A Lifetime of Pioneering Biologic Research Leads to a New History of Evolution

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Although The Social Conquest of Earth was published a decade ago, it is worth revisiting, because, as oncology luminary Harold Varmus, MD, stressed: “It is a tour de force that we ignore at our planet’s peril.” Its author, Edward O. Wilson, PhD, known as “the father of sociobiology,” died at the end of 2021, leaving behind a legacy of work that has helped us better understand our lot in life and the planet we inhabit. He was the author of more than 20 books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Ants and On Human Nature.


Title:The Social Conquest of Earth

Author: Edward O. Wilson, PhD

Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation

Publication Date: April 2013 (reprint edition)

Price: $32.95, paperback, 352 pages

Based on his lifetime of pioneering research, The Social Conquest of Earth is, in effect, a new history of evolution, detailed in Dr. Wilson’s inimitable and provocative narrative style. Organized into six parts and in a highly readable format, the book powerfully unfolds an origin theory that outlines life’s evolution.

Homo Sapiens Dominate

The first several chapters of this enthralling book bring the reader up to speed on the evolution of modern humans, Homo sapiens, a fascinating journey in which we dominated and destroyed all competition, including our genetic kissing cousins, the big-headed, gnarly looking Neanderthals.

Dr. Wilson writes: “By one means or another, through competition for food and space, or outright slaughter or both, our ancestors were the future exterminators of this and any other species that arose during the adaptive radiation of Homo…. They populated all the Old World and distant archipelagoes of Oceania. In the process, all other human species were swamped and erased.”

As Dr. Wilson points out, humanity is a magnificent but fragile achievement that has been played out in a history of great highs and lows. Recent research in several disciplines of science is beginning to illuminate the evolutionary steps leading to what we call the human condition, a messy, hard-to-define uniqueness among humans that continues to baffle us. And, although the journey from our primitive forest to modernity has had myriad adaptive twists and turns, we still have what Darwin called “the indelible stamp of our animal ancestry.”

Controversial Theories and Cold Water

During his long and storied career, Dr. Wilson had public battles with colleagues over scientific theories, which is not unusual for anyone who postulates new ideas. Dr. Wilson used sociobiology and evolutionary principles to explain the behavior of social insects and then to understand the social behavior of other animals, including humans, thus establishing sociobiology as a new scientific field. Some of his theories, which are explored in The Social Conquest of Earth, argued that all animal behavior, including humans, is the product of heredity, environmental stimuli, and past experiences, and that free will is an illusion. He referred to the biologic basis of behavior as a “genetic leash” and all social behavior is governed by epigenetic laws that have been ordered by the laws of evolution. This theory, and his following research, was seminal, controversial, and influential. His writings on epigenetics will be some of the more interesting sections for readers of The ASCO Post.

“As Dr. Wilson points out, humanity is a magnificent but fragile achievement that has been played out in a history of great highs and lows.”

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“Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principle driving force that made us what we are…. Throughout history, the escalation of a large part of technology has had combat as its central purpose. Today, the calendars of nations are punctuated by holidays to celebrate wars won and to perform memorial services for those who died waging them,” writes Dr. Wilson. He builds a case for his theory on group selection, which refers to the idea that natural selection sometimes acts on whole groups of organisms, favoring some groups over others, leading to the evolution of traits that are advantageous to the group. Group selection is at loggerheads with the kin selection theory, which is where much of the public controversy arose when it ignited nature vs nurture. It got so heated that during a 1978 lecture at Harvard, he was attacked by a student who poured a pitcher of iced water on his head.

The Struggle Over Resources Continues

In one of the most compelling sections of the book, Dr. Wilson uses the 1994 genocidal slaughter in Rwanda to emphasize the potential horrors of group selection. In less than 3 months, loosely banded militia groups from Rwanda’s Hutu majority set out to exterminate the Tutsi minority, killing more than 800,000 Tutsis. At the time, Rwanda was the most overcrowded country in Africa, and Dr. Wilson hypothesized that the killings, which reduced the population by 10%, was a deadly argument over which tribe would own and control the whole of it. That same territorial fighting, although rarely as bloody, can be seen throughout our own society. As Dr. Wilson points out: “It should not be thought that war, often accompanied by genocide, is a cultural artifact of a few societies…. Wars and genocide have been universal and eternal, respecting no time or culture.”

This is a book that explains, in great detail without ever bogging down, how our culture and humanness evolved. It is also a somber warning that the same evolutionary forces that got us here have now accelerated to such a point that the planet as we know it is being threatened. Despite humankind’s self-destructive ways, the author leaves us with optimism. “Earth, by the late 22nd century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one.”

Neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks said “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.