On Human Nature won a Pulitzer, and the author teaches biology at Harvard, so you know this has gotta be good. It discusses and elaborates aspects of sociobiology, which is the application of Darwinian evolutionary theory to social behavior in humans and other animals, although humans are obviously the focus in this book. Wilson is generally considered the main popularizer of sociobiology (he literally wrote the book), but the field became extremely controversial when it was co-opted by Social Darwinists and tainted by accusations of eugenics-type goals. The main idea behind sociobiology is that social behaviors have been acted upon by evolution, not just physical traits. It doesn't sound so controversial, but this requires the following assumptions: that some behavioral traits are affected by genetics and are inheritable, and that these traits conferred some adaptive advantage to the people who expressed them in the environment in which humans evolved.
GENETIC DETERMINISM, Y'ALL, OMG. Are people slaves to their genes? Does that mean that people with certain genetic combinations are either doomed to a life of crime or blessed with a life of high-achievement? Does that mean we can't punish criminals? Is there no free will? What role does the environment play? What if people start designing their babies and we end up in a real-life version of Gattaca? I'm going to ignore the controversy, partly because I'm on a time crunch, and partly because I don't think determinism (genetic and environmental) is necessarily a "bad" thing, or necessarily untrue. It's a fascinating debate, though, and a book I finished a few days ago, The Moral Animal, goes into these issues near the end. If anyone's interested, have at it.
In On Human Nature, Wilson focuses on certain universal human traits that might have been "selected" by evolution, like altruism, the use of sex for pleasure, aggression, and belief in religion, and discusses how they might have first emerged and then served some kind of advantage. It's easy to imagine how aggression could have helped early humans, but what about altruism? How is doing something good for someone else going to help you, and why would that trait even pop up in the first place? One answer is the theory of kin selection. If you look at evolution from the point of genes, not organisms, then it's clearer to see that genes predisposing organisms to help close family members would easily flourish.
There is also discussion of larger scientific issues, like the concept of disciplines and anti-disciplines. An example would be the discipline of chemistry and it's anti-discipline, physics. Physics provides its own governing rules for how matter acts, but once you get up to the level of chemistry and start studying chemical reactions and such, you cannot rely on the rules of physics alone. Chemistry needs to create its own rules (and it has). Go one level above chemistry, and you get biology. Biology and its anti-discipline, chemistry, have been merged into a distinct field of study, biochemistry, that looks at the effects of chemical interactions on organisms. Wilson believes that biology should, and will, serve as the anti-discipline for the social sciences, with a merging of the fields to create distinct new fields like biochemistry. This merging would create a more solid foundation for social theories that can use biology as a springboard. He makes clear, though, that this would not "reduce" social science to "mere" biology, the same way that biochemistry does not "reduce" biology to "mere" chemistry.
I am a sucker for popular science books, and I have a discipline crush on evolution, so this book was right up my alley. Well-written, influential, controversial - who could ask for more? (If you do ask for more, though, I won't blame you, since that's just your genes talking.)
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