Book review: ‘The Social Conquest of Earth,’ by Edward O. Wilson

What are we, where did we come from, and where are we going?

For millennia, humans have been pondering these great questions and articulating responses in works of art, philosophical treatises and religious beliefs. We’ve fought wars over whose solution is most correct, persecuted promoters of heresy and celebrated sublime expressions of possible answers by painters, poets and preachers. No wonder; at stake is nothing less than the definition of the human condition.

(W.W. Norton) - ”The Social Conquest of Earth” by Edward O. Wilson

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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.

“Our ancestors were one of only two dozen or so animal lines ever to evolve eusociality, the next major level of biological organization above the organismic,” Wilson writes. “There, group members across two or more generations stay together, cooperate, care for the young, and divide labor in a way favoring reproduction of some individuals over that in others.”

Evolutionary competition among ants is best understood not at the individual level but at the level of the colony, a superorganism acting as an extension of the queen’s genome, waging a battle of fitness against other hives. For humans, Wilson argues, the situation is more complex. We’ve become genetically hard-wired to be tribal, to join groups “and, having joined, consider them superior to competing groups.” Our groups — tribes, societies, nations — compete with one another for dominance, but as individuals, we also compete for survival and reproduction within groups via individual selection. Selfish individuals might beat altruistic ones, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish people.The human condition, Wilson concludes, is largely a product of the tension between the two impulses.

“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. “Individual selection . . . shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish. . . . Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another (but not toward members of other groups). Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.”

Heady stuff, to be sure, and Wilson is just getting started. He builds a case for religion as a byproduct of human evolution, a mechanism for defining and uniting the tribe. As such, it has become “an unseen trap unavoidable during the biological history of our species,”facilitating submission not to God but “to no more than a tribe united by a creation myth.” Our species, Wilson says, deserves better, and he makes a case that morality and honor are also part of our peculiar evolutionary heritage and, thus, can stand on their own.

“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,” he advises, and he includes in that group purveyors of “dogmatic political ideologies based on unchallengeable precepts, left and right.” Rounding out this view, he adds: “Their leaders may mean well. But humanity has suffered enough from grossly inaccurate history told by mistaken prophets.”

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 ’s books include “Ocean’s End: Travels Through Endangered Seas” and “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.”

THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH

By Edward O. Wilson

Liveright. 330 pp. $27.95

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