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The Social Conquest Of Earth

Often described as Charles Darwin’s living heir, E.O. Wilson is an original thinker whose assessment of the human impact on the biosphere will probably be remembered as a defining narrative of the future history of the planet.

This book traces the ascendency of Homo sapiens from lowly origins to our current position at the top of the creative knowledge heap. In his words:

“There is no grail more elusive or precious in the life of the mind than the key to understanding the human condition. It has always been the custom of those who seek it to explore the labyrinth of myth: for religion, the myths of creation and the drams of prophets; for philosophers the insights of introspection and reasoning based upon them; for the creative arts, statements based upon a play of the senses.”

A biologist and naturalist par excellence, Wilson’s intimate understanding of the biosphere inevitably propels him into the realm of philosophy, for the truth is that we are too new a species to even ask all the right questions, leave alone satisfactorily come up with answers to the questions he deals with in this monumental work: Why does advanced social life exist? Where do we come from? How did social insects conquer the invertebrate world? What are the forces of social evolution? And, of course, those two questions of all questions: What are we? And where are we going?

No review can truly do justice to this book. What I will attempt to do, therefore, is to present tiny nuggets to share what riches await those who choose to allow themselves the good fortune of sharing Wilson’s gentle, yet incisive mind.

On the origins of morality and order, he writes:

“Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will forever be unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature… There is a principle to be learned by studying the biological origins of moral reasoning. It is that outside the clearest ethical precepts, such as the condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide, which all will agree should be opposed everywhere without exception, there is a larger grey domain inherently difficult to navigate... I have no doubt that in many cases, perhaps the great majority, the precepts shared by most societies today will stand the test of biology-based realism. Others such as the ban on artificial conception, condemnation of homosexual preference and forced marriages of adolescent girls, will not.”

On religion (tribalism), he writes:

“A good first step toward the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully, the claims of those in power who say they speak for God, are special representatives of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God’s divine will. Included among these purveyors of theological narcissism are would-be prophets, the founders of religious cults, impassioned evangelical ministers, ayatollahs, imams of the grand mosques, chief rabbis, Rosh yeshivas, the Dalai Lama and the pope. The same is true for dogmatic political ideologies based on unchallengeable precepts, left or right, and especially where justified with the dogmas or organised religions. They may contain intuitive wisdom worth hearing. Their leaders may mean well. But humanity has suffered enough from grossly inaccurate history told by mistaken prophets.”

Lest anyone imagine that The Social Conquest of Earth is yet another esoteric discourse, I hasten to add that E.O. Wilson’s real message (packaged within thousands of meaningful, fascinating, absorbing words) for ‘ordinary’ people like us and to the all-powerful economists, politicians, businessmen and religious leaders we have appointed, is this:“

The Social Conquest of the Earth has now accelerated – through unregulated and untrammelled growth – to such a point that the planet as we know it is being threatened.”


The Social Conquest of Earth

Author: Edward O. Wilson

Published by: Liveright Publishing Corporation

Price: U.S.$ 27.95

Reviewed by Bittu Sahgal, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No.1, February 2013.


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Jennifer Scarlott

January 27, 2014, 06:21 PM
 This is a FASCINATING book. E.O. Wilson looks deep into the genetic makeup and early beginnings of H. sapiens, and finds a species more deeply, fundamentally, biologically and socially conflicted than any other... the war between cooperation and competition plays out in each and every one of us. Eventually this ingenious "naked ape" developed a mode of production called capitalism, and competition became king. Will we and the rest of life survive our flaws and lack of self-knowledge?