E.O. Wilson is a biologist who has authored many titles, ranging from accounts of his personal field research on ant colonies to general titles on evolutionary biology and biodiversity. I picked up the “The Social Conquest of Earth” because I had enjoyed several chapters from his book “The Diversity of Life”, a poetic and informative work, part plea and part ode, about the tremendous diversity of living creatures on this planet.
In Wilson’s prologue, he poses the three questions that also title Paul Gauguin’s famous painting “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?” These three questions, he proposes, cannot be answered by religion or philosophy but can be answered by molecular genetics, evolutionary biology, archaeology, social psychology, and history. He first attempts to narrate pre-history and early civilization in order to explain where we come from. Wilson describes the anatomy and physiology of the hominids that linked apes to humans, the genetic mutations in human prehistory, the innate tribalism of human beings, the tendency to make war found universally in human societies, the emigration of humans from the African continent and the emergence of agriculture throughout the globe. Throughout these explanations, he frequently utilizes his own studies in insects, specifically social insects (wasps, ants, bees, termites), as examples.
Wilson is at his best explaining where we come from. He quickly and clearly employs his knowledge of the above-mentioned fields to provide a fascinating introduction to anthropology, complete with dates, archaeological evidence, quotations, and maps as needed. If, however, sciences such as molecular genetics and social psychology are going to provide answers to questions such as “Who are we?” or “Where are we going?”, Wilson certainly doesn’t make a convincing argument for that.
Some deficiencies begin to arise towards the middle of the book. On page 91 he describes the emergence of human culture as autocatalytic. “At first, as I have suggested, the growth was slow, then faster and still faster, and yet again faster, in the manner of chemical and biological autocatalysis.” Wilson only confuses the reader when he tries to use specific scientific terminology to describe complex cultural phenomena. To provide analogies, it might be like using “fusion” to describe marriage or “evolution” to describe the emergence of the republic in Greece. Wilson comes across as knowledgeable and credible when he uses natural history as evidence to comment on history, culture, politics, and economics. However, I thought that reducing these aspects of human societies to elements within the explanatory framework of natural history came across as simplistic and misguided.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend this title, which loses its steam and its focus about halfway through. However, someone with a particular interest in social insects would definitely do well to review Wilson’s other works.
Title: The Social Conquest of Earth
Author: E.O. Wilson
Publication Date: April 9, 2012