Laura's Reviews > The Social Conquest of Earth

The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson
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Jul 06, 12

really liked it
bookshelves: being-human, evolution
Recommended for: Jason Plein
Read from July 01 to 02, 2012

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 opportunities. Later, from Terry Pratchett, I learned he rides a pale horse named Binky. And he is good.

Death over the millennia made us human. Death, Wilson suggests, works as an evolutionary agent on the group level as well as the individual, at least for the social animals. Evolution, he suggests, is multilevel. If we want to understand ourselves, posits Wilson, we need to know where we come from. And it’s not just, he says, just from selfish genes competing, though that is a part of it. An important part, worth honoring. “For the entire course of evolution leading from our primitive mammalian forebears of a hundred million years ago to the single lineage that threaded its way to become the first Homo sapiens, the total number of individuals it required might have been one hundred billion. Unknowingly, they all lived and died for us.” (21-22). I raise my (metaphorical) beer to you, one hundred billion individuals who died for me.

This book is an attempt to explain how evolution works in social animals, like humans, ants, wasps, bees and termites. It gives humanity’s divided nature, selfless and selfish, primacy of place, and says we are the product of both. It repudiates both the selfish gene and kin selection theory based on math. More on that later. Parts of this book are awesome. For example, from the first chapter:

“The creation stories gave the members of each tribe an explanation for their existence. It made them feel loved and protected above all other tribes. . . . and offered meaning to the cycles of life and death. No tribe could long survive without the meaning of its existence defined by a creation story. The option was to weaken, dissolve, and die. In the early history of each tribe, the myth therefore had to be set in stone.

“The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival. Tribal conflict, where believers on the inside were pitted against infidels on the outside, was a principal driving force that shaped biological human nature. The truth of each myth lived in the heart, not the rational mind. By itself, mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity. But the reverse order is possible. The discovery of the origin and meaning of humanity might explain the origin and meaning of myths, hence, the core of organized religion.

“Can these two worldviews ever be reconciled? The answer, to put the matter honestly and simply, is no. They cannot be reconciled. Their opposition defines the difference between science and religion, between trust in empiricism and belief in the supernatural.

“If the great riddle of the human condition cannot be solved by recourse to the mythic foundations of religion, neither will it be solved by introspection . . . Most of the activities of the brain are not even perceived by the conscious mind. The brain is a citadel, as Darwin once put it, that cannot be taken by direct assault.

“Thinking about thinking is the core process of the creative arts, but it tells us very little about how we think the way we do, and nothing of why the creative arts originated in the first place. Consciousness *9, having evolved over millions of years of life-and-death struggle, and moreover because of that struggle, was not designated for self-examination. It was designed for survival and reproduction. Conscious thought is driven by emotion: to the purpose of survival and reproduction, it is ultimately and wholly committed. The intricate distortions of the mind may be transmitted by the creative arts in fine detail, but they are constructed as though human nature never had an evolutionary history.” (8-9).

I love that. Just weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a dear friend about the uses of philosophy in a world where any philosophy that starts producing testable hypotheses gets calved off into its own science or, at least, specialty. Wilson goes beyond Bertrand Russell (if I remember aright) and starts asking the big questions of life in terms of evolutionary biology. Hark:

“[W]e 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, *10 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.” “Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will be forever unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides.

“The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual but largely in opposition to each other. Individual selection is the result of competition for survival and reproduction among members of the same group. It shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish with reference to other members. In contrast, group selection consists of competition between societies, through both direct conflict and differential competence in exploiting the environment. Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another (but not toward members of other groups). Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.”

“Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will be forever unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides." (241)

Better than philosophy.

The difficulty with this book is that it is a very beautiful attempt to communicate a hypothesis in a scientific paper that has a whole lot of math in it. This paper, written by Wilson and two mathematicians, attempted to show that the math of the selfish gene and kinship selection to explain human evolution does not work; that there is a better hypothesis that fits the facts and makes useful predictions: inclusive fitness. He published this paper and many evolutionary biologists, including Richard Dawkins (who I adore) had kittens. Probably metaphorically. Hopefully metaphorically. Dawkins wrote at least one brutal review: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/mag....

Wilson’s response is attached to the end of the review, and it’s fascinating. He throws down the gauntlet and says – show me the problem with my math, young man who has not published any scientific work for decades. Show me the problem.

I don’t know if Dawkins did. I am dimly aware of how to get hold of the paper, but I am acutely aware that I would not understand it, would not be able to critique it. On the one hand, AWESOME, I just got a briefing on an important, evolving (snicker) question of science. On the other hand, judging it is beyond my lawyerly skills. We’re strongly encouraged to hire other people to do our math for us, after all, and I’m a math wiz in my world because I can usually figure out the appropriate tip in my head.

So. I loved reading the book. Glad I did. It gave me a wonderful feeling of being a part of something, like I was back in law school jousting with libertarians. I so would have quoted this passage had I had it:

“Our species is not Homo oeconomicus. At the end of the day, it emerges as something more complicated and interesting. We are Homo sapiens, imperfect beings, soldering on with conflicted impulses through an unpredictable, implacably threatening world, doing our best with what we have.

“And beyond the ordinary instincts of altruism, there is something more, delicate and ephemeral in character but, when experienced, transformative. It is honor, a feeling born of innate empathy and cooperativeness. It is the final reserve of altruism that may yet save our race.” (251).

I’m looking at you, Jeff Barr, who announced grandly in Sid Delong’s jurisprudence class one day (April 21, 1999), “we are all homo economists, whether we like to admit it or not.” I didn’t think he was right, and so I said. I do not think the libertarian notion of what it means to be human was right. I still don’t, and this book makes me feel good, because it tells me that E. O. Wilson doesn’t believe it is right either. And because E. O. Wilson, Alabama boy raised in the Baptist church believes, as I do, that “A society that condemns homosexuality harms itself.” (254).

This book is beautiful. Just wish I understood Wilson’s actual thesis, and the evidence for it, better. But I don’t understand the Higgs-Boson either.
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Quotes Laura Liked

Edward O. Wilson
“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)”
Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth

Edward O. Wilson
“The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival.”
Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth

Edward O. Wilson
“For the entire course of evolution leading from our primitive mammalian forebears of a hundred million years ago to the single lineage that threaded its way to become the first Homo sapiens, the total number of individuals it required might have been one hundred billion. Unknowingly, they all lived and died for us. (21)”
Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth

Edward O. Wilson
“Overall, it seems now possible to draw a reasonably good explanation of why the human condition is a singularity, why the likes of it has occurred only once and took so long in coming. The reason is simply the extreme improbability of the preadaptations necessary for it to occur at all. Each of the evolutionary steps has been a full-blown adaptation in its own right. Each has required a particular sequence of one or more preadaptations that occurred previously. Homo sapiens is the only species of large mammal – thus large enough to evolve a human-sized brain – to have made every one of the required lucky turns in the evolutionary maze. (45)”
Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth

Edward O. Wilson
“A society that condemns homosexuality harms itself. (254)”
Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth


Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Carlo (new) - added it

Carlo Lots of debates are going on around this book and Wilson's latest endorsement of Group Selection. It is quite interesting!


Laura Oh yeah? I've heard some interviews on NPR, but they were all worshipful. E.O. Wilson! He's like James Lovelock, only not frelling terrifying.


message 3: by Carlo (new) - added it

Carlo There's an interesting critique of group selection by Pinker on edge.com

You may also be interested in checking the below comments made by equally important intellectuals.


Laura Meh. I've never been able to get through Pinker. I've got a copy of The Language Instinct in the back room and never managed to get through it. I've tried some other things, but they all hit the TL;DR problem.


message 5: by Carlo (new) - added it

Carlo His work is quite dense. I tried once to read How the Mind Works but couldn't continue because the stuff was too hard and my English at the time was barely above average. I'm currently reading The Blank Slate and enjoying it very much!


Laura I don't mind dense, but unless the small scale prose style is just excellent, I resent length. I work on cases that can easily last for years; I don't want it in my books. Maybe because after about 500 pages, I can't remember what the beginning of the book said by the time I get to the end. I was interested in Blank Slate, if only because it seemed one of his shorter books, but this review, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002... turned me off.

Pinker does the NPR/PRI/Tech Nation circuit fairly frequently, so I hear him there.


message 7: by Carlo (new) - added it

Carlo Thanks Laura. I just finished reading the piece. I disagree with many of its ideas in general and about Pinker's book in particular, but I'm still halfway through. One thing I sense is that the Pinker and his book are indeed much more nuanced than you think by reading the review.


message 8: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller This looks interesting! ..and what an interesting, informative, wonderful review!


Laura Traveller wrote: "This looks interesting! ..and what an interesting, informative, wonderful review!"

Thank you! I feel bad about rambling, but organization is hard.


message 10: by Carlo (new) - added it

Carlo Beautiful review Laura, and please let me raise my methaphorical beer as well for all those who died for me, whether humans or non-humans.

A couple of days ago, Dawkins commented on Pinker's article as well. Matters are getting quite interesting.


Laura Carlo wrote: "Beautiful review Laura, and please let me raise my methaphorical beer as well for all those who died for me, whether humans or non-humans.

A couple of days ago, Dawkins commented on Pinker's arti..."


my husband pointed out that we're seeing science at work here. Competing hypotheses! Being tested! Science!


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