E.O. Wilson’s THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH, from 2012, is in my estimation one of the four most significant books by this scientist and writer. (The others are ON HUMAN NATURE, 1978; CONSILIENCE, 1998; and THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE, 2014.) And it’s the one book to read before all the others, for two reasons: It summarizes his thinking in many different areas (as explored separately in other books), and it refines and expands on his core ideas that began in ON HUMAN NATURE (and before), which is to say, a book like OHN is in a sense an earlier version of this book, and comparing them directly would show how a scientist’s ideas mature and grow.

It’s been instructive reviewing my notes on this book after having done so for two of his later books, just posted about: THE ORIGINS OF CREATIVITY, 2017, and GENESIS, 2019. Because each of those books is a closer examine of a particular theme that gets one chapter in SOCIAL CONQUEST, with a few details added, but nothing substantially new. The author’s last “major” book, MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE, covers ideas from SOCIAL CONQUEST in broader contexts and less detail (his books had begun to get thinner).

Further, SOCIAL CONQUEST is probably the best single volume by anyone (I can think of) that summarizes the latest thinking about human evolution. It has everything: Morality! Creativity! Individual and group selection! Tribalism! Religion! Theory of mind! Colors!

And except for Steven Pinker, there are probably as many beautiful quotes of prose by Wilson as by any science writer around.

Key Points

  • Understanding the human condition entails three questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”
  • Religion can’t solve these questions. But science can, though we need first to understand how the brain evolved the way it did.
  • Humans are “eusocial,” meaning that “group members containing multiple generations and prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of nature.” This came about as an interplay between individual selection and group selection. “Thus was born the human condition, selfish at one time, selfless at another, the two impulses often conflicted.”
  • Human evolution, among other things, included the control of fire and thus small groups huddling around campsites or “nests.” Group behavior (e.g. altruism) was thought in the 1960s explained by kin selection, but further research by author and others has found “multilevel selection” a better explanation: a combination of individual selection and group selection, represented by selfishness vs. altruism. Consequences include a perpetual war between honor, virtue, and duty on one side; selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy on the other.
  • Human still strive to be part of groups (e.g. team sports); one consequence is perpetual war and the way enemies are dehumanized, with the perceived will of God to justify attacks on the “others.”
  • Eusociality also applies to the social insects — ants, termites, etc. — and explains how they conquered the invertebrate world.
  • Human nature is a set of regularities, epigenetic rules, that provide biases for how we perceive the world, symbolically code it, and make decisions about how to respond. There is a relationship between the evolution of genes and the evolution of societies.
  • Culture is the combination of traits that distinguishes one group from another.
  • Language developed as a consequence of settling into camps around fires leading to increased social interaction, including gossip, and to act together to achieve common goals.
  • Gene-culture evolution connects the natural science, the social sciences, and the humanities. Cultural variation depends on genetic plasticity for some traits; it involves the degree of bias in epigenetic rules, and the likelihood that group members imitate each other.
  • Human morality entails both good and evil, in each of us; it’s a result of multilevel selection, and the flexibility is valuable in a changing world. Individual selection promotes selfishness; group selection promotes altruism toward other members of one’s group. The rule: selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of individuals. Beyond altruism is honor, both devotion and sacrifice in war (for the benefit of the group). This understanding should warn us against absolute precepts and sure judgments.
  • Religion evolved as an element of tribalism, each religion teaching that its members are special and superior to other religions. Creation myths originated in folk memories of shared events–floods, wars, volcanic eruptions. People project their humanness both onto animals and onto their gods. Evidence for religious ideas, e.g. burial sites, go back 95,000 years ago.
  • The creative arts arose through our perceptions of and our responses to the natural environment (biophilia), and our instinct for storytelling as a way of understanding the world. They entail approval and stature among peers, and are evaluated by their originality and power of the metaphor.
  • We need a new enlightenment. We are solely responsible for the planet, and science, the search for objective truth, is not reconcilable with religion.
  • Author doubts humans will ever travel to other planets. Yet his “blind faith” is that humans can turn Earth into a paradise for human beings, by the 22nd century.

Summary [[ with comments in double brackets ]]


  • This is about the quest to understand the human condition. An iconic work of visual art is the last painting by Gauguin (depicted on the cover). Author sketches Gauguin’s life and his retreat to isolation on a Pacific island, to find that essential condition of mankind.
  • The painting shows, from right to left, a baby, an individual, a couple engaged in the quest for knowledge, and death, with an idol in the background, representing the primitive soul.

I, Why Does Advanced Social Life Exist?

1, The Human Condition

  • There are three basic questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
  • “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” 7.4
  • Religion can’t solve these questions. There have been thousands of tribes each with its own creation myth and imagined supernatural beings. These served as Darwinian devices for survival—bonds holding tribes together. Myths can’t discover the origin and meaning of humanity—but discovering those origins might explain the myths. Science, trust in empiricism, can do this.
  • Nor can unaided introspection solve the riddle. “Most of the activities of the brain are not even perceived by the conscious mind.” 8.8. The mind is driven by emotion, for the purpose of survival and reproduction, 9t.
  • We need first to understand how the brain evolved the way it did.
  • Philosophy has abandoned the search; “Most of the history of philosophy consists of failed models of the mind.” 9.8.
  • That leaves science, and recent advances provide the answer (to be outlined in the following pages).
  • Two even more fundamental questions are: Why does advanced social life exist at all? And, what brought it into existence?

2, The Two Paths to Conquest

  • Our emotions reflect our animal ancestry, as Darwin perceived. Our species is magnificent but fragile; for most of its history, populations were small and might easily have gone extinct.
  • Social insects, in contrast, evolved over 100 million years ago, and reached their current levels 65-50mya. They became co-dependent on their surroundings, and thus sustainable.
  • Humans did not coevolve; our evolution was too fast. For much of that time there were three independent species of Homo coexisting; as Homo sapiens ascended, the others were overrun or exterminated.
  • About 10K ya agriculture brought about a great simplification of human ecosystems.
  • Humans are ‘eusocial’ meaning “group members containing multiple generations and prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of nature”, 16.8. In some ways we are thus like the insects; but not of course in other ways (e.g. all normal humans are capable of reproduction).
  • And our own eusociality came as a result of high intelligence, 17m, which came about as an interplay between individual selection and group selection. Intelligence brought about ways of judging friends and enemies, evaluating relationships, projecting future scenarios. “Thus was born the human condition, selfish at one time, selfless at another, the two impulses often conflicted.” 17.8
  • The earliest mammals were small, but relatively large in the animal kingdom; unlike insects, which relied on brains and pure instinct. In contrast, insects are small and can travel great distances; humans are relatively plodding, and unlike insects “females.. must find a male and mate for each parturition.” 20.7.

3, The Approach

  • An evolutionary path can be imagined like a maze, in which each passage is one step in a journey, while each step is necessarily a preadaptation in itself. No end goal exists; our ancestors were just lucky.
  • The steps in humanity’s journey through the maze:
    • Our large size and relative immobility (compared to insects)
    • That we adapted to life in the trees, 70-80mya, thus acquiring hands for grasping, with flat nails (not claws) and palms with sensitivity of touch;
    • Larger brains and reliance on vision;
    • Bipedalism, freeing up the hand for other things;
    • The ability to run long distances, tiring out faster prey; hunting;
    • The ability to throw;
    • Existing in a dry environment, the savannah forest, in which grassland are interspersed with groves of low acacia trees;
    • The control of fire, via lightning-strike triggered brush fires and smoldering remains (thus—insects, and water animals could never do this)
    • And then small groups huddling around campsites, i.e. ‘nests’.

4, The Arrival

  • At 2mya there were multiple species, three of which were Homo, that is they ate meat, likely begun by harvesting animals killed in wildfires.
  • Larger animal species were precarious, dying into extinction more often than smaller species; and those who formed social groups even more so.
  • Africa suffered drought during glacial periods; this provided the savannah grasslands.
  • The next step: Homo habilis became smarter; its brain size grew. Why? Several ideas:
    • Maybe climate and vegetation favored adaptability;
    • Or that grassland and the savannah forest expanded, 38m;
    • Or a greater reliance on meat, including fish (e.g. catfish, easily caught by hand in small drought ponds)
    • Or perhaps to enable ways in how prey is hunted, i.e. increased teamwork.
  • That gave way to protected nests, and increased social behavior, 43b, status, available mates, etc. In that environment, it pays to be socially smart, 44.8.

5, Threading the Evolutionary Maze

  • (this mostly just recap’s the list in the previous chapter)
  • Note 46m, noting that science fiction writers should provide aliens with soft grasping hands or other fleshy appendages.

6, The Creative Forces

  • If ETs came to Earth 3mya they might have noted the social insects, but not the primates, and would have been astonished to return to now and see what the primate became.
  • So what is the ‘force’ that drove us through that maze? There is the idea of kin selection, which Darwin anticipated. On this the author has changed his mind (note footnote p305). Rather the answer is ‘multilevel selection’, a combination of individual selection and group selection, represented by selfishness v altruism; “If the benefit from group membership falls below that from solitary life, evolution will favor departure or cheating by the individual.” 54.3
  • The same factors applied to the social insects, ants et al.
  • The overpowering of individual selection by group selection has been very rare. The consequences are, p56:
    • Intense competition between groups;
    • Group composition is unstable;
    • Perpetual war between honor, virtue, and duty on one side; with selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy on the other;
    • The perfecting of expert reading of others’ intensions;
    • Culture, especially creative arts, arises from this clash of selections
  • [[ Comments: There’s a curious analogy, or reverse analogy, going on here, between individual vs. group selection, and altruism vs. selfishness. I suspect they’re orthogonal, and complementary. Yet he does say (below) that group selection promotes altruism. We think of conservatism as valuing the community over the individual, with tribal identity very important. And we think of liberalism as valuing the uniqueness of the individual. Isn’t this being selfish? Maybe in some way. Perhaps this dynamic is reflected in the trend of social/moral progress—well, our ‘moral progress’ includes both the widening of group boundaries, to include ever more of the world, and simultaneously, in the west, the recognition of individual freedom and self-expression. Is this the best of both worlds? Perhaps. – these comments edited 2022 ]]

7, Tribalism is a fundamental human trait

  • Forming of groups is a human universal; the modern equivalent of tribes. People must have one, and strive to be in the best one. Team sports are the moral equivalent, 58t, with an anecdotal example of Celts fans reacting to a win.
  • Such groups can be completely arbitrary, yet exert powerful forces towards prejudice against outsiders, in-group v out-group behavior – even when members told they were completely arbitrary! [[ this recalls famous psychological experiments about boys separated into groups, etc. ]]
  • Is this ‘instinctive’? Apparently so, via young children, 60t. This quickly becomes tribalism. People are “quick to anger at evidence that an out-group is behaving unfairly or receiving undeserved rewards.” With Bible evidence from Judges, p60b.
  • It’s a reaction via the brain’s amygdala, and can be overcome by context, 61t – but it’s always there.
  • [[ Comments: Re my PvC #10—this will never go away. But it does change, via moral progress; think about the ways in which it changes, e.g. becoming familiar with previously demonized groups. In general, of course one can *think around this* to realize what’s going on – but that’s an *individual* activity. How does a group do that?
  • [[ Also: there is a liberal bromide that prejudice must be learned (so just don’t teach it!). No – at least loosely it’s there in all of us, and has to be unlearned, through education and exposure. The way to overcome is by context, by exposing the other as being just other people; see ideas above about moral progress. And globalization.
  • [[ Also: the same applies for the occasional fad (among liberals) to do away with separate boys’ and girls’ aisles for clothing or toys. You can try, but the instincts will always be there. ]]

8, War as Humanity’s Hereditary Curse

  • Quotes William James on the human history of war. Our calendars are full of anniversaries of wars; our daily speech is full of war and battle terms. Any excuse for war will do, and memories of past horrors have no effect. Example Rwanda. Enemies are dehumanized, making any brutality justified; examples of Soviets and Nazis.
  • And there’s always God, the will of God, to justify attacks. The Christians led the crusades, the slaughter of Muslims; later came the Islam slaughter of Christians in 1453. Martin Luther. The Athenians.
  • War is not limited to only a few societies; it’s everywhere. Even in the modern era, small wars continue.
  • Archaeological evidence shows virtually no peaceful tribes. Buddhists? No, p68; prehistory? Cave drawings depict violence, p70. Even the few so-called ‘peaceful’ tribes show high homicide rates.
  • Is this an effect of selection *for* group selection? P72.
  • Compare similar violence in chimpanzees, similar to gangs; how they conduct raids to annex new territory.
  • Population ecology explains some of this: populations expand beyond the capacity for territory to support them; there is always pressure to expand. There is a hierarchy of factors, p75, in play. The sequence of factors are:
    • Food;
    • Demographic shocks, e.g. emigration or expansions by conquest;
    • The Neolithic revolution [agriculture], which greatly expanded population sizes;
    • The fact that human nature hasn’t changed, even in the modern world; we take no effort to limit population.
  • [[ Comment: Wilson seems pretty firm on this—how does this resolve with Pinker’s contention that violence has decreased? Is that evidence of some kind of moral progress that *is* tempering this inherent tendency toward war? ]]

9, The Breakout

  • Summary of our species since 2mya [somewhat analogous to Harari’s]; Homo erectus, expansion across Africa and Asia; sister species like the ‘hobbits’.
  • 60Kya was the breakout, out of Africa.
  • The population that *remained* in Africa was far more genetically diverse than the group that expanded outward, as shown by contemporary genetic studies of southern Africans, and populations around the world. This diversity among that group is a resource that should be treasured.
  • By slow advance, the group that moved out of Africa went up the Nile, into the Levant, and beyond; a process that happened a few miles at a time before settling, multiplying, dividing into two or more bands, and repeating. It may have been triggered by a drought that affected Africa up to 90kya.
  • By 42kya they reached Europe, and met the Neanderthal—who were already there. And replaced them (somehow) by 30kya. And replaced the other sister species, p83.
  • It took centuries to spread around the globe; the remote Pacific islands, including Hawaii, were not reached until AD 1200. Humans had conquered the earth.
  • [[ Comment: it’s a sign of the comfort of our modern civilization, the progress that science and technology have provided us, that we don’t need to worry about starvation or disease (at least for those of us who get their vaccines), and that we, or at least some of us, have the *luxury* to worry about things like abortion. ]] [[ comment unchanged from 2017 ]]

10, The Creative Explosion

  • The “greatest of all advances” – agriculture, and the subsequent advance of culture. There are three hypotheses to explain this.
    • One, some kind of mutation appeared among Homo sapiens, that did not happen among Neanderthals;
    • Two, a gradual process that began some 160kya, given recent evidence.
    • Three, a result of periodic climate change, which turned human cultural advance on and off; again suggested by recent archaeological evidence.
    • Or, all three.
  • Author discusses coding v noncoding genes.
  • Outline of the ‘autocatalytic’ progress, beginning 60-50kya:
    • Early humans developed stone tools;
    • The concept of hollow structures [i.e. bowls, containers], and learning how to make them;
    • Learning how to make complex objects out of simple ones, e.g. weaving, and complex dwellings;
    • The concept of natural habitats, wildlands, as places to be replaced into clearances for agriculture

11, The Sprint to Civilization

  • Three levels of complexity among human societies: bands and villages; chiefdoms; and states.
  • There are stereotypes about different populations, and there might be some genetic bases for these; but the differences are far outweighed by the range of variation within each population. Author quotes American psychologist Richard W. Robins, p100b:

“While there, I was struck by the degree to which everyone seemed so different yet so familiar at the same time. Despite dramatic differences in cultural customs and practices, the Burkinabe people seemed to fall in love, hate their neighbors, and care for their children in much the same way, and for many of the same reasons, as people in other parts of the world…”

  • Personality traits fall into five domains, p101: extroversion v introversion; antagonism v agreeableness; conscientiousness; neuroticism, and openness to experience. Variation among these exists across 49 studied cultures, p101. [[ Haidt’s book, three years later, greatly expanded on these ideas. ]]
  • The earliest states appeared in six places: Egypt, the earliest, 3400bc; Indus Valley of Pakistan, and India; China; Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley; and the coast of Peru, 200ad.
  • [[ it occurs to me that one value of the Bible is the description of the origin of one of these – the first one, albeit from an outsider’s perspective. ]]
  • However old we find some evidence, there will always be something older found… 103b.
  • How do we account for disparities among present societies? Answer: Jared Diamond: Eurasia was oriented east to west; had a rich variety of plant and animal species; and so on.

III, How Social Insects Conquered the Invertebrate World

12, The Invention of Eusociality

  • Two phenomena stand out: land species are dominated by species with complex social systems; and, these have evolved only very rarely.
  • Def p109: a eusocial animal group belong to multiple generations; divide labor in an altruistic manner; and subsequently have variant reproductive results among members [defined more succinctly elsewhere in the book]
  • They have advantage over solitary individuals in the same niche.
  • Most of them are insects – 20,000 species, out of 1,000,000 known species of insects. Yet they dominate. Much older than us; ants evolved 120mya.
  • The combined weight of all ants, and all humans, is about the same.

13, Inventions that Advanced the Social Insects

  • Author tells story of how he helped unravel the evolution of social insects; he how personally received a piece of Mesozoic amber – and dropped it! – but still had two pieces with ant specimens.
  • Around 100mya the forests changed; flowering plants appeared, and since their pollen could travel long distances, flying insects were attracted by the flowers; later sap-eating insects appeared, draining their food as a dairy cow; eventually ants moved into the canopies, above the ground, and learned to live off those sapsuckers. Some ants are incredibly fierce – personal experience. And ants learned to store seeds, enabling them to spread into arid grasslands and deserts.

IV, The Forces of Social Evolution

14, The Scientific Dilemma of Rarity

  • “The condition of multiple generations organized into groups by means of an altruistic division of labor” Why so rare?
  • Only 15 of 2600 families of insects are eusocial. There are few vertebrate species (mole rats). And us.
  • Note drawing of hypothetical bipedal dinosaur – from PROMETHEAN FIRE [[ which apparently Wilson does not now disavow – this was a 1983 book co-authored with Charles J. Lumsden about the synergy between biological and cultural evolution. At one point I thought he had changed his mind on that theme; either not, or he’s reverted, as he has developed ideas about group selection. Changing one’s mind is a good thing for a scientist to do, of course, given reason; not a bad thing. ]]

15, Insect Altruism and Eusociality Explained

  • Recent evidence has provided the story.
  • It begins with the nest, and the loss of the instinct for young to depart from the nest.
  • Author recounts the selfish gene notion, and the idea of kin selection, important up until 2010, when mathematical analysis showed that kin selection was insufficient to explain the evidence of eusocial species. Instead it’s about group selection… as Darwin anticipated. [[ More about this in GENESIS (2019) ]]

16, Insects Take the Giant Leap

  • (more about establishing nests; families that stay at home; and thus the competition among groups (around different nests).

17, How Natural Selection Creates Social Insects

  • Darwin perceived that behavior is also heredity, i.e. a result of natural selection. Yet in the 1950s Skinner’s view was that all behavior is learned (the “behaviorist” view), that the mind was a blank slate. [[ Comment: A debate resolved among scientists – see Pinker’s THE BLANK SLATE – if not in popular culture, e.g. among liberals who wish it were not true and that girls and boys would be equally attracted to all the toys. ]] Evidence was contrary; example of birds and types of trees. Evidence continues to grow, 161b.
  • Several principles are key, p162: the distinction between unit of selection (the gene) and the target (the trait); that natural selection is multilevel, individual and group (example cancer); and that the result is that group selection promotes altruism, individual selection promotes selfishness, thus the struggle between virtue and sin, so to speak, p163.5
  • Another principle: phenotypic plasticity, i.e. the flexibility of any one trait is itself subject to natural selection.
  • Finally: the distinction between proximate causation and ultimate causation.

18, The Forces of Social Evolution

  • The main force of social evolution seems to be group selection – this is still controversial. The standard explanation was, for decades, inclusive-fitness theory, aka kin selection, as advanced by William D. Hamilton in 1964; a key equation being “rb > c”. The idea goes back to Haldane in 1955, long quote p168.
  • The present author supported Hamilton in the ‘60s, and wrote three books (Insect Societies, Sociobiology, On Human Nature) in the ‘70s advancing the idea. He was convinced by its relation to haplodiploidy in some species, where sisters are more closely related than males, as in ants, wasps, termites.
  • But then in the ‘90s the hypothesis failed. It never worked very well in termites. Other eusocial groups were discovered, without haplodiploidy; and many hap’ species were not eusocial. And it turns out selection forces make close kinship antagonistic to altruism…
  • Author mentions Dawkins as remaining faithful, while author had doubts beginning in the ‘90s. One problem was in the definition of relatedness, the ‘r’ in the equation; it seemed that it was defined however it needed to be. (Technical discussion) Case study of ants, 177b ff, and how it can be more easily explained by group selection. Other examples. Woodpeckers, 180t. And so, p181b,

“The old paradigm of social evolution, grown venerable after four decades, has thus failed. Its line of reasoning, from kin selection as the process, to the Hamilton inequality condition for cooperation, and then to inclusive fitness as the Darwinian status of colony members, does not work. Kin selection, if it occurs at all in animals, must be a weak form of selection that occurs only in special conditions easily violated. As the object of general theory, inclusive fitness is a phantom mathematical construction that cannot be fixed in any manner that conveys realistic biological meaning. …”

  • [[ Comments: I’ve mentioned somewhere that Dawkins seems to have gone silent, in recent books, on his criticism of group selection, as if admitting the advancement without explicitly admitting a change of judgment. Scientists are people too. ]]
  • [[ It’s not so much that some theory turned out to be spectacularly wrong; it’s that this one depended on mathematical models and real-world evidence that was very difficult to precisely assess. As more evidence came in, the model was revised. This is how science works. ]]
  • [[ Also, what does all this imply about homosexuality? The standard ‘explanation’ was kin-selection, whereby the homosexual male (typically) would contribute to the well-being of his siblings’ children… ]]

19, The Emergence of a New Theory of Eusociality

  • The new theory here is thus:
    • 1, the formation of groups around nests
    • 2, happenstance traits that support eusociality, e.g. progressive feeding of the young; cleaning the brood chambers; guarding them 184b.
    • 3, eusocial alleles that cancel old behavior, e.g. to allow young ones to remain in the nest;
    • 4, and then group selection between nests
  • –summarized on p187.
  • This theory raises ideas for new research, e.g. is a key element defense against enemies?
  • Last two steps on p187 apply only to insects. So what are we?

V, What Are We?

20, What Is Human Nature?

  • Surely we need to understand this to understand the human condition.
  • But do we really want to know? 2nd para:

Perhaps most people, including many scholars, would like to keep human nature at least partly in the dark. It is the monster in the fever swamp of public discourse. Its perception is distorted by idiosyncratic personal self-regard and expectation. Economists have by and large steered around it, while philosophers bold enough to search for it have always lost their way. Theologians tend to give up, attributing it in different parts to God and the devil. Political ideologues ranging from anarchists to fascists have defined it to their selfish advantage.

  • The very idea of human nature was denied by many social scientists; conservative religious leaders, OTOH, tended to believe in a fixed human nature vouchsafed by God. Thus Pope Paul VI, in 1969 encyclical, p192t, which entailed the forbidding of artificial contraception.
  • Nevertheless there is ample evidence to allow a clear definition.
  • What it is not: not the genes. Not the universals of human culture – the list again, 192b. [[ This list was a core point in ON HUMAN NATURE. ]]  Not something inevitable or genetic. It’s about something in between—rules of development—193.5:

Human nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species. They are the “epigenetic rules,” which evolved by the interaction of genetic and cultural evolution that occurred over a long period in deep prehistory. These rules are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which we represent the world, the options we automatically open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make.

  • Such behaviors are not genetically hardwired, like reflexes, or beyond conscious control. They are ‘prepared learning’, such as a propensity toward a phobia toward snakes, but not of turtles. 194b

We are attracted through prepared learning to find beauty in a stream-crossed parkland, and counterprepared to do the same for the interior of dark forests. Such responses seem “natural” to us, even though they must be learned, and that is precisely the point.

  • [[ this corresponds to my comments that human nature comprises a range of potential responses depending on circumstances; in the individual, and especially in a population. ]]
  • Author thought about this since the 1970s; work with Charles J. Lumsden; involved two unsolved problems: 1, the instinctive, noncultural basis of human nature; 2, the relation between evolution of genes and evolution of culture. Or of the *capacity* for culture. In the context of the ‘blank slate’ view of the mind, there was the notion of a ‘promethean gene’…
  • Cultural evolution doesn’t entirely smother genetic evolution, 198.0; e.g. lactose tolerance, which involved four individual mutations.
  • Such changes may go back before the split from chimps, 6mya.
  • These include incest avoidance and the development of exogamy (women among humans usually) and sexual avoidance of anyone closely associated since infancy, even if not actually related.
  • Discussion of ‘minor marriages’ 202t and Israeli kibbutzim – the Westermarck effect.
  • Another major example: how ‘color’ does not exist in nature, and is perceived differently by different human populations; the vocabularies vary. Languages distinguish white and black first; then red; then either yellow or green, etc. – see 209b ff.
  • Whorf suggested in the 1930s that language affects our perception of the world, 210b. Further research suggests a middle ground.
  • [[ Comment: author here outlines the parameters of human nature, but not its details – for that I would think Haidt comes next. ]]

21, How Culture Evolved

  • Examples of ‘fishing’, by both chimps and primitive humans. What we call culture was invented by the common ancestors of both.
  • p213.4: “culture is the combination of traits that distinguishes one group from another.” Even dolphins and orangutans have elements of culture.
  • The human advantage is long-term memory; we can plan and imagine, 214b. With each death a library of experience is lost – author’s own example, p215t, recalling his family:

“They existed in what must have seemed to them to be the center of the world and the center of time. They lived as though Mobile as it was then would never change by much. Everything mattered, every detail, at least for a while. Somehow, in one form or another everything collectively remembered was important to someone. Now these people are all gone.”

  • Human brain development—was this complexity a problem for evolution? No, 216b.
  • Mind and language go back at least 70kya.
  • The Neanderthal never made that advance, as we did at least 40kya. How did we do it? Group selection –224t.

22, The Origins of Language

  • It wasn’t due to any single gene, but rather the consequence of some tipping point, p225.
  • Humans becoming omnivores led to cooking, which led to camps. (Note how over and over he cites recent research, e.g. 226.6)
  • And key to our success, our ability to collaborate to achieve shared goals. We thus learn to ‘read’ others’ intentions, and engage in gossip, endless discussion of others’ truthfulness and intentions. We are enmeshed in social networks—we don’t realize this; 227.3, “Like the proverbial fish in the sea, we find it difficult to conceive of any place different from this mental environment we have evolved.”
  • Early sapiens developed three attributes – shared attention, awareness to act together to achieve common goals, and they acquired a ‘theory of mind’…, 228t.
  • Language likely occurred before the African breakout, 60kya. Quote definition… 229t: “The general question is, What is language if not a set of coordination devices for directing the attention of others?” 229.3
  • Language further involves prosody, the emphasis of particular words, the pacing of speech, to enhance meaning. This is a way of negotiating relationships, examples 230m.
  • Some patterns of speech may be products of evolution, such as ‘turn-taking’ in conversation. How people in different cultures interrupt each other, or do not, how they emit nonverbal sounds to indicate shades of meaning.
  • What about grammar? Skinner v Chomsky, with a complex example p232. Pinker helped explain Chomsky, 232.7, and there have been other ideas. Word order varies, though when people spell things out, they tend to be in similar orders. So perhaps both are right, to some extent. Languages change too fast, so to that degree there’s little reason evolution would have built a special module for it. Rather, language evolved to fit the human brain, rather than vice versa, 235.8.

23, The Evolution of Cultural Variation

  • Gene-culture evolution connects the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Genes can prescribe frequency and also plasticity, e.g. how fingerprints are never the same, vs. a fixed number of fingers. The degree of plasticity is itself subject to natural selection. When the environment is unpredictable, a mixed strategy emerges, 237b. Some genes regulate others, e.g. an ant casts.
  • Cultural variation among humans has two properties: the degree of bias in epigenetic rules (e.g. low in dress fashion, high in incest avoidance); and the likelihood that group members imitate others in the group in adapting a trait. (Figure on p240 illustrates this)

24, The Origins of Morality and Honor

  • The dilemma of good and evil: we’re both. “In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides” 241.4
  • [[ Comment: yes this is exactly the point I’ve been making about variance in a population; it’s always there, and what prevails at any given time depends on which side happens to control political power. ]]
  • It’s a result of multilevel selection, p24 2nd para. Group selection makes individuals altruistic toward other members of their group – but not to members of other groups, 241.8. [[ Comment: does this limit the extent of a global civilization? It would require the sense that there’s only a single group, and eliminate the process of group selection. Anyway the prospect of global civilization hasn’t been working out in recent decades. ]]
  • Social sciences and humanities are devoted to the proximate causes of human behavior; while evolution confines ultimate causes. Because human nature is only one of many possible natures that could have evolved, 242.5; .7:

To see human nature as the product of this evolutionary trajectory is to unlock the ultimate causes of our sensations and thought. To put together both proximate and ultimate causes is the key to self-understanding, the means to see ourselves as we truly are and then to explore outside the box.

  • An iron rule exists: selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of individuals, 243.2 “If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve. If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies.”, 243.3
  • Life in a network of group members is not only about kinship, as previously thought.
  • This evolution in prehistory occurred when we lived in small, scattered bands, much different than society today; our instincts are unprepared for modern life. We retain the powerful impulse to join groups, the best ones we can find.
  • From somewhere in this confusion came the golden rule. The brain, divided against itself, learns caution, e.g. 246b making an ethical decision.
  • Again cooperation is not due only to kin selection; the tangle of impulses is catalogued by Pinker, see quote 248b. Thus we have ambivalence, modesty, and “levelers” – jokes, roasts, put-downs.
  • And true altruism, even when done anonymously.
  • Societies that provide “leveling” for their citizens enjoy higher qualities of life *and* lowest income differential – Japan, the Nordic countries – as do states like New Hampshire.
  • On the flip side, people enjoy punishing those who don’t cooperate, 250b.
  • Authentic altruism defined, 251.3.
  • Beyond altruism is honor, both devotion and sacrifice in war (for the benefit of the group), and also the honor of the individual pitted against the crowd, i.e. social or religious standards.

“The naturalistic understanding of morality does not lead to absolute precepts and sure judgements, but instead warns against basing them blindly on religious and ideological dogmas. When such precepts are misguided, which is often, it is usually because they are based on ignorance.”

  • 252b, with an example of the pope ruling against artificial conception, unaware that sexual intercourse also serves the function of bonding the couple.
  • Another example: homophobia, based on the idea that sex is only about reproduction. Yet homosexuality has a heritable component, and is too widespread to be due to mutations. Presumably homosexuality lends an advantage to the group through special talents or specialized roles that make up for the loss of individual reproduction. [[ This expands the kin-selection notion of homosexuality ]]
  • Most of our moral precepts will survive the deep understanding of morality; some may not. Last line: “If such greater understanding amounts to the ‘moral relativism’ so fervently despised by the doctrinally righteous, so be it.” P254

25, The Origins of Religion

  • The conflict between science and religion began in the late 20th century, as science began to explain religion—as a product of natural selection. Did God create man, or man create god? Does God actually exist, and if so is he a personal god? Can we expect to be immortal, “living, say, the next trillions of trillion years (just for a start) in peace and comfort?” p256t.
  • In 1910 32% of scientists claimed a belief in God; in 1998, only 10% did, and only 2% of biologists.
  • There is no single trend in today’s world; in the US 95% believe in God, only 61% of British, and so on, p256.
  • Why this disparity? Author familiar with southern values; answer lies in historical reasons.
  • Suppose only a divine force created the universe, suggested by the anthropic principle. Counter-argument: how do we know whether or not to be surprised by such ‘fine-tuning’?
  • Anyway, that doesn’t imply that earthly biology was the product of divine intervention, much less that ethical precepts can be derived from such. On the contrary, there are good reasons to explain religion (and morality) as products of evolution driven by natural selection.
  • Namely, that organized religion is an expression of tribalism. Every religion teaches that their members are special and superior to other religions. Etc, p259t. Their illogic is their strength—acceptance of bizarre creation myths binds members together. [[ Another point noted recently, as in politics and alternative facts [[ this was 2017!]] ]] – examples 259m.
  • How did such creation myths originate? Partly folk memories of momentous events – emigrations, floods, wars, volcanic eruptions. People project their humanness onto animals, etc.; thus the God of the Abrahamic religions is much like the patriarchs who ruled the desert kingdoms in which they arose.
  • And the idea of spirits, gods, demons, might easily arise through dreams, drug-induced hallucinations, paralysis – many cases of primitive use of drugs and the visions they result in, p261ff. Revelation reads much like them. John might have been suffering schizophrenia; Revelation’s vision is “so far out of line with the remainder of the New Testament” as to make a biological explanation preferable.
  • Historically, the first event might be the realization of mortality—burial sites 95kya. Where do dead people go? Into dreams, of course. P264. Shamans appeared to interpret such visions. Multiple supernatural beings. Even among the early Abraham religions, there were multiple gods presiding over chosen people. Yahweh was God of the Israelites, 265b.
  • Of course most people today take religion at face value, that is sufficient, p266. Myths bind tribes, and believers. The awe and mystery faith provides has been appropriated by thousands of years of art and music and architecture.
  • But these benefits require submission. Last para: This is too easy. Is it obeisance to a mythical god, or to a tribe? “If the latter, religious faith is better interpreted as an unseen trap unavoidable during the biological history of our species. And if this is correct, surely there exist ways to find spiritual fulfillment without surrender and enslavement. Humankind deserves better.” P267end.

26, The Origins of the Creative Arts

  • Creative arts seem rich – yet our perceptions are very narrow. [[ an idea expressed in other books ]] Other senses we don’t have at all. We have limited taste and smell; we are primarily audiovisual.
  • Yet we can perceive these greater realms through science and technology.
  • And among visual patterns, we respond best to patterns that have about 20% redundancy – thus artistic patterns, and written languages, p270-271.
  • We also respond to the natural environment—‘biophilia’—with example of Deere company HQ in Moline. [[ Where my grandfather worked for a while! He took us on a tour there. ]]
  • Our biophilia has 3 components: on a height looking down; an open savannah-like terrain; and close to a body of water, 271-272. Like the primordial environment.
  • The need for consilience comes from the tension between the two levels of selection.
  • An old definition of the humanities—p274b, from the NEA. Author observes this doesn’t consider any understanding of the cognitive processes that bind them together, 275t.
  • Both scientists and storytellers start by imagining a story, perhaps a resolution, then trying to fill in the details, establish if it’s true, or the best story. 275b, The novelist says, does that work? And the scientist says, could that possibly be true? [[ because for a story to ‘work’, it has to echo some sensed truth about the world ]]
  • Both seek approval and stature among their peers. Where they differ is their use of metaphor—very chaste in scientific reports. Science counts importance of discovery; literature is the originality and power of the metaphor. Literature seeks a ‘higher’ truth, e.g. long quote by E.L. Doctorow, p277.
  • History: 1.7mya, stone tools. 500kya, hand axes. 95kya, burials. A ‘creative explosion’ began about 35kya—cave paintings. Did they depict hunter rituals? Or daily life? Musical instruments, 30kya. Was music Darwinian? We know it’s universal among modern tribes, and is mostly about hunting. Music is language, with a beat.

VI, Where Are We Going?

 27, A New Enlightenment, p287

  • Knowledge doubles every couple decades. Back to the questions: where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
  • We may as well ask, where should we choose not to go?
  • We remain biological. Do we have free will? We are not free of biological processes; free will is biological.
  • Certainly we are life’s greatest achievement, 289t. Summary of multilevel selection as the driving force; how it replaced the old theory from 2004 to 2010; how the controversy continues.
  • The theory fits well with much evidence, that of tribalism, our urge to join groups. 290.7, “We understand too well that no one is so wise and great that he cannot make a catastrophic mistake, or any organization so noble to be free of corruption.”
  • We live in a “largely mythic, spirit-haunted world”, 291.2 [[ echoes of Harari, and Sagan ]] Summary of early humans … mortality, need stories to explain things, creation myths.
  • Religions persist as vestiges of tribalism; they still serve to preside over rites of passage—births, marriages, deaths.
  • Is it wise to question the myths and gods of organized religions? Yes, because they are stultifying and divisive.
  • Yet it’s foolish to think that organized religions can be replaced anytime soon by rationally based morality. It will happen only gradually, as it is happening in Europe. The reconstruction of religion as a product of evolution is increasingly obvious “to any even slightly open mind.” The growth of the internet and globalization are weakening ethnic and national identifications. The first in liberating humanity from religious tribalism is to repudiate those who claim exclusive knowledge of God from would-be prophets to the pope, and similarly for other dogmatic political ideologies.
  • Second reason for a new enlightenment: we are solely responsible for the planet, p294. Saving the living world will save the physical world.
  • Science is the search for objective truth – 295t. It is not reconcilable with religion.
  • Author believes based on evidence so far that nobody will emigrate from this planet, ever. Cheaper to build robots. Let alone travel to other star systems. Why no ETs? Perhaps they grew up, 296b, solved problems at home, and realized there was no need to colonize other star systems.
  • Author’s own “blind faith”, p297: We can turn earth into the beginning of paradise for human beings, by the 22nd century: “…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.”


It would be fair to mention that many evolutionary biologists think that Wilson “jumped the shark” to some extent with his ideas of multi-level selection and group selection. The brief summary of this book on Wikipedia hints at this, and Jerry Coyne said as much in his post about Wilson’s death.

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