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The Social Conquest of Earth

by Edward O. Wilson

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Calling sports "the moral equivalent of war" makes me wonder if Mr. Wilson hasn't been in the ivory tower a bit too long. However, it was an moderately interesting read. ( )
  bradgers | Feb 6, 2014 |
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 of evolution.

The kinship theory stated that if, by not having offspring yourself, you could help more of your sister’s offspring survive, that would still be a survival strategy because your sister shares many of your genes.

Dr. Wilson shows in The Social Conquest of Earth that, in fact, this is an incredibly effective survival strategy. The creatures who have learned to form cooperative societies are the masters of their ecological niche: “The twenty thousand known species of eusocial insects, mostly ants, bees, wasps, and termites, account for only 2 percent of the approximately one million known species of insects. Yet this tiny minority of species dominates the rest of the insects in their numbers, their weight, and their impact on the environment.”

Kinship theory seemed to explain insect cooperative societies very well, but over time it became clear that it was unsatisfactory to explain human society. Humans will help non-relatives to survive; we will even risk our lives to save a stranger. This required a different explanation, and this book is Wilson’s popular exposition of his new theory of group selection.

Most of the book is about establishing the evidence for this new theory, including that this is the best way to explain the evolution of social groups among humans.

What really sets humans apart is that our cooperation makes us more successful as individuals. Unlike insects that diminish their individual survival through cooperation (unless you happen to be the queen), humans maximize their individual survival.

In fact, this is what makes humans so dynamic: we are a delicate balance of selfishness and cooperation. That is our strength, but also the source of conflict. Unlike the insects, in the midst of our cooperative societies we also compete with each other for mates and resources.

Studies show young children will help a stranger without second thought, unlike chimpanzees who show no interest in helping. Humans don’t have to be trained to be kind and helpful.

Tens of thousands of years of evolution has give us as many cooperative instincts as selfish ones, yet modern American society acts as if the only true instincts are the selfish ones, and that altruism is some aberrant behavior. When reporting on a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, reporters love to pull out the stories of sacrifice and selfless aid to strangers, and speak with wonder as if this is uncommon. It’s not uncommon; it’s part of our nature. Being helpful to our neighbor is part of who we are.

In terms of the political, you could say conservatives act as if we were all selfishness, and liberals act as if we are only cooperators. The truth is we’re both. But in this country the conservative worldview has mostly prevailed. We’re taught that cooperation is unnatural; that our biological nature is purely and solely selfish. My hope is that this new theory will eventually bring a balance to our understanding of society—cooperation is as natural a part of us as competition.

Dr. Wilson asserts that the first step in the progression to sociality in a species is the creation of a communal nest. I loved his image of early humans learning to control fire: fire became our nest, our gathering place. This in turn could have been the spur to develop language—when it’s dark and there’s nothing else to do, early peoples could talk about the day.

Does this explain why we still love to sit around campfires and tell stories and sing songs together? Why the fireplace is the heart (hearth) of the home?
( )
  KatieBrugger | Jun 6, 2013 |
I listened to this book and when I reached the end I went back and listened to it again. When an expert on the evolution of man, animals, and social insects sets out to write about who we are and where we headed as social beings, it is definitely worth listening. ( )
  St.CroixSue | May 9, 2013 |
The key term is “eusociality” (“true social condition”), defined as groups with multiple generations and a cooperative division of labor that appears altruistic, with some members taking on roles that reduce lifespan or offspring so that other members can increase lifespan or offspring. Both ant and human societies can be so described. This book is about the similarities and differences, the evolution of ants, the evolution of humans in corresponding steps, the controversy of kin selection versus group selection, and human nature as the inevitable consequence of a tension between individual and group selection.

It reads less cohesively than one might hope, with repetition not as reminder or emphasis but more as if the parts were not carefully stitched into a whole, and vague speculation patched onto specifics. Terms such as “altruism” and “cooperation” are left somewhat open to interpretation. It is not intended to be a scholarly treatment. (Though at the end is a list of references for each chapter.) I wanted more comprehensive and detailed evidence in the sections about ants, because this is Wilson’s area of expertise, and tentatively accepted the sections about humans as sketched hypothesis rather than formal theory. Reservations aside, it is quintessential Wilson, with biophilia throughout, and an insistence that we can and should see ourselves in other creatures. “History makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology.”

The summary below is vastly simplified, prone to corruption by misunderstanding, and mostly for my own benefit (because my memory is poor and I’ll be pursuing some of those references), presented for anyone else who may find it useful, as either a preview or an excuse not to read the entire book. Note that I don’t necessarily agree with it all.

Ant Evolution

Ants evolved from solitary winged wasps, about 150 million years ago. (The discovery of Sphecomyrma freyi “ranked in scientific importance with Archaeopteryx ... and Australopithecus“.) Eventually the queens continued to fly briefly, and the workers ceased to fly. About 130 million years ago, a radical change occurred: gymnosperms (conifers, cycads, ginkgos) gave way to angiosperms (flowering plants). Ants were “lifted in the tide” of this more complex environment, and by 65 million years ago most of the two dozen subfamilies had appeared. Two evolutionary advances were partnership with aphids and other insects that thrive on plant sap, and the addition of seeds to prey and carrion as a food source. Now, ants dominate the insects. All ants on earth weigh roughly the same as all humans.

The crucial evolutionary step is a persistent nest within foraging range of food, exploring and returning to the same spot rather than roaming through a region. Among solitary animals, young typically disperse from the nest to breed. Many species of sawfly form coordinated aggregations, but females travel from prey to prey to lay eggs, and none has crossed over to eusociality. The threshold of eusociality is reached when some of the young remain in the nest. As soon as a cohesive group exists, natural selection acts upon it. A cooperating group fares better than independent individuals in constructing and defending a nest, and locating and transporting food. Eusociality may occur in response to environmental pressures, for example if predators steal eggs when the mother leaves the nest to forage for food. With a wider variety of food, the harvest season is extended, and the potential for overlap of generations is increased.

The more elaborate and extensive the nest, the more ferocious ants are in defending it. In two strains of fire ant, one with few queens and odor-based territorial behavior, the other with many queens and no territorial behavior, the difference is in a single gene that is key to odor recognition and identification of nestmates.

How might division of labor emerge? It is preexisting behavior of solitary insects. When two normally solitary bees are placed together so that only one nest can be built, they form a hierarchy and divide labor. The dominant female stays in the nest to guard and lay eggs, while the subordinate female forages for food. Individuals tend to move from one task to another in sequence, avoiding a task that is already done or in progress, and vary in the level of stimulation that triggers activity. So when two individuals are placed together, the one with the lower threshold begins a task, and the other takes on a different task. A division of labor does not require genetic change in behavior. All that is necessary is for the dispersal mechanism to be suppressed so that offspring remain in the nest.

Only the queen reproduces. While natural selection is acting on the colony as a superorganism, it is actually acting on the individual queen’s genes. The queen and workers share a low variety of the genes prescribing caste, and a higher variety of genes for other traits such disease resistance. Initially, workers had a different role from but similar appearance to the queen. Once the workers were anatomically distinct, the eusocial colony could not revert. How could anatomical differences occur? Wing development, for example, is regulated by a gene network. By 150 million years ago, the network had been altered in some species so that genes were not expressed under some circumstances. Any fertilized egg can become a queen or a worker, depending on environmental conditions, e.g. season and food and pheromones.

Group Selection vs Kin Selection

A classic explanation for altruism has been the theory of kin selection, proposed by William D. Hamilton in 1964, and summarized in the inequality rb > c (r = relatedness, b = benefit, c = cost). The inclusive fitness of an individual is its own fitness (number of offspring) plus the effect of its actions on the fitness of collateral relatives. An altruistic individual may fail to reproduce, but genes shared with relatives survive, and altruism increases with closeness of relationship. Wilson was an early proponent of this theory, hooked by the association of haplodiploid reproduction in wasps and bees and ants with eusocial behavior. The problem, though, is that this association doesn’t apply to termites, or shrimp, or mole rats. And not all haplodiploid species are eusocial. And clonal species, with an even closer genetic relationship, aren’t eusocial. In some bird and mammal species, offspring may remain at home to help raise younger siblings, delaying their own reproduction in favor of their parents’. This has been attributed to kin selection, but studying a wider range of species suggests that correlation with the degree of relationship isn’t so clear, and the driving factor may be expectation of inheritance when resources are scarce. Measures of relationship in two systems may be identical, but yield different levels of cooperation. Measures of relationship may be on opposite ends of the spectrum, but yield equal levels of cooperation. In essence, none of the terms in the equation could be unambiguously defined, and became “whatever it takes to make Hamilton’s inequality work”.

In a 2010 Nature article, Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and Wilson presented a game theory model demonstrating that kin selection as an explanation for ant eusociality is incorrect. To Wilson’s satisfaction. This is a highly controversial conclusion. In this book, he does not give technical specifics, and he does not present the array of arguments pro and con. He believes that the case is closed: game theory models show that selection “reverberates” up and down multiple levels, and can be applied universally, with degree of relationship irrelevant, whereas kin theory models have limited scope and can always be restated in terms of group selection.

Human Evolution and Human Nature

The prerequisite of a protected and persistent nest applies to other animals that have achieved a eusocial level of organization: shrimp that build nests in marine sponges, mole rats with a queen and workers and soldiers. How does it apply to humans? A campsite with fire. The split of humans and chimpanzees occurred about 6 million years ago. Both have grasping hands suitable for tools. Both have cultural transmission of tool use. Both form organized packs for hunting. Both occupy and defend territory. Chimpanzees, however, roam through an area of many square miles in search of food. Homo erectus controlled fire a million years ago.

Unlike ants, individual humans reproduce. As groups become cohesive entities, natural selection operates on two levels simultaneously: individual selection (within groups) and group selection (between groups). Although group selection happens with other animals, it does not rise to the same level. In humans, individual and group selection are in chronic tension, and this is the core of human nature. Individual selection is responsible for much of “sin”; in competition within the group, the more selfish individual prevails. Group selection is responsible for much of “virtue”; in competition between groups, the more internally cooperative group prevails. Neither extreme will do. Too far in the direction of individuals, and society would dissolve. Too far in the direction of groups, and society would resemble an ant colony of robots.

“I believe that ample evidence, arising from multiple branches of learning in the sciences and humanities, allows a clear definition of human nature.” Human nature is neither genetic code, nor cultural universals. “Human nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species. They are the ‘epigenetic rules,’ which evolved by the interaction of genetic and cultural evolution.” Examples: incest avoidance, and color vocabulary (which is based on the way brains are wired to perceive color). Cultural variation is determined by two properties, both subject to natural selection: the degree of flexibility in epigenetic rules, and the inclination to imitate. Wide variation in a dimension (e.g. marriage) doesn’t mean that genes are not involved. The expression of genes may be plastic, and plasticity itself is adaptive. Genetic evolution has not ceased, but continues in conjunction with culture. A “textbook example” is lactose tolerance. With global interaction, variation within populations increases, and variation between populations decreases.

The creative arts are “filtered through the narrow biological channels of human cognition”, e.g. what is visually appealing, complex enough to be interesting, simple enough to be comprehensible. The conflict between individual and group is the foundation of the humanities. The study of interacting genetic and cultural evolution should “make the pathways to harmony among the three great branches”: natural science, social science, humanities.

Because of group selection, tribalism is fundamental. Social organization has progressed through egalitarian bands and hierarchical chiefdoms and centralized states, but this is cultural evolution, not genetic evolution. We retain tribal psychology in an interlocking system of groups, instinctively favoring in-group members. War is the inevitable curse. Organized religion is an expression of tribalism; illogic is not a weakness, but a strength that binds members together. The myths and gods of organized religion are “stultifying and divisive”, encourage ignorance, and distract from problems of the real world. (Ahem. Please don’t kill the messenger.) The Neolithic significantly increased food supply, but did not change human nature. “Humanity failed to seize the great opportunity given it at the dawn of the Neolithic era. It might then have halted population growth below the constraining minimum limit.” But it didn’t, and we are now facing the consequences. One instinct that might redeem us: the golden rule.

(read 10 Jan 2013)
  qebo | Jan 21, 2013 |
In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson expounds upon the theories that were set forth in his classic work Sociobiology. His main thesis is that group selection, not kin selection, drove evolution and helped us to develop societies. He compares the way human society developed to the way ant "society" developed (ants are his specialty). He suggests reasons why religion and xenophobia would have originally developed as protective characteristics of groups. This book covers a large swath of material...from ants to human prehistory, to history, to today. I think he did a pretty good job organizing the book considering what a wide topic he was covering. His theories were clear and for the most part convincing. I think Wilson is an atheist, but he did a pretty good job of stating his opinions in an agnostic sort of way to avoid insulting the faithful. I think the book was well-written, interesting, and approachable by a non-scientific audience. I had no issues with Hogan's narration--he read the book well, but it wasn't anything worth raving about. ( )
  The_Hibernator | Nov 8, 2012 |
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Wilson’s book, however, is not devoid of merit. There are interesting titbits about biology and anthropology, including fascinating descriptions of how diverse cultures divide up the colour spectrum in similar ways, and how incest taboos, which avert genetically based birth defects, are enforced even by cultures that don’t understand the genetic consequences. Yet the good bits are ultimately scuppered by Wilson’s attempt to feed questionable biological ideas to the public while ignoring the criticisms of his peers. The result is that readers will be seriously misled about human evolution and the evolution of social behaviour as a whole.

It is puzzling that, at the end of a distinguished career, Edward Wilson has chosen to repudiate fertile and long-standing ideas about evolution in favour of alternatives that are deeply flawed. His immense achievements have made his legacy secure, but it will be tarnished by this misguided attempt to explain social behaviour in insects and humans.
added by jimroberts | editTimes Literary Supplement 4731, J. A. Coyne (Feb 1, 2013)
 
Edward Wilson has made important discoveries of his own. His place in history is assured, and so is Hamilton’s. Please do read Wilson’s earlier books, including the monumental The Ants, written jointly with Bert Hölldobler (yet another world expert who will have no truck with group selection). As for the book under review, the theoretical errors I have explained are important, pervasive, and integral to its thesis in a way that renders it impossible to recommend. To borrow from Dorothy Parker, this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.
added by jimroberts | editProspect, Richard Dawkins (May 24, 2012)
 
Sandwiched between his discussion of evolution and a concluding statement called “A New Enlightenment” is a series of chapters on language, culture, morality, religion and art. This section is intended to answer the “What are we?” question, but it is disappointing. Each chapter is only about a dozen pages and mainly summarizes the proposals of other scholars. While Wilson is never boring, there are few new insights here. The feeling you get recalls a remark once made by Roger Ebert about an artsy horror movie: there is foreboding and there is afterboding, but no actual boding.
added by rybie2 | editNew York Times, Paul Bloom (May 11, 2012)
 

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0871404133, Hardcover)

From the most celebrated heir to Darwin comes a groundbreaking book on evolution, the summa work of Edward O. Wilson's legendary career.

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 his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere. 90 illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:48:44 -0400)

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Based on a lifetime of pioneering research, preeminent naturalist Edward O. Wilson gives us a new history of human evolution, presented in an elegant and provocative narrative that promises to have reverberations in fields as diverse as anthropology and social psychology, neuroscience and 21st-century intellectual and religious history. Wilson begins by addressing three "fundamental questions" of religion and philosophy that have fascinated thinkers for centuries: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Writing that "the origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck, good for our species for a while, bad for most of the rest of life forever," Wilson traces the rise of Homo sapiens from its infancy, drawing on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to present us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition. Wilson also reveals how "group selection" can be the only model for explaining man's origins and domination, and warns that it has now accelerated--through unregulated and untrammeled growth--to such a point that the planet as we know it is being threatened.--From publisher description.From the most celebrated heir to Darwin comes a groundbreaking book on evolution, the summa work of Edward O. Wilson's legendary career.… (more)

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