Because Ideas Matter...
The faculty and staff of Butler University's College of Liberal
Arts and Sciences presents
The Social Conquest of Earth
by Edward O. Wilson, Norton 2012
Reviewed by Larry Riggs
This new book by the venerable evolutionary
biologist and social thinker is a reflection on the three
fundamental questions that have always fascinating thoughtful
humans: Where did we come from? What are we? and Where are we
going? Wilson's answer to the first two questions is that, like the
ants, we are eusocial creatures evolved through the processes, both
complementary and paradoxical, of individual and group selection.
Only a few times, in the entire history of life, have species with
complex social systems evolved. All such species have become
dominant in their spheres, and we are the most highly organized and
the most dominant of them. Wilson argues that, while natural
selection favors individual organisms with "selfish" tendencies, it
simultaneously favors groups with large proportions of individuals
exhibiting what we call altruism. Such groups tend to win in
conflicts with other groups. This implies that hostility between
groups has been a factor in the "refinement" of eusociality. The
science deployed by Wilson is persuasive. It also seems to connect
with issues central to the humanities and social sciences. The twin
forces of evolution, for example, could be taken to underlie the
perennial conflicts in drama and literature between desire and
duty. They also cast interesting light on Freud's Pleasure
Principle and Reality Principle. As for the third question,
Wilson's science, it seems to me, can inform our urgent attempts to
answer it, but, ultimately, insofar as it implies any margin for
choice, it is not a scientific question.
- Larry Riggs is Professor of French at Butler University.