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Book Review

‘The Social Conquest of Earth’ by E.O. Wilson

Rebutting himself and decades of others, Wilson sloppily details a new hypothesis on biology and behavior

illustration by James Steinberg

E.O. Wilson is, by any available yardstick, one of the grand scientific figures of the second half of the 20th century. By the time he published his first book in 1967, Wilson, just 38 years old then, had already helped revolutionize the fields of physiology (with his discovery of pheromones) and ecology (with his research on island biogeography). Not bad for a myrmecologist — that’s the technical term for someone who studies ants — from Alabama.

As it turned out, he was just getting started. In the 1970s, Wilson published three books (“The Insect Societies,” “Sociobiology,” and “On Human Nature”) that helped create an entire new academic discipline dedicated to studying the biological basis of culture and society. Those books brought him fame and acclaim well outside of the ivied walls of Harvard, which has been Wilson’s academic home since the 1950s: His work was featured on the cover of Time and “On Human Nature” won a Pulitzer Prize.

Jerry Bauer

Edward O. Wilson.

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They also created no small amount of controversy. Many of Wilson’s peers, including colleagues like Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould, argued that Wilson’s framing of a genetic basis for human behavior amounted to a gussied up version of the naturalistic fallacy — i.e., what is, ought to be.

It wasn’t only Harvard professors who felt that Wilson’s highly speculative musings — about homosexuals serving “as a partly sterile caste” to “enhanc[e] the lives and reproductive success of their relatives” or his belief that humanity’s genetic code means men will continue to “play a disproportionate role in political life, business, and science” — seemed to reinforce existing societal stereotypes.

In time, the vitriolic nature-nurture debates that roiled academia in the 1970s died down, and Wilson, who turns 83 in June, shifted his attention to less controversial projects, ranging from wildlife conservation to writing fiction. That makes it particularly unfortunate that Wilson appears to be capping his career with “The Social Conquest of Earth,” a sorry jumble of a book that is sloppy, self-indulgent, and scientifically unsophisticated.

From the outset, Wilson makes clear his goal is nothing less than the tackling of “the central problems of religion and philosophy” — “ ‘Where do we come from?’ ‘What are we?’ ‘Where are we going?’ ” (Those questions are borrowed from the title of Paul Gauguin’s 1897 masterpiece, which graces the book’s cover.) He will accomplish this, he writes, by braiding together “both sciences and the humanities” to tell what he calls the “real creation story”: how earth came to be dominated by social insects (ants, bees, termites, and wasps) and humans. The key, as Wilson sees it, is eusociality, “meaning group members containing multiple generations and prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor.”

Wilson’s explanation is based on his claim that kin-selection (also called inclusive fitness), the prevailing evolutionary explanation for altruism, is defunct. In its place, Wilson proposes something he calls “multilevel selection,” a process by which evolutionary forces act simultaneously on individuals and groups. This tension, Wilson says, “has resulted in a chimeric genotype in each person,” as group selection pushes people to be kind, generous, and selfless, and individual selection fosters cheating, backstabbing, and dishonesty: “It renders each person part saint and part sinner.”

This is precisely the type of broad, paradigm-shifting hypothesis prone to be lapped up by reviewers and reporters alike, and “The Social Conquest of Earth” has already been the subject of fulsome praise. Unfortunately, it’s also total bunk: Wilson’s blanket dismissal of kin selection ignores decades worth of research. Instead of grappling with this research, Wilson slashes at his unnamed, unspecific critics, which includes “most social scientists” and “most people, including many scholars.” And what do these straw men want? According to Wilson, they seek to deny “the very existence of human nature,” or, at the very least, “keep human nature at least partly in the dark.”

If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. After Wilson presented some of these theories in a 2010 Nature paper, University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne accused the journal of running “dreck” purely for the sake of generating controversy. Scores of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists pointed out the paper’s flaws. One response, published in Nature, included detailed criticisms of Wilson’s hypothesis and was signed by 137 scientists. Wilson neither addresses nor acknowledges any of this.

This cavalier lack of rigor pervades “The Social Conquest of Earth,” right down to its back matter. For a book that aspires to be a significant work of scholarship, bringing together complicated research from dozens of different academic disciplines, the citations are pathetically inadequate. To wit: The entire list of references for a chapter titled “The Creative Forces” are two of Wilson’s books from the 1970s, and two of his recent papers. Another, “How Natural Selection Creates Social Instincts,” lists only Darwin’s four “great books,” and some other chapters list a single paper as their source.

“The Social Conquest of Earth” is almost as dismissive of the lay reader as it is of working scientists: In some places, arcane terms are inadequately explained; in others, concepts are defined and redefined again and again. Multiple illustrations that depend on color to make their point are printed in black and white. (Paul Klee’s chromatic masterpiece, “New Harmony,” is reprinted in grey. Its caption reads: “The eye is drawn first to the red squares, then tends to shift to other colors in a sequence roughly like the order followed in the evolution of color vocabularies.”)

Finally, just as was the case four decades ago, Wilson opens himself to charges that his real interest is in maintaining and justifying the social status quo. In a section detailing how adopted children of modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes mature to be “capable members” of technologically advanced cultures, he refers to “Australian aboriginal children raised by white families.” He no longer seems to believe that homosexuality might have originated in sterile, servile castes; now he says it “may give advantages to the group by special talents, unusual qualities of personality, and the specialized roles and professions it generates.” The claim that there’s a “homosexual personality” is as offensive as it is nonsensical: How would millions of years worth of evolutionary forces be directed towards “specialized roles and professions” in modern society?

It’s always tragic when a great thinker’s hubris blinds him to glaring holes in his work; it feels sadder still when the person in question is a disciple of the sciences. Perhaps it shouldn’t, though — after all, it’s just human nature.

Seth Mnookin teaches science writing at MIT. His most recent book is “The Panic Virus.” He can be reached via his website sethmnookin.com, or on Twitter @sethmnookin.
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