Thursday, May 31, 2012

Richard Dawkins on E.O. Wilson's New Book: "Impossible to Recommend"

Dawkins was not content to merely not recommend E.O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth, he went further: "To borrow from Dorothy Parker, this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force." For me, this is likely the best endorsement of the book I have so far read. Makes me glad I bought a copy.

Here is the publisher's blurb from Amazon:
Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover magazine). Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere.
 Here are snippets from some reviews - these were also posted at Amazon:

“E. O. Wilson’s passionate curiosity—the hallmark of his remarkable career—has led him to these urgent reflections on the human condition. At the core of The Social Conquest of Earth is the unresolved, unresolvable tension in our species between selfishness and altruism. Wilson brilliantly analyzes the force, at once creative and destructive, of our biological inheritance and daringly advances a grand theory of the origins of human culture. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in the intersection of science and the humanities.” (Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern)

“Wilson’s examples of insect eusociality are dazzling… There are obvious parallels with human practices like war and agriculture, but Wilson is also sensitive to the differences… This book offers a detailed reconstruction of what we know about the evolutionary histories of these two very different conquerors. Wilson’s careful and clear analysis reminds us that scientific accounts of our origins aren’t just more accurate than religious stories; they are also a lot more interesting.” (Paul Bloom - New York Times Book Review)

“...a sweeping argument about the biological origins of complex human culture. It is full of both virtuosity and raw, abrupt assertions that are nonetheless well-crafted and captivating... it is fascinating to see such a distinguished scientist optimistic about the future.” (Michael Gazzaniga - Wall Street Journal)

“Once again, Ed Wilson has written a book combining the qualities that have brought his previous books Pulitzer Prizes and millions of readers: a big but simple question, powerful explanations, magisterial knowledge of the sciences and humanities, and beautiful writing understandable to a wide public.” (Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel)

“Wilson’s newest theory...could transform our understanding of human nature—and provide hope for our stewardship of the planet.... [His] new book is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities.... Its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers.” (Howard W. French - The Atlantic)

“A monumental exploration of the biological origins of the Human Condition!” (James D. Watson)

The Social Conquest of Earth is a huge, deep, thrilling work, presenting a radically new but cautiously hopeful view of human evolution, human nature, and human society. No one but E. O. Wilson could bring together such a brilliant synthesis of biology and the humanities, to shed light on the origins of language, religion, art, and all of human culture.” (Oliver Sacks)

The Social Conquest of the Earth has set off a scientific furor... The controversy is fueled by a larger debate about the evolution of altruism. Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask? This is science with existential stakes.” (Jonah Lehrer - New Yorker)

“The Harvard University naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner angered many colleagues two years ago, when he repudiated a concept within evolutionary theory that he had brought to prominence. Known as kin selection or inclusive fitness, the half-century-old idea helped to explain the puzzling existence of altruism among animals. Why, for instance, do some birds help their parents raise chicks instead of having chicks of their own? Why are worker ants sterile? The answer, according to kin selection theory, has been that aiding your relatives can sometimes spread your common genes faster than bearing offspring of your own.

In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson offers a full explanation of his latest thinking on evolution. Group dynamics, not selfish genes, drive altruism, he argues: “Colonies of cheaters lose to colonies of cooperators.” As the cooperative colonies dominate and multiply, so do their alleged ”altruism” genes. Wilson uses what he calls “multilevel selection”—group and individual selection combined—to discuss the emergence of the creative arts and humanities, morality, religion, language and the very nature of humans. Along the way, he pauses to reject religion, decry the way humans have despoiled the environment and, in something of a non sequitur, dismiss the need for manned space exploration. The book is bound to stir controversy on these and other subjects for years to come.” (Sandra Upson and Anna Kuchment - Scientific American )

“Pretty much anything Wilson writes is well worth reading, and his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth, is no exception… Read the master biologist himself in this marvelous book...” (Michael Shermer - The Daily )

“Biologist E. O. Wilson’s brilliant new volume, The Social Conquest of Earth, could more aptly be entitled ‘Biology’s Conquest of Science’. Drawing on his deep understanding of entomology and his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the natural and social sciences, Wilson makes a strong case for the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. Understanding the biological origin of what makes us human can help us to build better theories of social and psychological interaction; in turn, understanding how other social species have evolved may help us to better understand the origin of our own. But the main reason that Wilson’s book is successful is that he also brings into biology the best of what social science has to offer.” (James H. Fowler - Nature Magazine )
In his highly critical and sometimes petty review, Dawkins mentions the 2010 paper (The evolution of eusociality - $35 fee to read) from Nature (co-authored with two mathematicians) that generated a letter of dissent signed by 140 evolutionary biologists, including Jerry Coyne, Richard Michod, Eric Charnov, Nick Barton, Alex Kacelnik, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Geoffrey Parker, Steven Pinker, Paul Sherman, and Paul Harvey, among all the rest.

So I 'll see that list of biologists and raise you, Mr. Dawkins, the following interdisciplinary thinkers: Stephen Greenblatt, Paul Bloom, Michael Gazzaniga, Jonah Lehrer, Oliver Sacks, James D. Watson, Jared Diamond, and James Fowler, among many others who have given this book a positive review.

The real issue, in my opinion, is that while Wilson affirms the power of biology in evolution, which Dawkins would claim is the only real driver of evolution (selfish genes), he also acknowledges that when humans moved from kinship groups to cooperative groups not wholly based on kinship, we actually did better and increased our odds of survival. This is a basic aspect of integral evolution - it's not only objective biology, it's also the development of psyche, of cultural groups, and eventually of societies.

Dawkins is not ready for that view yet.

The descent of Edward Wilson


A new book on evolution by a great biologist makes a slew of mistakes

The Social Conquest of Earth
By Edward O Wilson
(WW Norton, £18.99, May)

When he received the manuscript of The Origin of Species, John Murray, the publisher, sent it to a referee who suggested that Darwin should jettison all that evolution stuff and concentrate on pigeons. It’s funny in the same way as the spoof review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which praised its interesting “passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways of controlling vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper” but added:

“Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book can not take the place of JR Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”

I am not being funny when I say of Edward Wilson’s latest book that there are interesting and informative chapters on human evolution, and on the ways of social insects (which he knows better than any man alive), and it was a good idea to write a book comparing these two pinnacles of social evolution, but unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. In particular, Wilson now rejects “kin selection” (I shall explain this below) and replaces it with a revival of “group selection”—the poorly defined and incoherent view that evolution is driven by the differential survival of whole groups of organisms.

Nobody doubts that some groups survive better than others. What is controversial is the idea that differential group survival drives evolution, as differential individual survival does. The American grey squirrel is driving our native red squirrel to extinction, no doubt because it happens to have certain advantages. That’s differential group survival. But you’d never say of any part of a squirrel that it evolved to promote the welfare of the grey squirrel over the red. Wilson wouldn’t say anything so silly about squirrels. He doesn’t realise that what he does say, if you examine it carefully, is as implausible and as unsupported by evidence.

I would not venture such strong criticism of a great scientist were I not in good company. The Wilson thesis is based on a 2010 paper that he published jointly with two mathematicians, Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita. When this paper appeared in Nature it provoked very strong criticism from more than 140 evolutionary biologists, including a majority of the most distinguished workers in the field. They include Alan Grafen, David Queller, Jerry Coyne, Richard Michod, Eric Charnov, Nick Barton, Alex Kacelnik, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Geoffrey Parker, Steven Pinker, Paul Sherman, Tim Clutton-Brock, Paul Harvey, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Stephen Emlen, Malte Andersson, Stuart West, Richard Wrangham, Bernard Crespi, Robert Trivers and many others. These may not all be household names but let me assure you they know what they are talking about in the relevant fields.
I’m reminded of the old Punch cartoon where a mother beams down on a military parade and proudly exclaims, “There’s my boy, he’s the only one in step.” Is Wilson the only evolutionary biologist in step? Scientists dislike arguing from authority, so perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned the 140 dissenting authorities. But one can make a good case that the 2010 paper would never have been published in Nature had it been submitted anonymously and subjected to ordinary peer-review, bereft of the massively authoritative name of Edward O Wilson. If it was authority that got the paper published, there is poetic justice in deploying authority in reply.

Then there’s the patrician hauteur with which Wilson ignores the very serious drubbing his Nature paper received. He doesn’t even mention those many critics: not a single, solitary sentence. Does he think his authority justifies going over the heads of experts and appealing directly to a popular audience, as if the professional controversy didn’t exist—as if acceptance of his (tiny) minority view were a done deal?
 Read the whole review.
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