Edward O. Wilson tackles ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’

Special to Tribune newspapers

The Social Conquest of Earth

Edward O. Wilson

Liveright: 330 pp, $27.95

Edward O. Wilson is one of the great scientists of our time. The world’s leading expert on ants and a consummate naturalist, he brilliantly compiles research data from a broad cross-section of fields to produce pictures of the innate complexity of life.


He is also a renowned author. His more than 20 books have won two Pulitzer Prizes for their explanations of the lives of ants and exploration of human nature. But sadly, his writing is dry, complicated and nearly sleep-inducing. If you are not heavily into deep science, this is not a book for you. If you are a religious fundamentalist or a hard-core conservative (and perhaps even a hard-core liberal), this is also not a book for you because he dissects and destroys some of your most crucial beliefs.

In his latest work, Wilson draws from recent research in paleontology, entomology, geology, neurology and a host of other "-ologies” to try to answer three simple questions that have plagued humans for millenniums: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

“Where do we come from” is the simplest question to answer. Drawing from insects and from those species, such as the naked mole rat, that have become what he terms “eusocial,” Wilson identifies the key ingredients for forming a culture. They include division of labor among individuals in the group, the presence of multiple generations in a nest and cooperative care of the young.

Like the insects, the earliest ancestors of humans formed nests: caves or campsites where 30 to 100 individuals gathered. Some individuals protected the nest, some hunted or foraged for food, and others tended the juveniles. These groups were not originally that different from ants and termites.

But ants and mole rats could never progress further because of one key factor: They could not control fire. Fire enabled pre-humans to stay warm in bad weather and assisted them in hunting. Eating cooked meat provided a denser calorie intake that supported a larger population and freed time for other pursuits, such as painting, sculpting and music.

Fire is an essential ingredient of civilization. Sorry, science fiction writers: Wilson says There can never be a technologically advanced society that evolved exclusively underwater.

As humans banded together into larger groups, protection of territory and food supplies became ever more important. The natural tendency of humans toward war is an inevitable outgrowth of this need, as is religion. The belief that war and other activities are divinely inspired and that your religious group is superior to all others plays a crucial role in maintaining culture and supporting warfare and the ability to kill “inferior” races of humans.

Those tendencies are all an inevitable outcome of genetics and group and individual selection under evolutionary pressure, he says, which is part of our innate being.


The creation of human society is the greatest feat that biology has ever achieved, Wilson argues, but it is also an unmitigated disaster for the planet. Overpopulation, global warming, depletion of resources, pollution and the extinction of other species threaten to end life on Earth as we know it.

And migrating to the stars is not a solution, he adds. Given the age of the universe, if such travel over the massive distances of the cosmos were possible, some other civilization would have already visited us. Instead of venturing through space, he speculates, other sentient beings may have chosen to fix things on their own planet, eliminating the necessity of leaving.

But he is not without his own blind faith: “Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay.”

Maugh is a former Times medical and science writer.