The latest issue of The New York Review of Books contains an appraisal of Ed Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, by Steven Mithen, a professor of archaeology at the University of Reading. Mithen seems a strange choice given that he’s not an evolutionary biologist, but it turns out that his expertise enabled him to catch some errors that might elude most biologists. His review, “How fit is E. O. Wilson’s evolution?“, is behind a paywall, but sufficiently industrious readers can get a copy from me.
Mithen begins by touting the importance of Wilson’s 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, as a landmark in how we think about the evolution of behavior. He’s right. But after extolling the book, he gives a taste of what is to come:
. . . how marvelous it felt a few months ago to have received an email from the man himself asking if he could reproduce a diagram relating to human evolution from one of my own publications in his forthcoming book, The Social Conquest of Earth. What an honor to then be invited to review the book for The New York Review. And how awfully disappointed I have been.
Wilson’s book, of course, is about the two pinnacles of social evolution—humans and “eusocial” insects (those species, like honeybees, that have a division of labor, castes, and sterile workers)—and how those groups became so successful. One of the vehicles for that success, in Wilson’s view, was group selection, the differential reproduction of groups of individuals having different traits. (In this case, traits like altruism in humans or sterility in insects.) This puts him, at least in the insect case, at odds with the vast majority of other evolutionists, who see selection among groups as an ineffective way of evolving anything, and see no evidence that it has occurred in nature. Rather, selection based on relatedness—kin selection—seems more plausible. I’ve written about this at length, and won’t reproduce my critique here. I’ll just remind you that when Wilson (along with Nowak and Tarnita) published their “group-selection” theory for the origin of eusociality in Nature in 2010, about 150 biologists, including nearly all the luminaries in the field of social evolution—wrote letters to the journal criticizing Nowak et al.’s assertion of the primacy of group selection over kin selection.
According to Mithen, Wilson’s group-selection arguments are also the centerpiece of his book (I haven’t yet read it). Although he doesn’t pronounce on who gets the upper hand in the kin selection/group selection dispute (kin selection wins, by the way), he finds Wilson culpable for not even mentioning the extensive criticism, which apparently could have been included in the book:
Now, it is not the purpose of this review to pronounce upon the validity or otherwise of inclusive fitness theory and Wilson’s alternative theory of multilevel selection. Indeed, I would not presume to have the expertise to do so. Wilson develops his case by referring to scientific matters on which only experts can make judgment, such as the demise of the “haplodiploid hypothesis” and new mathematical work allegedly exploring inherent weaknesses in “Hamilton inequality.” I have, however, remained unimpressed by multilevel selective theory and persuaded by the weight of academic opinion in favor of inclusive fitness, dogma or otherwise.
My greater concern is about the responsibility of the scientist writing for the general reader, especially a scientist of Wilson’s academic reputation. Such readers, the type targeted by Wilson and his publisher, may never have heard of Nature and would be unlikely to consult endnotes. Such readers, owing to his failure to acknowledge the extent of opposition to his views, would be entirely misled into thinking that Wilson had indeed “demonstrated that inclusive fitness theory, often called kin selection theory, is both mathematically and biologically incorrect.”
I recognize that there might be an issue of timing: The Social Conquest of Earth may have been so far into production by the time that the 2011 issue of Nature was published that citation was impossible. I suspect not: it was a March issue and Wilson’s book cites several 2011 publications. Even if this was the case, Wilson would have been quite aware of the vast weight of academic opposition to his views, since he has been promoting them since 2005 at least. I cannot avoid the impression that the manner in which Wilson presents his views verges toward polemic rather than providing a responsible work of popular science.
Mithen’s expertise enabled him to spot some embarrassing factual errors in the treatment of human evolution (I can’t judge these issues):
I am tempted to think the same [i.e., the trend toward polemic] about Wilson’s characterization of the archaeological record for human evolution. While he correctly identifies the key themes of human evolution—big brains, bipedalism, control of fire, shift to a meatbased diet, adaptive flexibility—his account is marred by a succession of factual errors. “Spear points and arrowheads are among the earliest artifacts found in archaeological sites.” No, the earliest artifacts are from around 2.5 million years ago, but spear points are not made until a mere 250,000 years ago and arrowheads might have first been manufactured no longer ago than 20,000 years. “Archaeologists have found burials of massacred people to be a commonplace,” while “archaeological sites are strewn with the evidence of mass conflict.” No, both are quite rare, especially in prestate societies, and those that are known are difficult to interpret. “Homo erectus…was able to shape crude stone tools.” No, many of the hand axes made by Homo erectus are quite exquisite. “Axes and adzes [were] invented in the Neolithic” and “Neolithic toolmakers invented the concept of a hollow structure, with an outer and an inner surface.” No and no. These are elementary errors that could have been avoided by consulting any undergraduate textbook.
Elsewhere, the language Wilson employs provides a completely erroneous impression of the past. He remains wedded to antiquated phrases from a time when cultural evolution was envisaged as an inevitable progress toward Victorian values, as in the “dawn” of the Neolithic and the “ascent to civilization.” Wilson writes how Homo sapiens “slogged cautiously on foot” when dispersing from Africa; while this may have often been literally correct, the archaeological evidence—that Wilson goes on to accurately summarize—reflects an astonishingly rapid global dispersal with that of Australia at least involving the use of boats. On the next page, Homo sapiens have quickened their pace to become “skilled warriors” who outcompeted the Neanderthals. That phrase implies warfare and a distinct class of person within a tribalbased society specializing in combat: neither of these can find any supporting evidence in the Palaeolithic archaeological record.
Wilson’s factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations of the past are especially infuriating because in his own specialist field of insect evolution he meticulously attends to the data. . .
Finally, Mithen argues that Wilson’s treatment of human social evolution is superficial:
But what of human eusociality? While Wilson argues that the first three of his stages may be applicable to human evolution, he recognizes that the final two stages could have only happened in insects and other invertebrates. So the final section of his book returns to humans with a few short chapters that attempt, no less, to explain “What Is Human Nature?,” “How Culture Evolved,” “The Origins of Language,” “The Origins of Morality and Honor,” “The Origins of Religion,” and “The Origins of the Creative Arts,” before ending with “A New Enlightenment.”
Even for a double Pulitzer and Crafoord Prize winner such as Wilson this is too much to take on, especially as there have been several complete books published on each of these topics in recent years. There has been a great deal of work on these issues from an explicitly evolutionary perspective, some of which Wilson appears to be unaware of—such as that about the evolution of music and its relation to language. Hence one gets a taste of the issues involved but without much satisfaction, always sensing that one is engulfed by the enormity of the issues—perhaps rather like E.O. Wilson sampling the aphid excrement below the canopy of a rainforest.
Mithen concludes, as do I, that no matter how bad the book is, Wilson’s place in the pantheon of great biologists is secure.
It is often said that you are only as good as your last book. That too is now falsified: E.O. Wilson is far better than The Social Conquest of Earth. For me, he remains an intellectual hero.
Wilson is an engaging and admirable man who has done great work in conservation, in ant biology and systematics, and in synthesizing behavior and evolution. Pity that at the tail end of his career he’s engaged in such a debacle.
Another review of Wilson’s book, by James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California at San Diego, has just appeared in Nature. It’s more positive, but really is just a recounting of what’s in the book, though he does take Wilson to task for giving short shrift to inclusive fitness theory:
Many of Wilson’s ideas in this book will stand the test of time. However, he is perhaps a bit too assertive in the way he frames his theory. He is excessively critical of inclusive fitness theory, repeatedly claiming that it is “incorrect”, and saying that the literature on it has produced “meager” results. Yet inclusive fitness theory has prompted much empirical and theoretical investigation, with more than 1,000 articles published in the past 40 years. Albert Einstein, after all, didn’t disparage the numerous physics experiments showing that Isaac Newton’s simple formulae work remarkably well under specific conditions.
Wilson would, I am sure, object to this characterization on the grounds that inclusive fitness theory accounts for a much smaller subset of his own theory than Newton’s work does for Einstein’s. In fact, Wilson continually claims that inclusive fitness theory works only “under stringently narrow conditions”. But there is no empirical evidence for this.