Nov 04, 2012 | By

E.O. Wilson – The Social Conquest of Earth

The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) by preeminent entomologist Edward O. Wilson is a marvelous and deep work by a master scientist and storyteller that documents the evolution and advancement of humankind through the intertwined processes of individual and group selection.  However, for me the work is marred by a dogmatic anti-religious bias that belies Wilson’s own commitment to dispassionate inquiry.  Wilson moreover fails to acknowledge the hard limits to scientific knowledge and understanding – limits that can only be crossed by transcendent forms of understanding which empirical study cannot provide.

Our primitive rationality as a species advanced through empirical observations about the physical world, observations that were communicated in concrete practice and as abstract mental models to each other and then accumulated and refined through the generations.  This process slowly pushed forward human technology and mastery and pushed back the range where mythic and mystical explanations were required.  In the modern era, the sophisticated tools of mathematics and the methods of scientific hypothesis, empirical testing and rigorous challenge accelerated this process, to the point where mythic and mystical explanations of all physical phenomena are largely repudiated in favor of empirically based scientific ones.  The movement of the planets and stars are understood in terms of natural laws and not in terms of actions or behaviors of deities we cannot understand.  The functions of the body are understood on the basis of biological processes and not as functions of “spirits” and malevolent agents.

This progress has brought an enormous sphere of control and enhanced well-being to the human species – on this point I agree whole-heartedly with Wilson.  I also agree that the natural human tendency to hold onto dogmatic beliefs on the basis of tribal identity has caused enormous harm to millions of humans and continues as a major challenge to the human species today.  Moreover, even Wilson gives credit to the religious impulse in humans, the need to understand who we are, where we are from and where we are going, as an affirmative and positive force for the advancement of the species and its achievements in arts and culture.  Wilson also correctly focuses on these three questions, which he attributes to arties Paul Gauguin (who we are, where we are from and where we are going) as fundamental to our human experience.

But Wilson errs in his blatant demonizing of religion.  His antireligious bias appears on the first page – speaking of the great questions, he says “Religion will never solve this great riddle.”  On page 2 he proclaims that science and religion “cannot be reconciled.”  “Their opposition defines the difference between science and religion, between trust in empiricism and belief in the supernatural.”  Fortunately, this blatant antireligious theme is sparsely scattered in the main body of the book, but Wilson returns to it in his conclusion (Page 292) noting that the myths and gods of organized religions are “stultifying and divisive”, that they “encourage ignorance” and “lead <people> in wrong directions into disastrous actions.”  Moreover, “Commitment to a particular faith is by definition religious bigotry.”

I find it sad that such an eminent scientist and thinker retreats to such bullying language when talking about religion.  It is also sad for someone of Wilson’s immense intellect to fall prey to the logical fallacy of a straw man – defining all religion as tribal superstition and then arguing it should be discarded.  On this point I believe Wilson is guilty of his own form of religious bigotry.

At a deeper level, Wilson also appears blind to the inadequacy of science alone to build a coherent answer to the very central questions he poses.  His faith in science is readily apparent.  “I will propose that scientific advances, especially those made during the last two decades, are now sufficient to address in a coherent manner the questions of where we came from and what we are.” (Page 10)  “Science… is the wellspring of all the knowledge we have of the real world… the arsenal of technologies and inferential mathematics needed to distinguish true from false…  the principles and formulas that tie all this knowledge together.” (Page 295)

It is easy to believe that science can answer all of life’s important questions – if you choose to ignore the questions you can’t answer.  Any five year old can play this game:  Where did we come from?  “We evolved in an emergent process over millennia from simpler life forms.”  Where did they come from?  “They appeared in an emergent process of evolution over a billion years on this planet which is remarkably suited for the development of life.”  Where did these planetary features come from? “The planet in this form appeared in a galactic evolutionary process which started through cascading emergent phenomena during the Big Bang.”  Where did the Big Bang come from?  When you answer that, please make sure to explain why these emergent processes work at all, and how that explains my self-conscious experience of life, love, joy, awe and reverence.

Fully answering life’s important questions will never be complete without tackling the ones that might be referred to as metaphysics – questions that extend beyond the reaches of science alone.   These questions are inaccessible to empirical inquiry and can only be addressed by more transcendent forms of understanding.

My belief, in contrast to that of Dr. Wilson, is that science and religion need desperately to be in communication and not in conflict if the endeavor to build a comprehensive understanding of the true nature of human life is ever going to be successful.   Wilson’s broad scientific knowledge and creative insight is a critical part of this effort.  But we also need to enlist, and not to spurn, the insights and intuitions of philosophers, metaphysicians, theologians, and spiritualists, and bring all of the voices together in a co-operative dialogue seeking to maximize our knowledge and understanding.

2 Responses to “E.O. Wilson – The Social Conquest of Earth”

  1. George Gantz says:

    Stephen – I think you may be too pessimistic about the state of religion in general. For starter’s you should check out our Resources Page on the Science-Religion debate at http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/wordpress/background-resources-debate/. I follow the continuing and excellent work of the Templeton Foundation (www.templeton.org) promoting science / religion dialogue. They have a regular Templeton Report to which you can subscribe. As a short and excellent commentary by a renowned scientist and theologian, I highly recommend John Polkinghorne’s excellent 2011 book – Science and Religion in the Quest for Truth. Of course, what you see in the general media is largely the most polarizing statements from atheists on one extreme and religious fundamentalists on the other. My informal poll of “spiritual/religious” people I know (including a wide variety of traditions) is that they do not see any conflict between faith and science.

  2. Stephen H. Smith, M.D. says:

    Very thoughtful article! I have often wondered if, without Swedenborg, I wouldn’t be in the camp of Wilson and others who reject what passes for religion today. Frankly I don’t see a lot of interest among the majority of folks who claim to be religious, outside the New Church, in any abstract ideas, metaphysical thought, or deep spiritual connections, let alone science. I agree whole heartedly that we can find some valuable insights from the works of people like E.O. Wilson,(and also for example, J.P Sartre, even Christopher Hitchens (much to my surprise his essays have a lot to say)). And who would have guessed that amateur marine biologist, John Steinbeck would have found Swedenborg’s Divine Love and Wisdom in his search for meaning in life?

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