Author looks at human condition

THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH. By Edward O. Wilson. Liveright. 352 pages. $27.95.

“Humanity,” writes Edward O. Wilson, “is a biological species in a biological world.”

Wilson is one of the giants of science in the past century. He is renowned (and reviled by detractors) as the originator of sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior.

His studies in ant biology and their social behavior are classics of scientific literature.

In “The Social Conquest of Earth,” the author employs Paul Gauguin’s masterpiece, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” for the structure of the book and as a metaphor for a biological examination of the human condition.

Wilson believes that if we attain a fuller understanding of the biological basis for humanity, including culture, language, morality, religion and the humanities, we will see, in scientific terms, how we came to be.

Wilson devotes more than half the book to “Where do we come from?” Here he posits group selection as a part of multilevel natural selection in the evolution of our special place in the animal world.

He provides a succinct history of human evolution over the past 500,000 years or so, and the path from tribalism to civilization.

He explains the preadaptations (e.g., existence on land, large body size, brain potential, grasping hands, organized groups, control of fire) necessary for us to evolve into our current state as humans.

Wilson follows with a thorough presentation of eusocial species of insects, including ants, termites, wasps and bees.

His explanations of the evolution, genetics and multi-level selection of those insects that have populated the earth for about 200 million years are spectacular.

The next third of the book is devoted to the “Human Condition” (i.e., the “What are we?”) and how culture evolved. In scientific, biological and evolutionary terms, Wilson presents the origins of morality, religion and the creative arts.

While controversy surrounds Wilson’s thesis on the nature of altruistic behavior, he creates a persuasive argument. But he also has been criticized by some of his peers for not presenting the full counterarguments. This seems to have been beyond the scope the author intended.

In the final section, “Where are we going?” the author only devotes 10 pages to simplistic generalizations such as eliminating our religion myths from our view of reality and becoming better stewards of the Earth. This section lacks the complexity of analysis with which he informs the rest of his work.

Despite the disappointing finale, “The Social Conquest of Earth” is a brilliant portrait, full of grand ideas, about where we came from and how we got where we are. No small thing.

Reviewer Michael Nelson, a writer and editor based in Charleston