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Social Conquest Of Earth, The [Hardcover]

Edward O Wilson
2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 27 2012 0871404133 978-0871404138 1
In asking where we came from, what we are and where we are going, Edward O. Wilson directly addresses three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy and science. Refashioning the story of human evolution, he draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behaviour to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth's biosphere.

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I just finished The Social Conquest of Earth, a fabulous book. --President Bill Clinton"

About the Author

Edward O. Wilson, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, is the author of more than twenty-five books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Ants and the bestselling novel Anthill (ISBN 978 0 393 33970 3). Also available: The Superorganism (ISBN 978 0 393 06704 0) and From So Simple a Beginning (ISBN 978 0 393 06134 5).

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sorely Disappointed Aug. 21 2012
By Santos
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was sorely disappointed with the Social Conquest of the Earth. I had read the essay Edward Wilson co-wrote with David Sloan Wilson on group selection and its place in sociobiology a few years ago in the Quarterly Review of Biology, and had been looking forward to a book by E.O. Wilson on the subject for some time. I had previously read Consilience and found it immensely rewarding. For someone with a growing interest in evolution (but no formal education in the hard sciences) it was a real joy to read and I took much from it. Not least of which was a great respect for Wilson's vast knowledge, not only of science, but also of the humanities. I had also read On Human Nature, and although it was quite dated by the time it fell into my hands, it was still very insightful. Wilson has made a tremendous contribution to the sciences, particularly evolutionary biology. His work on sociobiology and its offshoot, evolutionary psychology, has been revolutionary. Not just in the 1970s when he began writing about it, but even now. Over the last (roughly) decade, a small library of work has been produced on the importance of cooperation in evolution and the role evolution has played in the development of moral systems. Much of this has its modern roots in Wilson's contribution to evolution.

Unfortunately, this book fell far short of what I had hoped Wilson would contribute to this area of evolutionary studies. The book, overall, did not build toward a coherent argument in favour of group selection's importance to evolution. The chapters read more like individual, second-rate essays on a disconnected issues that only loosely link back to group selection. At certain points, he seems to barely make an effort to tie in individual chapters with the overall stated objective of the book.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars the past and future of social organisms Sept. 9 2012
By Brian Griffith TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
At first, Wilson seems very hard-headed and technical with his intricate analysis of how social life evolved. He's perhaps the world's greatest expert on social insects, so his comparison of sociality among the bugs and the humans gives a great combination of fine detail with broad perspective. Because Wilson looks at clanishness and meat eating as utterly necessary steps in the evolution of human communities, I thought he was going to defend tribalism as a necessary reality of life. But as he reviews human history and modern social trends, he sees a critical path toward inclusivity, creativity, and mutual care as the requirements for success, which will replace tribal-style culture and religion as known in the past.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing Oct. 11 2014
By chaser
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It is a disappointing read. Not relevant to my understanding of social gatherings.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Social Conquest of Earth March 26 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I particularly appreciated the beginning and the end. The middle part was to technical for me to remember, however it did give me an idea of the scope of the subject.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  138 reviews
213 of 231 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review April 6 2012
By A. D. Thibeault - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Edward O. Wilson's 'The Social Conquest of Earth'

The main argument: Since the dawn of self-awareness we human beings have struggled to understand ourselves. This struggle has found form in religion, philosophy, art and, most recently, science. The most pivotal turning point in science's quest to understand humanity came with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection in the mid 19th century. While the application of this theory to understand human behaviour has taken time (and engendered a great deal of controversy), enough progress has now been made to outline the story in full, and to fill in several of the details. It is just this task that legendary biologist E.O. Wilson takes up in his new book `The Social Conquest of Earth'.

For Wilson, understanding humanity must begin with an understanding of how we came to be the ultrasocial species that we are. Drawing upon evidence from other eusocial species (such as bees, wasps, termites and ants--the latter of which Wilson has spent much of his career studying), as well as numerous sciences focused in on humanity and its past, Wilson recreates this story. According to the author, the story reaches its first major turning point when our ancestors began establishing home-bases at which they raised their young, and near which they foraged and scavenged for food. This development itself was largely a result of a genetic modification that led our ancestors to rely more and more on meat in their diet (and was greatly spurred on by, if not entirely dependent upon, the ability to control fire, which fire was used to establish more lasting campsites).

Once human beings had established nests, environmental pressures began selecting for traits that increasingly drew group members into cooperative relationships with one another (which cooperation was beneficial in such enterprises as hunting expeditions). This added cooperation not only contributed to the extent to which these early humans could reap resources from the environment, but also helped them in competition with other groups--especially in warfare. The benefits of cooperation and cohesion in allowing groups to out-compete other groups eventually allowed group-level selection to add a layer of tribalist sentiment to the members of our species (which tribalist sentiment draws from us a deep attachment to our in-groups, and a corresponding mistrust and contempt for members of out-groups). This tribalist sentiment eventually set the stage for the development of the first religions. The cooperative and tribalist sentiments that evolved during this time ultimately explains why our psyches are torn between selflessness and selfishness, virtue and vice. (On the topic of group-level selection, it turns out that this theory has been out of favour in the scientific community for over 40 years, and a big part of Wilson's purpose here is to resurrect the theory, and reestablish its credibility.)

Backing up in our story just a bit, for our in-group cooperation to occur, added mental equipment was needed (and evolved) that allowed humans to understand each others' intentions and work together to achieve goals. This added mental ability drew upon earlier increases in brain capacity that our ancestors had used first for life in the trees, and later for life on the ground, to fashion rudimentary tools. Eventually, the added mental capacity evolved into the ability to understand abstraction, and to use arbitrary symbols for communication, thus leading to the evolution of language.

Once the capacity for abstraction and language were established, the capacity for culture exploded and our ancestors were set on the fast track that led to our current way of life. Specifically, the onset of language led to the development of religion, art and music, and all of the other trappings of culture that we know and enjoy today. Wilson takes us through each of them one by one, and the process of gene-culture co-evolution that acted upon them, in order to help us understand how this process unfolded. Later, the explosion of culture led to technology that eventually gave rise to agriculture, and then to the rise of chiefdoms, and finally states and the first true civilizations.

Wilson's work is well geared to a general audience and he very rarely goes outside of what might reasonably be expected from such an audience. On the rare occasions when he does, he is sure to follow this up with a simplified summary of his line of thought. Also, Wilson occasionally strays outside of his story to moralize and (at the end) prognosticate on the future, and at times these efforts seem awkward and out of place. Again, though, these forays are few and far between, and many will no doubt enjoy them. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Edward O. Wilson's 'The Social Conquest of Earth'
312 of 366 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars In the name of perspective... April 7 2012
By Paul J. Watson - Published on
In "Social Conquest," Wilson helps articulate and spread a few sober insights concerning the human condition. That's good. We must somehow digest such self-observations, individually, collectively, and pan-culturally, to the point where we actually are empowered by the resulting self-knowledge to "do something about ourselves." Scientific self-knowledge, unsettling and widely understood, seems the only hope for mitigating and ultimately halting the escalating human-caused calamities faced by our own adolescent and very tenuous civilizations, and by the earthly biosphere that supports us and so many other living wonders.

However, Wilson's "revolutionary" views on how we evolved to our current condition are highly suspect. This matters: not accurately understanding the basis of our condition in terms of its historical (evolutionary) causes will lessen our ability to navigate toward any real solutions. We cannot afford it.

Therefore, anyone reading this book who is interested in its purported "revolutionary" scientific content, specifically, Wilson's claims that we are better off abandoning William Hamilton's inclusive fitness theory as an important basis for understanding the design of the human psyche, should have easy access to the responses of Dr. Wilson's peers. So, here you go. There are five pieces in the journal Nature, collected under the heading, "Brief Communications Arising,"

Nature v471, issue 7339, pp. E1-E9 (24 March 2011).

These articles are brief and very readable. These pages also include a response by Wilson and his coauthors that, as far as I can see, just ignores all the specific criticisms.

Nature Publishing Group should make the full text of these comments freely available to the public in electronic form, via, in my opinion. (I would put up links to the full pdf's myself, but Amazon would probably have to tear them down due to the copyright violation. My server would probably crash too.)

Additional evaluations of Wilson's argument (actually, that of Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson, 2010, Nature 466, 1057-1062, plus much "Supplementary Information") were also published in Nature:

Nature v467, issue 7316, pp. 653-655 (7 October 2010);

Nature v467, issue 7316, p. 661 (7 October 2010, several short pieces of correspondence on this page);

Nature v471, issue 7338, pp. 294-295 (17 March 2011).

I tried putting up the direct URL's to all this, but Amazon does not allow external links.

ADDED 06-23-2014: Another excellent and accessible read debunking Wilson's bid to dump inclusive fitness theory:
Bourke, A.F.G. (2011) The validity and value of inclusive fitness theory. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, v.278, pp. 3313-3320. I will try to put a direct link to it in a comment immediately below this review. If that does not work, email me for a pdf.

In addition, you easily can get hold of the full text of this article from the open access journal Evolutionary Psychology: Evolutionary Psychology 10(1): 45-49, by Michael E. Price, 2012. Go to epjournal dot net on your browser. It is a very readable review of a recent book by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis which Wilson cites in support of his group selection thesis.

Wilson demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the profoundly altruistic sentiments and behaviors individual selection for inclusive fitness maximization can cause to evolve in places where he implies that you need a genetic group selection process to obtain such traits.

Moreover, the notion that individuals sudden become "robotic" when they evolve traits designed for indirect reproduction, such as programs to stay home and raise siblings or other relatives instead of their own offspring, makes absolutely no sense. Such individuals are no more robotic and no more an extension of their parent's phenotype, than individuals unconsciously bound by programs designed to accomplish direct reproduction via their own offspring, which by the way are grandchildren for their parents.

For an delightfully enlightening and thorough "detox" after exposure to Wilson's theoretical..., uhh..., mess, or just for a truly modern, professional treatment of social evolution, I highly recommend Andrew F.G. Bourke's (2011) Principles of Social Evolution (Oxford Series in Ecology and Evolution). Bourke's book is succinct, lucid, and clearly shows the immense, still under-appreciated (!) utility of inclusive fitness theory in explaining cooperation, altruism, selfishness, and spite across all biological levels of organization - the six fundamental kinds of "individuals" on earth, including eusocial societies.

Added 4/29/2014: Also be on the lookout for a special edition of the top journal "Animal Behaviour" (which, appropriately, occasionally publishes work on humans) devoted to the grand utility of kin selection and inclusive fitness for understanding social life and other aspects of behavior. Contact me via email, and I can send you the first chapter of this promising edition on the probable usefulness of inclusive fitness theory for understanding the evolution of religiosity, a major research and teaching interest of my own.

Whatever his motivations, Wilson clearly wishes to create some turbulence in the profession, which is always good in science. However, the general public must be helped to access perspectives that conflict with Wilson's and to appreciate more fully the hard work and genius of biologists other than himself. Wilson now seems content, if not happy, to dismiss them all, as on the Charlie Rose interview, as all being "stuck in a box," but without explaining the very high hurdles his own ideas about human evolution have to clear to be taken seriously. It is revealing that Wilson barely mentions complex (i.e., multi-partner, multi-currency) contractual reciprocity, the real basis for cooperative human social life, as an easy source of standard individual / kin selection for deeply altruistic impulses and actions (e.g, see a classic work by Richard Alexander (1987, reprinted 2009) The Biology of Moral Systems (Foundations of Human Behavior)). If Wilson did so, readers would be likely to see for themselves that there is not a single human experience or behavior mentioned in "Conquest" that needs an onerous group selectionist explanation.

Charlie Rose, whom I've watched quasi-religiously for years, except when he has those sports people on, did a terrible job interviewing Wilson several days ago concerning this book's main idea. The adoration quotient was just way too high. Rose should have other practicing evolutionary biologists on his program to provide a balanced perspective on this "revolution," the general topic of the evolution of altruism, and to highlight the wonderful contributions of other key scientists to, what is aptly termed, "The Second Darwinian Revolution" of the 1960's and 70's. That's when naturalists and organismal biologists en masse finally began to deeply understand Darwin's ideas and their heavy awesome implications. Wilson certainly wasted no effort in the Charlie Rose interview, or in the current book, to mention them or accurately characterize their great labors. For example, William Hamilton, who of course Wilson has to mention a lot, was as great and passionate a naturalist as Wilson, not some ecologically naive theoretician. Hamilton understood natural selection in all respects. Moreover, Hamilton did not stop developing inclusive fitness theory with his 1964 papers, as reading or listening to Wilson might lead one to believe; get hold of Narrow Roads of Gene Land: The Collected Papers of W. D. Hamilton Volume 1: Evolution of Social Behaviour (Narrow Roads of Gene Land Vol. 1)." Others, far more so than Wilson, who actually were responsible for the core ideas that gave us the aforementioned revolution of the 60's and 70's, all of whom Wilson sees fit to completely or largely ignore - one has to, with sadness, wonder why - include George Williams, George Price, Robert Trivers, John Maynard-Smith, and Richard Alexander, not to mention a large group of theoretically savvy ace empiricists.

Wilson should be using his not wholly undeserved position as one of the most popular and socially powerful organismal biologists on earth to make the public MORE aware of these human treasures. Hey, Mr. Rose, Robert Trivers recently had a book come out! The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Too scary for you?

My actual rating of "Conquest" is 2.5 stars, but I rounded up.

For more, see comments following this review and the review by Warren Criswell.

Dr. Paul J. Watson
Department of Biology
University of New Mexico
7 April 2012; revised 25 May 2014
58 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing, Credible Answers and Theories April 7 2012
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on
'Where Did We Come From?,' 'What Are We?'' and 'Where Are We Going?' are the three fundamental questions raised in Wilson's latest book. Author Wilson's work challenges one of the central tenets of evolution - that natural selection acts far more strongly on individuals and genetic relatives than on broader social groups. "The Social Conquest of Earth" also reverses his prior view that the evolution of altruism was driven by kin selection rather than group selection. As cooperative colonies dominate non-cooperative ones and multiply, so do their alleged 'altruism' genes.

Much of the author's logic is derived from social insects like bees, ants, and termites. Mr. Wilson contends that the competition of one group against others favors self-sacrificial behaviors in individuals that benefit the group - even those that aren't related. The 'bad news' for the real devotees of the topic, is that more than 130 of his peers wrote a public letter last year contending his latest thinking is wrong. Wilson, however, isn't bothered - also declaring that the function of this new book is to upset the current thinking, and that he expects to be lambasted.

The term 'eusocial' plays a large role in the book. It is used to describe situations with reproductive division of labor (with/without sterile castes such as ants, bees, wasps, termites, naked mole rates), overlapping generations, and cooperative care of the young. Wilson contends that eusociality is one of the major innovations in the history of life, spurred originally by nests (birds), burrows (moles, etc.), and campsites (humans).

Roots of society begin with offspring remaining with parents long term, each tolerating the other, and the group then growing to include additional generations, aunts, uncles, and even unrelated individuals. These pre-humans not only had to be altruistic/sharing, but murderous as well, at times - fighting off other groups.

Side Bits: Eusocial insects evolved well over 100 million years ago, while humans have evolved only over the past half million years. Neanderthals became extinct only 30,000 years ago - Wilson challenges us to imagine the racial discrimination issues if their lineage had continued through today.

Humans' ultimate success rests on our being a large terrestrial animal (supports a big brain, allows the use of fire), and having grasping hands with opposable thumbs.

The bulk of 'The Social Conquest of Earth' consists of explanations for how humans evolved. For example, we learned/developed walking on our hind legs and then running to catch prey, learning to throw (eg. spears), living around campsites (similar to birds' nests, fox burrows, lion prides), and becoming meat-eating helped expand our brains to develop and implement complex strategies (eg. wolves, lions). Living at campsites encouraged job specialization and sharing.

The destructive consequences of incest is a general phenomenon in humans, plants, and animals. Among all 19 social species whose mating patterns have been studied, young individuals leave the group they were born in and join another - in some species it is the males that leave, in other the females, and in a few both sexes depart. In humans, exogamy occurs in the form of young adults, usually women, being exchanged between trives. Secondly, little sexual activity takes place between closely related individuals. Other examples have led Wilson to conclude that humans develop little sexual interest in those known closely during their earliest years.

Wilson also covers the origins of religion, language, culture (spread largely by imitation within groups), and the birth of sociality, though not in great detail. Every religion teaches that its adherents are a special fellowship and that their moral precepts and privileges from divine power are special. Charity and altruistic acts are concentrated on their fellow believers; when extended to outsiders it is usually to proselytize and boost their numbers. Hallucinogenic drugs play an important role in the creation of genesis myths. Wilson sees religions as encouraging ignorance, even of other religions, distracting people from recognizing problems of the real world, and often leading them in wrong directions.

Where are we going? Scientific knowledge and technology double every 1 - 2 decades, making the future hard to predict beyond a decade. Science will eventually upend religion by demonstrating its man-made origins. Wilson cites declining percentages of scientists believing in a supernatural being; evolutionary biologists are down to only 2%.

Ending, Wilson says it is time to ask seriously why, during the 3.5 million year history of Earth our planet has never been visited by extraterrestrials or even received a message from outer space. We should also stop the dangerous delusion that emigration into space is a solution when we have used up this planet.

Wilson's latest book and the controversy it has engendered also tells us that we are in the midst of expanding/revising evolutionary thinking.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Between a rock and a hard place April 19 2012
By Warren Criswell - Published on
A sweeping history of life and a great read. Despite his special interest in entomology, Wilson is a great generalist who is able to combine evidence from the sciences and the humanities to give us a new look at human nature and an understanding of its consequences, both for us and the rest of life on this planet. Having evolved by both individual selection and group selection, we are torn between selfishness and altruism. These two driving forces make us what we are, for better or for worse. Defined by these opposites, we struggle for a balance between our creativity and our destructivity. "The brain ... is an organ not merely divided into major parts but divided against itself." This dichotomy has given rise to all of our great art, music, literature and science, but it has now brought us to the brink of disaster.

"The struggle to control vital resources continues globally, and it is growing worse. The problem arose because humanity failed to seize the great opportunity given it at the dawn of the Neolithic era. It might then have halted population growth below the constraining minimum limit. As a species we did the opposite, however. There was no way for us to foresee the consequences of our initial success. We simply took what was given us and continued to multiply and consume in blind obedience to instincts inherited from our humbler, more brutally constrained Paleolithic ancestors."

This book is a perfect companion to Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Using Gauguin's great painting "Where Did We Come From? What Are We We? Where Are We Going?" as an outline, Wilson, in tackling that last question, comes to the same conclusions as the authors of Limits, who first warned us of them back in 1972, that we are "destroying our birthplace":

"The evidence for climate warming, with industrial pollution as the principal cause, is now overwhelming. Also evident upon even casual inspection is the rapid disappearance of tropical forests and grasslands and other habitats where most of the diversity of life exists. If global changes caused by HIPPO (Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, Overpopulation, and Overharvesting, in that order of importance) are not abated, half the species of plants and animals could be extinct or at least among the 'living dead'--about to become extinct--by the end of the century. We are needlessly turning the gold we inherited from our forebears into straw, and for that we will be despised by our descendants."

After acknowledging that myths and gods have been the well springs of much great art, Wilson rightly condemns today's organized religions because "they encourage ignorance, distract people from recognizing problems of the real world, and often lead them in wrong directions into disastrous actions." But then he confesses to his own blind faith: "Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay."

Unfortunately this faith is not supported by the evidence. Wilson is not taking into consideration the rapidly closing window of opportunity to turn things around. As Limits to Growth shows, population, non-renewable resource depletion and pollution are growing exponentially, overshooting the ability of the global ecosystem to sustain them. Their computer models, using current data, show a collapse of the industrial system around 2050, just as their 1972 models did. The one thing Wilson overlooked in his examination of Homo sapiens' evolution is that our brains and our cultures have developed during long periods when rates of change were very slow compared to the present. We're not wired to deal with problems beyond our own generation. By the time our politicians and corporations see it coming, it will be too late. Yes, we have the technology to begin converting to long-term sustainability right now, but it's not happening. We are creatures of the moment. Selfishness comes first, altruism later, both for individuals and nations. If it were otherwise, as Wilson says, we would be social robots like the ants. But "acceptance of what we truly are" may be our only hope, and in that sense books like these are of great value.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Quite Convincing June 4 2012
By Mike Garrison - Published on
I'm not a biologist, but I have taken an amateur interest in this subject for 20+ years. So I was able to follow the discussions in the book, but they ended up leaving me confused. I followed this up by reading the NATURE article which is referred to several times in the book as being the "mathematical proof" or the argument he is making.

It's just not clear exactly what Wilson is doing, but I think it's essentially a bait-and-switch. He takes a very narrow definition of "eusocial" and "inclusive fitness" and argues that inclusive fitness is not the best predictor of eusocial behavior. Then he suddenly makes sweeping conclusions about all of social behavior and altruism, claiming that inclusive fitness explains none of it. This is like saying: "Sheila is not a man, therefore no men exist." Um, what???

I think that in general the concept behind inclusive fitness (which is to say that if we help out our relatives then we help spread our own genes, because our relatives also share our genes) is not only valid but necessary to explain why social species (such as humans) can be the product of natural selection. And this book doesn't disprove that! Wilson has been sidetracked by a particular question about how certain types of bees evolved to be eusocial and lost sight of the big picture.

Furthermore, he keeps talking about how he "mathematically proved" that inclusive fitness doesn't work, but I just read his NATURE paper and I sure wasn't convinced of that. Nor were the literally hundreds of other authors who wrote replies to his NATURE article, most of which said essentially the same thing that I just said in this review.

All that having been said, the book is still a very interesting and useful description of how social behavior interacts with natural selection. If he hadn't spent so much time trying to draw what seemed to be a meaningless distinction between inclusive fitness and what he dubs the "standard model" of group selection, then it would have been a more understandable and useful book for the non-specialist reader.

I will also note that toward the end of the book he goes on some wild tangents, such as why religion is an outgrowth of the evolutionary pressures of social living. I think he nails this perfectly (although he isn't the first to do so), but he knows this explanation is almost certain to be instantly rejected by religious readers. So I'm not sure why he bothered to include it in the book.

He also talks a bit about environmentalism and even his assertion that we should give up wasting money on manned space exploration because robot probes could do better space science. I think he fears the idea that we may feel like we can just use up the resources of the Earth and move away to somewhere else, so he wants to stop all such activity. (But if we are never going to leave the Earth, why bother sending out the robot probes anyway?)

All in all it is a book with a lot of really good information in it, as well as some very interesting speculation. But the speculation and the information are just a bit too muddled together, making it hard to be sure where one ends and the other begins. This is a serious flaw in a science book.
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