April 2012

Answering the questions of human evolution

By Edward O. Wilson
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With his probing curiosity, his dazzling research, his elegant prose and his deep commitment to bio­diversity, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist (The Ants) and novelist (The Anthill) Edward O. Wilson has spent his life searching for the evolutionary paths by which humans developed and passed along the social behaviors that best promote the survival of our species. His eloquent, magisterial and compelling new book offers a kind of summing-up of his magnificent career.

In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson asks three simple questions: “Where do we come from?”; “What are we?”; and “Where are we going?” Answering these questions, however, is not so simple, and he brings together disciplines ranging from molecular genetics to archaeology to social psychology in his quest to address these persistent queries.

Drawing upon detailed mathematical models and meticulous biological research, including his own work with the social insects—ants, wasps, termites—Wilson concludes that multilevel group selection, rather than inclusive fitness and kin selection, offers a fuller and more accurate explanation of the origins and development of human social behavior. He demonstrates persuasively how the conflict between individual selection (the competition for survival among members of the same group) and group selection (which shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another) has led to our very human struggle between good and evil. The worst in our nature coexists with the best; to scrub it out, even if such were possible, would make us less than human.

While not everyone will agree with Wilson’s provocative and challenging conclusions, everyone who engages with his ideas will discover sparkling gems of wisdom uncovered by the man who is our Darwin and our Thoreau.

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The Social Conquest of Earth

The Social Conquest of Earth

By Edward O. Wilson
ISBN 9780871404138

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