John Gray

Life’s Greatest Achievement?

The Social Conquest of Earth

By

W W Norton 330pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

‘The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual but largely in opposition to each other.’ Combining an aura of scientific rigour with magisterial obscurity, this dictum conveys the flavour of much of what Edward O Wilson’s publisher describes as ‘the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition’. Wilson’s thesis is easily articulated, and not unfamiliar: morality is a product of evolution, emerging as a result of the interaction of two kinds of natural selection. Individual selection ‘shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish’, while group selection ‘shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another’. The moral conflicts with which philosophers and dramatists have struggled for millennia can at last be resolved by science. ‘Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.’

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