In his new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” renowned scientist Edward O. Wilson sets out to answer these questions once and for all. Scientific advances of the past two decades, he argues, make it possible to solve the first two, providing the basis for a rethinking of the third. The result is an ambitious and thoroughly engaging work that’s certain to generate controversy within the walls of academia and without.
Wilson, 82, is a giant of science: the world’s leading expert on ants, the first researcher to recognize the existence of pheromones, the father of sociobiology, the author and co-author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books (“On Human Nature” and “The Ants”) and a recipient of the Royal Swedish Academy’s Crafoord Prize, given in fields not covered by the Nobel Prize.
A professor emeritus at Harvard, he has produced a body of work that has withstood scientific critics, including those who rejected his assertion that both animal and human social behavior is based on biological and evolutionary principles. (Activists dumped a pitcher of ice water on him during a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.) Others rejected his prediction in “The Diversity of Life” (1992) that more than a quarter of all species on Earth would vanish by mid-century, but subsequent research has supported the notion that we are in the midst of the Earth’s sixth great extinction.
To build his latest argument, Wilson first sets about exploding an important theory of evolutionary biology that he once championed. The key to understanding the human condition is to understand how our species developed advanced social lives and the altruistic behaviors they require. If evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest — individual selection — how does one explain the self-sacrifice seen among the workers of an ant colony or a bee hive, or in the person who runs into a burning house to save a stranger? The current explanation — kin selection, or “inclusive fitness” — is that altruism evolved among closely related individuals as a way to ensure the survival of the shared portions of their genetic heritage.
But Wilson describes in considerable detail how the insect studies on which this theory was built have since been shown to be incorrect. (Many scientists in the field disagree, and dozens have denounced him in letters to the scholarly journals in which he first aired his critique.)
Instead, Wilson argues that altruism is a result not of individual or kin selection, but of group selection. Charles Darwin himself proposed that a tribe that had many members willing to contribute to or sacrifice themselves for the common good “would be victorious over most other tribes.” Drawing on recent evidence from social psychology, archaeology and evolutionary biology, Wilson builds a compelling and multi-faceted case that Darwin was right. Species that have developed advanced social lives, or eusociality — certain bees, ants, termites and ourselves — have been staggeringly successful and extremely rare.