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Genesis presents the origins, the evolutionary stages of life, and the development of eusociality that has been characteristic of our own species, Homo. The sweep of this evolution over hundreds of millions of years is breathtaking and told in a clear, beautiful style. I found I often had to read each sentence a few times to absorb the richness of the information and the connections between environment and adaptations. Wilson's depth of knowledge of biology and understanding of natural selection bestow one epiphany after another on the reader. You will never think of life in the same way again.
This is a short pamphlet on the author's and others work on the development of eusocial behaviour in insects. Interesting as far as it goes, but we then leap from that to human society, despite the fact that our societies do not show anywhere near the degree of specialisations that insects show! There's nothing that convinces me that humanity is eusocial - we don't even get any discussion of the naked molerat, possibly the only eusocial mammal. And it is desperately short; 153 pages, of which many are blank, or are full page repeats of selected bits of text. Three pages are devoted to attacking Hamilton's Rule, which is presumably a eusocial flying insect in Wilson's bonnet. A less well known author would not get this published in this form.
3.0 out of 5 starsInteresting breeze through evolution but doesn't nail its central argument
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 31, 2021
Edward O. Wilson is Professor Emeritus at Harvard University and one of the world’s pre-eminent biologists and naturalists. This slender book about sociobiology and how human society evolved from and have structures in common with eusocial groups such as termites and wasps did not convince because the comparisons seemed vague. However there were some interesting facts in here about the natural world that kept my attention.
I wasn’t familiar with Edward O. Wilson’s work or reputation before picking up this book so came in without any preconceptions but, having taken some anthropology courses at university, I’ve always been interested in explanations for why human societies have turned out the way they have, I was interested in expanding my knowledge.
With his experience and background, Wilson - as you expect - knows his subject and he writes about it well with a fluid style that is quite academic but not so much as to be alienating. He’s very clearly interested in insect societies because the book focuses much more heavily on them than on mammals and there are lots of interesting facts here about how they’re organised and how the biology of the eusocial groups works to maintain the relevant structures.
However, I have to say that given the book blurb says that this is a book that aims to fully understand human behaviour, I can’t say that it delivers on that. Given the obvious differences between human and, e.g. termite societies, I couldn’t quite grasp how it is that evolution has determined how our society is structured. I did follow the arguments about why we would decide that altruism was a good thing to do in the long term, but I didn’t necessarily understand how that is a genetic or evolutionary concept. To be fair, this could just be because my knowledge of science and biology is rudimentary at best and as such, perhaps I just didn’t get Wilson’s points or see how they tied into evolutionary principles.
Saying that, I did enjoy learning things about the natural world, such as the purpose of starling murmurations or territorial chimpanzee behaviour, and I also found the primer on evolution and how it operates to be useful. I also enjoyed the fact that Wilson is clearly so passionate about his subject and so knowledgeable about it that it comes through in each page. On that basis, although this book didn’t quite work for me I still think it’s worth a look if you have an interest in the subject matter.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 24, 2019
I have never read any other Edward O. Wilson books before so I can't really compare this with his other books. Although it's fair to say it's stretching it to call Genesis a book at all, it's so short. It's been padded as much as it can be with superfluous text, generous line spacing and a few drawings, but even then it's a very short book and I'd feel very short-changed if I was paying the price of a full book for this. It's more like a 99p e-book.
The content, what little there is, is not bad, just a bit brief. The book covers the interesting topics of how altruism arise, safety in numbers and Eusociality. It's not as though there isn't plenty to cover in such a well-studied area of evolutionary biology so I don't understand why the book is so short. It does cover a lot of similar ground to The Selfish Gene and has the advantage of being much more recent, but I still think The Selfish Gene is a far better book than this.
The theme of this book, if there is one, is that humans are eusocial like ants and termites. He might be right but he'd doesn't explore the subject sufficiently to really make his point.
If you can get this as an e-book for under 2 quid I'd consider it, but I wouldn't bother getting the paper version.
3.0 out of 5 starsWhat is the similarity between the eusocial insects and human society?
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 12, 2019
What is the similarity between the eusocial insects and human society? That seems to be the question posed by this rather brief book, but nowhere is it actually answered. There is fleeting mention in passing of human characteristics such as time-limited fertility resulting in grandmothers being able to care for grandchildren (which doesn't relate to worker social insects which, with few exceptions, are infertile all their lives), and of homosexuality which supposedly similarly frees up some people for child-rearing rather than child-bearing (but given that the incidence is apparently less than 2% it's difficult to see that this would have any real effect, especially in ancient human groups which numbered in tens rather than hundreds or thousands). But this just doesn't relate in any way to the eusocial insects that I can see.
When Wilson finally starts to discuss human development in the last few pages he is more interested in brain development resulting from eating cooked meat than in how human social structure and altruism can be explained from analysing the eusocial insects and a few other species.
It's an interesting question, since if, as Wilson asks, it gives such great advantages, why have these kind of social groups arisen so infrequently and in such a small proportion of species? The author does not leave us any the wiser.
Having previously read a couple of Wilson's other excellent books (The Diversity of Life & Consilience) this is a disappointment, frankly.
Genesis is E.O. Wilson’s explicit effort to ground human culture in a scientific framework. Taking its title from the Bible, Wilson develops a theory of how eusociality has developed in a small number of species ultimately leading to intelligence in modern humanity. Though he seems more concerned to replace traditional religious explanations of human origins, I believe his theories are also an attack on postmodern theories of human culture.
Essentially Wilson argues that eusociality, or the phenomenon of altruism among some members of a tribe, evolves because of a change from raising young who establish new colonies to raising young who stay in the same nest. This leads to genetic changes allowing for intra-group roles and some elements of the species to sacrifice personal reproduction for the good of the group. Thus, much of the book is devoted to detailing this phenomenon among insects and then following this with a similar speculation on the precursors of Homo Sapiens. The standard arguments for group selection, that it enables cooperative tribes to out-evolve uncooperative individuals, are discussed as well.
Each reader can assess these arguments for themselves. Obviously group selection isn’t universally accepted among biologists and Wilson acknowledges that genetic eusociality among humans is arguable as well. But Wilson should be commended for, along with other writers, pulling evolutionary biology out of the ivory tower and seeing the full ramifications of these theories if they became part of the standard curriculum.
The one hesitation about recommending this book is that it is more of an essay than a fully fledged work coming in at 125 pages. In addition, it ends abruptly with a reference to a scientific study. It’s not that having a proper conclusion is necessary, it’s that it’s a sign that the book is somewhat rushed and incomplete. I have to admit that after finishing I had to recollect the arguments dispersed throughout the book to make complete sense of it.
All in all, however, it’s marked by Wilson’s typically clear prose and makes for a good read as well as an engaging argument. I personally came away less convinced than Wilson that modern biology has achieved a new Genesis but that’s merely a non-biologist’s opinion. Worthwhile reading for scientists, philosophers and anyone who is interested in the origins of humanity.
2.0 out of 5 starsFeels like a scattering of notes rather than a serious book
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 13, 2019
I write as an amateur well read in modern biology including some of Wilson's writing. I am fully signed up to sociobiology and greatly admire Wilson as a biologist, slightly less so as a writer.
In this book he draws a parallel between eusocial evolution (ants being his specialism) and human evolution. It is an interesting idea. Unfortunately he falls way short of making his case. The arguments are so skimpy it reads as though he scribbled a load of notes in a single evening and sent them to his editor. The best I can say is that it didn't take long to read.
A brief thought-provoking treatment of how life transitioned from the origins of life evolving beyond multi-cellular organisms to social creatures. Wilson states that it is a fallacy to consider all of evolution as having its endpoint with humans but, confusingly, with this piece, he places humans and ants at the most extreme point of social organisation.