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Book review: The Social Conquest of Earth, By Edward O Wilson

This summary of a great career defines the evolutionary breakthroughs that made humankind

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Gauguin's painting and its plangent title form the leitmotif of Edward O Wilson's summation of social biological societies on earth. It comes garlanded with praise from the scientific great and good, and it's gratifying to see James Watson's eulogy on the cover because, in an episode Wilson once referred to as "The Molecular Wars", he suffered Watson's disdain for not being the only kind of biologist the co-discoverer of the DNA structure recognised: a molecular biologist.

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Wilson was sufficiently old-fashioned to study animals in real habitats. In his recent Letters to a Young Scientist (Norton, £14.99), he can look back on such low points with mellow hindsight; this compelling little book should be given to every teenager hesitating about taking science further.

Although Wilson's own original work is to the fore in the chapters on insect societies, the main thrust of The Social Conquest of Earth is to present, with a twist of his own, the now standard model of human evolution. This is timely because as Wilson says: "scientific advances, especially those made during the last two decades, are now sufficient for us to address in coherent manner the questions of where we came from and what we are". In discussing creation myths, he boldly states: "There is a real creation story of humanity, and one only".

Wilson was once the most notorious scientist on the planet. In the 1970s, in the social sciences the "blank slate" theory ruled: all human culture was learned and our biology and 3.5 billion years of evolution meant nothing. Wilson outraged American campuses by daring to assert that our culture was grafted onto a biological base.

Now, the evidence is overwhelming and, most interesting of all, the human genome is revealing how genes and culture have co-evolved, especially during the last 10,000 years of our rise from hunter-gatherers. Wilson was the unsung pioneer of this approach. In his 1994 autobiography, Naturalist, he lamented: "The subject… simply languished, mostly ignored by biologists and social scientists alike". No longer.

There have been many books and articles on human evolution in recent years and each has suggested one overriding factor that "made us human": climate change in Africa, cooked meat, a touch of cross-breeding with Neanderthals, even the baby sling. Wilson believes that his own specialism, social insects, brings important evidence to bear on the question, because humans and some species of insects are the planet's supreme social animals. The insects practise cooperation via their queens and workers – robotic, chemically guided automatons. We struggle to achieve it through language-mediated social interaction. What matters for Wilson's thesis on human evolution is that every social species, whether insect or mammal, defends a nest.

This nest-making, or in the human case, the camp fire, is one of the necessary pre-adaptions for the rise of brainy social humankind. Wilson identifies the others as: adequate size (to allow a complex brain); grasping hands (evolved by tree-living apes); large eyes with colour vision, which most mammals don't have but apes do; bipedalism (to free up the hands for tool-making); control of fire, and cooked food.

The dextrous creature with the mastery of fire went on to take charge of food production by domesticating animals and cultivating and breeding better food plants. And then there was language. Now the creature could envisage complex scenarios before carrying them out, inform others of the plan and, crucially, cheat by being devious about what to divulge and conceal.

Towards the end, Wilson asks what effect a biological approach will have on ethical beliefs and concludes that "most will stand". But what, he suggests, will not stand up to scientific scrutiny are cruel and cramping relics from our tribal, religious past. Science has no sanction for homophobia or the forced marriage of adolescent girls, or the prohibition of contraception.

Wilson is eloquent on the question of whether human beings are "innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil" or "innately wicked but redeemable only by the forces of good". He cites an "iron rule" that "selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals but altruistic groups beat groups of selfish individuals".

So the true story of human evolution brings us back to the ancient struggle between good and evil. As for Gauguin's third question, Wilson warns: "If we save the living world, we will automatically save the physical world… But if we save only the physical world… we will ultimately lose them both".

Peter Forbes is the author of 'Dazzled and Deceived: mimicry and camouflage' (Yale)