Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Social Conquest of Earth deals with the really BIG questions.

Bill Clinton was asked by Fareed Zakaria to make one book choice and he insisted on making two--this was one.  It asks the really big questions.

The author, E. O. Wilson takes us through an evolutionary history of humans with some cultural elements.  Our survival was precarious with lots of little details that are critical--grasping hand, capturing fire, having a nest to defend,  sex and bonding for more effective parenting, bipedal posture to free hands and give a different perspective.  Intelligence developed as memory increased.  All critical details that led to our present abilities.

Humans see themselves as at the top of the heap.  Wilson studied insects and noticed that some insects such as ants, termites, wasps and bees had a social organization equal to humans.

Insects are useful as a comparison point for social organization.  A  key thing for eusocial insects is a nest to defend.  Once that is established specialization can move to more complexity so that the whole colony is strengthened.  Humans are in a parallel universe.

Genetic adaptations are very common and when coinciding with the right circumstances can expedite cultural adaptations.  Most adaptations are minor and are not carried on.

Humans do most of their perception through sight and sound whereas almost all other species rely more on the  chemical senses, taste and smell.

Along with Charles J. Lumsden, E. O. Wilson developed the concept of "gene-culture coevolution."  Culture and genetics developed hand in hand.

Religion is thought to be a type of glue holding us together in groups.  I have been encountering this theme elsewhere in recent books, but the foundation is better established here.

Papal policy has been against contraception on the basis that the only purpose of sex is procreation.  The author points out that in evolutionary terms sexual pleasure helps to bond males to females.  He also feels that homosexuality serves a benefit to the group by providing diversity.

The arts have played a role in evolution.  Cave painting go back thousands of years into pre history.  It is difficult to prove pre historical music because no one kept musical scores, but we do know there were rudimentary instruments.  Wilson speculates that music combined with other arts helped invigorate humans and points out that it does affect the structure of our brains.

For me wrestling between the merits of non fiction and fiction has been a struggle.  Non fiction is about the truth, isn't it?  E O Wilson sees another path and quotes Picasso, "Art is the lie that helps us see the truth."

In the prologue he refers to a famous Paul Gauguin masterwork with some description and notices that there are three sentences .  "D"ou-Venons Nous.  Que Sommes Nous.  Ou Allons nous."  Translated they become the biggest questions of the book, "Where have we come from?  What are we?  Where are we going?"  At the end we see a reproduction of the art work.

Wilson feels earth could be a paradise for all humans.  Two concerns he brings out are the need to deal with climate change and diminishing biodiversity.

All though the book one is confronted with profound thoughts.  A few insights (for me) have been highlighted but it is important to understand the development.  This book is well worth reading and I suspect any other books by E. O. Wilson.  A source for further E. O. Wilson insights is

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