The Social Conquest of Earth, By Edward O. Wilson, Norton/Liveright, 352 pp., $27.95
According to Paul Gauguin’s own account, late in 1897 he painted in a burst of creative frenzy his largest (54.8 by 147.5 inches) and most important picture, directly on the canvas without preparatory sketches or models. It was intended as a grand summary of his art and of his life. In Tahiti, depressed by debts and debilitated by syphilis and a series of heart attacks, he attempted suicide with arsenic shortly after finishing the painting. He survived but would die of a heart attack five years later on May 8, 1903, in Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands, a month short of his 55th birthday.
On the upper left corner of the canvas, Gauguin wrote, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”—the existential questions by which the painting has become known to posterity. The same three questions are the titles of three parts of The Social Conquest of Earth, a book that serves as Edward O. Wilson’s existential bequest. These three questions are, he writes, “the central problems of religion and philosophy.” He elaborates on this view in the book’s opening chapter:
Religion will never solve this great riddle … neither will it be solved by introspection … Moreover, we look in vain to philosophy for the answer … the solution of the riddle has been left to science … 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.
Wilson counts among the greatest scientists of the 20th and early 21st centuries, one of the most influential science writers, and one of the most controversial. Associated with Harvard throughout his career, Wilson began work in the 1960s on bees, ants, termites, wasps, and other social insects, explaining their social organization with the theories of inclusive fitness and kin selection—both of which suggest that cooperative or altruistic behavior enhances evolutionary success. His 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, would become the founding document of the new discipline it named. That book, The Insect Societies (1971), and On Human Nature (1978)—for which he won his first Pulitzer Prize—comprised a trilogy describing Wilson’s views of human nature and humanity’s presence in the world. He won a second Pulitzer for The Ants (1990), a book coauthored by Bert Hölldobler. Other notable books followed, including Naturalist (1994), an autobiography; Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), an effort to unify the arts and humanities with science or, as some would see it, to reduce them to science; and Anthill: A Novel (2010).
But in Social Conquest, Wilson repudiates the very ideas that made him famous: inclusive fitness and kin selection. His followers, as well as those who challenged his theories over the decades, will now read with astonishment: “The foundations of the general theory of inclusive fitness based on the assumptions of kin selection have crumbled … The beautiful theory never worked well anyway, and now it has collapsed.”
In their place, Wilson has now foisted a new theory: that the evolution of humans and human society is the result of “forces of selection that target traits of individual members and other forces of selection that target traits of the group as a whole.” Darwin anticipated this multilevel process more than 140 years ago in The Descent of Man. As Wilson writes, early humans “competed with one another for territory and other scarce resources” and each subject’s genetic worth was “determined by the cost exacted and benefit gained from its membership in the group.” Human genomes, therefore, are chimeras, with one part determining features for individual success, the other for the success of society.
How did this process play out? To begin with, Wilson writes, evolution demanded that humans be both highly intelligent and intensely social, so that we could sort friends from enemies, understand the intentions of both, and strategize our social interactions. This necessity required that our brains grow larger, a process that happened over several million years but became apparent with our Homo habilis ancestors, some two million years ago, whose brains reached 600-plus cubic centimeters, about 50 percent larger than their evolutionary predecessors.
Another decisive step was the bipedal revolution, when, Wilson writes, we “climbed out of the trees, stood up, and began walking entirely on hind legs.” The forelimbs of our prehuman ancestors gradually developed the ability to manipulate objects and throw stones, and later spears, and thus to kill at a distance—an enormous advantage when in conflict with other groups. The control of fire and the gathering of small groups at campsites were also critical steps. But most decisive, in Wilson’s view, was the advent of tribalism, the association of individuals and families that would provide opportunities for competition among individuals and between different groups. “People must have a tribe,” Wilson argues. “It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world.”
In Social Conquest, Wilson tackles questions that most biologists would leave out of scientific discourse: the definition of human nature, how culture evolved, and the origin of morality, religion, and the creative arts. But as in his previous writings on these subjects (notably Consilience), Wilson reduces the wonder inherent in the humanities, the arts, and religion to soulless scientific discourse, as in this passage: “Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue … There is every good reason instead to explain the origin of religion and morality as special events in the evolutionary history of humanity driven by natural selection.” Surely, many readers will cringe.
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