#11. A Summary of ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’ by E.O. Wilson

Due to a complaint from W.W. Norton, this summary is no longer available. I apologize for the inconvenience. If you have a question or comment, please leave it in the comment box below.

Sincerely,
Aaron Thibeault

11 thoughts on “#11. A Summary of ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’ by E.O. Wilson

  1. Good summary; the book was so good I wanted to revisit it. His theory helps answer many of the unresolved questions I had over human evolution and the many so very human and conflicting traits and behaviors I have seen in my thousands of students in almosty thirty years of teaching. The struggle between individual needs and group roles is a constant dynamic in their lives-in all our lives.

    • Thanks Lorelei. I agree, the book was really fantastic. I too believe that Wilson is probably correct in thinking that group-level selection has had an important role to play in the evolution of our species. However, I am not so sure that we really need to throw out kin-selection and inclusive fitness altogether, as Wilson seems happy to do. It seems very likely to me that our altruistic sentiments got their start with kin-selection, were extended to non-kin via individual selection, and then were reinforced from here through group-selection. This is simply going on the basis that all three forms of selection have excellent arguments in their favor, and are not mutually exclusive. Listening to the arguments of many biologists on the issue, though, you would not think that this is the case, as they appear to be dividing themselves over the affair. Feel free to weigh in on the issue if you like…

      Cheers,
      Aaron,
      The Book Reporter

  2. What a marvelous site this is! I have been interested in several of the books you have summarized, don’t really have time to read all of them, and find that I can get a good idea of the main arguments through your summaries. I’ve had the experience, as I’m sure you have, of being intrigued by a book enough to buy it, then after getting part way through it, finding there isn’t enough new (to me personally, not necessarily a criticism for others) to justify reading it through. Summaries like yours provide an immense service in this regard, so I have a good idea in advance how much I can learn.

    I just finished your summary of Wilson’s book and will certainly look at several others, e.g., those by Haidt, Gazzaniga and Kraus. Wrt Wilson’s book, the only problem I had (not sure if this is a criticism of you or of Wilson) is that I didn’t fully understand his issue with kin selection, i.e., exactly why he believes that the degree of relatedness can’t be specified—and even if it can’t be, why that invalidates the notion of kin selection (as opposed to just making it difficult to estimate its effects).

    Also, the arguments for group selection, at least recently, I think have been best made by Sober and (David) Wilson in their book Unto Others. I assume E.O. Wilson cites their work? Though they are quite sympathetic to the notion, even they note that their scheme only works under fairly special conditions, e.g., groups must frequently disperse and reform. Otherwise, the altruists are eventually out-competed and replaced by the cheaters, even though a group with more altruists out-competes a group composed of more selfish individuals. I assume E.O. Wilson must have some answer to this criticism. Does he in fact go into mathematical arguments to make his point?

    • Hi Peter? Thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful comment. As for Wilson’s trashing of kin-selection, I agree that my presentation of the argument is a little vague. I myself had difficulty fully understanding Wilson’s line of thinking in the book. It was apparent that Wilson was holding back somewhat given that he was writing the book for a general audience. I am convinced that Wilson has given a more thorough treatment of the matter, including the math involved, in his professional papers. I did not search out these papers though. As far as I am concerned, a good scientist should be able to render his arguments easily to an educated but non-specialist audience, and I think that Wilson could have done a much better job in this regard in the book. The arguments against kin-selection were scant and quite vague. Instead, there was a lot of rhetoric to the effect that only group-selection could account for the phenomenon in question (at times you felt like you were being hit over the head with it, which was a little annoying).

      My own view is that there is plenty of room for kin-selection, individual selection and group-selection. Indeed, it seems clear that such things as a mother’s love for her offspring evolved originally as a matter of kin-selection. What’s more, I don’t see why Wilson is so intent on bringing kin-selection down, since it is not at all incompatible with group selection: you can easily have altruism begin as a matter of kin-selection, and then be reinforced and refined through individual and group-selection.

      As for Wilson’ citations, he really doesn’t make an effort to reference anyone whose on his side in the matter of group-selection. This is a bit strange, no doubt, but I’m not sure we can fault Wilson in this matter. For one, the book is meant for a popular audience (and most general readers don’t really care to know [or benefit from knowing] whose on the author’s side). And second, I do happen to know that Wilson is one of the biologists leading the charge when it comes to resurrecting group selection. Given that this is the case, and given that few biologists have the clout and reputation that Wilson does, we might forgive him for not mentioning his brothers in arms. (Incidentally, the matter of group-selection also comes up in Haidt’s book, and he does a much better job of citing those who have done valuable theoretical work here [I can’t remember off hand who he cites, but if you really want to know I’m sure I can scrounge it up for you]).

      By the way, if you happen to come across any brand new books that you’d like summarized, feel free to drop me a line (twitter is probably easiest: @TheBookReporter). I certainly consider recommendations.

      Cheers,
      Aaron,
      The Book Reporter

      • Thanks for the response, Aaron. I’m Andy, my email is petiver (from the Latin words for “seek” and “truth”). I probably will take you up on your offer to review some books. I also do some reviewing at my own blog http://www.nodimensions.com/blog

  3. Thanks for this excellent and thorough review. I just finished Wilson’s book and enjoyed reading your synopsis to “cap it off”. Wilson’s ideas make so much sense to me that I’m inclined to seriously consider the theory of group selection. It certainly sheds light on the “human condition” in such a way that we don’t need to venture into myth and metaphor. It’s a “grown-up” way to explain our existential problem. Thanks again for the review.
    Steve

    • Thanks for the compliment and the comment Steve. I agree with you that group selection is certainly a powerful tool in helping us understand human nature. I must say, though, I don’t quite understand why Wilson is so insistent on throwing out kin selection outright. It seems to me that individual selection, kin selection, and group selection all have strong arguments in their favour in terms of explaining our altruistic sentiments. What’s more, they are not mutually exclusive, so we can easily see how they could all come into play, and indeed it seems to me that they probably all do.

      Cheers,
      Aaron

  4. Fascinating review and thanks for that. I am a layman, and depend on clever writers like Wilson to promote my understanding of the human’s place on the planet. From observation it appears to me that humanity is on a spectrum of all sorts of measures. How to arrive at a timescale of human attributes is a monumental achievement at all. What I think about alot is the huge variety of potentials that exist at any one time. How does history think about the disparity between human potential? Surely that has a place in study? At any given time in history humans display such a broad spectrum of potential that it almost seems to me we are not just one species. Is that mad?

    • Thanks for the comment. Your question is perfectly valid. Wilson’s book focuses mainly on the similarities across the human species, but there is also much diversity (in many different respects). Scientists believe that this has to do with the both nature and nurture (genetics and environment). The study of the natural differences between people is known as behavioral genetics. If you’re looking for a starting point to investigate this discipline I would highly recommend looking into twin studies (the most famous of which is the Minnesota Twin Study). If a good book were ever written about these studies I would jump at the opportunity to cover it. Hope that helps.

      Cheers,
      Aaron

  5. Is there really such a thing as altruism, given that all our actions seem to benefit ourselves, either directly or indirectly? By helping the cohesion and efficiency of our group are we not increasing the likelihood of our own long-term survival (vs. the short-term benefit of cheating)? Is this not a form of reciprocal altruism (which, I would argue, by definition, is not altruism), with the group rather than another individual returning the favor of survival to us?

    • Hi August, thanks for your note. As to your question, I think there is an important distinction to be drawn here between reciprocal altruism (which does ultimately promote your own genes), and group commitment (which advances your own genes in a much less direct way–i.e., through advancing the gene pool that you happen to be in). In the final analysis, it’s true, all evolved mechanisms must ultimately advance one’s genes in some way, but the distinctions, I think, are important. This is brought home especially hard when we think of things at the behavioral level. Do you put someone who fights wars for his country in the same selfish class as someone who robs banks? If intellectually yes, consider this: who would you rather trust, or have as a friend??

      Cheers,
      Aaron

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