The Social Conquest of Earth

by Edward O. Wilson

Hardcover, 2012




Liveright, (2012)


Based on a lifetime of pioneering research, preeminent naturalist Edward O. Wilson gives us a new history of human evolution, presented in an elegant and provocative narrative that promises to have reverberations in fields as diverse as anthropology and social psychology, neuroscience and 21st-century intellectual and religious history. Wilson begins by addressing three "fundamental questions" of religion and philosophy that have fascinated thinkers for centuries: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Writing that "the origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck, good for our species for a while, bad for most of the rest of life forever," Wilson traces the rise of Homo sapiens from its infancy, drawing on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to present us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition. Wilson also reveals how "group selection" can be the only model for explaining man's origins and domination, and warns that it has now accelerated--through unregulated and untrammeled growth--to such a point that the planet as we know it is being threatened.--From publisher description.From the most celebrated heir to Darwin comes a groundbreaking book on evolution, the summa work of Edward O. Wilson's legendary career.… (more)

Media reviews

Times Literary Supplement 4731
Wilson’s book, however, is not devoid of merit. There are interesting titbits about biology and anthropology, including fascinating descriptions of how diverse cultures divide up the colour spectrum in similar ways, and how incest taboos, which avert genetically based birth defects, are enforced even by cultures that don’t understand the genetic consequences. Yet the good bits are ultimately scuppered by Wilson’s attempt to feed questionable biological ideas to the public while ignoring the criticisms of his peers. The result is that readers will be seriously misled about human evolution and the evolution of social behaviour as a whole. It is puzzling that, at the end of a distinguished career, Edward Wilson has chosen to repudiate fertile and long-standing ideas about evolution in favour of alternatives that are deeply flawed. His immense achievements have made his legacy secure, but it will be tarnished by this misguided attempt to explain social behaviour in insects and humans.
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Edward Wilson has made important discoveries of his own. His place in history is assured, and so is Hamilton’s. Please do read Wilson’s earlier books, including the monumental The Ants, written jointly with Bert Hölldobler (yet another world expert who will have no truck with group selection). As for the book under review, the theoretical errors I have explained are important, pervasive, and integral to its thesis in a way that renders it impossible to recommend. To borrow from Dorothy Parker, this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.
Sandwiched between his discussion of evolution and a concluding statement called “A New Enlightenment” is a series of chapters on language, culture, morality, religion and art. This section is intended to answer the “What are we?” question, but it is disappointing. Each chapter is only about a dozen pages and mainly summarizes the proposals of other scholars. While Wilson is never boring, there are few new insights here. The feeling you get recalls a remark once made by Roger Ebert about an artsy horror movie: there is foreboding and there is afterboding, but no actual boding.

User reviews

LibraryThing member hailelib
The Social Conquest of Earth is Wilson's most recent book and gives his current thinking on evolution and sociobiology. He asks the questions "Where do we come from? What are we? and Where are we going?". Then he attempts to answer them. This is an excellent and probably controversial look at how man arrived at his current state.… (more)
LibraryThing member The_Hibernator
In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson expounds upon the theories that were set forth in his classic work Sociobiology. His main thesis is that group selection, not kin selection, drove evolution and helped us to develop societies. He compares the way human society developed to the way ant "society" developed (ants are his specialty). He suggests reasons why religion and xenophobia would have originally developed as protective characteristics of groups. This book covers a large swath of material...from ants to human prehistory, to history, to today. I think he did a pretty good job organizing the book considering what a wide topic he was covering. His theories were clear and for the most part convincing. I think Wilson is an atheist, but he did a pretty good job of stating his opinions in an agnostic sort of way to avoid insulting the faithful. I think the book was well-written, interesting, and approachable by a non-scientific audience. I had no issues with Hogan's narration--he read the book well, but it wasn't anything worth raving about.… (more)
LibraryThing member KatieBrugger
In this book Dr. Wilson has created an incredibly positive portrait of the human family: we have prospered because we have learned to work together.

E. O. Wilson is an expert on ants, and in the 1970s popularized the theory of kin selection in his book Sociobiology. This theory was an attempt to explain why certain organisms form social groups at the cost to an individual’s survival. Why do worker bees give up the ability to reproduce, for example? This seems to fly in the face of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The kinship theory stated that if, by not having offspring yourself, you could help more of your sister’s offspring survive, that would still be a survival strategy because your sister shares many of your genes.

Dr. Wilson shows in The Social Conquest of Earth that, in fact, this is an incredibly effective survival strategy. The creatures who have learned to form cooperative societies are the masters of their ecological niche: “The twenty thousand known species of eusocial insects, mostly ants, bees, wasps, and termites, account for only 2 percent of the approximately one million known species of insects. Yet this tiny minority of species dominates the rest of the insects in their numbers, their weight, and their impact on the environment.”

Kinship theory seemed to explain insect cooperative societies very well, but over time it became clear that it was unsatisfactory to explain human society. Humans will help non-relatives to survive; we will even risk our lives to save a stranger. This required a different explanation, and this book is Wilson’s popular exposition of his new theory of group selection.

Most of the book is about establishing the evidence for this new theory, including that this is the best way to explain the evolution of social groups among humans.

What really sets humans apart is that our cooperation makes us more successful as individuals. Unlike insects that diminish their individual survival through cooperation (unless you happen to be the queen), humans maximize their individual survival.

In fact, this is what makes humans so dynamic: we are a delicate balance of selfishness and cooperation. That is our strength, but also the source of conflict. Unlike the insects, in the midst of our cooperative societies we also compete with each other for mates and resources.

Studies show young children will help a stranger without second thought, unlike chimpanzees who show no interest in helping. Humans don’t have to be trained to be kind and helpful.

Tens of thousands of years of evolution has give us as many cooperative instincts as selfish ones, yet modern American society acts as if the only true instincts are the selfish ones, and that altruism is some aberrant behavior. When reporting on a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, reporters love to pull out the stories of sacrifice and selfless aid to strangers, and speak with wonder as if this is uncommon. It’s not uncommon; it’s part of our nature. Being helpful to our neighbor is part of who we are.

In terms of the political, you could say conservatives act as if we were all selfishness, and liberals act as if we are only cooperators. The truth is we’re both. But in this country the conservative worldview has mostly prevailed. We’re taught that cooperation is unnatural; that our biological nature is purely and solely selfish. My hope is that this new theory will eventually bring a balance to our understanding of society—cooperation is as natural a part of us as competition.

Dr. Wilson asserts that the first step in the progression to sociality in a species is the creation of a communal nest. I loved his image of early humans learning to control fire: fire became our nest, our gathering place. This in turn could have been the spur to develop language—when it’s dark and there’s nothing else to do, early peoples could talk about the day.

Does this explain why we still love to sit around campfires and tell stories and sing songs together? Why the fireplace is the heart (hearth) of the home?
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LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
I listened to this book and when I reached the end I went back and listened to it again. When an expert on the evolution of man, animals, and social insects sets out to write about who we are and where we headed as social beings, it is definitely worth listening.
LibraryThing member bradgers
Calling sports "the moral equivalent of war" makes me wonder if Mr. Wilson hasn't been in the ivory tower a bit too long. However, it was an moderately interesting read.
LibraryThing member joeydag
Very interesting perspective. The author uses a painting by Paul Gauguin to anchor his essays on socio-genetic evolution and human nature. Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
I've read a lot of science books (biology, evolution, neuroscience, psychology...) over the last several years. ?Turns out that they probably only served to help me to be savvy enough to understand this, which turns much of what I learned from them upside down. ?áWell, ok, maybe that's an exaggeration. ?áBut Wilson covers an awful lot of ground here, summarizing all sorts of recent investigations, and very convincingly disputing a bunch of the conclusions drawn from them. ?á

The theory he rejects most heartily is inclusive fitness" (aka kin selection). ?áHe's all about group selection, which is not the same thing, even though some scientists would (apparently) weasel their words to make their disproved versions of the theories fit Wilson's version. ?áHe explains how mathematical models of kinship make it impossible for kin selection to be a force. ?á

I'm not at all sure I understood everything he was saying, but in context with the rest of his ideas, I'm convinced he's got a good enough handle on the current state of our knowledge that I don't want to read anything in these fields of science that was published before this - it'd be like I'd just be trying to master alchemy or potions before learning modern chemistry. ?áI do recommend you read this, too, and skip anything else, especially about human evolution, that is older than this. ?áIn fact, maybe skip ahead to brand-new books, as Wilson himself admits that there are still a lot of avenues of research that need to be investigated, still a lot of aspects of his theories that are not quite sufficiently supported by "current" data.

Some bookdarts - though I don't know if they mean anything sans context:

"It has long been known that Africans south of the Sahara are far more diverse genetically than native peoples in other parts of the world. ... Four San (Bushman hunter-gatherers) proved [from the protein-coding sequences of their genomes] to differ more from one another than an average European does from an average Asian."

"Colonies of cheaters lose to colonies of cooperators." ?á(The best summation of the paradox of the conflicting drives of human nature that I've ever seen.)

"The behaviors created by epigenetic rules are not hardwired like reflexes. ?áIt is the epigenetic rules instead that are hardwired, and hence compose the true core of human nature. ?áThese behaviors are learned, but the process is what psychologists call 'prepared.' ?áIn prepared learning, we are innately disposed... to learn a fear of snakes very quickly..." but not be fearful of other reptiles like turtles.

Children age 2.5 were compared to chimps, and the human tots "learned more while watching a demonstration, better understood cues that?áaid to locating?áa reward, followed the gaze of others to a target.... ?á Humans, it appears, are successful not because of an elevated general intelligence that addresses all challenges but because they are born to be specialists in social skills."

(I do wish the illustrations were in color, at least the ones with the captions indicating that Wilson thought that they would be.)

I'm certainly not convinced by everything that Wilson presented. ?áBut I found it all interesting, and believe that any of you armchair scientists will too.

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