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The Social Conquest of Earth (The Anthropocene Epoch #1)

3.88  ·  Rating Details ·  2,415 Ratings  ·  303 Reviews
Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover magazine). Refashioning the s ...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published April 9th 2012 by Liveright
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Jul 01, 2012 Laura rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Jason Plein
When I was a teenager, I read Gilgamesh. One of my parents had a battered paperback copy from college. It was revelatory. From my mother, I had absorbed the notion that Death was the great Evil: Satan, the Lord of the Flies, Hitler, Doctor Strangelove, Darth Vader. Gilgamesh opened my eyes to the fact that it was her fear of death that made her assign it the role of The Evil One. It made me grok that death isn’t The Adversary. Death is an agent of change, of evolution, of growth, of ethical oppo ...more
Apr 04, 2012 David rated it really liked it
Shelves: biology, sociology
I am a fan of E.O. Wilson's writings, but this book is not quite as good as some of his others. I learned a few interesting things, but not as much as would be expected from a book of this type.

The central concept in the book is "eusociality", which is the cooperative care of offspring and the cooperative division of labor. Among the animal kingdom, there are only several species of ants, bees, and termites that are truly eusocial. And, there are humans. Quite a chunk of the book goes into the b

Narrator: Jonathan Hogan

Description: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover magazine). Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on
Riku Sayuj
On Human Nature Redux. More ants and bees this time. Better constructed but not as readable and thought-provoking as the earlier book. The stages of eusociality evolution are better explained here. Readers would do well to read On Human Nature first and complement that reading with Part III of this book, which discusses these stages in detail.

The Invention of Eusociality

E. O. Wilson postulates that the invention/Evolution of Eusociality in any species will consist, broadly, of a series of stages
Aaron Thibeault
Apr 08, 2012 Aaron Thibeault rated it it was amazing
*A full executive-style summary of this book is available at

Since the dawn of self-awareness we human beings have struggled to understand ourselves. This struggle has found form in religion, philosophy, art and, most recently, science. The most pivotal turning point in science's quest to understand humanity came with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection in the mid 19th century. While the application of this theory to understand human behaviour h
Bastian Greshake
Jul 04, 2012 Bastian Greshake rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
While he wants to answer questions like «Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?» he sidesteps this goal often and uses the book to heavily promote his newly found belief that eusociality does evolve through group/multilevel selection instead of kin selection/inclusive fitness. The Nature publication of Nowak et al. was heavily criticized when it was published (you can find some of the replies to the original paper above the linked study).

He uses his beloved ants to argue for h
Jan 06, 2013 Krishna rated it liked it
A bit underwhelmed, considering the quality of Wilson's other books. The main thesis is that human evolution proceeded through a combination of individual selection and group selection - the former in the classical mode of evolution, and the latter based on competition between groups based on the degree to which they encourage altruism, cooperation and unity for the social good. Parts of the book are an extended polemic against the prevailing orthodoxy of kin selection or inclusive fitness, whic ...more
Linda Robinson
Apr 15, 2012 Linda Robinson rated it really liked it
Evolution confuses me. A woman wondered aloud last weekend if we really descended from chimpanzees, why are there still chimpanzees? And another person thought a better question is why aren't we still evolving into another genus? We could ask the Denisova Hominidae, but they left the planet 30,000 years ago. I saw Dr. Wilson speak at MSU a couple years ago. He's engaging and smart as any five people I know, and he writes, not quite down to my level, but enough that I can glean a little of the ge ...more
Jul 30, 2012 Brian rated it it was amazing
Wonderful book. No matter which evolutionary process you agree with, kin selection versus group selection, Wilson's ideas of competing ethical drives within man are terrifically insightful in a way that Plato, Aristotle, and everyone down their line have yet to explain as clearly.

If you just read the first and last chapter of this book, you'll gain a valuable new perspective on what it means to be human.

The following are some passages from E.O. Wilson's "The Social Conquest of Earth" that will g
Aug 02, 2013 Jane rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most important books I've read in a long time. It lays out the fundamentals of humanity's biological and social evolution on this planet. Wilson states that humans are "by any conceivable's greatest achievement...are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and--who can say?--perhaps the galaxy." But we are creatures who have at once "...created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash abou ...more
May 08, 2012 Gendou rated it did not like it
There is one interesting and unique point made in this book:
Eusocial organisms arise when there is a common, group "nest".
Wilson champions the theory of "multiple level" or "group" selection.
Group selection is a fine way of looking at colonies/tribes.

There's a lot of info about human and ant/termite history.
Cool stuff, that.

1. But, in this book, Wilson goes on to put down another fine theory.
He takes every opportunity to trash "kin selection" and "inclusive fitness".
His criticism of kin selectio
Jun 25, 2012 Jafar rated it liked it
I have a lot of respect for Wilson, but I felt this book spent unduly too much time on group selection, which happens to be Wilson’s new conviction in evolutionary theory. Group selection was in vogue for some time, then was replaced by kin selection compatible with the selfish gene theory, but now it’s back.

Wilson starts the book with Paul Gaugin’s painting titled: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Religions offer only tribal myths to answer these questions. Philosophy a
Jul 19, 2013 Paul rated it it was amazing
Wow -- what a cool book! A fascinating read, start to finish.

Relates the conflict we perceive within human nature as a development in evolution of the conflict between group selection and individual selection. Individuals with selfish motives and actions are more successful than those who are altruistic, but groups of altruists are much more successful than groups of selfish individuals.

Touches on questions of consciousness, the development of language, art and religion. Useful for understanding
Steven Peterson
Dec 09, 2012 Steven Peterson rated it really liked it
There are any number of lively debates within evolutionary circles, such as the pace of evolutionary change (gradualism versus punctuated equilibrium) or the level at which evolution takes place (individual versus group versus multiple levels).

One of these issues is joined in this volume.

Wilson says that group selection was quite prominent in human evolution from 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. In his words (2012, p. 91):

"Bands and communities of bands with better combinations of cultural innovation
Apr 14, 2012 Delany rated it really liked it
I've been reading a bit about the huge controversy over kin selection vs. group selection. Wilson is receiving harsh criticism over his apparent defection from his own previous ideas about kin selection, which are endorsed by nearly all evolutionary biologists. At this point, I am not entirely sure that Wilson's ideas about group selection are completely incompatible with orthodox kin selection theory.

Here's a nice brief discussion of the problem: Science Creative Quarterly. An excerpt: "The de
John Doyle
Apr 21, 2015 John Doyle rated it liked it
Shelves: history-read
Two thirds of "The Social Conquest of Earth" is devoted to the social behaviors of ants, termites, and bees as examples of the adaptive power of group selection to shape the characteristics of individual group members. For me, the last third of the book was gripping. In particular, the examination of multi-level selection and the adaptive superiority of selfishness in competition between individuals and of altruism within groups was fascinating. Religion is explained as adaptive for groups inasm ...more
Aaron Arnold
Jun 22, 2012 Aaron Arnold rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, read-in-2012
Wilson is such a poetic guy that you almost hate to disagree with him based on prose style alone. Seriously, his sentences have the sorts of graceful rhythms that you associate with British authors that have had an expensive classical education, which makes reading him enjoyable even if, as many seem to feel, he's completely wrong. This book is a typically Wilsonian exploration of the human need to find meaning in our lives that's based on biology but aims at culture. He's never liked C. P. Snow ...more
Feb 25, 2017 Taka rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017, evolution
While I loved his discussion of ants, bees, and termites, as well as the concepts of eusociality and gene-culture coevolution, his exposition wasn't always clear or illuminating, especially the crucial chapters on eusociality. There were places where he was trying to explain it to the lay audience with some patience and other places where he just gives up and glosses things over without fully explaining the links and concepts while presupposing some knowledge of evolutionary theory and genetics. ...more
Kathleen Brugger
Apr 03, 2013 Kathleen Brugger rated it it was amazing
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
Francisco Viliesid
Nov 24, 2014 Francisco Viliesid rated it it was amazing
The fact that Man has been searching to understand the Human condition for ages is the question this book delves into. Wilson’s biology specialization on social insects is the background from where he peeks into Mankind’s own evolution to the point where we stand today, for good or bad Man is the supreme conqueror of Earth. He posits that there are a few special characteristics which, when acquired through preadaptation, animals become social. A very unique dynamic consisting of the rise of bipe ...more
May 05, 2012 Caitlin rated it really liked it
I haven't read Wilson before this although he is a prolific writer and scientist. I love the subject of the development of humanity and culture and was thrilled to find this new publication at the airport when I had a 5 hour layover followed by a 6 hour flight! Wilson writes clearly and for the most part in layman's terms comparing the development of eusociality in ants and bugs and humans. He delves into the reason that the bugs never went further in their development, evolving into the creativ ...more
Apr 30, 2013 Franz rated it really liked it
The theme of Wilson's book is expressed by the title of one of Gauguin's last Tahitian masterpieces: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Wilson brings a lifetime of study, research, and reflection to bear on these questions.

Much of the early part of the book is devoted to Wilson's passion, ants, as well as other social insects. He shows how through natural selection these social insects came to dominate the invertebrate species on land, that there is a biological advantage
Jul 03, 2015 Mark rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015
Edward O. Wilson has clearly done enough research and investigation of nature for his opinions to be taken seriously. However, I did not find his explanations in many areas convincing. In part it is understandable, because nature and biology are so complex and we are so close to the beginning on the path to understanding. Nevertheless, here are a few criticisms and comments:

-- Wilson's view that humans are so much farther along and so superior to other animals on the Earth. This comes across ove
Elliott Bignell
Apr 12, 2015 Elliott Bignell rated it liked it
I had hoped to be writing a five-star review tonight, but despite a rather attractive pointillist effect made up of fragments of erudition, this book simply failed to carry me. The overall focus of the picture was missing. Wilson has a formidable reputation as a biologist, but as a popular science author he lacks both Gould's grace and Dawkins' talent for making one feel intelligent.

When reading Dawkins on linkage disequilibrium one comes up feeling like one has had a bracing swim; I could expla
Tina Cipolla
Sep 17, 2015 Tina Cipolla rated it it was amazing
I love reading a book that makes me feel like I'm in the presence of greatness. Edward O. Wilson is a genius and it shows in this book. Although intended for the general reader this has a lot of complex science packed into it that might not have been necessary to the central point. As a professional academic though, I imagine it difficult for this author to "tone it down" for the rest of us. That said, his arguments seemed well backed up to me (although other reviewers on this site found the sup ...more
Richard Block
Mar 16, 2013 Richard Block rated it it was amazing

Those who challenge EO Wilson's slow conversion to group selection over kin selection, obviously hate this erudite ode to eusociality, and rightly so. It demonstrates the wisdom of his careful and detailed demolition of kin selection as a limited and mostly irrelevant determinant of evolutionary behaviour. I would imagine it was Wilson's unchallengable mastery of the insect world - and his 40 year obsession to link the behaviour of man to insect - that finally swayed him to this new u
Gregg Sapp
Jan 31, 2012 Gregg Sapp rated it really liked it
The following is slightly modified from my Library Journal review of E.O. Wilson's "The Social Conquest of Earth."

WILSON, Edward O. The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright, April 2012. c 352 p. illus, index. 978-0-87140-423-8, $27/95
According to Wilson, recent advances in evolutionary science provide practical answers to two of humanity’s enduring existential questions: Who Are We? and Where Did We Come From? Succinctly, we are members of a “eusocial” species with behaviors, aptitudes, and perce
May 27, 2012 Kat rated it it was amazing
I enjoyed The Social Conquest of Earth, though I had to return the book to the library before I could finish it (bah, these new releases! More reason for me to maybe get an e-reader). Anyway, of what I read of it, I was thoroughly impressed with E.O. Wilson's writing style, his fluidity, and ability to translate scientific research into easily digested bits of information.

I enjoyed his synopsis on the evolution of humans. He goes over the many characteristics, usually individually touted, for m
Aug 11, 2015 Micah rated it really liked it
The overarching idea of this book is that our social minds were shaped by the interplay between group selection (one group winning out over another) and individual selection (one individual -- and their progeny -- winning out over another). Group selection favors altruism because groups in which people cooperate do better than those in which people don't. Individual selection, on the other hand, favors selfishness.

This is an evidence-based argument, but I also find it appealing in a dramatic sen
Troy Blackford
Aug 13, 2015 Troy Blackford rated it really liked it
Very interesting, but I am giving it four stars instead of five because he claims to turn the last 50 years of biological science with regards to kin selection on its head and to have proven that selection at the level of the group is a thing, but wants us to just sort of take his word for it. I would expect a more rigorous argument and for him to have spent a lot longer 'proving' his case, but he seems like he expects his audience of non-experts (he points out again and again that this is a boo ...more
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  • Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age
  • Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins
  • Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution
  • Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life
  • The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People
  • Field Notes on Science & Nature
  • Life's Engines: How Microbes made the Earth Habitable
  • Evolution: The First Four Billion Years
  • Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame
  • Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind
  • Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth
  • The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates
  • Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance
  • The Cooperative Gene: How Mendel's Demon Explains the Evolution of Complex Beings
  • The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature
  • Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans
  • Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species
  • Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist, researcher, theorist, and author. His biological specialty is myrmecology, a branch of entomology. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters. He is Pellegrino University Re ...more
More about Edward O. Wilson...

Other Books in the Series

The Anthropocene Epoch (3 books)
  • The Meaning of Human Existence
  • Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life

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“Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.” 35 likes
“Moreover, we look in vain to philosophy for the answer to the great riddle. Despite its noble purpose and history, pure philosophy long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence. The question itself is a reputation killer. It has become a Gorgon for philosophers, upon whose visage even the best thinkers fear to gaze. They have good reason for their aversion. Most of the history of philosophy consists of failed models of the mind. The field of discourse is strewn with the wreckage of theories of consciousness. After the decline of logical positivism in the middle of the twentieth century, and the attempt of this movement to blend science and logic into a closed system, professional philosophers dispersed in an intellectual diaspora. They emigrated into the more tractable disciplines not yet colonized by science – intellectual history, semantics, logic, foundational mathematics, ethics, theology, and, most lucratively, problems of personal life adjustment.

Philosophers flourish in these various endeavors, but for the time being, at least, and by a process of elimination, the solution of the riddle has been left to science. What science promises, and has already supplied in part, is the following. There is a real creation story of humanity, and one only, and it is not a myth. It is being worked out and tested, and enriched and strengthened, step by step. (9-10)”
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