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E.O. Wilson has a new explanation for consciousness, art & religion. Is it credible?

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

The Social Conquest of Earth Edward O. Wilson

W.W. Norton, pp.330, £18.99

His publishers describe this ‘ground-breaking book on evolution’ by ‘the most celebrated living heir to Darwin’ as ‘the summa work of Edward O. Wilson’s legendary career’. As emeritus professor of biology at Harvard, Wilson, now 84, is revered across the world as the doyen of Darwinists. And in announcing that he will offer a new answer to those three cosmic questions scrawled in the corner of a Gauguin painting — ‘Where have we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?’ — he leads us to expect some profound new insight into how a billion years of evolution have made us a species unique on earth.

Wilson introduces his ‘big idea’ by arguing that the two forms of life which, in evolutionary terms, have been most successful in ‘conquering the earth’ are those rather disconcertingly described as ‘eusocial’ — that is to say they have evolved societies based on a complex division of labour between different groups, all working for the good of the whole. On the one hand there is Homo sapiens, ourselves; on the other are the ‘eusocial’ insects, bees, wasps and ants (on which Wilson is a world expert).

If extra-terrestrials had visited earth three million years ago, Wilson suggests, they might have concluded that ‘the apex of social evolution’ had been reached by the ants: certainly not by the few thousand early australopithecines shambling across the African savannah. But he then devotes a third of his book to rehearsing the not-unfamiliar story of how, with astonishing speed in geological terms, that handful of higher primates not much removed from apes evolved ever larger brains, became recognisably human, discovered language and an ever greater range of skills, formed complex co-operative societies, fanned out across the globe and became masters of all they surveyed.

Clearly this has not come about just through the classical Darwinian process, whereby evolution works through that infinite series of minute genetic variations which has supposedly led life step by tiny step up the evolutionary ladder. Wilson therefore falls back on the idea of ‘cultural’ or ‘multi-level evolution’, allowing successive generations to pass on each progressive step along the way, independent of genetic mutations (taking side-swipes as he does so at the ‘inclusive theory’ championed by Richard Dawkins and others, which makes ‘kinship selection’ within particular groups the main driver of the process).

But Wilson then moves on to those ‘eusocial’ insects which have long been his special subject, showing how, like mankind, ants and bees have developed societies made up of different classes — queens, workers, soldiers, drones — each making a complementary contribution to the common good, even, as with Amazonian leaf-
cutter ants, practising agriculture, as they mulch chewed up leaves with their faeces, to grow a unique fungus to feed their larvae.

All this may be fascinating enough, but what Wilson completely misses out is any recognition of what is by far the most glaring difference between humans and ants. What marks out humankind as unique is the degree to which we have broken free from the dictates of instinct. We may in terms of our individual ‘ego-instincts’, such as our urges to eat, sleep, live in social groups and reproduce our species, be just as much governed by instinct as other creatures. But in all the ways in which we give expression to those urges, how we build our shelters, obtain our food, organise our societies. we are no longer guided entirely by instinct. Unlike any other species, we have become free to imagine how all these things can be done differently. Whereas one ant colony is structured exactly like another, the forms of human organisation may vary as widely as a North Korean dictatorship and a village cricket club.

It is our ability to escape from the rigid frame of instinct which explains almost everything that distinguishes human beings from any other form of life. But one looks in vain to Wilson to recognise this, let alone to explain how it could have come about in terms of Darwinian evolutionary theory. No attribute of Darwinians is more marked than their inability to grasp just how much their theory cannot account for, from all those evolutionary leaps which require a host of interdependent things to develop more or less simultaneously to be workable, that peculiarity of human consciousness which has allowed us to step outside the instinctive frame and to ‘conquer the Earth’ far more comprehensively than ants.

But it is this which also gives us our disintegrative propensity, individually and collectively, to behave egocentrically, presenting us with all those problems which distinguish us from all the other species which still live in unthinking obedience to the dictates of nature. All these follow from that split from our selfless ‘higher nature’, with which over the millennia our customs, laws, religion and artistic creativity have tried their best to re-integrate us.

Nothing is more comical about Darwinians than the contortions they get into in trying to explain those ‘altruistic’ aspects of human nature which might seem to contradict their belief that the evolutionary drive is always essentially self-centred (seen at its most extreme in Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’ theory). Wilson’s thesis finally crumbles when he comes up with absurdly reductionist explanations for the emergence of the creative arts and religion. Forget Bach’s B Minor Mass or the deeper insights of the Hindu scriptures — as a lapsed Southern Baptist, he caricatures the religious instinct of mankind as little more than the stunted form of faith he escaped from.

His attempt to unravel what makes human nature unique is entirely a product of that limited ‘left-brain thinking’ which leads to cognitive dissonance.
Unable to think outside the Darwinian box, his account lacks any real warmth or wider understanding. Coming from ‘the most celebrated heir to Darwin’, his book may have won wide attention and praise. But all it really demonstrates is that the real problem with Darwinians is their inability to see just how much their beguilingly simple theory simply cannot explain.

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