Burning Men

E. O. Wilson has a surprising take on how humans conquered the planet

E.O. Wilson

Wilson at Harvard     Photo: Mark Mahaney/Redux

E.O. Wilson book

The Social Conquest of Earth (Norton, $28)

IT’S NO SECRET that a good campfire can turn bad jokes into sidesplitting riots and your half-baked version of “Free Fallin’ ” into a raucous sing-along. But why? According to Pulitzer Prize–winning biologist Edward O. Wilson, the campfire is one of the founding pillars of civilization. In The Social Conquest of Earth (Norton, $28), Wilson takes a break from ant books to ask how Homo sapiens managed to evolve into such a world-dominating species. The answer, according to Wilson, is that we’re the animal kingdom’s greatest practitioners of what he calls eusociality: we form groups containing multiple generations and perform altruistic acts as part of our division of labor. And the focal point of those groups is—you guessed it—a pile of burning wood.

It’s one of a handful of provocative ideas that form the backbone of Wilson’s big-think tome, which the PR department at W. W. Norton is happily billing “The summa work of Wilson’s legendary career.” Reading it, you get the sense that Wilson is trying to end up where Jared Diamond begins in Guns, Germs, and Steel. If Wilson’s book had a similar title, it would be Campfire, Meat, and Social Networks—those are the factors, he argues, that turned us from small-brained primates into big-brained world beaters. The prose lacks Diamond’s essayistic elegance—the going can get wonky—but Wilson’s ideas are sure to spark debate far beyond scientific circles.

Along with campsites, “in essence nests made by human beings,” we had to come up with a dinner for evolutionary winners. That was meat. Australopiths, our hominid competitors two million years ago, were strict vegetarians. By adding meat, the Homo species diversified its diet (critical for survival in times of shortage) and gained an evolutionary edge. “The populations that evolved into Homo,” Wilson writes, “needed a high level of teamwork to succeed, and the effort was worth it: meat is gram for gram energetically more efficient than vegetable food.” 

The final key to planetary domination was social smarts. “Meat and campfire,” Wilson writes, “are not enough by themselves to explain the rapid increase in size of the brain” that allowed humans to rule the earth. Social intelligence—the ability to quickly interpret and respond to new forms of interaction—may be the most powerful tool Homo sapiens possesses. Drunken campfire tunes—and, for that matter, Facebook—may be tapping a more primal nerve than you think.

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