An interesting thing about science is that while it is sometimes profound it is always incomplete. Science approaches complete understanding asymptotically, denouement denied but progress usually satisfying nonetheless. Our species, Homo Sapiens, young at some twenty millennia, has made enormous strides in knowledge and technology in the last few centuries. It has only been five centuries since Galileo and the Catholic Church clashed, and my, how the world of knowledge has changed since then! Carl Sagan may have described the old superstitious world best when he called it “demon-haunted”. And yet, I often find myself amazed at the depth of ignorance about science in the modern general public. It is almost as if we were two species, one cognizant and rational and the other, larger one, superstitious, primal, tribal, and bellicose. There is some evidence that groups of humanity may be evolving apart in those regards.
Sagan’s death took from us an important spokesman for science. His creative genius was to tie it all together, to update progress, to advocate understanding, to meld science with the human condition and help us understand who we are and where we came from. Now, I feel that another author has been able to offer similar balm for inquiring minds: Edward O. Wilson. His biographical summary on Amazon.com reads:
Regarded as one of the world’s preeminent biologists and naturalists, Edward O. Wilson grew up in south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, where he spent his boyhood exploring the region’s forests and swamps, collecting snakes, butterflies, and ants–the latter to become his lifelong specialty. The author of more than twenty books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Ants” and “The Naturalist” as well as his first novel “Anthill,” Wilson, a professor at Harvard, makes his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.
I have just finished reading Wilson’s new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth” and found it deeply satisfying. Although he is a highly respected scientist and evolutionary biologist he has written this new book for the general reader who is receptive to scientific learning. What he has accomplished, in my opinion, is to tie together numerous fields, including the creative arts no less, to provide context for understanding ourselves as a species. “Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Wilson has the latest answers. He backs them up with data and exposition, seasoning the mix with occasional irony, wry commentary and even bits of humor. He provides a grounded context for understanding human behavior, and at least one concept that is new to me, the notion that culture co-evolves with genes.
We all know how people act and we know that their behavior is often out of control, but that behavior often seems inexplicable in a modern setting. Sports fans react to games with violence, even riots. Competition empowers companies to succeed and sometimes to act illegally. Religious factions vie for adherents and condemn other religions. Some national cultures are peaceful and some violent. Some, like North Korea, are alarmingly bellicose. We are divided by ethnicity and by culture. What Wilson offers is context for making sense of it all, and even some hope that our cultural nature might someday become not only better but something glorious.
I will forego offering more specifics because I think that summarizing his concepts would weaken them – they require his lucid and witty prose for proper digestion. However, here are a few chapter titles (not a complete list) to whet the appetite.
War as Humanity’s Hereditary Curse
The Sprint to Civilization
The Scientific Dilemma of Rarity
The Forces of Social Revolution
What is Human Nature?
The Evolution of Cultural Variation
The Origins of Morality and Honor
The Origins of Religion
The Origins of the Creative Arts