Edward O. Wilson's new book

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John F
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Edward O. Wilson's new book

Post by John F » Sat Apr 14, 2012 1:27 am

This one went right to the top of my want list even before reading the review.

Book review: ‘The Social Conquest of Earth,’ by Edward O. Wilson
By Colin Woodard, Published: April 13

What are we, where did we come from, and where are we going?

For millennia, humans have been pondering these great questions and articulating responses in works of art, philosophical treatises and religious beliefs. We’ve fought wars over whose solution is most correct, persecuted promoters of heresy and celebrated sublime expressions of possible answers by painters, poets and preachers. No wonder; at stake is nothing less than the definition of the human condition.

In his new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” renowned scientist Edward O. Wilson sets out to answer these questions once and for all. Scientific advances of the past two decades, he argues, make it possible to solve the first two, providing the basis for a rethinking of the third. The result is an ambitious and thoroughly engaging work that’s certain to generate controversy within the walls of academia and without.

Wilson, 82, is a giant of science: the world’s leading expert on ants, the first researcher to recognize the existence of pheromones, the father of sociobiology, the author and co-author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books (“On Human Nature” and “The Ants”) and a recipient of the Royal Swedish Academy’s Crafoord Prize, given in fields not covered by the Nobel Prize.

A professor emeritus at Harvard, he has produced a body of work that has withstood scientific critics, including those who rejected his assertion that both animal and human social behavior is based on biological and evolutionary principles. (Activists dumped a pitcher of ice water on him during a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.) Others rejected his prediction in “The Diversity of Life” (1992) that more than a quarter of all species on Earth would vanish by mid-century, but subsequent research has supported the notion that we are in the midst of the Earth’s sixth great extinction.

To build his latest argument, Wilson first sets about exploding an important theory of evolutionary biology that he once championed. The key to understanding the human condition is to understand how our species developed advanced social lives and the altruistic behaviors they require. If evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest — individual selection — how does one explain the self-sacrifice seen among the workers of an ant colony or a bee hive, or in the person who runs into a burning house to save a stranger? The current explanation — kin selection, or “inclusive fitness” — is that altruism evolved among closely related individuals as a way to ensure the survival of the shared portions of their genetic heritage.

But Wilson describes in considerable detail how the insect studies on which this theory was built have since been shown to be incorrect. (Many scientists in the field disagree, and dozens have denounced him in letters to the scholarly journals in which he first aired his critique.) Instead, Wilson argues that altruism is a result not of individual or kin selection, but of group selection.

Charles Darwin himself proposed that a tribe that had many members willing to contribute to or sacrifice themselves for the common good “would be victorious over most other tribes.” Drawing on recent evidence from social psychology, archaeology and evolutionary biology, Wilson builds a compelling and multi-faceted case that Darwin was right. Species that have developed advanced social lives, or eusociality — certain bees, ants, termites and ourselves — have been staggeringly successful and extremely rare.

“Our ancestors were one of only two dozen or so animal lines ever to evolve eusociality, the next major level of biological organization above the organismic,” Wilson writes. “There, group members across two or more generations stay together, cooperate, care for the young, and divide labor in a way favoring reproduction of some individuals over that in others.”

Evolutionary competition among ants is best understood not at the individual level but at the level of the colony, a superorganism acting as an extension of the queen’s genome, waging a battle of fitness against other hives. For humans, Wilson argues, the situation is more complex. We’ve become genetically hard-wired to be tribal, to join groups “and, having joined, consider them superior to competing groups.” Our groups — tribes, societies, nations — compete with one another for dominance, but as individuals, we also compete for survival and reproduction within groups via individual selection. Selfish individuals might beat altruistic ones, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish people.The human condition, Wilson concludes, is largely a product of the tension between the two impulses.

“The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual, but largely in opposition to each other,” he writes. “Individual selection . . . shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish. . . . Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another (but not toward members of other groups). Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.”

Heady stuff, to be sure, and Wilson is just getting started. He builds a case for religion as a byproduct of human evolution, a mechanism for defining and uniting the tribe. As such, it has become “an unseen trap unavoidable during the biological history of our species,” facilitating submission not to God but “to no more than a tribe united by a creation myth.” Our species, Wilson says, deserves better, and he makes a case that morality and honor are also part of our peculiar evolutionary heritage and, thus, can stand on their own.

“A good first step for the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully, the claims of those in power who claim they speak for God, are a special representative of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God’s divine will,” he advises, and he includes in that group purveyors of “dogmatic political ideologies based on unchallengeable precepts, left and right.” Rounding out this view, he adds: “Their leaders may mean well. But humanity has suffered enough from grossly inaccurate history told by mistaken prophets.”

Provocative, eloquent and unflinchingly forthright, Wilson remains true to form, producing a book that’s anything but dull and bound to receive plenty of attention from supporters and critics alike.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertain ... story.html
John Francis

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Re: Edward O. Wilson's new book

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Apr 14, 2012 1:22 pm

Wilson, 82, is a giant of science: the world’s leading expert on ants,
Well, I guess that's better than the reverse. :wink:

Thanks for the heads up. I've lost the habit of reading the book reviews in the major papers. Must get back into it forthwith.

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John F
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Re: Edward O. Wilson's new book

Post by John F » Sat Apr 14, 2012 2:08 pm

It was the study of ants that led Wilson to his first powerfully controversial conclusion, that altruistic behavior has a genetic basis not only in those tiny mindless creatures but also arguably in more complex life forms, such as ourselves. That's why he was vilified (and doused) in the '70s. However, this view has gained a lot of acceptance since then, for example in Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works." I'm now inclined to believe it's right.

I never gave either the theory or the controversy much thought at the time, and never read anything of Wilson's until 1998, when I came across a compelling review of an extraordinary book. It's Wilson's "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge." I no longer remember the review, but an excerpt from another on the book jacket gives an idea: "This new book is a work to be held in awe, to be read with joy and attentiveness, to be celebrated and challenged and returned to again and again. It is, in short, an act of consummate intellectual heroism." The chapter titles suggest its scope and daring:

The Ionian Enchantment
The Great Branches of Learning
The Enlightenment
The Natural Sciences
Ariadne's Thread
The Mind
From Genes to Culture
The Fitness of Human Nature
The Social Sciences
The Arts and Their Interpretation
Ethics and Religion
To What End?

All this in 300 well-written pages. But this is no crackpot theory-mongering; it's closely argued from phenomena we've all observed as well as from scientific research and experiments. I have indeed returned to the book, and it's why I have such high expectations of "The Social Conquest of Earth." I can also recommend "Consilience" personally, and I do.
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Re: Edward O. Wilson's new book

Post by BWV 1080 » Sat Apr 14, 2012 7:56 pm

the idea of group selection is so obvious given any understanding of history, its a wonder that anyone give it a second thought. Modern people are used to thinking of themselves as individuals, but for all of human history up until a couple of hundred years ago in the West, an individual could only survive as part of a larger group. As group dynamics in most all traditional societies control reproduction, whatever individual evolutionary drive people have is subsumed by the group or tribe. Someone who does not have status in the group does not get to reproduce.

Does the book mention Strong Reciprocity at all? Herb Gintis at the Santa Fe institute has developed a whole game theoretical model based around this concept and it does a very good job of explaining the social aspects of many things, notably religions.

http://tuvalu.santafe.edu/~bowles/stron ... rocity.pdf

John F
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Re: Edward O. Wilson's new book

Post by John F » Sun Apr 15, 2012 12:08 am

Which book? If you're asking about "The Social Conquest of Earth," none of us has read it (it won't be published until Tuesday) and the review you've seen here is all we know about its contents. But on past performance, its argument will not be self-evident or banal. Gintis is an important writer but his field is economics, essentially a social science, with a strong background in mathematics; you mention a "game theoretical model" which I suppose is economic and statistical - I haven't read about it and hadn't heard of "strong reciprocity" before you mentioned it. Wilson's field is biology, a natural science, with natural selection as his central theme. They don't travel the same road.

If you're asking about "Consilience," Wilson acknowledges the help of several economists (and many others) who read portions of the manuscript but Gintis is not among them. Nor does his name appear in the index, nor does the term "strong reciprocity."
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Re: Edward O. Wilson's new book

Post by jbuck919 » Mon Aug 20, 2012 2:50 pm

I read Wilson's book with great enjoyment and, I hope, edification. That may be only about the third time I've read a book on the basis of a CMG recommendation, so thank you, John F.

Now let me recommend another book, not a new one (2009), but very much in the same vein. It is The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by Denis Dutton. I just finished it and it is a very fitting complement to Wilson.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
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John F
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Re: Edward O. Wilson's new book

Post by John F » Mon Aug 20, 2012 5:47 pm

Glad you enjoyed it! So did I. And thanks for the recommendation - sounds like a book I'd like to read.
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Re: Edward O. Wilson's new book

Post by jbuck919 » Wed Apr 10, 2013 10:16 am

I was led by the following article to an important critique of Wilson's book. The critique itself is too long to reproduce here, but here is the link:

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magaz ... n-species/

I was put onto this by a former student who is now Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Hood College in Maryland.



E.O. Wilson Is Wrong About Math and Science
By Edward Frenkel | Posted Tuesday, April 9, 2013, at 1:46 PM
| Posted Tuesday, April 9, 2013, at 1:46 PM

Slate.com

Don’t Listen to E.O. Wilson

Math can help you in almost any career. There’s no reason to fear it.
Scientist Edward O. Wilson speaks at the World Science Festival - On The Shoulders Of Giants: A Special Address by E.O. Wilson.
Biologist Edward O. Wilson doesn't think scientists need to learn math. He's wrong. Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for World Science Festival

E.O. Wilson is an eminent Harvard biologist and best-selling author. I salute him for his accomplishments. But he couldn’t be more wrong in his recent piece in the Wall Street Journal (adapted from his new book Letters to a Young Scientist), in which he tells aspiring scientists that they don’t need mathematics to thrive. He starts out by saying: “Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate … I speak as an authority on this subject because I myself am an extreme case.” This would have been fine if he had followed with: “But you, young scientists, don’t have to be like me, so let’s see if I can help you overcome your fear of math.” Alas, the octogenarian authority on social insects takes the opposite tack. Turns out he actually believes not only that the fear is justified, but that most scientists don’t need math. “I got by, and so can you” is his attitude. Sadly, it’s clear from the article that the reason Wilson makes these errors is that, based on his own limited experience, he does not understand what mathematics is and how it is used in science.

If mathematics were fine art, then Wilson’s view of it would be that it’s all about painting a fence in your backyard. Why learn how to do it yourself when you can hire someone to do it for you? But fine art isn’t a painted fence, it’s the paintings of the great masters. And likewise, mathematics is not about “number-crunching,” as Wilson’s article suggests. It’s about concepts and ideas that empower us to describe reality and figure out how the world really works. Galileo famously said, “The laws of Nature are written in the language of mathematics.” Mathematics represents objective knowledge, which allows us to break free of dogmas and prejudices. It is through math that we learned Earth isn’t flat and that it revolves around the sun, that our universe is curved, expanding, full of dark energy, and quite possibly has more than three spatial dimensions. But since we can’t really imagine curved spaces of dimension greater than two, how can we even begin a conversation about the universe without using the language of math?

Charles Darwin rightfully spoke of math endowing us “with something like a new sense.” History teaches that mathematical ideas that looked abstract and esoteric yesterday led to spectacular scientific advances of today. Scientific progress would be diminished if young scientists were to heed Wilson’s advice.

It is interesting to note that Wilson’s recent article in Nature and his book claiming to show support for so-called group selection have been sharply criticized, by Richard Dawkins and many others. Some of the critics pointed out that one source of error was in Wilson’s math. Since I’m not an expert in evolutionary theory, I can’t offer an opinion, but I find this controversy interesting given Wilson’s thesis that “great scientists don’t need math.”

One thing should be clear: While our perception of the physical world can always be distorted, our perception of the mathematical truths can't be. They are objective, persistent, necessary truths. A mathematical formula means the same thing to anyone anywhere—no matter what gender, religion, or skin color; it will mean the same thing to anyone a thousand year from now. And that’s why mathematics is going to play an increasingly important role in science and technology.

One of the key functions of mathematics is the ordering of information. With the advent of the 3-D printing and other new technology, the reality we are used to is undergoing a radical transformation: Everything will migrate from the layer of physical reality to the layer of information and data. We will soon be able to convert information into matter on demand by using 3-D printers just as easily as we now convert a PDF file into a book or an MP3 file into a piece of music. In this brave new world, math will be king: It will be used to organize and order information and facilitate the conversion of information into matter.

It might still be possible to be “bad in math” (though I believe that anyone can be good at math if it is explained in the right way) and be a good scientist—in some areas and probably not for too long. But this is a handicap and nothing to be proud of. Granted, some areas of science currently use less math than others. But then practitioners in those fields stand to benefit even more from learning mathematics.

It would be fine if Wilson restricted the article to his personal experience, a career path that is obsolete for a modern student of biology. We could then discuss the real question, which is how to improve our math education and to eradicate the fear of mathematics that he is talking about. Instead, trading on that fear, Wilson gives a misinformed advice to the next generation, and in particular to future scientists, to eschew mathematics. This is not just misguided and counterproductive; coming from a leading scientist like him, it is a disgrace. Don’t follow this advice—it’s a self-extinguishing strategy.

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_an ... re_toolbar

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Re: Edward O. Wilson's new book

Post by sans maitre » Mon Apr 15, 2013 12:50 pm

I think many of the objections of both Wilson and the JBucks piece could be corrected by simply redesigning math curriculum, the layout of high school and undergrad math points to classical mechanics, with more or less a direct line to differential equations while skimping on linear algebra, discrete mathematics and statistics - disciplines that are much more useful to both non-physicist scientists and the general population. There is also way too much emphasis on pencil and paper when writing code is how math gets applied in the real world.

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