The Social Conquest of Earth

  • Edward O. Wilson
  • Liveright/W.W. Norton
  • 329 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • May 17, 2012

According to the author we are a Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions, our characteristics and instincts much like those of social insects

Reviewed by Robert M. Knight

To creationists: This book has nothing to do with your reality. Except that its author defines who he thinks you are — in evolutionary terms.

To natural scientists and social scientists: You might find the cross-discipline stuff in this book a bit uncomfortable. Get over it.

To liberals like me who just want everybody to get along: It isn’t going to happen unless the genetically selfish individual is overwhelmed by a genetically altruistic society. Unfortunately, that society turns out to be no larger than a tribe, whose natural inclination is to attack any other tribe that is a perceived threat.

That means that members of any group who engage in ethnic cleansing are simply indulging in their human nature. Humanity isn’t necessarily a good thing. We are led by instincts no less than the social insects that Edward O. Wilson has spent a long lifetime studying. “Our instincts remain unprepared for civilization,” he writes.

To professional dilettantes who show some disdain for the recently popularized “slow reading”: We can safely conclude that the author of this book is much smarter than most of us, and we can get away with merely skimming the hard science on social insects in the book’s middle chapters. All we need do is cheat and take it for granted that what Wilson writes is scientifically valid. (But do get through those eight middle chapters. You will be rewarded.)

I’d like to emphasize that Wilson does avoid the common mistake so many professionals make when they use their jargon as a bludgeon on people outside their profession. This renowned Pulitzer prizewinner, whom his publisher calls “the most celebrated living heir of Darwin,” writes well for the general reader. His earlier and later chapters bear this out.

In between, when for the sake of absolute accuracy Wilson must rely on jargon, he tries valiantly to define in English what he’s writing about. If we don’t get it, it’s our fault.

Never mind. What Wilson ends up doing is so profound that the last eight chapters (included in Part V, “What Are We?” and Part VI, “Where Are We Going?”) could stand alone as a separate book, because what he ends up doing is no less than defining human nature itself.

Let’s back up a little. Unlike other mammals and only a dozen or so invertebrates, Homo sapiens are what Wilson calls “eusocial.” Over millions of years natural selection has bred us to create nests of a sort, as well as a division of labor among ourselves.

Evolution dictated that we had no choice. To survive, we had to ensure that the nest was protected and that the group was well fed and that it procreated. Natural selection worked in our favor, not so much because of mutations, although they did occur, but because earlier hominids, mainly Homo erectus, carried genetic preadaptions of which only the fittest group — not individual but group — could take advantage. Our one-time contemporaries, the Neanderthals, carried no such preadapted genes.

Wilson’s reasoning goes something like this: The individual, the ultimate selfish Darwinian, does whatever is necessary to remain standing and continue multiplying. But the group, made up of altruistic specialists — food gatherers, warriors to defend the nest — trumps the individual. The constant war between the two has created a balancing act. All of humanity seems to gravitate between selfishness and altruism, with altruism sometimes taking the very life of the altruistic individual for the sake of the group.

A couple of times in The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson appears to trip over himself to make sure we know that, even though we share eusociality with a few privileged insects, he is in no way saying that we comprise a mindless mass similar to that of a eusocial ant hill.

No. We have added language, culture and an intelligence that has no equal or even near-equal on earth. We’ve added religion, too, but Wilson, the grandson of a Southern Baptist preacher (for the record, so am I) says that religion has done its utmost to make sure we shall not grow beyond the tribal level. At least, he says, religious leaders should stop “making insupportable claims about supernatural causes of reality” and admit that science “is not just another enterprise like medicine or engineering or theology. It is the wellspring of all the knowledge we have of the real world that can be tested and fitted to preexisting knowledge.”

Early in the book Wilson writes that we have gone as far as we can with our genetics-inspired assets: “Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. … We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. … We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”

Lest students of the humanities feel left out after this soulful discussion among natural scientists, social scientists, religionists and philosophers, Wilson begins and ends his book with a discussion about the symbolism of a mural Paul Gauguin painted during his Tahitian period, “D’ou Venons Nous / Que sommes nous / Ou allons nous” and what Wilson thinks it means for humankind.

I don’t want to give away Wilson’s last, crisp sentence, but he implies that Gauguin and humanists like him have found a way out of the genetic corner forced on a clueless humanity trying to use primitive genes to find their way out of a modern morass. They may have taken us further along in answering the mural’s questions: “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?”

A veteran journalist and teacher, Robert Knight is the author of Writing Public Prose: How to Write Clearly, Crisply and Concisely (Marion Street Press, 2012). He lives near Gettysburg, Pa.

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