Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

These words appear in French in the left-hand corner of Paul Gauguin’s enigmatic masterpiece, named after those three questions, depicting a group of primitive Tahitian women at various stages of life: birth, childhood, middle age, death, and the beyond. While all of them fall against the background of a mystical Tahitian landscape, there is one figure that stands out, a blue idol, which is the essence of the painting. As Gauguin himself wrote of it,

The Idol is there not as a literary explanation, but as a state, less statue perhaps than the animal figures; less animal too, becoming one in my dream, in front of my hut, with the whole of nature, dominating our primitive soul, the imaginary consolation of our sufferings and what they contain of the value and the uncomprehending before the mystery of our origins and our future.

In 1897, Gauguin set out to paint what would be his most famous work in a state of psychological despair. He had suffered a number of debilitating heart attacks. His syphilis was making him weaker by the day. And he had recently received the worst news that any parent can receive: His daughter, sick with pneumonia, had died. With little left to live for, Gauguin vowed to commit suicide, hoping to be devoured by ants, once he had put the final touches on his stunning creation, housed today at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Like many others before him, Gauguin sought the meaning of life by returning to its origins. Four decades after Henry David Thoreau embarked upon a similar experiment at Walden Pond, Gauguin explained that he was leaving his native Paris—retreating from civilization—in order to “live the life of a native” and “reinvigorate myself far from the company of men.” Reinvigorate is right. Not only did his artistic sensibility reawaken in Tahiti, but he decided not to kill himself after all.

The biologist Edward O. Wilson begins his new book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, with a tribute to Gauguin’s great work and unusual life. Wilson, who made his career studying the social patterns of ants, has turned his attention to why advanced social life exists among human beings. To Wilson, Gauguin’s painting recalls “the central problems of religion and philosophy. Will we ever be able to solve them? Sometimes it seems not. Yet perhaps we can.”

In that beguiling statement, Wilson sets the stage for what is to come—that is, a far-reaching book that lays out the biological origins of why we are the way we are. “There is no grail more elusive or precious in the life of the mind,” he writes, “than the key to understanding the human condition.” Like Gauguin, Wilson is interested in the mystery of our distant past and the direction of our future. Unlike Gauguin, Wilson summons the arsenal of evolutionary biology to give us some answers.

To say that Wilson, now eighty three, is a major figure in the field of science would be an understatement. A professor emeritus at Harvard, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner came to fame with his 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which provocatively argued that social behavior, like altruism and aggression, stems from our genes.

The controversy surrounding The Social Conquest of the Earth in a way recalls the maelstrom that followed the publication of Sociobiology. Back then, Wilson argued that “The organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA.”

His rather bleak views led some to accuse him of biological determinism. In 1999, Roger Scruton, for instance, criticized sociobiology for failing to account for what sets humans apart from apes: “The sociobiologists’ argument accurately describes the similarities between people and apes, but it ignores the differences. Animals in the wild are slaves of their genes. Human beings in society are not. The whole point of culture is that it makes us something more than creatures of mere biology and sets us on the road to self-realization. Where in sociobiology is the self, its choices and its fulfillment?”

These days, Wilson’s theories are more upbeat and mainstream. The late Denis Dutton, for instance, wrote The Art Instinct using evolutionary biology to explain the origin of art. Still, the criticisms of Wilson’s scholarship have not relented, though they are coming from a different angle. Richard Dawkins, for instance, thinks that Wilson’s understanding—make that “misunderstanding”—of evolutionary biology in his latest book is “erroneous” and “downright perverse.”

Though Dawkins is not exactly known for his measured rhetoric, one is still compelled to ask: Why all the fulminatory fuss? To Dawkins, a fellow evolutionary biologist, Wilson’s theory of group selection—which drives the book and provides a compelling explanation of the origins of moral and creative order—is a “poorly defined and incoherent view.” Yet that same theory explains why human beings are more than just “organisms.”

We are the way we are, Wilson argues, because homo sapiens is one of a few species on earth that developed advanced social life. Advanced social life requires altruism—putting aside your personal interests for the interests of another person or the group. But how could altruism evolve in an evolutionary setting that would seem to favor selfish competitive behavior?

In a series of chapters on insects, his specialty, Wilson demonstrates how ants, bees, and termites evolved to be the paragons not only of self-sacrificial altruism, but also of eusociality, or working together at a common site to divide labor in pursuit of a shared goal. The beehive is less a group of individual bees than it is a singular organism. If the popular psychologist Jonathan Haidt is right that humans are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee, then the social lessons of the insect world might shed light on how human eusociality evolved. Explaining that 10 percent is the task of Wilson’s book.

Throughout the history of human evolution, as groups competed with each other for scarce resources, those that worked together best, that communicated most effectively, and that exhibited the most altruism thrived, winning more battles in the Darwinian war of all against all. Selfish individuals may benefit from behaving selfishly within groups, but groups of selfish individuals lose out against groups of altruistic individuals. Wilson’s theory of “group selection” is meant to displace “kin selection” in charting the origins of altruistic behavior. (Under kin selection theory, we behave altruistically to those close to us in order to advance our shared pool or genes.)

One of Wilson’s main points is that achieving eusociality is so incredibly rare in the history of biological life that it is practically a miracle that we are here at all:

Our ancestors were one of only two dozen or so animal lines ever to evolve eusociality, the next major level of biological organization above the organismic. There, group members across two or more generations stay together, cooperate, care for the young, and divide labor in a way favoring reproduction of some individuals over that in others.”

Even though we are biological creatures with biological origins, as Wilson would argue, when it comes down to it, our advanced culture is what distinguishes human beings from the rest of the biological world. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in his 1925 book The Everlasting Man about the prehistoric cave paintings (which Wilson calls “a stunning snapshot of life just before the dawn of civilization”):

When all is said the main fact that the record of the reindeer men attests, along with all other records, is that the reindeer man could draw and the reindeer could not. . . .

It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.

It is here, on his chapters on religion and the creative arts, that Wilson draws out the distinctly human implications of eusociality and group selection.

Morality, for instance, arises in how we negotiate the tension between individual-level selection and group-level selection. Wilson’s provocative proposition is that “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.” He continues, “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.”

Self-sacrifice is heroic and virtuous, for instance, because it is a selfless act that ultimately benefits the community. Our creation myths, from the tale of Aeneas to that of Christ, are centered on such self-sacrificial heroism. These moving stories reinforce our moral and cultural origins and make them meaningful in a way that science cannot. Unfortunately, Wilson summarily dismisses myth. The creation myth is “a Darwinian device for survival,” he writes. “By itself, mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity.” And yet, his homage to Gauguin, the maker of myths, is the most moving part of his book.

Still, Wilson’s argument leads to the conclusion that the creative arts, including mythmaking and religious ritual, are noble for reinforcing the sense that there is something higher than the self worth striving for. Interestingly, music is the most universal of the creative arts—“a human instinct” as Wilson calls it—even though it is also the most complex form of art. “It is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms.”

Hunter-gatherer societies that are limited in their use of language, have no creation myths, and demonstrate no proficiency with the visual arts still have music. Music, then, is the evolutionary lingua franca, “powerful in its impact on human feeling and on the interpretation of events,” as Wilson writes.

Like the other creative arts, music reinforces the social instinct. It brings the members of the group together in pursuit of some common purpose. Music and creative culture can also draw a person out of himself, annihilating his ego into something larger and often better, like the community or communion with God. Think of the ecstatic dance of the whirling dervishes or the synchronicity of a Catholic mass.

Though Wilson’s treatment of myth, religion, and the other more spiritual aspects of human life can raise more questions than he answers, his panoramic history of human kind—from tribal primates to civilized human beings—is richly detailed. His work helps illuminate what separates us—and what doesn’t—from the rest of the animal world.