Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Social Conquest of Earth mini book review

The Social Conquest of Earth mini book review

Edward O. Wilson 297 pages

Liverright Co., W.W. Norton 2012

This book succeeded in changing the way I look at human beings. Wilson develops an argument that we are basically group creatures. We’re wired to function in and through groups, not like wolves for example, in packs, but like ants in their nests. We act to favor our group more often than our individual selves. Yet there is always this conflict between self-interest and group benefit.

The six sections of the book range from mesmerizing to humdrum, depending on how interested you are in insects. The first one hundred pages covering human evolution are brilliant and exciting. Wilson has a unique angle on our development, from chimps and Neanderthals through tribalism and teams, tools and fire through villages and agriculture. He makes persuasive use of new insights from DNA studies.

Unfortunately, the middle of the book gets bogged down by his passion for ants. He posits that ants invented what he calls “eusociality,” generations organized into groups through division of labor. Their fortified nests enable some members to stay home with young, and others to venture forth for food for all. I advise skimming for the second one hundred pages.

Wilson returns on page 191 to answer the question, “What is human nature?” He looks at gene-culture cooevolution, longterm memory, the origins of language, and crucial collaboration. He tackles the origins of morality and honor, religion, and art. He comes to the sweet conclusion that, if we can only stop destroying it, “Earth can be turned into a permanent paradise.”

Wilson writes lucidly with a fiery intelligence. He deserves his vaunted reputation.