Friday, June 22, 2007


David Sloan Wilson's new book is a gem. Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives is based on Wilson's general course on the idea of evolution at Binghamton University, which is the one required course for an interdisciplinary program on "Evolutionary Studies." The course and the book survey Wilson's many interests and research topics in evolutionary reasoning. The book organizes all of this into a broad evolutionary view of how human life fits into the order of nature. He aims to show how evolutionary reasoning can provide a common language through which the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities could be unified into a shared vision of liberal education. Previously, I have written about my similar conception of Darwinian liberal education in posts that can be found here and here.

This fall I and Neil Blackstone will be using Wilson's book as one of the readings for our course on evolution, which we hope will eventually lead to an evolutionary studies program at Northern Illinois University. At NIU, we have already moved in this direction in the Department of Political Science through our undergraduate and graduate courses in "Politics and the Life Sciences."

The general theme of Wilson's book is conveyed by the title. It's a book "for everyone," a book that tries to make evolutionary reasoning comprehensible to any human being willing to think about it. And it presents evolution as a way of making sense of our lives as fitting within the natural order of the whole. In that way, it does indeed contribute to the ancient Aristotelian conception of liberal education.

More specifically, Wilson presents a "new way of thought" that advances the evolutionary view of human life as thoroughly part of nature (67). In arguing that we are "100 per cent a product of evolution," Wilson denies both religious creationism and secular creationism. The religious creationist believes that human beings are created in God's image so that their God-given traits set them apart from, and above, the rest of nature. The secular creationist believes that human beings use their uniquely human capacities for rational choice and cultural learning to create a human realm of artifice set apart from the natural world. The religious creationist denies Darwinian evolution completely. The secular creationist accepts Darwinian evolution as explaining the ultimate causes of the living world as including the human body, while insisting that the human mind and human culture transcend Darwinian evolution. Both forms of creationism assume the idea of human beings as "transcendent selves" set apart from the natural world.

To support his claim that Darwinian evolution can explain all of human life as part of nature, Wilson must defend a broad conception of evolution as including group selection as well as individual selection and cultural evolution as well as genetic evolution. He must then show how human evolution working at many levels provides the ultimate explanation for uniquely human traits such as family life, morality, politics, religion, science, and the arts (including dance, music, literature, and the visual arts).

The two crucial elements of this broad conception of evolution is group selection and cultural evolution. From the 1960s to the 1990s, most evolutionary biologists stressed the primacy of individual selection over group selection, because they assumed that in most circumstances the competition between individual units within groups would be stronger than the competition among groups. Wilson was one of the few biologists at this time who argued that group selection could become a powerful evolutionary mechanism, because there were many circumstances in which selection among groups would be stronger than selection within groups. Although there continues to be intense debate over this. Wilson's "multilevel selection theory" of group selection is now generally regarded as plausible.

When Ed Wilson and others argued for "sociobiology" as including the biological explanation of human nature, critics rejected this as ignoring the uniquely human power of culture as transcending genetic evolution. But Ed Wilson responded that we needed to develop a "coevolutionary" theory of human nature as arising from the interaction of genes and culture. David Wilson and others have continued this thought by arguing that culture is itself the expression of genetic propensities for cultural learning, and cultural history shows evolutionary processes in which some cultural traditions prevail over others by enhancing human survival and reproduction.

Wilson develops his arguments across a broad range of topics--too broad for me to cover in one post. But I will indicate that although I find most of his arguments persuasive, I am left with at least 5 questions about points where I would like more elaboration or clarification.

1. How does Wilson account for human dominance hierarchies? Group selection generally requires leadership in which some individuals exercise dominance. And yet Wilson tends to play down the importance of dominance. For example, he contrasts the "despotism" of chimp societies with dominant alpha males and the "egalitarianism" of human hunter-gatherer societies (163). But this ignores the fact that even human foraging societies show leadership, even if the leadership is informal and episodic. Moreover, he does not recognize Frans de Waal's contrast between the "despotic dominance style" of rhesus monkeys and the "egalitarian dominance style" of chimps, with human beings following the chimp model. Moreover, in adopting Chris Boehm's theory of human foragers as showing a "reverse-dominance hierarchy," Wilson does not acknowledge that for Boehm this means that human beings do have a propensity to dominance hierarchy, but the difference is that the desire of subordinates to resist exploitation checks the power of dominant individuals (just as it does among chimps). Wilson speaks about the "admirable qualities" of Abraham Lincoln that make his face appear beautiful to us (124). But Wilson says nothing about the character of Lincoln as an intensely ambitious man who strove for the dominant position that would give him immortal glory and fame.

2. How exactly is cultural evolution constrained or guided by genetic evolution? Wilson agrees with the "social constructivists" about the importance of culture for human life. But he insists that culture itself is a product of evolution, so that what we need is "evolutionary social constructivism" (71). But since Wilson does not believe that this "social constructivism" is completely arbitrary, because it is ultimately constrained or guided by genetic propensities and by selection for survival and reproduction (98-99), he needs to explain exactly how our genetic history shapes, but does not precisely determine, our cultural history. For example, he speaks about the Hutterite communities in which people striving to emulate the cooperativeness of the early Christians act to unify individuals into collective units. But it is noteworthy that the Hutterites have not tried to abolish family life, although attachment to one's family tends to create tensions with the larger community. Those utopian communities that have tried to abolish the family and parent-child bonding--such as the "Biblical communists" in Oneida, New York, in the 19th century and the Jewish kibbutzim in the Middle East--had to give this up when their young women protested that this was against the nature of mothers not to bond with their children. Wouldn't this be an illustration of how an innate desire for parental care constrains cultural reform? (I have argued that parental care is one of the twenty natural desires that constrain and guide cultural evolution.)

3. Is Wilson's "ideal religion" a realistic possibility? Wilson devotes much space to restating his evolutionary account of religion, which he elaborated in his book Darwin's Cathedral. He defends religion as a valuable way by which people can be bound together into groups as collective units. But he is himself an atheist, because he cannot believe in the existence of supernatural agents. The practical success of religion in binding people together for cooperation shows a "practical truth" that Wilson admires. But the theological doctrines of religion contradict the "factual truth" available to natural science. To overcome this problem, Wilson looks for an "ideal religion" that would combine the "practical truth" of religious morality and the "factual truth" of natural science. But the only religious traditions that come close to this for him are Buddhism and Confucianism (261-62), because they do not seem to depend upon any belief in supernatural agents. And yet some people have wondered whether Buddhism and Confucianism are really religions at all, because in some ways, they seem almost atheistic. Similarly, Wilson's "ideal religion" looks like an atheistic religion.

4. How does Wilson propose to deal with conflicts of interests? Wilson indicates that every major religious tradition--and even "stealth religions" like Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy--depart from factual realism by assuming that there are no conflicts of interest between self-interest and the interests of others, because they assume that properly serving the interests of others will ultimately serve one's own interests. This implies that the "ideal belief system" would have to recognize and somehow manage inescapable conflicts of interest. "The real world is full of complicated trade-offs, conflicts of interest, and win-lose situations. In principle, a belief system could score high on factual realism by representing all of these complexities and also score high on practical realism by showing how to deal with them" (274-75). But then Wilson never really explains how his "ideal belief system" would deal with such conflicts of interests. Does this hide the ugly fact that sometimes conflicts of interests are so deep that they cannot be resolved by honest negotiation and mutual trust, and consequently, the final resolution comes by force or fraud? Consider, for example, the problem of slavery in American history. As Abraham Lincoln indicated there was a conflict between the moral sense that recognized slavery as evil and the self-interest of the Southerners whose way of life depended on slavery and the self-interest of those in the North who wanted to preserve the Union. Lincoln tried to overcome this conflict of interest by proposing voluntary compensated emancipation with voluntary colonization of the freed blacks somewhere outside the United States. When this proposal was rejected, and the country was thrown into Civil War, the final resolution of the issue came by force of arms. Is there any way of avoiding such tragic conflicts of interest? Or would evolutionary theory teach us that this is part of the tragic character of the human condition?

5. What is the "shared value system" that would make the "global village" a "moral community"? Wilson argues that his evolutionary theory of group selection can be applied to international relations. After all, "nations are nothing more than very large groups that are trying to function as collective units" (283-84). He lays out 14 points for promoting international cooperation. One of his points is that "morality is required for morale," and therefore, "a shared value system is . . . required at the international scale for the global village to become a moral community" (292). But what would this "shared value system" be? International human rights? Universal brotherhood? How exactly would this work? Wilson doesn't say. If he were to say more, he would have to again confront the problem of conflicts of interests. Isn't it utopian to expect that there will be no deep conflicts of interests among nations? Won't such conflicts of interests make war inevitable? Wouldn't Darwinian science support a realistic acceptance of the tragic dimensions of human life as facing deep conflicts of interests at all levels of social life--from the family to the village to the tribe to the nation to the international community?

In raising such profound questions about the nature of human social life as a product of natural evolution, Wilson's book shows the kind of deep thinking that would be promoted by a Darwinian liberal education.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Many people, when they can't provide evidence for their theory, adopt the strategy of falsehood. Such is the case with many of those who have fallen victim to the propaganda of renowned evolutionists.

If evolutionists want to end the arguments all they have to do is, get their brilliant heads together and assemble a 'simple' living cell. This should be possible, since they certainly have a very great amount of knowledge about what is inside the 'simple' cell.

After all, shouldn't all the combined Intelligence of all the worlds scientist be able the do what chance encounters with random chemicals, without a set of instructions, accomplished about 4 billion years ago,according to the evolutionists, having no intelligence at all available to help them along in their quest to become a living entity. Surely then the evolutionists scientists today should be able to make us a 'simple' cell.

If it weren't so pitiful it would be humorous, that intelligent people have swallowed the evolution mythology.

Beyond doubt, the main reason people believe in evolution is that sources they admire, say it is so. It would pay for these people to do a thorough examination of all the evidence CONTRARY to evolution that is readily available: Try The evolutionists should honestly examine the SUPPOSED evidence 'FOR' evolution for THEMSELVES.

Build us a cell, from scratch, with the required raw material, that is with NO cell material, just the 'raw' stuff, and the argument is over. But if the scientists are unsuccessful, perhaps they should try Mother Earth's recipe, you know, the one they claim worked the first time about 4 billion years ago, so they say. All they need to do is to gather all the chemicals that we know are essential for life, pour them into a large clay pot and stir vigorously for a few billion years, and Walla, LIFE!

Oh, you don't believe the 'original' Mother Earth recipe will work? You are NOT alone, Neither do I, and MILLIONS of others!

Memetic Warrior said...

Looking at the questions that you raise to the Sloan work, I can see that Sloan is too naive and , at the end, a bit outside of his very own line of thinking: If such a ideal belief system that solves confilcts peacefully is possible, then how the social evolution could not have discover it?. It´s a bit silly not to expect this result, since the conflicts appears at all scales, so conflicts are not a new evolutionary pressure in modern life, it is here since te beginning of our specie if not before.

That convinces me that there is no possible interpretation for evolution than the conservative one, where there are no genial shorcuts for social human life.

I don´t expect for a evolutionary biologĂ­st to even start to think about the "perfect animal". but it is a tradition among many progressive social science thinkers not to study real societies but to think about the perfect society. David Sloan here, at the end, is following the same tradition, but really darwinian science thinking whould have been enough for him to think that this uthopy is nonsensical at the social level too.

In the other side, the group selection theory of David S. Wilson seems solid, and is a very good framework for studying human societies.

Anonymous said...

Larry: Question from random Google hit with interests in your Wilson review of June 22, 2007. I'm a sociologist trying to think about these matters. You say in your blog that, "(I have argued that parental care is one of the twenty natural desires that constrain and guide cultural evolution.)" I'd love to read this. Can you send me the reference/cite/paper? I'm at Thanks!