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 Nature.com, 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 Nature.com 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