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Book seeks to explain life’s greatest mysteries

Published: Thursday, September 20, 2012

Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2012 17:09

painting

Courtesy of escapeintolife.com

“D’ou Venons Nous/ Que Sommes Nous/ Ou’ Allons Nous”

Based on a lifetime of pioneering research, “The Social Conquest of Earth” is nothing less than a new history of evolution, presented in an elegant and erudite narrative that promises to have reverberations in fields ranging from anthropology, social psychology and neuroscience, to 21st century intellectual and religious history.  
This surprisingly approachable book is a great start for anyone interested in science’s answers concerning the origin of humans and of their complex social structures.

Edward O. Wilson is the most celebrated living heir to Charles Darwin, both by blood and by way of transitive ideas. Wilson is regarded as one of the world’s preeminent biologists and naturalists and is a professor emeritus at Harvard University.

Edward Hoagland from the Los Angeles Times writes that he is “a writer of enthralling importance for our place in time,” a claim supported by the clarity and vision of Wilson’s newest work.

In the “Social Conquest,” Wilson sets out to answer three fundamental questions of religion and philosophy that have fascinated thinkers for centuries: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? The cover art of the book features the triptych painting “D’ou Venons Nous/ Que Sommes Nous/ Ou’ Allons Nous” by Paul Ganguin, an attempt to embody the questions posed by Wilson. Ganguin also includes a note at the bottom of the painting: “The Painting is not an answer. It is a question.”

Wilson’s analysis of the human condition is impeccable. From Chapter 1, “Humanity is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.” And he’s completely correct. Competing religious narratives have driven our species to the point of extinction time and time again, with the supporters of reason struggling to pass down accumulated progress from generation to generation.

But more important is the discussion on the origins of these strange behaviors humans exhibit, and a system of belief that drives humans to commit acts of inconceivable altruism and savagery.

Wilson discusses the dichotomy at length, through the paradigm of multi-level selection, or natural selection that occurs on the level of the group and of the individual. The explanatory power of the theory is enough to elevate it to the position of the working theory, as balancing the selfless and the selfish is a daily task for all of us. Having a greater understanding of how the mind works and why the mind works in the way it does is key to the development of ethical and moral considerations.

“The Social Conquest” is a model of modern scientific writing. Erudite, witty, clear and approachable, Wilson makes digesting complex scientific theories enjoyable by translating them into a story-like narrative that appeals to readers of all backgrounds.

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