33 pages 1 hour read

Edward O. Wilson

On Human Nature

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1978

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Summary and Study Guide


Edward O. Wilson’s classic text On Human Nature (1978, Second Edition 2004) is a work of sociobiology that explains the contributions of the natural sciences to cultural anthropology and the role of genetics and evolution in human nature. While the work was widely considered a landmark study, it also stirred up controversy due to the author’s stances on eugenics, biological materialism, and genetic determinism. The work is divided into nine chapters: Dilemma, Heredity, Development, Emergence, Aggression, Sex, Altruism, Religion, and Hope. In 1979, the text was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

This guide is based on the 2004 edition, published with a new preface by Harvard University Press.


Chapter 1 introduces the topic of On Human Nature and the dilemmas that it necessarily causes. The principal thesis is the need for the elevation of sociobiology, a scientific field defined by the synthesis of the natural and social sciences. Biology and the study of genetics is the new mode of studying human nature and understanding the causes of specific human traits and behaviors. When viewed in this light, it is easy to assume that “morality evolved as instinct” (5)—one of many dilemmas caused by using genetics to explain human nature.

Chapter 2 revolves around the study of genetics and the innate capacities made possible by their inheritance. The main point in this chapter is to highlight what the author calls “genetic determinism,” or the reality that an individual’s genetic makeup is inescapably linked to their development, and that this plays out on the scale of an entire species and its evolution.

As an individual grows and matures (as outlined in Chapter 3), the genetic inheritance they receive from their parents begins to manifest in clearer and more divergent ways. At the same time, human nature is such that it is innately designed to manifest in particular ways; Edward O. Wilson uses language as an example of human exceptionalism, as the human brain seems particularly suited to the conception and employment of complex sentence structures.

Chapter 4 broaches the topic of determinism and free will, exploring the implications of the genetic structure of an individual completely governing its development and behavior. In “lower” animals, genetic inheritance can completely govern behavior, but in “higher” animals—humans being the apex example—behavior rooted in genetics is influenced by education and cultural conditioning. One of these behaviors is aggression, the subject of Chapter 5. All human societies have engaged in warfare, and all have developed various regulations for police engagement in violence and to “minimize the subtler but inevitable forms of conflict” (99). Aggression is designed to protect or redistribute resources; it is an innate behavior in humans due to their genetic predisposition toward violence created by the natural selection of previous generations.

Chapter 6 investigates the nature of human sexual dimorphism—the split into male and female members of the species—and the genetic advantages that sexual reproduction provides. Genetic diversity is the principal advantage of sexual reproduction, while allowing for increased resources to draw from in the gene pool. Chapter 7 addresses an opposite tendency in human behavior. While sexual behavior deals with the selfish desire to reproduce one’s own genetic material, altruism questions how unselfish behavior benefits human society, and how it can be inherited.

Chapters 8-9 deal with questions concerning religion and hope. Religion is a phenomenon that pervades human history; no recorded human society has ever been without religious practice and devotion. A future obstacle will be religion’s coexistence with increasing scientific awareness of genetic predeterminism regarding human behavior. If behavior and morality are governed by biology, then the question becomes how it is possible to keep the idea of God in harmony with biological naturalism.

Finally, Edward O. Wilson considers the future. To him, human nature has been guided and conditioned by environmental factors that no longer exist. In other words, now that science has advanced so far, humans possess the power to change their own destiny. Ultimately, Wilson questions whether or not humans will choose to alter their own nature, and if so, how they will choose to direct the course of cultural evolution.