Animalia · Bio · Human-ities · Science

The Original Colonists: ‘The Social Conquest of Earth,’ by Edward O. Wilson

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.

Excerpt from an article written by PAUL BLOOM, NYT. Continue HERE
Image above: Edward O. Wilson holds a jar of ant specimens from a dig in Puerto Rico.

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