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334 Books On Human Nature. Edward 0. Wilson. Harvard Univ. Press, London, 1978.260 pp. €7.85. Reviewed by Ian G. Wallace* ‘On Human Nature is not a work of science;it is a work about science.’ In fact, the book turns out to be, as its title suggests, mainly about those aspects of human behaviour that appear to the author to be more or less permanent. And, in the absence of that remark in the Preface,one might attach too little importance to what Wilson has to say about scienceand perhaps fail to note that the book may have been written mainly as a means of furthering those developments in science that its author believes to be urgent. These are the transformation of the social sciences through an effective and fruitful interaction with biology and, partly as a consequence of this, a more thorough integration of scientificthinking into Western culture, so that choices affecting the future of the species may be made in the light of the information scientistscan provide about the ways of life that are possible for members of a species with our peculiar biological inheritance. The body of the book develops the thesis that there is a relativelysmall number of social arrangements humankind could tolerate for more than a very short time-history has shown, for example, that slavery is not one of them, although it occurs in other species-and that the smallness of this number can be traced to our genetic endowment. Such a position is in rather stark contrast to the assumption, which has latterly prevailed amongst behavioural scientists, that human behaviour is very largely the product of learning and, therefore, indefinitely malleable. The case for supposing otherwise is a complex one that ultimately fails to compel assent, at least in the sensethat it has not been accepted by many who ought to be in a position to assessits validity.Wilson himselfadmits that there are large gaps in the evidenceand that some of the inferential steps required are large and uncertain-which is no doubt why he does not claim that the book is a work of science.At the same time, of course, it would not have been written if the position adopted in it did not seem to make sense of a wide range of phenomena, and, at the very least, it has the salutary effectof confronting the reader with a sharply delineated set of possibilities which stand in marked contrast to many of our normal assumptions. For example, Wilson contends not only that aggression but also that religion has its roots in our biological natures and. as such, is, for the foreseeable future, inescapable. He argues that the biological importance of human sexual behaviour is to be found not in the propagation of the species but in the permanent relationship which it encourages between parents and that true homosexuality is not only (therefore) not ‘unnatural’ but actually possesses a biological importance of its own as one source of the only form of altruism which our natures permit us-a kind of enlightened self-interest. Arresting (and debatable) as these contentions are, the main thrust of Wilson’sbook is at a more general level. It begins with the statement of a dilemma: the human mind is a product of its evolutionary history and cannot, therefore, be said to have purposes in the ordinary sense of that word; yet we must adopt ethical principles which are consistent with our biological natures. The book ends with a show of optimism regarding the future of the species, outlining a ‘biological’ ethic (which embodies comfortingly familar principles of social justice) and arguing the need to replace contemporary religions such as Christianity and Marxism by one securely based on scientific materialism. Leonard0 readers may wish to know that ‘science can hope to explain artists and artistic genius, and even art, and it will increasingly use art to investigate human behaviour, but it is not designed to transmit experience on a personal level or to reconstitute the full richness of the experience from the laws and principles which are its first concern by definition.” Art will, therefore, have a part to play in a society properly founded...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9282
Print ISSN
0024-094X
Pages
p. 334
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-04
Open Access
No
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