Human Nature: Genetic or Cultural?


The Social Conquest of Earth

By Edward O Wilson

Liveright (2013)

Book Review

The Social Conquest of Earth is a book dedicated to an examination of human nature. Through an extensive review of scientific, anthropological, psychological and sociological research, it attempts to determine whether “human nature” is mainly genetically or culturally (ie environmentally) determined. The answer Wilson comes up with is surprising. He concludes that the social traits that make us human are mainly culturally based with only a minor genetic contribution.

In my view, these findings have profound implications regarding our ability to do away with capitalism and the state and govern ourselves.

The book’s primary focus is the “eusocial” nature of human behavior. By definition, a euosocial species is one that forms groups consisting of multiple generations in which members are prone to altruistic acts (eg acts in which they sacrifice themselves for the good of the group). Wilson uses his own extensive research into the genetic evolution of eusocial insects (eg ants, bees, wasps and termites) to inform his conclusions about the limited genetic role in “human nature.” I personally find his arguments quite convincing.

My favorite part of the book is where he demolishes Noam Chomsky’s theory of all language having a universal, genetically based grammar (see Sticking it to Chomsky).

I was also intrigued by the extensive research suggesting that our color perception is culturally rather than genetically based. Anthropological research suggests that human ability to recognize different colors depends on whether your native language has specific words differentiating them. Some indigenous groups have no words for different colors and can only identify them as “black” or “white.”

Research findings are consistent across a broad range of linguistic groups. Wilson cites a study by Berlin and Kay showing that the 2-11 colors identified in various societies are consistent across linguistic groups:

  • Cultures with only 2 color terms identify black and white.
  • Cultures with only 3 color terms identify black, white and red.
  • Cultures with only 4 color terms identify black, white, red and either green or yellow.
  • Cultures with only 5 color terms identify black, white, red, green and yellow.
  • Cultures with only 6 color terms identify black, white, red, green, yellow and blue.
  • Cultures with only 7 color terms identify black, white, red, green, yellow, blue and brown.
  • Cultures with 11 color terms (such as English) identify black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and gray.

10 thoughts on “Human Nature: Genetic or Cultural?

  1. Though I find O Wilson’s effort appreciable, I feel compelled to stress modern studies are everything but proven science. They are theories.
    The share of genoma vs cultural roots can be pointed out but with a good dose of approximation.
    In my personal opinion, thus not appointed by “Scientific Proof”, but by simple experience and empiric facts, genes and culture have an equal importance in determining the character’s features.
    On the contrary, we couldn’t explain why peoples pertaining to different ethnicities, who have been transplanted in foreign land, tend not to intergrate nor maintain certain specific traits even whether forced to live in our sad, globalized world.
    Check the Natives of America or the Aborigenes, for example. Or some communities of Black people. They have somehow been forced to melt into the ‘big pot’ thus losing their original character. The result is, they have generally lost their own traditions. But they have acquired new vices.


    • When you include epigentics (environmental influences on gene expression) and gut bacteria (which exert major control over immunity and neurophysiology) the the actual genetic structure of a person’s DNA fades into insignificance. I don’t think Wilson was even aware of these other factors when he wrote the book.


  2. A fascinating perspective, Dr. B. Although I haven’t read Wilson work, your overview seems to fit with Jared Diamond’s (1997) perspective in “Guns, germs and steel: The fates of human societies,” and Wade Davis’ (2009) these described in “The wayfinders: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world.”


    • This is an excellent article challenging the limiting scope of the selfish-gene theory promoted by Richard Dawkins referencing the many questions arising from the new epigenetic research. It would appear that the entire “nature vs nurture” divide has been rendered absurd by the amazing complexity of gene expression based upon environmental factors. Hopefully this will lead to an deeper examination of how our collective trauma history in the West has shaped us in profound but as yet unrecognized ways. For example I know of no Indigenous peoples who view human nature as essentially “selfish, self-absorbed and violent” as we do in the West. From century upon century of the public terror of the Holy Inquisition, the massive mortality from the plague and almost constant warfare and related hunger and starvation, Europe’s medievial history was a horror show of collective trauma. One would be hard pressed to imagine these collective trauma experiences over generations weren’t somehow deeply connected to the subsequent brutal behavior of Columbus and all who followed.


  3. Pingback: Reflections on the Overthrow of Communism – Michael Parenti | The Most Revolutionary Act

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