Edward O. Wilson: On Human Nature
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1991, minor revisions 2009

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the 1978 edition.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work.   


Sociobiology is defined (paraphrasing pp. 16 and 222 ) as the scientific or systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior, in all kinds or organisms including man, and incorporating knowledge from ethology, ecology, and genetics, in order to derive general principles concerning the biological properties of entire societies.  "If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species."   "The brain [and the mind] exists because it promotes the survival and multiplication of the genes that direct its assembly."  The two apparent dilemmas we face therefore are:

(1) We lack any goal external to our biological nature (for even religions evolve to enhance the persistence and influence of their practitioners).  Will the transcendental goals of societies dissolve, and will our post-ideological societies regress steadily toward self-indulgence? 
(2) Morality evolved as instinct.  "Which of the censors and motivators should be obeyed and which ones might better be curtailed or sublimated?" 


Each species is an evolutionary experiment.  Human behavior has a large genetic component.  The 67 common human characteristics listed by Murdock include courtship, faith healing, penal sanctions, etc.  Human nature is one idiosyncratic hodgepodge of traits out of many conceivable.  Chimpanzees are our little-brother species and similar in many respects, but no human could successfully emulate the life and behavior of a chimpanzee.  Human behavior evolved during a 5 million year period as hunter-gatherers to confer genetic fitness: increased personal survival, increased personal reproduction, and the enhanced survival and reproduction of close relatives who share the same genes by common descent.  For example, incest taboos developed to prevent the physiological penalties of inbreeding and recessive genes which reduce fitness (e.g., the emergence of recessive disorders through homozygosity). 

Although much racial variation (diversity) in behavior is culturally influenced, some has been shown to be genetic.  "We are not compelled to believe in biological uniformity in order to affirm human freedom and dignity." 


Noam Chomsky postulates an innate structuring of the mind (a "deep grammar") which permits a much more rapid acquisition of language than would occur by mere learning—the human mind is not a tabula rasa.  Phobias often deal with real ancient dangers.

Is our free will only an illusion?  Human behavior cannot be reliably predicted beyond generalizations, because of mathematical indeterminacy and the uncertainty principle.

A key to emergence of civilization is hypertrophy, the extreme growth of pre-existing structures—the basic social responses of the hunter-gatherers have metamorphosed into unexpectedly elaborate forms, e.g., nationalism and racism.


Although we are not the most violence-prone species, humans are innately prone to aggression and war, the ultimate purpose of which is to promote genetic fitness—for example, by competing for limited food supply.  Hostility feeds on itself and ignites runaway reactions rather than serving as a release (i.e., the "drive-discharge" model is not valid).  War is usually based on an exaggerated ethnocentrism, an irrationally exaggerated allegiance to kin and fellow tribesmen.  We have a deep fear of strangers.  Particular forms of aggression are not inherited.  Militarism usually leads to expansionism, not just self-defense, and leads to survival of aggressive genes.  To provide a durable foundation for peace, we must promote political and cultural ties which create a confusion of cross-binding loyalties.  We must recognize our aggressive natures and work to overcome and master this tendency, which no longer serves us well. 


The purpose of sexual reproduction is the creation of diversity rather than merely procreation—it is too wasteful of resources for only the latter.  The two sexes allow the division of labor.  There are genetic male-female differences...  Male dominance is universal in primitive cultures.  Biological differences do not alone prescribe a course of action in dealing with the sexes but help to define the options.  The sexual bond transcends sexual activity, promoting the survival advantages conferred by family organization, etc.  Human sexual organs are hypertrophic among the animals, emphasizing the importance to humans of sexuality.  Sexual pleasure serves as an enabling device to promote bonding, not just procreation as Judeo-Christian tradition claims.  Homosexuality is a biologically normal, often altruistic behavior—it has a successful role in many primitive societies, promotes kin-survival through bonding, and is probably heritable. 


The predisposition toward altruistic acts is one of the distinguishing behaviors of humans compared to other vertebrates (but common in lower social animals such as ants and honeybees), although the specific forms of behavior are largely culturally determined.  Altruistic suicide, as exhibited by the early Christians and during WWII is the ultimate act of courage and is often accompanied by elaborate rituals and awards to encourage it, though it goes against the biological drive for survival.  Although it can be dangerous to subject this type of heroism to analysis, it cannot be considered off limits any more than any other sacred forms of human behavior.  Fallen heroes do not have children but their heroism promotes kin survival and the preservation of altruistic genes.  Moreover, death is held to be an apotheosis or nirvana (Yeats's "the artifice of eternity") rather than annihilation, and heroes often expect a reward in the form of personal immortality. 

Compassion for the plight of others is often selective and ultimately self-serving, often flexible and eminently adaptable to political reality.  "Hard-core altruism", in which the bestower expresses no expectation of personal gain, has likely evolved through kin selection or natural selection operating on entire competing family or tribal units, and is the enemy of modern civilization (e.g., it promotes nepotism).  In contrast, "soft-core altruism" is ultimately selfish and calculating, often based on lying, pretense, and deceit.  But it is the basis of modern civilization and a more nearly perfect social contract.  The drive for individual survival accounts for much of human behavior and our social organization is a melange of ambivalence, deceit, and guilt.  Deviation from the societal norms of expected behavior leads to derision and punishment.  Moreover, "the genius of human society is in fact the ease with which alliances are formed, broken, and reconstituted, always with strong emotional appeals to rules believed to be absolute."  Spiritual commitments are absolute until they are broken.  Ethnicity flourishes when it confers a survival advantage but dissolves when it does not (e.g., Chinese immigrants to Jamaica).  Income in society is distributed to the benefit of the class that controls government. 

The stages of ethical development according to Kohlberg are: (1) simple obedience to rules, (2) conformity to group behavior, (3) good-boy orientation (to avoid dislike or rejection), (4) duty orientation, (5) legalistic orientation, and (6) conscience or principle orientation.  Most people reach stages four and five readily because they are biologically determined for hunter-gatherer societies.  Stage six is the most non-biological and therefore the most subject to non-Darwinian influences and hypertrophy.  But human behavior and morality will always be constrained by the biological drive to keep the gene pool intact. 


The predisposition to religious belief is an ineradicable part of human behavior.  Mankind has produced 100,000 religions.  It is an illusion to think that scientific humanism and learning will dispel religious belief.  Men would rather believe than know.  "God's immanence has been pushed somewhere below the subatomic particles or beyond the farthest visible galaxy," leading to "process theology". 

A kind of Darwinistic survival of the fittest has occurred with religions.  The ecological principle called Gause's law holds that competition is maximal between species with identical needs.  "Religion is superbly serviceable to the purposes of warfare and economic exploitation."  "Religion is above all the process by which individuals are persuaded to subordinate their immediate self-interests to the interests of the group."  Simple rules are provided allowing quick decisions.  The structure of religion is at the surface ecclesiastic (chosen for emotional impact under contemporary social conditions), deeper still is ecological, and finally is genetic.  "Religious practices that consistently enhance survival and procreation of the practitioners will propagate the physiological controls that favor the acquisition of the practices during single lifetimes."  Unthinking submission to the communal will promotes the fitness of the members of the tribe. Even submission to secular religions such as Communism and guru cults involve willing subordination of the individual to the group.  Religious practices confer biological advantage. 

The mechanisms of religion include: (1) objectification (the reduction of reality to images and definitions that are easily understood and cannot be refuted); (2) commitment through faith (a kind of tribalism enacted through self-surrender); and (3) myth (the narratives that explain the tribe's favored position on the Earth, often incorporating supernatural forces struggling for control, apocalypse, and millennium). 

The three great religion categories of today are Marxism, traditional religion, and scientific materialism.  (In the glossary, the author defines the latter as "The view that all phenomena in the universe including the human mind, have a material basis, are subject to the same physical laws, and can be most deeply understood by scientific analysis".)  Though theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline, religion will endure for a long time to come and will not be replaced by scientific materialism.  "God remains a viable hypothesis as the prime mover, however undefinable and untestable that conception may be. (p. 105)"


The guiding principles of a new ethic must include the following: (1) The human gene pool must be preserved; (2) diversity of the gene pool must be maintained; and (3) the universal human rights must be recognized.  The search for values must go beyond the utilitarian calculus of genetic fitness.  As our knowledge of the biologic basis of human behavior increases, we can start to elect a system of values on a more objective basis.  The mythopoeic drive can be harnessed to learning and the rational search for human progress by first conceding that scientific materialism is itself a noble mythology.  The "evolutionary epic" is the best myth we will ever have.  We must cultivate the relationship between science and the humanities.  The high culture of Western civilization must be updated to move beyond scientific understandings of the nineteenth century.  Science consists of competing disciplines (such as chemistry) and their next lower levels of organization (the "antidisciplines", e.g., physics).  A fusion of biology and the social sciences is inevitable, leading to a fusion of the "two cultures".  Human behavior should be studied as a natural science governed by empirical neurobiology.  Scientific materialism will serve as a kind of antidiscipline to the humanities.  This syncretism will hopefully lead to a new sense of wonder, defining new goals and voyages of discovery.  "The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment."  The dilemmas posed by the ability to manipulate human genes fortunately lie in the future.