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Book review

On Human Nature

by Edward O. Wilson

On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson

A really important and profound book on how we’re a social species, and that although our overall nature is significantly shaped by environment (mostly culture), the set of possible shapes that our nature might take is still profoundly constrained by our genetics. We are not a blank slate at all, despite what some sociologists might claim. Instead, we can:

“hope to decide more judiciously which of the elements of human nature to cultivate and which to subvert, which to take open pleasure with and which to handle with care. We will not, however, eliminate the hard biological substructure until such time, many years from now, when our descendants may learn to change the genes themselves.”

To investigate the limits of genetics, and the flexibility of the human responses to it, Wilson looks at four of the “elemental categories of behavior”: aggression, sex, altruism, and religion.

On aggression, for example, Wilson leaves no doubt that our genetics are those of an aggressive primate, while our culture has striven to remove most of it from our societies.

“Throughout history, warfare, representing only the most organized technique of aggression, has been endemic to every form of society, from hunter-gatherer bands to industrial states … Virtually all societies have invented elaborate sanctions against rape, extortion, and murder, while regulating their daily commerce through complex customs and laws designed to minimize the subtler but inevitable forms of conflict. Most significantly of all, the human forms of aggressive behavior are species-specific: although basically primate in form, they contain features that distinguish them from aggression in all other species.”

In response to those who point to the tiny minority of societies that appear to be pacific, Wilson asks us to look at even their history.

“Among contemporary !Kung San, violence in adults is almost unknown … But as recently as fifty years ago, when these Bushman populations were denser and less rigidly controlled by the central government, their homicide rate per capita equaled that of Detroit and Houston”

None of this is to deny our ability to overcome our genetic tendencies. But first we must recognize that they exist, and the patterns through which they show up in our societies.

“Our brains do appear to be programmed to the following extent: we are inclined to partition other people into friends and aliens … We tend to fear deeply the actions of strangers and to solve conflict by aggression …. (These) learning rules of violent aggression are largely obsolete. We are no longer hunter-gatherer who settle disputes with spears, arrows, and stone axes. But to acknowledge the obsolescence of the rules is not to banish them …. We must consciously undertake those difficult and rarely traveled pathways in psychological development that lead to master over and reduction of the profound human tendency to learn violence.”

This same style of treatment is given to the other topics. For sex, for example, we start with why there are genders at all – and why two of them, versus the thousands of genders in some fungi, or the haplodiploid arrangement of some bees, wasps and ants. From there, we look at what sexual differences seem to genetically exist in humans, and why they might have evolved. His treatment of homosexuality is very sympathetic for the time it was written (1978), and is generally directed towards potential kin-selection benefits of a predisposition to homosexuality, which is perhaps a little dated, but not too far away from my understanding of contemporary views.

Perhaps only in the final chapter, entitled Hope, do I find myself disappointed. Not with Wilson, but with humankind. Wilson’s view is that a correct application of evolutionary theory would uphold three core values: the nobility of the individual (benefiting humankind over their own individual genes), diversity in the gene pool (to allow enough room for human brilliance across any field to emerge), and universal human rights (because power is fluid in our societies in the long term, and any long-term inequity will be visibly dangerous to its temporary beneficiaries). Perhaps he is right, and we’re just not there yet!

Wilson writes all this in 1978; I read a copy of the 25th anniversary edition from the early 2000s, but the subject matter is still just as important today. And very little of it is dated. 4.75 stars, rounded up to 5 for brilliance of exposition.

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