On Human Nature  

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“It pays for males to be aggressive, hasty, fickle and undiscriminating. In theory it is more profitable for females to be coy, to hold back until they can identify males with the best genes… Human beings obey this biological principle faithfully” (1978, 125). --On Human Nature (1978) by E.O. Wilson


"So at birth the twig is already bent a little bit — what are we to make of that? It suggests that the universal existence of sexual division of labor is not entirely an accident of cultural evolution. But it also supports the conventional view that the enormous variation among societies in the degree of that division is due to cultural evolution." --On Human Nature (1978) by E.O. Wilson

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

On Human Nature (1978; second edition 2004) is a book by Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, in which the author attempts to explain human nature and society through sociobiology. Wilson argues that evolution has left its traces on characteristics such as generosity, self-sacrifice, worship and the use of sex for pleasure, and proposes a sociobiological explanation of homosexuality. He attempts to complete the Darwinian revolution by bringing biological thought into social sciences and humanities. Wilson describes On Human Nature as a sequel to his earlier books The Insect Societies (1971) and Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975).

The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979.

Contents

Summary

Wilson writes that On Human Nature is the third of a trilogy, the previous volumes of which were The Insect Societies (1971) and Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), and that its thesis is that general sociobiology, "the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization", is the appropriate means of closing "the famous gap between the two cultures". He proposes that homosexuality may be "a distinctive beneficent behavior that evolved as an important element of early human social organization", describing it as "above all a form of bonding", possibly based on a genetic predisposition.

Reception

Mainstream media

The biologist Jerry Coyne, writing in The New Republic, accused Wilson of trying to use evolutionary psychology to control social science and social policy, arguing that On Human Nature was similar in this respect to Wilson's subsequent book Consilience (1998) and to the biologist Randy Thornhill and the anthropologist Craig Palmer's A Natural History of Rape (2000).

Bryan Walsh, writing in Time magazine in 2011, named On Human Nature as one of the "100 best and most influential" books written in English since 1923. He considered Wilson's "real achievement" to be to "show how a sociobiological view of humanity could still have grandeur." The computer scientist Paul Brown, writing in Skeptical Inquirer in 2018, stated that On Human Nature is "still brimful with ideas and insights about who we are, how we got here, and how to get wherever we want to go."

Academic journals

On Human Nature was discussed by Gregory Hanlon in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Hanlon credited Wilson with helping to establish that human behavior could not be understood solely in terms of "learned cultural values", that the behavioral sciences could help to explain "the interpersonal actions in past societies." He compared the book to the ethnologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt's Human Ethology (1989) and the historian Daniel Lord Smail's Deep History and the Brain (2008).

Evaluations in books

The anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, writing in The Woman That Never Evolved (1981), argued that a reading of the book refutes the accusation that Wilson aims to use sociobiology to reinforce traditional sex roles. The philosopher Roger Scruton, writing in Sexual Desire (1986), criticized Wilson's sociobiological explanations of human social behavior, arguing that because of Wilson's "polemical purpose" he was forced to oversimplify the facts. However, he granted that sociobiological explanations of the sort favored by Wilson might possibly be correct. The anthropologist Donald E. Brown, writing in Human Universals (1991), commented that he at first failed to read Wilson's book because his views were still conditioned by the "sociocultural perspectives" in which he had been trained. However, Brown concluded that "sociobiologists might be more convincing if they confined their explanations to universals rather than attempting to show that virtually everything that humans do somehow maximizes their reproductive success."

Science writers John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin, writing in Being Human (1993), described On Human Nature as an "accessible account of the application of sociobiology to people". The sociologist Ullica Segerstråle, writing in Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond (2000), considered On Human Nature essentially a development of Wilson's earlier ideas. Segerstråle commented that, unlike opponents of sociobiology, Wilson saw it as having liberal political implications, and tried to develop these suggestions in On Human Nature. The psychologist David P. Barash, writing with Ilona A. Barash in The Mammal in the Mirror: Understanding Our Place in the Natural World (2001), called On Human Nature, "A wide-ranging, thoughtful, and controversial classic of human sociobiology".

Other responses

On Human Nature won a 1979 Pulitzer Prize.

See also




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