Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-02-06
- Reviewer: Staff
In this wide-ranging book, Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Harvard scientist (The Ants), addresses the large question of “why advanced social life exists at all, and has occurred so rarely in the history of life.” Wilson, the world’s leading expert on ants, compares the evolutionary similarities between the social insects—“2 percent of the one million known species of insects”—and humans. Much of this material has been recycled from Wilson’s previous work. He triggers more interest when he argues that biologists have been seriously mistaken about the way evolution operates. Instead of the current paradigm stressing the importance of individual and kin selection (as kin carry many of the individual’s genes), Wilson believes that human evolution is driven by individual and non–kinship-based group selection (prehumans living in groups cared for their young and divided labor; groups competed against each other on one level of selection, and within a group, individuals competed to reproduce). Wilson believes that complex patterns of social behavior are the result of selection at both group and individual levels, but he doesn’t go into enough depth (which would include mathematical analysis) to be completely persuasive. He does, however, explore the factors leading to the development of morality, religion, and the creative arts in human society. 90 illus. Agent: John Williams, Kneerim & Williams Agency. (Apr.)
Answering the questions of human evolution
With his probing curiosity, his dazzling research, his elegant prose and his deep commitment to biodiversity, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist (The Ants) and novelist (The Anthill) Edward O. Wilson has spent his life searching for the evolutionary paths by which humans developed and passed along the social behaviors that best promote the survival of our species. His eloquent, magisterial and compelling new book offers a kind of summing-up of his magnificent career.
In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson asks three simple questions: “Where do we come from?”; “What are we?”; and “Where are we going?” Answering these questions, however, is not so simple, and he brings together disciplines ranging from molecular genetics to archaeology to social psychology in his quest to address these persistent queries.
Drawing upon detailed mathematical models and meticulous biological research, including his own work with the social insects—ants, wasps, termites—Wilson concludes that multilevel group selection, rather than inclusive fitness and kin selection, offers a fuller and more accurate explanation of the origins and development of human social behavior. He demonstrates persuasively how the conflict between individual selection (the competition for survival among members of the same group) and group selection (which shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another) has led to our very human struggle between good and evil. The worst in our nature coexists with the best; to scrub it out, even if such were possible, would make us less than human.
While not everyone will agree with Wilson’s provocative and challenging conclusions, everyone who engages with his ideas will discover sparkling gems of wisdom uncovered by the man who is our Darwin and our Thoreau.