The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

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The Rise of the Humans

A review of The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson.

Edward O. Wilson is one of the grand distinguished scientists of our time, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes (for On Human Nature in 1979 and The Ants in 1991) who writes intricate and detailed technical papers and books on the most narrow of topics (e.g., ant ecology) in between penning grand theoretical works about human nature, history, and the environment. He has been mistrusted by conservatives for his promotion of the teaching of evolutionary theory and his conservation efforts to preserve the environment, and he has been vilified by liberals for suggesting that humans have a biological nature that is not infinitely malleable by social engineering. His 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge was nothing short of a clarion call to resurrect the Enlightenment and reengineer it for the new millennium, suggesting that theologians and philosophers have had their day in the court of morality and ethics and that it is high time scientists had a say in what constitutes right and wrong and the good life. Anything that E. O. Wilson writes about is well worth reading, and The Social Conquest of Earth is no exception.

Readers who are already familiar with “big science” works by such authors as Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, Robert Wright, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker, covering everything from evolutionary theory through the evolutionary psychology of economics, politics, and morality, will find much of this same well-worn ground reviewed in The Social Conquest of Earth, but with Wilson’s unique perspective as a biologist who studies sociality and the evolution of social species. As such, The Social Conquest of Earth flips back and forth between human evolution and social history and insect evolution and sociality. What is new—or at least different from the other grand works produced by the authors noted above—is Wilson’s endorsement of a controversial idea in evolutionary theory called group selection, in which social groups are the target of natural selection, not just individuals. He describes the process by which groups become cooperative as “eusociality,” or good social groupness, which Wilson contends enables them to compete more successfully against other less-cooperative groups. (continue reading…)

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Unto Others

Reviews of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity by Paul J. Zak, and Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Christopher Boehm. This piece was originally published in both the print and online edition of the Wall Street Journal on May 26, 2012, under the title “Kin and Kindness.”

It is the oldest and most universally recognized moral principle that was codified over two millennia ago by the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder: “Whatsoever thou wouldst that men should not do to thee, do not do that to them. This is the whole Law. The rest is only explanation.” That explanation has been the subject of intense theological and philosophical disputation for millennia, and recently scientists are weighing in with naturalistic accounts of morality, such as the two books under review here.

Paul J. Zak is an economist and pioneer in the new science of neuroeconomics who built his reputation on research that identified the hormone oxytocin as a biological proxy for trust. As Zak documents, countries whose citizens trust one another have higher average GDPs, and trust is built through mutually-beneficial exchanges that result in higher levels of oxytocin as measured in blood draws of subjects in economic exchange games as well as real-world in situ encounters. The Moral Molecule is an engaging and enlightening popular account of Zak’s decade of intense research into how this molecule evolved for one purpose—pair bonding and attachment in social mammals—and was co-opted for trust between strangers. (continue reading…)

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Darwin Misunderstood

On the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday two myths persist about evolution and natural selection
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On July 2, 1866, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, wrote to Charles Darwin to lament how he had been “so repeatedly struck by the utter inability of numbers of intelligent persons to see clearly or at all, the self acting & necessary effects of Nat Selection, that I am led to conclude that the term itself & your mode of illustrating it, however clear & beautiful to many of us are yet not the best adapted to impress it on the general naturalist public.” The source of the misunderstanding, Wallace continued, was the name itself, in that it implies “the constant watching of an intelligent ‘chooser’ like man’s selection to which you so often compare it,” and that “thought and direction are essential to the action of ‘Natural Selection.’” Wallace suggested redacting the term and adopting Herbert Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest.” (continue reading…)

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