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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 February 2015
This is a good book, with many interesting facts presented. What I dislike about it is that Wilson is not contrite enough about his change of mind regarding group selection - I feel I want an apology for the the fact that he, a figure of authority in the field, got it wrong, and is as responsible as anyone for holding back correct ideas for half a century (that goes for Dawkins too, who still denies group selection)! He would argue that he and his team now have the mathematical proof that group selection can work, but I doubt that proof; just as I doubt Ronald Fisher's proof regarding gene pools which has been trotted out as the basis for the 'Modern Synthesis', even though the modern synthesis was an idea propagated by a book of that title by Julian Huxley, and most of the major figures behind the modern synthesis have said either that they never read Fisher's book or that they never understood it! In both cases, my argument is not with the maths, but with the assumptions that it is based on - there are just too many cultural factors involved in sustaining groups and societies, like laws, and policing, and shaming - it isn't about just 'genes for altruism'.

Wilson should not only apologise, but he should also give full credit to those who gave us the idea of group selection long ago, in particular the Scotsman Sir Arthur Keith, who very expertly laid out the theory of group selection in his book 'A New Theory of Evolution' in 1948! Keith went on to justify war, and describe man as having a dual code which he called the 'Amity Enmity complex'. Keith saw war between tribes and cultures as essential . Wilson has stolen these ideas wholesale, and even uses the terms in-group and out-group, which Keith invented - without even a mention of Keith! I hurts to see Wilson being credited with a new idea! Wilson is bad crediting earlier workers in general, and non of the key names in sociology, psychology, or ethology appear in the index. No mention of Konrad Lorenz, famous founder of Ethology who wrote many books on human behaviour; or his famous disciples Nicolaas Tinbergen and Eibl Eibesfeldt (mentor of David Attenborough), or the key phenomenon of 'imprinting' studied by these workers (not to be confused with the unfortunate use of the term imprinting in epigenetics which though possibly part of the mechanism is not the phenomenon). Wilson talks of 'prepared learning' but with no mention of the imprinting concept or of the 'critical periods' involved (Lorenz famously realised that geese took the first thing they saw to be their mother, no matter how ridiculous, and later took it as their object of sexual attraction too.) John Bowlby, psychologist and Mary Ainsley identified what is known as 'attachment' in babies which involves a similar critical period.)

Wilson still talks of a 'gene for altruism', but since the reading of the human genome in 2000, everything in the world of genetics has changed. There are only 22,000 'genes' and half of those code for 'structural proteins' - the basic building blocks common to most creatures, and most of the rest are shared with other life forms - there are just non left to code for all the complexity of human life. Geneticists now talk of gene expression, and a whole new science of epigenetics has grown up over the last fifteen years, as has a whole new science of RNA - micro RNA's, long non-coding RNA and so on and on. Experts I have spoken to have said to me "ten years ago I thought I understood how genes work - now I haven't a clue". That's the general view; that it's much much more complicated than we ever dreamt! The idea of a 'gene for a characteristic' however you define 'gene', is dead! Wilson also talks of alternative 'alleles', but most genes only have at most a few alleles, and where they affect development it is generally for simple things determined by a change of protein, like eye colour, not subtle optimisation for survival.

What Wilson is good at is comparing humans to ants - he is of course the acknowledged expert on hymenoptera. I like the way he points out that an extraterrestrial landing on earth three million years ago would have been amazed by leaf-cutter ants, but considered australopith man to have little future (I paraphrase). He has brought us a very good understanding of how ant societies do not function as human ones do because of a big difference - selection does not occur between workers, who therefore do not compete among themselves; they are a function of the queen's genes. His idea that sociality requires a 'nest', which was initially the fire around which people gathered, is interesting, as is the fact that an ant could never start or carry fire - a matter of scale and getting burnt - and could therefore never build a technology.
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on 10 May 2012
"The Social Conquest of Earth" is Edward O. Wilson's latest book, published this year. Wilson is a leading myrmecologist who went on to become the grand old man of sociobiology.

In my opinion, Wilson's book is over-hyped by the publisher. It's interesting, to be sure - you can take it from me, I'm a critic of sociobiology, while being somewhat fond of ants! However, the book is to a large extent simply a summary of Wilson's earlier books and scientific papers (which he often references). I consider it to be an introduction to Wilson, rather than some kind of dramatic, super-genial work on par with Darwin's "The Origin of Species".


The main point of the book is to rehabilitate the concept of group selection, 36 years after "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins made the public aware of its burial by the Neo-Darwinists. Wilson no longer claims that W. D. Hamilton's ideas about kin selection can explain the evolution of eusociality among insects. Instead, he believes that complex insect societies (e.g. among hymenopterans) are a product of individual selection of queens, with the worker-castes being a kind of robotic extension of the queen's phenotype. There's also group selection targeting the entire colony. The chapters on insects are rather technical, but if Wilson is right, I wonder why inclusive-fitness selection was upheld for so long. Apparently, the concept never worked for termites, which evolved eusociality independently of the hymenopterans. According to Wilson, the concept didn't work very well for hymenopterans either, to the point where "kin" was defined in a completely arbitrary manner. Kin selection among social insects turned out to be a theoretical, arm-chair construct which simply didn't square with realities on the ground. Wilson was an early defender of Hamilton, but now believes the theory is erroneous. Personally, I'm not surprised: what makes us think that nature can be reduced to an exact mathematical formula of genetic kinship? (Here's a clue: reductionist materialism, which Wilson still upholds.)


But, of course, nobody really cares about ants or termites anyway. The really contentious point of "The Social Conquest of Earth" concerns us humans. Traditionally, sociobiologists have emphasized kin selection as the mechanism behind much of human evolution. By contrast, Wilson proposes a combination of individual selection and group selection.

I admit that this makes a lot of intuitive sense. Once again, I wonder what took the Neo-Darwinists so long to revise their theories? Marshall Sahlins pointed out long ago in "The use and abuse of biology" that many human kinship systems aren't based on genetics at all. They might pit siblings against each other, while counting second cousins or completely unrelated persons as close kin. Since Sahlins was a Marxist constructivist, he was duly mocked by the sociobiologists, who preferred to remain oblivious to these basic anthropological facts.

And what about Malinowski, hailed by sociobiologists as a precursor to their own theories due to his "functionalism"? Malinowski described how men among the Trobriand Islanders are (voluntarily?) cuckolded into adopting and rearing children of unfaithful wives, something incomprehensible from a kin selection viewpoint. The religion of the Trobrianders claim that sexual intercourse has nothing to do with procreation - instead, babies are born when free-floating spirits enter the womb of women. Thus, men would gladly adopt even children who couldn't possibly have been their own. Similar notions also exist among some groups of Aborigines. Group selection would explain all this rather neatly.

Wilson points out that individual selection would tend to promote selfish behaviour, while group selection tends in the opposite direction. Selfish individuals usually win out over altruistic individuals in a group, but groups of altruists always outcompete groups of egoists. Since humans are targets of both forms of selection, we are eternally split between egotistic and altruistic impulses. This is Wilson's explanation for the constant conflict within each human being between virtue and vice, between our desire to help others (including non-kin who can't pay back) and our "sinful" attempts to use others to our advantage. In a sense, group selection is responsible for what we call morals or morality. However, Wilson also believes that group selection has a dark side. Humans are tribal by nature, and competition between tribes has frequently taken aggressive forms throughout human history. Basing himself on Le Blanc's and Register's book "Constant battles", Wilson argues that war is a constant condition of mankind. So is genocide. Indeed, the roots of war go all the way back to our primate ancestors, since chimpanzees (our closest evolutionary cousins) also wage territorial "wars".


As you might imagine, this is where I tend to part company with the author. It's not at all clear that war has been a perennial companion of Homo sapiens. Many Neolithic cultures were peaceful, including the famous culture at Catalhöyük, which lasted for 1,400 years. Even peaceful high cultures have existed: the Indus Valley Civilization, the Norte Chico culture in Peru and (arguably) Minoan Crete. And what about the Semai in Malaysia, a culture Wilson and other sociobiologists (absurdly) attempted to use as evidence *for* warfare being a human universal during the 1970's? The comparison between humans and chimpanzees is striking only if we decide already before we start that humans really are perennially war-prone. Bonobos, who are mostly peaceful, are also close evolutionary cousins to humans. Besides, chimpanzees become more peaceful in captivity, and even change their "gender roles", suggesting that their genes have a certain flexibility presumably lacking among, say, Hamadryas baboons. The implications for humans are obvious.

Wilson believes in gene-culture co-evolution, and is thus a "moderate interactionist", as I believe Ullica Segerstråle called him in her book on the sociobioloy controversy. My problem with the author is that, in practice, he seems to be a very moderate interactionist indeed! In effect, Wilson is always veering towards genetic determinism (in the vernacular sense of that term). In fact, he complains about his co-evolution theory being misused by people who want to place heavier emphasis on culture. Now, I don't deny that there are "human universals" - I'm not a pure constructivist. But which are they? At one point, Wilson reprints a list of purported universals which include government, private property rights, law, inheritance rules and status differentiation. However, it's almost too easy to demonstrate that these, of course, are *not* human universals at all. Government? Law? Nor is patriarchy a universal, for that matter. The interactionist hypothesis needs to take the actual cultural variation into account, or be replaced with something else entirely.


This brings me to the more philosophical parts of "The Social Conquest of Earth". Wilson is a reductionist materialist and atheist, and several chapters of the book attacks religion in a very forthright manner. (Unless I'm mistaken, Wilson actually claims to be a deist in "Consilience", but if God is simply a prime mover who creates a reductionist-materialist world, it's difficult to see the difference between deism and outright atheism. God and Elvis have left the building!) At the same time, Wilson clearly believes in objectively valid morality. However, without a transcendent dimension, it's difficult to see how he can coherently believe in morality at all.

Thus, Wilson writes that virtue, honour and altruism are "moral", while selfishness is "immoral". But why? Ayn Rand or Max Stirner would say the opposite. Besides, Wilson believes that warfare and genocide are immoral, yet they are obviously connected to virtue, honour and altruism. They are all products of group selection. There is virtue even among thieves! Why is one product of group selection (e.g. genocide) immoral, while another product (e.g. helping the poor) moral? At one point (p. 252), Wilson actually extols the virtue of individuals who refuse to bow to immoral peer pressure, but why is *that* moral? Note also that this kind of behaviour seems to go against the grain of both individual selection and group selection. Imagine a soldier who under peer pressure participates in the gang rape of a female captive. If a product of individual selection, he should participate in the gang rape for selfish reasons, perhaps to save his own neck. If a product of group selection, he should also participate out of loyalty to the group or the group leader. But if he refuses and is court-martialled, what selection pressure is he under? A cynic might simply argue that the soldier is maladaptive (if executed, his genetic line will be extinguished) but Wilson clearly regards such a person as a hero. But what is the basis for seeing his actions as moral or as heroic?

Wilson, of course, regards religion as grossly immoral. He mentions Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae and religious opposition to homosexuality as two examples of such immorality. He also expresses support for the West European welfare state (thank you, Eddie!), thereby suggesting that "free" market politics are somehow immoral, as well. But once again I wonder what the basis is for his moral decision? Presumably, religion is a product of group selection, since it gives cohesion to the tribe. Thus, it enhances the altruism and survival value of the group, yet Wilson sees it as a potentially evil force. In the last chapter, Wilson expresses the hope that humanity will one day lay aside its petty differences, unite in peace and save the environment. However, if the rest of "The Social Conquest of Earth" is something to go by, there is absolutely no ground whatever for such a hope. One also wonders what selection pressure created this vain hope in the first place!


By the author's own logic, his hopes are maladaptive. Indeed, in most of the book, he strikes a decidedly more pessimistic note. But this, too, is illogical - if humans will be forever torn between egotism and brutal altruism, why not embrace the world as it actually looks like? Why not become a fascistic Neo-Pagan? Or something along the lines of Oswald Spengler? Wilson wants to avoid this conclusion, and in that he's surely right, but there's little or nothing in his worldview to militate against a misanthropic pessimism. I have an involuntary sympathy for pessimists, but the fact that egalitarian, peaceful or "matriarchal" cultures have existed, shows that Homo sapiens isn't doomed to remain a brutal, altruistic anthill society...
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on 14 April 2012
E. O. Wilson has ignited a valuable debate about how altruism evolved in humans. As an insect specialist he more or less put 'inclusive fitness' or 'Hamilton's rule' on the map as natural selection's preferred mechanism for the evolution of altruism. Then in a famous 2010 article in Nature, and now in The Social Conquest of Earth he says that he was completely wrong and that 'group selection' is how altruism evolved in both eusocial insects and humanity. By group selection Wilson means war to the death between groups - 'total war'. This idea has been around a long time; Darwin believed it, talking off the top of his head without any archaeological evidence about what happened during the two million years of humanity's evolution, and misled by an idea ('Pangenesis') that learned experience was passed down from generation to generation. Recently Samuel Bowles published a paper in Science showing mathematically that warfare could preserve a fragile form of altruism if a mutation for it occurred. Wilson now makes the startling claim that because Bowles's archaeological data shows warfare 'from the beginning of Neolithic times', therefore 'tribal aggressiveness thus goes back well beyond Neolithic times, but no one as yet can say exactly how far'. He then goes on to speculate that because the common chimpanzee is warlike 'there is a good chance' that tribal aggressiveness goes back six million years. The reality is that once you look beyond inclusive fitness (which is one way that altruism can evolve in some creatures) there are many ways that altruism can evolve in humans. People love the idea that warfare delivers benefits, possibly because it reassuringly exorcises war's horrors and apparent inevitability in the modern world. A careful reading of the Bowles paper shows that he has proved that a supposed altruistic gene could be preserved by group selection without warfare, simply because of the climate. His model also describes a population with a small minority of Ned Flanders types with this altruistic gene, whereas real research shows that altruism is universal and not binary. Wilson's mathematical colleague Martin Nowak and the behavioural ecologists use 'multilevel selection' in a much more subtle sense than Wilson's old fashioned 'total war between groups'. It is from them that we are finding out the truth about our altruism, and the controversy ignited by Wilson's book will end up by proving him wrong again.
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on 29 January 2013
A very refreshing and enjoyable book. I really like the way the author mixes the arts into a science book. The way he does it really works, and it certainly helps get his point across.

The other very unusual ingredient is the analogy between human societies and insect colonies. This works too, for the ants and termites have altruism in abundance, more so than humans even. I am sure that Wilson is on to something in the parallels he draws here.

Wilson's insights are very good - for example I've read several attempts to explain the existence of religion in human societies, and I think this is the most convincing I've encountered so far. His explanation of human nature is very thought provoking too.

Throughout Wilson comes across as humble, modest and undogmatic, so that it is a pleasure to read (unlike many science books where the author's massive ego often irritatingly gets in the way).

I was disappointed at the reviews on Amazon UK. Two especially angry ones seem religiously motivated - I can understand their emotional need to think that way but it does not shed much light on the subject nor does it seem polite to respond to such a mild mannered author in this way.

A third cross review puts forward Richard Dawkins' view. Personally I don't see what all the fuss is about - if you view a eusocial group as a 'super organism' then group selection and individual selection are not so different. There is usually more than one valid model to describe a complex situation.

Overall, highly recommended for the light it sheds on the human condition, and for the excellent manner the author uses to get his thoughts across.
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on 16 March 2013
Those who challenge EO Wilson's slow conversion to group selection over kin selection, obviously hate this erudite ode to eusociality, and rightly so. It demonstrates the wisdom of his careful and detailed demolition of kin selection as a limited and mostly irrelevant determinant of evolutionary behaviour. I would imagine it was Wilson's unchallengable mastery of the insect world - and his 40 year obsession to link the behaviour of man to insect - that finally swayed him to this new understanding.

Edward O. Wilson is a professor emeritus at Harvard University in entymology and a founder of evolutionary biology and psychology. He is one of the world's great intellectuals. He is as influential in his sphere as the Beatles were to mid-sities pop music. He writes with clarity and ease, and cares deeply about science. His long dissection of the group vs. kin selection rests on eusociality, the societies of insects and people, who rule the earth through group co-operation. One memorable idea is that, while a selfish individual might triumph over a co-operative one, a selfish group loses out to a co-operative group - all the time. Some of the detailed anecdotes about insect behaviour still astonish the non-scientists among us (me!)

I particularly loved the final chapters of this book, especially the one in which he evicerates religion. In this he makes Dawkins look hysteric without much effort. To Wilson, the natural world, with all its wonders, knocks the spots off the imaginary world of 'faith.' Be prepared to take another look at The Selfish Gene and other works based in kin selection. There is a better idea, and Wilson shows it to us.
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on 4 April 2016
I have most of Wilson's books. His style is elegant, and he writes in a way that is intellectually challenging to the non-specialist, but in a stimulating and charming way - I can almost hear his Alabama drawl. How can human social behaviour be discussed in relation to that of his favourite beasts, the ants? Read to find out. I return to Wilson's wisdom from time to time, keeping a short row of his books.
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on 4 May 2014
I remember the stir Wilson caused with Consilience way back and some of the disreputable incidents promoted by fellow professors urging their students to disrupt his lectures (at a University!).
Reading his mature work just now I feel his activist detractors (Profs Rose, etc.) should be ashamed of their conduct.
Social Conquest is a triumph of dogged research work and enlightening to scientists in other fields, as well as young entrants in gis own field.
Prof G.Kennedy
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on 25 January 2013
Wilson has always been one of my heros--not only an outstanding biologist, but one of the tiny and vanishing minority of intellectuals who at least dares to hint at the truth others studiously avoid.

I found sections with the usual incisive commentary (though nothing really new or interesting if you have read his other works and are up on biology in general) in the often stilted prose that is his hallmark, but was quite surprised that the core of the book is his rejection of inclusive fitness (which has been a mainstay of evolutionary biology for over 40 years) in favor of group selection. One assumes that coming from him and published in major peer reviewed journals like Nature, it must be a substantial advance in spite of the fact that I knew group selection had always been nearly universally rejected due to its basic conflict with our understanding of evolutionary biology.

I have read all the reviews here and on the net and many have good comments but the one I most wanted to see was that by renowned science writer and evolutionary biologist
Richard Dawkins. Unlike most of those by professionals, which are in journals only available to those with access to a university, it is readily available on the net.

Sadly one finds a devastating rejection of the book and some of the most trenchant commentary on a scientific colleague I have ever seen from Dawkins--exceeding anything I recall
even in his many exchanges with late and unlamented demagogue and pseudoscientist Stephan Jay Gould. Although Gould was infamous for his personal attacks on his Harvard colleague
Wilson, Dawkins notes that much of this book reminds one uncomfortably of Goulds frequent lapses into "bland, unfocussed ecumenicalism".

Dawkins points out that Wilson's 2010 paper in Nature was almost universally rejected by over 140 biologists who responded with letters and that there is not one word about this in
Wilson's book. Nor does Wilson correct this in his public lectures. There is no choice but to agree with Dawkin's trenchant comment "For Wilson not to acknowledge that he speaks for himself against the great majority of his professional colleagues is--it pains me to say this of a lifelong hero --an act of wanton arrogance." I feel like one of the stunned people one sees on TV being interviewed after the nice man next door, who has been babysitting everyone's children for 30 years, is exposed as a serial killer.

Dawkins also points out (once again) that inclusive fitness is entailed by (i.e.,logically follows from) neodarwinism and cannot be rejected without rejecting evolution itself. Wilson again reminds us of Gould, who denounced creationists from one side of his mouth while giving them comfort by spewing endless ultraliberal marxist tinged gibberish about spandrels,punctuated equilibrium and evolutionary psychology from the other. The vagueness of group and multilevel selection is just what the softminded want to enable them to escape
rational thinking in their endless antiscientific postmodernist word salads.

It is rare that scientists responding to devastating criticism actually admit their mistakes and Wilson and his Harvard math colleages, who wrote the now infamous trash paper in the famous journal Nature in 2010 (you can also do yourself a favor by avoiding Martin Nowak's books),are no exception, failing to respond in any meaningful way in their replies.

Worse yet, Wilson's book is a poorly thought out and sloppily written mess full of nonsequiturs, vague ramblings, confusions and incoherence. A good review that details some of these is that by graduate student Gerry Carter which you can find on the net. Wilson is also out of touch with our current understanding of evolutionary psychology (EP)(see e.g., the last 300 pages of Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature"). If you want a serious account of social evolution and some relevant EP from a
biological standpoint see Principles of Social Evolution by Andrew F.G. Bourke,or a not quite so serious and admittedly flawed and rambling account but a must read nevertheless by Robert Trivers--The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life and older but still current and penetrating works such as The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition by Robert Axelrod and The Biology of Moral Systems by Richard Alexander.

I see no point in repeating others comments so I will end with a remark I recall reading a half century ago--I think by the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell--
that one can find even in the best minds a "nest of furry caterpillars". We have now seen Wilson's and it is not a pretty sight.
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on 5 January 2015
Since the dawn of this earth, what has made man the winner against all odds. Science brought into everyone's living room. A human adventure in simple terms. Science spoken to the uninitiated scientist.
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on 20 August 2013
There is nothing wrong for a scientist to have view that are wildly different from that of a large majority of his colleagues.
But honnesty requires that, in the book, views that are dissenting from the majority be clearly tagged as such, when addressing lay persons as this book does. Else one gets the feeling he tries to convince the popular audience to win the wrong battle. There are two different battles, one to get the science right, and another one to get the public to understand it. Fighting the first in the second's place is quite wrong, but doing so without even stating it, and getting the public to adhere to what isn't current science is plain wrong.

Wilson is an interresting scientist, and has interresting opinions, but this book by no mean represents a view held by scientists outside of himself, and that should have been stated very clearly in the book.

Furthermore, while the math in the original Nature paper are OK (but really just OK) they are not extendable to the human case. Treating the human case as a natural extension is relying on incorrect math (but then he likely didn't do the math part of the Nature paper, so wouldn't see that).
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