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On Human Nature: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition, With a New Preface Paperback – Oct. 18 2004
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“Compellingly interesting and enormously important...The most stimulating, the most provocative, and the most illuminating work of nonfiction I have read in some time.”―William McPherson, Washington Post Book World
“A work of high intellectual daring...Here is an accomplished biologist explaining, in notably clear and unprevaricating language, what he thinks his subject now has to offer to the understanding of man and society...The implications of Wilson's thesis are rather considerable, for if true, no system of political, social, religious or ethical thought can afford to ignore it.”―Nicholas Wade, New Republic
“Twenty-five years after its first publication, Harvard University Press has re-released Edward O. Wilson's classic work, On Human Nature. A double Pulitzer Prize winner, Wilson is a writer of effortless grace and stylish succinctness and this is one of his finest, most important books...[A] highly influential, elegantly written book.”―Robin McKie, The Observer
“A seminal, groundbreaking, informative, thought-provoking, enduringly valuable, and highly recommended read.”―Bookwatch
About the Author
- Publisher : Harvard University Press; 2 edition (Oct. 18 2004)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0674016386
- ISBN-13 : 978-0674016385
- Item weight : 308 g
- Dimensions : 15.56 x 1.75 x 21.59 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: #100,374 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from Canada
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The book is deftly, wittily, and elegantly written with great confidence and assuredness. The first half of the book introduces the reader to the promising field of evolutionary psychology, which, for the first time, promises to ground psychology on science rather than ideology. The book rings the death knell to Freud, Jung, pop-psychology, and other pie-in-the-sky notions that have mascaraded as a "human science."
The second half of the book addresses four of the most focal concerns of human nature: Aggression, sex, altruism, and religion, on the basis of sociobiology theory. The emergence of this endeavor begins with genes, evolution, and human enculturation, not with theories about infantilism, phallocentrism, and neuroticism. The topics are sufficiently covered in enough detail to keep the reader's interest and sustain the arguments, but with the intent of being introductory and accessible rather than sallying into the esoteric and academic.
The consequence is a wholly different orientation toward what is meant by "human nature." The concept is no longer the stuff of speculative metaphysics by armchair philosophers and psychologists, but a true science evolving out of the science of evolutionary theory and genetics. The implications are not quasi-scientific, but truly scientific. Humans do indeed have a "nature," and it is based on nature, not in the imaginations of wishful thinkers.
No one, not already exposed to sociobiology, will finish reading this book unaffected for the better. Wilson, the author of "Sociobiology," "Consilience," "The Future of Life," and other enjoyable works, will find a plethora of other authors and books flooding the market with scientific insights into man's true "human nature," including "The Adaptive Mind," "The Moral Animal," "Non-Zero," and "Unto Others."
On Human Nature was written as a continuation of Sociobiology, greatly expanding the final chapter, "Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology." In doing so, Wilson has met with reaction from some quarters similar to the reaction the Victorians gave Darwin. Wilson's sociobiology was seen as a new rationale for the evils of eugenics and he was ostracized in the social science and humanities departments of colleges and universities throughout the United States and elsewhere. Rereading this book, I can see why. Wilson's primary "sin" is the unmitigated directness of his expression and his refusal to use the shield and obfuscation of politically correct language. Thus he writes on page 203, "In the pages of The New York Review of Books, Commentary, The New Republic, Daedalus, National Review, Saturday Review, and other literary journals[,] articles dominate that read as if most of basic science had halted during the nineteenth century." On page 207, he avers, "Luddites and anti-intellectuals do not master the differential equations of thermodynamics or the biochemical cures of illness. They stay in thatched huts and die young."
In the first instance, he has offended the intellectual establishment by pointing out their lack of education, and in the second his incisive expression sounds a bit elitist. But Wilson is not an elitist, nor is he the evil eugenic bad boy that some would have us believe. He is in fact a humanist and one of the world's most renowned scientists, a man who knows more about biology and evolution than most of his critics put together.
I want to quote a little from the book to demonstrate the incisive style and the penetrating nature of Wilson's ideas, and in so doing, perhaps hint at just what it is that his critics find objectionable. In the chapter on altruism, he writes, "The genius of human sociality is in fact the ease with which alliances are formed, broken, and reconstituted, always with strong emotional appeals to rules believed to be absolute" (p. 163). Or similarly on the next page, "It is exquisitely human to make spiritual commitments that are absolute to the very moment they are broken." Or, "The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool" (p. 167). He ends the chapter with the stark, Dawkinsian conclusion that "Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function" than to keep intact the genetic material.
In the chapter on aggression, he posits, "The evolution of warfare was an autocatalytic reaction that could not be halted by any people, because to attempt to reverse the process unilaterally was to fall victim" (p. 116). On the next page, he quotes Abba Eban on the occasion of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, "men use reason as a last resort."
In the chapter on religion, he argues that the ability of the individual to conform to the group dynamics of religion is in itself adaptive. As he avers on page 184, "When the gods are served, the Darwinian fitness of the members of the tribe is the ultimate if unrecognized beneficiary."
It is easy to see why some people might be offended at such a frank and penetrating expression. But one of the amazing things about Wilson is that he can be bluntly objective about humanity without being cynical. I have always found his works to be surprisingly optimistic. He has the ability to see human beings as animals, but as animals with their eyes on the stars. In the final chapter entitled, "Hope," Wilson presents his belief that our world will be improved as scientific materialism becomes the dominate mythology. Note well this point: Wilson considers scientific materialism, like religion and the macabre dance of Marxist-Leninism, to be a mythology. His point is that there is no final or transcending truth that we humans may discover; there is no body of knowledge or suite of disciplines that will lead us to absolute knowledge. There are only better ways of ordering the environment and of understanding our predicament. He believes that toward that end scientific materialism will be a clear improvement over the religious and political mythologies that now dominate our cultures.
No one interested in evolutionary psychology can afford to miss this book, even though it is twenty-three years old. It is a classic. Anyone interested in human nature (yes, one may profitably generalize about human nature, as long as one understands what a generalization is, and appreciates its limitations) should read this book, one of the most significant ever written on a subject of unparalleled importance.
Yet despite the solidity of Wilson's research, when "On Human Nature" first came out, it was viciously attacked by left-wing ideologues who violently disagreed with Wilson's conclusions regarding the limitations of man's nature. The Left, of course, wants to believe that human nature is largely fluid and malleable. Man, leftists argue, is the product, not of genetics or biology, but of social conditions, which can be changed. Under a "just" society, human nature would become transformed and evil would virtually disappear from the world. Wilson's "On Human Nature" thoroughly demolishes all these sterile hopes for man's secular salvation. Using scientific evidence, he demonstrates that most human behavior is genetic (or related to or influenced by genetics) and therefore unalterable. The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto has probably described this view of man most trenchantly when he wrote: "The centuries roll by, and human nature remains the same!" In "On Human Nature," Wilson shows us why Pareto is right.
Top reviews from other countries
I read the book as it was referenced in several other works I have enjoyed and, although I believe it is the third part of a trilogy, it stands on its own and I was not handicapped by not having experienced his previous works.
Food for thought in digestible form.
In this book he makes a compelling case to accept that the scientific paradigm of evolutionary biology has now invaded sociology and philosophy so profoundly that these disciplines can now be regarded as contiguous, indeed fused.
Notwithstanding the inevitable limits to science, beyond which the speculative and the intuitive must prevail, Wilson's case is irresistable : `The evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have'.
The implication is that its importance will continue to grow; and, as it does so, more of the arts' territory will become science's.
Written over thirty years ago, the work remains an absolute classic