Although he is an expert on ants, Harvard University entomologist Edward O. Wilson has throughout his career set his intellectual sights on loftier targets than the diminutive insects that have fascinated him since his childhood. In books ranging from “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” (1975) through “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge” (1998) and “The Creation: An Appeal To Save Life on Earth” (2006), Wilson has extrapolated from biology to speculate on large, essentially philosophical questions about human nature, the structure of society, and the origins of culture and religion.
Wilson’s forays into philosophy have not come without controversy. “Sociobiology” set off an intellectual firestorm when it was published. Many of Wilson’s colleagues in Harvard’s biology department, including Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, condemned the book and its suggestion that much of human behavior had an evolutionary basis. “Consilience” prompted social critic Wendell Berry to pen a harsh critique, “Life Is a Miracle,” in which he maintained that Wilson’s attempt to unify human knowledge is not only doomed to failure but inherently destructive (C&EN, June 4, 2001, page 56).
Wilson, now 83 and approaching the end of his illustrious career, doubles down on sociobiology’s relevance to human nature with “The Social Conquest of Earth,” an ambitious effort to do nothing less than understand the human condition through biology. Though the book is flawed, it is well worth reading. One may or may not agree with Wilson’s fundamental thesis in this book—many prominent biologists disagree with it vehemently—but his exposition of the improbable evolution of Homo sapiens and the subsequent development of all manners of human culture is remarkable in its erudition and sweep.
In a sense, “The Social Conquest of Earth” is two books: One is a 200-page book on the evolution of modern humans and their culture that comprises the first and third sections of this approximately 300-page book. The other is a 100-page book—the middle section of “The Social Conquest of Earth”—on social insects like ants and bees. The two books are connected in Wilson’s view because, as he writes, “The key to the origin of the human condition is not to be found in our species exclusively, because the story did not start and end with humanity. The key is to be found in the evolution of social life in animals as a whole.” That said, one of the flaws of “The Social Conquest of Earth” is that this middle section, while intermittently interesting, is too long and not as relevant to the human condition as Wilson thinks it is.
Wilson structures the two sections of “The Social Conquest of Earth” on human evolution around three questions that are the title of the last great painting by Paul Gauguin, which is pictured on the book’s cover jacket: “D’où Venons Nous/Que Sommes Nous/Où Allons Nous.” Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? As Wilson writes, “The painting is not an answer. It is a question.” A question that Wilson, the sociobiologist, thinks he can answer.
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. “Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world,” Wilson writes. “The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.” According to Wilson, “Religion will never solve this great riddle,” and philosophy isn’t much more useful.
By contrast, Wilson writes, “I will propose that scientific advances, especially those made during the last two decades, are now sufficient for us to address in a coherent manner the questions of where we came from and what we are. To do so, however, we need answers to two even more fundamental questions the query has raised. The first is why advanced social life exists at all, and has occurred so rarely in the history of life. The second is the identity of the driving forces that brought it into existence.”
As Wilson makes clear, the rise of Homo sapiens was hardly foreordained. He begins one chapter, “Had extraterrestrial scientists put down on Earth three million years ago, they would have been amazed by the honeybees, mound-building termites, and leafcutter ants, whose colonies were at that time the supreme superorganisms of the insect world and by a wide margin the most complex and ecologically successful social systems on the planet.” The visitors, Wilson notes, would also have studied the apes that were humans’ ancestors, but they would have concluded that there was “not much potential there or anywhere else among the vertebrate animals.”
On a return trip today, however, the extraterrestrials “would surely be stunned by the situation on Earth. The nearly impossible had happened. One of the bipedal primate species found earlier had not only survived but developed a primitive language-based civilization. And equally surprising, and very disturbing, the primate species was destroying its own biosphere.”
This same chapter reveals the key flaw in “The Social Conquest of Earth.” Wilson introduces the concept of “kin selection”—a widely accepted view of how natural selection can lead to the development of social structures and altruism—and writes, “Unfortunately for this perception, the foundations of the general theory of inclusive fitness based on the assumptions of kin selection have crumbled, while evidence for it has grown equivocal at best. The beautiful theory never worked well anyway, and now it has collapsed.” Next to this paragraph, my margin note is: “Some evidence for this?”
Wilson returns to this argument in the section of the book dealing with “eusocial” insects. He writes, “The selfish-gene approach may seem to be entirely reasonable. In fact, most evolutionary biologists had accepted it as a virtual dogma—at least until 2010. In that year, Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and I demonstrated that inclusive-fitness theory, often called kin selection theory, is both mathematically and biologically incorrect.”
This is a statement of breathtaking arrogance, and it undermines to some extent the intellectual integrity of “The Social Conquest of Earth.” In reading it, one would not know that the paper by Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson that appeared in Nature in 2010 was and remains highly controversial. A few months after its publication, more than 140 evolutionary biologists published a stinging rebuttal of the paper in Nature. Many scientists maintain that, had Wilson not been one of the authors, the paper would never have been accepted for publication.
This is the reason the middle section of “The Social Conquest of Earth” goes on for so long. Wilson is wedded to his notion that “group selection” transcends kin selection, and he hammers the point home. The tone of this portion of the book becomes didactic and, at times, hectoring. One can imagine Professor Wilson in the lecture hall declaring, “Most of the countervailing forces evolve through group selection or, more precisely in the case of the eusocial insects, through between-colony selection. To repeat, this level of selection is the next level above individual-level selection.” Just two pages later, Wilson declares, “Many of the natural-selection, game-theoretic models could be and were rephrased in terms of kin selection. To repeat, this approach, …” and blah, blah, blah.
This is unfortunate and, while necessary from Wilson’s point of view, not actually required for answering the questions he originally set out to answer in “The Social Conquest of Earth.” The final third of the book, addressing “What Are We? and “Where Are We Going?” returns to the issue of human evolution. In chapters on the development of culture, language, morality, and religion, Wilson provides convincing arguments that these human constructs have a biological basis. To be sure, Wilson returns repeatedly to the idea that group selection underpins the evolution of culture. And there is an annoying insistence that the dark side of human nature is solely a product of selfish individuals out to propagate their genes while all that is good in humanity results from groups of altruists working together toward a common goal. Human culture, in Wilson’s view, is the product of this tension.
In my view, you don’t really have to accept Wilson’s hypothesis that group selection has ousted kin selection as the biological basis of altruistic behavior to appreciate many of his insights into the evolution of human culture or his concern about humanity’s future. I doubt Wilson would agree with me on this point because it is clear that he has invested much in his complete embrace of group selection as the driver of the evolution of social creatures, whether they be insects or humans.
The flaws in “The Social Conquest of Earth” make it a less than completely satisfying book to read. That said, as a report from one of the major intellects of our time on a subject that endlessly fascinates us, it is well worth the effort and the annoyance.
Rudy Baum is editor-in-chief of C&EN.