The Social Conquest of Earth [Hardcover]Edward O. Wilson (Author)
Edward O. Wilson doesn't come across as the kind of man who's looking to pick a fight. With his shoulders upright and his head tilting slightly to the side, he shuffles through the halls of Harvard University. His right eye, which has given him trouble since his childhood, is halfway closed. The other is fixed on the ground. As an ant researcher, Wilson has made a career out of things that live on the earth's surface. There's also much more to Wilson. Some consider him to be the world's most important living biologist, with some placing him on a level with Charles Darwin.
In addition to discovering and describing hundreds of species of ants, Wilson's book on this incomparably successful group of insects is the only non-fiction biology tome ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. Another achievement was decoding the chemical communication of ants, whose vocabulary is composed of pheromones. His study of the ant colonization of islands helped to establish one of the most fruitful branches of ecology. And when it comes to the battle against the loss of biodiversity, Wilson is one of the movement's most eloquent voices.
'Blessed with Brilliant Enemies'
But Wilson's fame isn't solely the product of his scientific achievements. His enemies have also helped him to establish a name. "I have been blessed with brilliant enemies," he says. In fact, the multitude of scholars with whom Wilson has skirmished academically is illustrious. James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix in DNA is among them, as is essayist Stephen Jay Gould.
At 83 years of age, Wilson is still at work making a few new enemies. The latest source of uproar is a book, "The Social Conquest of Earth," published last April in the United States and this month in a German-language edition. In the tome, Wilson attempts to describe the triumphal advance of humans in evolutionary terms.
It is not uncommon for Wilson to look to ants for inspiration in his writings -- and that proves true here, as well. When, for example, he recalls beholding two 90-million-year-old worker ants that were trapped in a piece of fossil metasequoia amber as being "among the most exciting moments in my life," a discovery that "ranked in scientific importance withArchaeopteryx, the first fossil intermediary between birds and dinosaurs, and Australopithecus, the first 'missing link' discovered between modern humans and the ancestral apes."
But that's all just foreplay to the real controversy at the book's core. Ultimately, Wilson uses ants to explain humans' social behavior and, by doing so, breaks with current convention. The key question is the level at which Darwinian selection of human characteristics takes place. Did individuals enter into a fight for survival against each other, or did groups battle it out against competing groups?
Prior to this book, Wilson had been an influential champion of the theory of kin selection. He has now rejected his previous teachings, literally demolishing them. "The beautiful theory never worked well anyway, and now it has collapsed," he writes. Today, he argues that human nature can only be understood if it is perceived as being the product of "group selection" -- a view that Wilson's fellow academics equate with sacrilege. They literally lined up to express their scientific dissent in a joint letter.
Some of the most vociferous criticism has come from Richard Dawkins, whose bestselling 1976 book "The Selfish Gene" first introduced the theory of kin selection to a mass audience. In a withering review of Wilson's book in Britain's Prospect magazine, Dawkins accuses a man he describes as his "lifelong hero" of "wanton arrogance" and "perverse misunderstandings". "To borrow from Dorothy Parker," he writes, "this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force."