Friday, 30 January 2015

The Social Conquest of Earth

The next donation in his 'My Nightshelf' series, Stephen Town continues his journey through evolutionary concepts with a scientific look at the history of animal and human evolution.

O.Wilson, E., The Social Conquest of Earth, in the University Library at XP 6 WIL

Meerkat by Evan Chu
Reproduced under a
CreativeCommons licence
Who and what we are seems to have become a theme of these blogs, and it is probably time to let the scientists in to the debate. In 1975, when I was a student of biology and in particular animal behaviour, Edward Wilson published his work on Sociobiology (also in the University of York Library at XL6). This work became one of the most debated and misinterpreted scientific books of its time, and created some notoriety for its author. Wilson’s own rhetorical style also did not always have the positive effect on debate that he probably intended.

The core of the issue is the extent to which human behaviour, culture and society is defined and controlled by genes, and this work shifted the common understanding.  Unfortunately the idea of a genetic basis for selfishness has since been used as a foundational rationale and excuse for a strand of economic and political agendas which ultimately helped create our current crisis.

In my chosen book, The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson has summed up the conclusion of his life’s work on social biological societies; ranging from the ants that were his original focus through to his attempt to resolve the process of human evolution and define the human condition.

I find when managing a cooperative service like an academic library, the balance between selfishness and altruism in people is a constantly observed feature of everyday life, and this unresolved tension is at the heart of this work. It is interdisciplinary in its scope, and an easier read (and less weighty) than Sociobiology.

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