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Edward O Wilson

Book Review with commentary

What an engaging and timely book. This is said in 2010 of a book first published on 1978. Not only did it predate most of the research done on this site, but he did so with Consilience. His work supports and verifies with copious and insightful anecdotes what we have done independently. His most wonderful and basic showing is the connectedness of human social systems with our genetic heritage. Well referenced, Wilson's book is immensely readable and interesting while being a scholarly and authoritative treatise of great importance. 209 pages of jam-packed information deserve the widest possible distribution. Five stars on each of completeness, accuracy, and readability. Only a very few statements are in error and they are due to the march of science, not to the author who was fully abreast of the science of his day. The number of genes in the human genome is perhaps the most important one. Our genome only contains on the order of 20,000 genes, not the 100,000 he and many others expected to find. This detracts not at all from one of the most significant books written in our time.

In chapter 7, Wilson examines altruism in the light of its fullest impact on our heritage and current social conditions. He defines two types, hard core and soft core. Hard core altruism, based on kin selection is the enemy of civilization, while soft core altruism is based on reciprocity and the logical application of it is supportive of society. This distinction is not at all self-evident, but helps explain why social progress is so slow even in the most peaceful of societies. It seems that in the best of worlds, there is still a flip side of every trait arising from our genome.

In chapter 9, Wilson discusses the primary values:

  • Diversity of the gene pool,
  • Preservation of the entire gene pool, and
  • Universal human rights.

The first two follow from the laws of nature. The third one arises mostly from Western civilization. It come about not from nature or the divine, but simply because we are mammals. It is social and political. To quote Wilson:

"Our societies are based on the mammalian plan: the individual strives for reproductive success foremost and that of his immediate kin secondarily; further grudging cooperation represents a compromise struck in order to enjoy the benefits of group membership."

In most ways, Western Civilization was leading the world by a wide margin in 1978. So his conclusion had some validity in his time. One has to wonder, however, how he would view the ascending power of China in this day. Is that because China is embracing the free-market economy, authoritarian politics, or what? Except in the economic arena, Western style freedom has not yet come to China's people. Is this enough? We wonder.

Wilson's book is most engaging as it is informative--most particularly in his discussion of traits we share with animals. For example, the single greatest difference between ants and humans is the human ability to rationalize. If ants could rationalize, they could be our peers! He makes that case by listing 56 traits exhibited altogether by each species. Of these 56 traits, he found 26 are shared by both species. These species are not even in the same phylum! In fact, ants lie five taxonomic ranks below Homo sapiens. In evolution, ants are closer to the eukaryote domain branch than to us; yet they share nearly half of their behavioral traits in common with us. This is Consilience at its best. It also shows how hard-wired our genome really is. Evolution proceeds slowly, but its successful elements live on and on. See "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins for more on how this happens.

"On Human Nature" broke new ground for its time. With it, Wilson founded a new branch of science--Evolutionary Biology. If your interest is the human condition, then this is the best book to start with.

From Wikipedia: "Edward Osborne Wilson (born June 10, 1929) is an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author. His biological specialty is myrmecology, a branch of entomology. "Wilson is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. He is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanist and deist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters.[1]"

Reviewed by Harry Rosenberg


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