Gauguin... by embracing the existential questioning of the humanities without sacrificing the "unrelenting application of reason" at the core of empirical science.— Alyssa A. Botelho
New York Times Sunday Review
Reading E. O. Wilson’s Social Conquest of Earth is a revolutionary look at who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. It’s very hopeful in that he suggests that we have the capacity to learn to live within the planet’s means. I personally call this the sweet spot in history. Never before have we had the knowledge and opportunity as good as we have now to make change. The great message Wilson conveys is that there’s still time.— Kate Murphy
Kate Murphy - New York Times Sunday Review
“Reading E. O. Wilson’s Social Conquest of Earth is a revolutionary look at who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. It’s very hopeful in that he suggests that we have the capacity to learn to live within the planet’s means. I personally call this the sweet spot in history. Never before have we had the knowledge and opportunity as good as we have now to make change. The great message Wilson conveys is that there’s still time.”
Library Journal
The renowned evolutionary biologist, Harvard professor, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner offers an engrossing exploration of the scientific origins of the human condition. Wilson believes that to understand the human condition, first we must understand how humankind came to have advanced social lives and the capacity for altruistic behavior. Wilson asks if, as Darwin stated, evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest, what explanation can there be for the existence of altruism in beehives, ant colonies, and human society? Jonathan Hogan's warm narration has the feel of a lecture by a favorite college professor, and his pacing perfectly complements the author's fascinating look at "What are we, where did we come from, and where are we going?" VERDICT Recommended for those who enjoy scientific histories such as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. ["Here's a scientist's-eye view, no doubt gracefully told, explaining why we humans have inherited the earth. Important," read the review of the Norton hc, LJ 3/15/12.—Ed.]—Beth Farrell, Cleveland State Univ. Law Lib.
Library Journal
According to two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson (The Ants), recent advances in evolutionary science provide practical answers to two of humanity's enduring existential questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Succinctly, Wilson explains that we are members of a "eusocial" species with behaviors, aptitudes, and perceptions that evolved via interplay among multilevel evolutionary forces. Our innate, interdependent social organization evolved in response to pressures not fundamentally different from those that led to stratified insect "superorganism" colonies. The difference is intelligence, and Wilson shows how culture, religion, altruism, conflict, and even art can be explained by an evolutionary tug-of-war between the pressures of individual versus group selection. A positive answer to humanity's last big question—Where are we going?—depends on our ability to use our species' self-knowledge to create the world we want. VERDICT Wilson is a prolific and popular biological theorist, and this significant addition to his legacy of thought will be controversial, provocative, and influential.—Gregg Sapp, Olympia WA
Kirkus Reviews
Never shy about tackling big questions, veteran evolutionary biologist Wilson (The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, 2006, etc.) delivers his thoughtful if contentious explanation of why humans rule the Earth. After a respectful nod to the old favorites (big brains, tools, language, fire), the author maintains that these merely provide the background to our overpowering "eusociality"; we are the world's most intensely social creatures, living in complex societies of mutually dependent individuals. Wilson adds that another eusocial organism, the ant, dominated terrestrial life for 50 million years before humans appeared; it remains a close second. The author provides a provocative comparison of how this powerful but rare evolutionary strategy vaulted two wildly different species to the top of the heap. Both originated with individuals cooperating and behaving altruistically, often sacrificing themselves, to protect a defensible nest. For humans this crucial step began when extended families of our Homo erectus ancestors gathered around campfires over one million years ago. Gradually members of multiple generations divided labor and specialized. Natural selection worked to expand this eusociality, and Wilson emphasizes that it was the group that evolved. Whether they were genetically related or not mattered little. Group selection—as opposed to kin selection, i.e., the "selfish gene" à la Richard Dawkins—is the author's big idea. Few lay readers will disagree, but Wilson's fellow biologists are not so sure; kin versus group selection remains a subject of fierce debate. Wilson succeeds in explaining his complex ideas, so attentive readers will receive a deeply satisfying exposure to a major scientific controversy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871403636
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 4/15/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 44,853
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward O. Wilson is widely recognized as one of the world's preeminent biologists and naturalists. The author of more than twenty books, including The Creation, The Social Conquest of Earth, and Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson is a professor emeritus at Harvard University. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, he lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

I Why Does Advanced Social Life Exist?

1 The Human Condition 7

II Where Do We Come From?

2 The Two Paths to Conquest 13

3 The Approach 21

4 The Arrival 33

5 Threading the Evolutionary Maze 45

6 The Creative Forces 49

7 Tribalism Is a Fundamental Human Trait 57

8 War as Humanity's Hereditary Curse 62

9 The Breakout 77

10 The Creative Explosion 85

11 The Sprint to Civilization 97

III How Social Insects Conquered the Invertebrate World

12 The Invention of Eusociality 109

13 Inventions That Advanced the Social Insects 120

IV The Forces of Social Evolution

14 The Scientific Dilemma of Rarity 133

15 Insect Altruism and Eusociality Explained 139

16 Insects Take the Giant Leap 148

17 How Natural Selection Creates Social Instincts 158

18 The Forces of Social Evolution 166

19 The Emergence of a New Theory of Eusociality 183

V What Are We?

20 What Is Human Nature? 191

21 How Culture Evolved 212

22 The Origins of Language 225

23 The Evolution of Cultural Variation 236

24 The Origins of Morality and Honor 241

25 The Origins of Religion 255

26 The Origins of the Creative Arts 268

VI Where Are We Going?

27 A New Enlightenment 287

Acknowledgments 301

References 303

Index 327

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 15, 2012

    HIGHLY TOXIC! I grew distressed when I read a novel written by


    HIGHLY TOXIC!

    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.

    13 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • 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

    11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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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"

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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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

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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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

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    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.

    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.

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    Posted December 22, 2012

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    Posted October 1, 2014

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    Posted May 25, 2012

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