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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

Genesis On the Deep Origin of Societies

Popular Science
By: Edward O Wilson(Author), Debby Cotter Kaspari(Illustrator)
153 pages, b/w illustrations, tables
Publisher: Penguin Books
Intriguing and beautifully written.
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  • Genesis ISBN: 9780141990231 Paperback Feb 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • Genesis ISBN: 9780241388594 Hardback Apr 2019 In stock
Selected version: £17.99
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About this book

Asserting that religious creeds and philosophical questions can be reduced to purely genetic and evolutionary components, and that the human body and mind have a physical base obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry, Genesis demonstrates that the only way for us to understand human behaviour fully is to study the evolutionary histories of nonhuman species. Of these, Wilson demonstrates that at least seventeen – among them the African naked mole rat and the sponge-dwelling shrimp – have been found to have advanced societies based on altruism and cooperation. Whether writing about midges who 'dance about like acrobats' or schools of anchovies who protectively huddle 'to appear like a gigantic fish, or proposing that human society owes a debt of gratitude to 'postmenopausal grandmothers' and 'childless homosexuals', Genesis is a pithy yet pathbreaking work of evolutionary theory filled with the lyrical biological and humanistic observations for which Wilson is known.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Beautifully written, but very brief in places
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 30 Apr 2019 Written for Hardback

    Why, of all the species that have ever existed, have only us humans reached this unparalleled level of intelligence and social organisation? When a senior scientist such as Edward O. Wilson trains his mind on such a question, you hope to be in for a treat.

    Wilson is considered the father of sociobiology and specialises in the biology of ants and social insects more generally. Now rapidly approaching 90 years of age, he has in recent years written more widely outside of his field of biological expertise, pondering human evolution in books such as The Social Conquest of Earth, The Origins of Creativity, and The Meaning of Human Existence. In Genesis, he forges a bridge between that work and his original love, the social insect.

    The major transitions in evolution as outlined by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry in their eponymous book serve as the starting point for Wilson’s argument. Briefly, these were: life’s origin; complex, eukaryotic cells; sexual reproduction; multicellularity; animal societies; and language (see The Major Transitions in Evolution and The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited). He then quickly focuses on eusociality: the ability to cooperate and divide labour, i.e. behave in an altruistic manner. As he points out, each of these transitions depends on altruism of a sort, as it requires parts to cooperate to come together into larger wholes.

    It is the fifth step, animal societies, that is truly an evolutionary challenge, writes Wilson. According to this book, amongst all the insects and vertebrates, there are at least 17 species known to have reached this stage. That is not many at all. Wilson here really drew me in with a clever building of tension and asking of questions. He spends several chapters on social insects, his area of expertise. Termites (see my review of Underbug) and ants were some of the first. But they were also some of the few. Despite insects being a fascinating group showing so many gradations of social complexity, only very few have evolved what Wilson calls true eusociality, with a specialized reproductive caste and a non-reproductive worker caste that labours in the colony. Wilson walks the reader through some of these gradations, along the way making the interesting observation that close kinship is not a cause but a consequence of eusociality.

    A key precondition, says Wilson, is the raising of young in a protected setting such as a nest. But this is common, so why do we not see more eusociality? Wilson’s answer is intriguing for sure: mutations in one or more genes can make a eusocial colony, but the remainder of the original genome is, at this point, still adapted for a solitary life. And that is the barrier to eusociality. To overcome it requires group selection: the selection of genes that prescribe social traits. He quotes David Sloan Wilson – who argued that selfish individuals will beat altruistic ones, but groups of altruistic individuals will beat groups of selfish ones – and proceeds to give some examples from the social insect world.

    This is where I felt the book was starting to falter a bit. The problem is that group selection is not a widely accepted idea amongst evolutionary biologists, who instead favour kin selection and inclusive fitness theory. A 2010 Nature publication on which Wilson was one of three authors resulted in a rebuttal authored by no fewer than 137 contributors (see also Evolutionary Restraints). Wilson here continues his criticism of this rival idea, but remains silent on group selection’s contested status. As a consequence, I also feel he does not explain it as thoroughly as I would have liked so as to fully understand it.

    At this point, Wilson is six chapters into a seven-chapter book. So, what about humans and human societies then? He basically retreads Wrangham’s thesis outlined in Catching Fire. Fire gave rise to cooking and with it shared meals and thus a powerful opportunity for social bonding. And here language would have been favoured too.

    Wilson ends his argumentation very abruptly, in his last paragraph still explaining the minutiae of a study before in one sentence wrapping it up. I hate to say this, but it feels rushed, almost as if someone took the manuscript from his hands as he was writing it (“Sorry, Professor Wilson, but your time for this assignment is up, could you please write your last sentence and then put your pen down?”). There is very little in the way of an overview of the thinking on language evolution (see e.g. How Language Began, The Evolution of Language, or Why We Talk), its cognitive and neurobiological underpinnings (see e.g. Language in Our Brain or The Social Origins of Language), its roots in more primitive forms of communication (see e.g. The Truth about Language or How Language Began), the study of extant languages (see e.g. Language in Prehistory), or why it only evolved in humans (see e.g. Why Only Us or Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can). From the hands of Wilson, you would expect a very capable and readable overview, so this feels like a missed opportunity.

    Genesis is certainly an intriguing read that it is well presented: each chapter features a nice illustration, a stand-out full-page summary or comment mid-way, and nice chapter headings. At 125 pages, this novella-length book is a quick read, and I have to say that Wilson writes beautifully – I will certainly seek out his other books. True to its subtitle, it discusses the (very) deep origins of societies by focusing on social insects and his ideas on group selection, but the human evolution story seems an afterthought. With the book ending so abruptly, it is hard not to come away feeling that Genesis could have been more fully developed.
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Edward O. Wilson was widely recognized as one of the world's pre-eminent biologists and naturalists. The author of more than thirty books, including Consilience, The Diversity of Life, The Social Conquest of Earth, The Meaning of Human Existence and Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson was a Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, he lived in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Popular Science
By: Edward O Wilson(Author), Debby Cotter Kaspari(Illustrator)
153 pages, b/w illustrations, tables
Publisher: Penguin Books
Intriguing and beautifully written.
Media reviews

"A magisterial history of social evolution [...] A lucid, concise overview of human evolution that focuses on the true source of our pre-eminence: the ability to work together"

"Engaging [...] Wilson inspires awe with narratives about evolution and animal societies."

"In his characteristically clear, succinct and elegant prose, one of our grand masters of synthesis, E. O. Wilson, here explains no less than the origin of human society."
– Richard Rhodes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb

"Genesis is a beautifully clear account of a question that has lain unsolved at the core of biology ever since Darwin: how can natural selection produce individuals so altruistic that, rather than breeding themselves, they help others to do so? In elegant, simple language Edward O. Wilson distills a magisterial knowledge of animal diversity into an unambiguous argument that the solution is group selection. Rich in accounts of extraordinary societies, Genesis is the ideal introduction to a problem of enduring fascination."
– Richard Wrangham, author of The Goodness Paradox

"Endlessly fascinating, Edward O. Wilson – in the tradition of Darwin – plumbs the depths of human evolution in a most readable fashion without sacrificing scholarly rigor."
– Michael Ruse, author of A Meaning of Life

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