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 On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson
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marfknox
SFN Die Hard

USA
3739 Posts

Posted - 05/01/2006 :  20:31:11  Show Profile  Visit marfknox's Homepage  Send marfknox an AOL message Send marfknox a Private Message
An oldie but a goodie. Published in 1978, On Human Nature completes Wilson's self-declared "trilogy" (The Insect Societies, 1971, and Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 1975) that proposes the scientific search for genetic explanations for social behavior in animals, including humans.

Then and now, Wilson has been criticized by both religious and atheistic folks for reducing human behavior to the cold and limiting science of genetics. However, I didn't read it that way at all. Over and Over Wilson emphasizes the complexity, and that these are merely tendencies that are indeed influenced by environment (nuture). Consider that men tend to be faster than women, but that a female Olympic runner will always beat the average man in a race.

Some people in my book club had difficulty with some of the science, but I didn't at all (partially due to a minor in anthropology, and a cultivated layman's interest in science), so I doubt the average skeptic would have difficulty reading and fully understanding this book.

While this book was rather groundbreaking when it first came out, further developments in evolutionary psychology make it look rather dated, as do passages like these:
quote:
There is, I wish to suggest, a strong possibility that homosexuality is normal in a biological sense, that it is a distinctive beneficent behavior that evolved as an important element of early human social organization. Homosexuals may be the genetic carriers of some of mankind's rare altruistic impulses. The support for this radical hypothesis..."
Hmmm, not so radical these days. This one's even better:
quote:
...note that it is already within our reach to build computers with the memory capacity of a human brain. Such an instrument is admittedly not very practical: it would occupy most of the space of the Empire State Building and draw down an amount of energy equal to half the output of the Grand Coulee Dam. In the 1980's, however, when new "bubble memory" elements already in teh experimental stage are added, the computer might be shrunk to fill a suite of offices on one floor of the same building.
Tee hee hee.

But most of Wilson's book still have powerful and provacative messages for today's readers. The preface and first four chapters prove to be a bit of a slow setup, but the next four: "Aggression", "Sex", "Altruism", and "Religion" vividly suggest naturalistic explanations for moral and ethical tendencies in each of these areas. Wilson deals with all the juicy issues: racism, male-female roles, good-n-evil, etc. This is great stuff to memorize for debates with absolute moralists. The chapter on "Religion" is sort of a precursor to Daniel Dennet's new book Breaking the Spell. Although Wilson's ultimate conclusion is clear: no amount of naturalistic explaining of religious belief will stop people from believing. Here's a bold statement coming from a scientific humanist:
quote:
The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.
Wilson spends a good amout of time explaining and giving examples of an interesting concept called "hypertrophy" or as it is defined in the Glossary:
quote:
The extreme development of a preexisting structure. The elephant's tusk, for example, represents the hypertophic enlargement and change in shape through evolution of a tooth that originally had an ordinary form. In this book it is suggested that most kinds of human social behavior are hypertrophic forms of original, simpler responses that were of more direct adaptive advantage in hunter-gatherer and primitively agricultural societies.
It is fascinating, to say the least, to read about the enslavement of women compared to an elephant's tusk (hypertrophy via genetic tendency plus extreme cultural exaggeration). Almost as cool as seeing human self-sacrifice compared with that of bees and wasps.


"Too much certainty and clarity could lead to cruel intolerance" -Karen Armstrong

Check out my art store: http://www.marfknox.etsy.com


Edited by - marfknox on 05/01/2006 20:35:43

Ghost_Skeptic
SFN Regular

Canada
510 Posts

Posted - 05/01/2006 :  22:45:50   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send Ghost_Skeptic a Private Message
quote:
Originally posted by marfknox

The chapter on "Religion" is sort of a precursor to Daniel Dennet's new book Breaking the Spell. Although Wilson's ultimate conclusion is clear: no amount of naturalistic explaining of religious belief will stop people from believing. Here's a bold statement coming from a scientific humanist:
quote:
The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.


Here is an audio link to an interview (in real audio format) with Lewis Wolpert author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief. The interview is preceded by a brief Good Friday satire.

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. / You can send a kid to college but you can't make him think." - B.B. King

History is made by stupid people - The Arrogant Worms

"The greater the ignorance the greater the dogmatism." - William Osler

"Religion is the natural home of the psychopath" - Pat Condell

"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter" - Thomas Jefferson
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trogdor
Skeptic Friend

198 Posts

Posted - 05/02/2006 :  16:40:27   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send trogdor a Private Message
Speaking of reading once groundbreaking books. I am in the middle of The Selfish Gene and enjoying it very much. I am trying to make up for the woeful inadequacy of my high school science education. Any other suggestions for books I should read?

all eyes were on Ford Prefect. some of them were on stalks.
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marfknox
SFN Die Hard

USA
3739 Posts

Posted - 05/02/2006 :  18:31:26   [Permalink]  Show Profile  Visit marfknox's Homepage  Send marfknox an AOL message Send marfknox a Private Message
If you are interested in well-written books for the layman on human evolution, author Ian Tattersall is the best. I read The Fossil Trail : How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution and Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness about 5 years ago and was enthralled by both. He's got an even more recent one out called The Human Odyssey: Four Million Years of Human Evolution that I've been meaning to check out.

So many books to read, so little time!

"Too much certainty and clarity could lead to cruel intolerance" -Karen Armstrong

Check out my art store: http://www.marfknox.etsy.com

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Ghost_Skeptic
SFN Regular

Canada
510 Posts

Posted - 05/02/2006 :  19:04:42   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send Ghost_Skeptic a Private Message
I would recommend The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins.

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. / You can send a kid to college but you can't make him think." - B.B. King

History is made by stupid people - The Arrogant Worms

"The greater the ignorance the greater the dogmatism." - William Osler

"Religion is the natural home of the psychopath" - Pat Condell

"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter" - Thomas Jefferson
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