At the age of 85, Edward O. Wilson, one of our foremost evolutionary biologists (and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner), has written a provocative book that is so fascinating it nearly lives up to the stunning ambition of its title.
Wilson’s project is partly to inspire “a new Enlightenment” through a closer collaboration between science and the humanities. The need for such a collaboration is urgent, Wilson argues, because “we are entering an era of volitional evolution,” a time when advances in biotechnology mean we are no longer subject to the processes of natural selection, while at the same time our species is running roughshod over the intricate web of interrelationships among life forms on Earth, with unknown consequences to the survival of life on Earth. “Exalted we are,” Wilson writes, “but we are still part of Earth’s flora and fauna, bound to it by emotion, physiology and, not least, deep history.” A union of science and the humanities, he suggests, will put “pride and humility in better balance.”
Wilson is always a beguiling writer, illustrating his points with captivating examples from his field work and his broad knowledge of biodiversity and evolutionary history. For example, he devotes a wide-ranging, joyously detailed section of this book to comparing our species to other life forms on Earth, “to demonstrate how bizarre we are as a species, and why.”
The point for Wilson is that the history we need to understand for our survival is biological and cultural. “We are not predestined to reach any goal,” he writes. “Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.”