Book Review: The Social Conquest of Earth, by E.O. Wilson

Review and Commentary By Jacob Billings

 Originally published Fall 2012.

sulcus138We are a social species. That much is clear. But how does sociality manifest within our actions? And how did we come to be this way? These are the questions eminent scholar, Edward Wilson, set out to answer in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. Wilson’s is a particular take on the hotly debated topic of social evolution. To be sure, Richard Dawkins stirred the silt with his article in Prospect, a British based publication of current topics and debate. But aside from any debate over whether a gene that recognizes familial identity or group identity contributes most strongly to the success of this species, the common plantings of that garden of knowledge are more interesting for this reader than are the weeds: Genes are a chiral spiraling walkway, winding a path through the evolution of our species; we are more similar to the rest of existence than we are unique; and, our drive towards association depends upon commonalities. Combining these treasures with Wilson’s flights of the pen make this read a provocative one indeed. What’s more, societal implications of his efforts are of immediate import.

sulcus139 “There is no grail more elusive or precious in the life of the mind …” forms the 83-year-old’s opening verse. The grail he’s referring to is an understanding of the human condition: why we do these things, think these things, feel this way, etc. And, like the countless philosophers before him, Wilson seeks to answer these questions by sewing together the best knowledge of the present culture. In this case, science and the humanities are the lenses that color Wilson’s sally. Religions, with their sometimes capricious G-ds, and often arbitrary rules, are now too slapdash to satisfy the empirically honed mind. And I agree. Even though the choice of what is revealed as fact depends on where a researcher chooses to look—an elephant will be just a snake if only the tail is measured—at least empiricism offers more of an   opportunity for anyone to assist in designing the set of truths that establish our modern world view.

So let’s follow Wilson’s thread through this modern effort to take what we think we know and answer that with some things that we think we don’t know. An evolutionary maze winds its way through humanity’s ancestry, trailing past the development of a relatively large physical size, hands built for grasping, bipedalism, larger brains, the harnessing of fire, and gathering at campsites. With this, we can manipulate a diversity of objects in novel ways, find and cook food with efficiency, and do so while in close proximity to others of our species. Within this context, another development occurred, one that is key to Wilson’s description of the human condition: A method of thinking established itself within the early-human brain that prompted a grouping of our ancestors to help each other out by sharing food with those who, rather than hunting and foraging, guarded over the campsite. This altruistic division of labor, conducted among multiple generations of a group, is known as eusociality. And that breed of social organization proved to possess enhanced survivability, enabling the species to pass coordinated altruism onto the next generation, and the generations after that.

sulcus140Interestingly, this altruism is limited by group inclusion, and tapered by individual interests. Before we can share freely, we must test the stranger’s capacity to share with us, that is, we must first form a social bond. Hence, these eusocial groups are formed exclusively. Kin associations or a set of rites/consistent actions cement the relationships between us. We are thus enabled to simultaneously care for other group members while engaged in a war because our group identity, not a species identity, holds a collective claim over resources. We can decimate the non-human life around us because group inclusion must contain some form of reciprocity which other species have difficulty demonstrating. We can hold marriages for decades while still finding it necessary to engage in protracted divorce settlements because personal interest is still a driver of association. Caring, therefore, is mediated by social contracts between each individual group member, each having independent interests. Our human condition is one that contends within the complex social network of altruism and reciprocity alongside the wilds of the remaining world.

sulcus141Although our societies have adapted very well to this world, they are far from perfect. Our evolutionary development has planted within us the ability to be just stewards of that which we come into contact with, and yet we often restrict this justice to certain domains and people. Seeing our species in this way, with our achievements and downfalls sewn into our DNA and culture, a pertinent question for us to find answers to is how we can establish that “more perfect union” and continue the evolution of our society? As our early-human ancestors proved, working together is the way to go. And as the societies of today are becoming aware, continuing to grow while decimating our environment is unsustainable.

Looking around at the people of our University, Emory, and the purposes to which we collectively ascribe, I am relieved to note that some groups are making a concerted effort to live a better way of life. Our sustainability initiatives raise awareness and instantiate practices that will conserve limited resources for succeeding generations. Our student and faculty diversity ensures that these resources are protected for a global we. And while poisonous exclusivity continues to be problematic even at this progressive University—a disproportionate number of the staff members here are descendents of a people violently stripped of home, history, and humanity—changes are taking place everywhere. The Arab Spring is demonstrating the will of progressive ideologies even within the most oppressive of regimes. The advent of cellular communication and the internet is providing a medium through which we can communicate with people across the globe, discovering the multifold commonalities between us to find ourselves immersed in each other’s lives.

Our world is changing; becoming a place where truth and identity is the substance of a global populace. I can’t imagine that the changes that finally establish a eusocial relationship among humanity at large will occur in time for E. O. Wilson to write about. But his efforts, as well as our own, will certainly contribute to that day.


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