Genesis: On The Deep Origin Of Societies by Edward O Wilson

The Blurb On The Back:

Of all species that have ever existed on earth, only one has reached human levels of intelligence and social organisation: us.  Why?  In Genesis, celebrated biologist Edward O. Wilson traces the great transitions of evolution, from the origin of life to the invention of sexual reproduction to the development of language itself. 

The only way for us to fully understand human behaviour, Wilson argues, is to study the evolutionary histories of nonhuman species.  Of these, he demonstrates that at least seventeen – from the African naked mole rate and the sponge-dwelling shrimp to one of the oldest species on earth, the termite – have been found to have advanced societies based on altruism, cooperation and the division of labour.

Whether writing about midges who dance about like acrobats, schools of anchovies who protectively huddle to appear like a gigantic fish or well-organised flocks becoming potentially immortal, Genesis is a pathbreaking work of evolutionary theory filled with lyrical observations.  It will make us rethink how we became who we are. 

You can buy GENESIS: ON THE DEEP ORIGIN OF SOCIETIES by Edward O. Wilson from Amazon USA, Amazon UKWaterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

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.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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