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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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