An ambitious take on human nature: Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth

Reviewed in this essay: The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson. Liveright, 2012.

The first scientific controversy to capture the mind of the young Edward O. Wilson was the so-called Lysenko affair. Wilson, 14 at the time, wrote an enthusiastic essay about the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko, a Stalinist protégé who advocated the now discredited theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. It did not take long for young Ed to learn enough genetics to dismiss Lysenko. Ever since, however, the now 83-year-old Harvard professor, likely the most famous evolutionary biologist alive, has never been afraid of an intellectual brawl. To date, if you want to get an idea of where contemporary controversy in evolutionary biology lies, looking at what Edward O. Wilson is currently writing about is a good start.

Wilson became a household name in 1975 when he published the book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The book, a 700-page doorstop, is still mandatory reading for any student of animal behaviour. However, Wilson’s extension of his argument about the evolution of social behaviour to humans resulted in a tirade of hyperbolic accusations of racism and elitism. The mood of the uproar was captured by an incident at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at which Wilson had a pitcher of ice water poured over him. As though this was not enough, Wilson later moved on to an arguably bigger task. In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) he picks up on the old dream from the Enlightenment to try uniting all knowledge, including the humanities and the arts under the wings of science.

In his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson combines these two arguments to take on what he considers the most precious grail: understanding the human condition. More specifically, he takes his starting point in the title of one of Paul Gauguin’s most celebrated paintings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” He draws on his remarkable knowledge of ants (on which he is a world authority), anthropology, art history, and archaeology, to tell an incredible story on how humans (and ants!) have come to dominate Earth.

His latest argument, however, means that Wilson once again finds himself with his gloves off. This is because he has abandoned the widely supported view that what drives social behaviour, in particular the evolution of altruism, is kinship. Instead, he has picked up on a redecorated version of group selection, the theoretically troublesome idea that the engine of evolution is the differential survival and reproduction of groups. To get a sense of the criticism, one must only look to outcry the idea received in the technical literature. The journal Nature published a reply signed by an astonishing 137 researchers, an author list that reads like a Who’s Who of social evolution.

True to the Wilsonian tradition, this is not a humble book. The readability and boldness that has earned him two Pulitzer Prizes are all there. However, this time there are many who believe he will eventually look back on this as another Lysenko essay.