Each new book from E.O. Wilson get's considerable attention from reviewers and fellow scientists. He is one of the most significant figures in science over the last 50 years, with his credits including the discovery of pheromones, revolutionary research on island biogeography, generating public interest in myrmecology (the study of ants), and his three books (The Insect Societies, Sociobiology, and On Human Nature) from the 1970s that fostered an entirely new interdisciplinary field that studies the biological basis of culture and society - sociobiology.
His new book is no different - and is often is the case, the reviews are mixed.
Wilson's new book is The Social Conquest of Earth. Here are three reviews - from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Boston Globe.
Group think helped produce ant colonies and bee hives—and the heights of human culture.At a certain point in their careers, great jazz musicians are almost bound to disappoint their fans. Think of John Coltrane venturing into free jazz in the late 1960s or Miles Davis going electric a few years later. The vision that made them great the first time pushes them into new territory, and the magnitude of their early accomplishments—and the number of admirers they have attracted—makes their public's sense of betrayal all the more bitter. All they can do is keep playing, undaunted by the dissent.
This reality comes to mind when reading Edward O. Wilson's "The Social Conquest of Earth," 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, presented with equanimity and serenity even though a firestorm of disagreement surrounds them. It's not every book that is preceded by a critical public letter from more than 130 of the author's peers, as Mr. Wilson's was when a legion of biologists wrote to the journal Nature last year to register their belief that his current thinking is wrong.
By Edward O. WilsonLiveright, 330 pages, $27.95
The controversy is due to the fact that he is challenging one of the central pillars of modern evolutionary biology—that natural selection acts far more strongly on individuals and genetic relatives than on broader social groups. In addition, "The Social Conquest of Earth" is a reversal of Mr. Wilson's own earlier view that the evolution of altruism was driven by kin selection rather than group selection.
Read the whole review.
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E.O. Wilson is, by any available yardstick, one of the grand scientific figures of the second half of the 20th century. By the time he published his first book in 1967, Wilson, just 38 years old then, had already helped revolutionize the fields of physiology (with his discovery of pheromones) and ecology (with his research on island biogeography). Not bad for a myrmecologist — that’s the technical term for someone who studies ants — from Alabama.
As it turned out, he was just getting started. In the 1970s, Wilson published three books (“The Insect Societies,” “Sociobiology,” and “On Human Nature”) that helped create an entire new academic discipline dedicated to studying the biological basis of culture and society. Those books brought him fame and acclaim well outside of the ivied walls of Harvard, which has been Wilson’s academic home since the 1950s: His work was featured on the cover of Time and “On Human Nature” won a Pulitzer Prize.
They also created no small amount of controversy. Many of Wilson’s peers, including colleagues like Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould, argued that Wilson’s framing of a genetic basis for human behavior amounted to a gussied up version of the naturalistic fallacy — i.e., what is, ought to be.
It wasn’t only Harvard professors who felt that Wilson’s highly speculative musings — about homosexuals serving “as a partly sterile caste” to “enhanc[e] the lives and reproductive success of their relatives” or his belief that humanity’s genetic code means men will continue to “play a disproportionate role in political life, business, and science” — seemed to reinforce existing societal stereotypes.
In time, the vitriolic nature-nurture debates that roiled academia in the 1970s died down, and Wilson, who turns 83 in June, shifted his attention to less controversial projects, ranging from wildlife conservation to writing fiction. That makes it particularly unfortunate that Wilson appears to be capping his career with “The Social Conquest of Earth,” a sorry jumble of a book that is sloppy, self-indulgent, and scientifically unsophisticated.
Read the whole review - this guy did NOT like the book.
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Published: May 11, 2012
Edward O. Wilson holds a jar of ant specimens from a dig in Puerto Rico.This is not a humble book. Edward O. Wilson wants to answer the questions Paul Gauguin used as the title of one of his most famous paintings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” At the start, Wilson notes that religion is no help at all — “mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity” — and contemporary philosophy is also irrelevant, having “long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence.” The proper approach to answering these deep questions is the application of the methods of science, including archaeology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Also, we should study insects.
Insects? Wilson, now 82 and an emeritus professor in the department of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard, has long been a leading scholar on ants, having won one of his two Pulitzer Prizes for the 1990 book on the topic that he wrote with Bert Hölldobler. But he is better known for his work on humans. His “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” a landmark attempt to use evolutionary theory to explain human behavior, was published in 1975. Those were strange times, and Wilson was smeared as a racist and fascist, attacked by some of his Harvard colleagues and doused with water at the podium of a major scientific conference. But Wilson’s days as a pariah are long over. An evolutionary approach to psychology is now mainstream, and Wilson is broadly respected for his scientific accomplishments, his environmental activism, and the scope and productivity of his work, which includes an autobiography and a best-selling novel, “Anthill.”In “The Social Conquest of Earth,” he explores the strange kinship between humans and some insects. Wilson calculates that one can stack up log-style all humans alive today into a cube that’s about a mile on each side, easily hidden in the Grand Canyon. And all the ants on earth would fit into a cube of similar size. More important, humans and certain insects are the planet’s “eusocial” species — the only species that form communities that contain multiple generations and where, as part of a division of labor, community members sometimes perform altruistic acts for the benefit of others.