Evolution imprisoned in biology classrooms

| June 6, 2010 | 3 Replies

David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who teaches in the Department of Anthropology at Biology Binghamton University. He has long been a champion of multi-level selection theory, and he boldly applied his research and findings to human conduct, boldly going where many biologists hesitate to go, based upon a well-documented history of derision aimed at scientists who dare to study human beings as though they were animals subject to natural selection. This, despite the fact that humans clearly are animals that are subject to the forces of natural selection.

Today, I spotted an excellent video of an October 30, 2009 talk that David Sloan Wilson gave following the publication of his book, “Evolution for Everyone.” The video lasts almost one hour. I previously posted extensively on his book here. I’ve posted on other aspects of his work here and here .

Wilson opens his clear, insightful, sometimes blunt and oftentimes humorous talk by announcing that higher education has an “evolution problem.” The problem is that many in academia resist applying modern scientific biological findings to their own disciplines, even though these biological findings would be highly relevant. Wilson thus refers to the Ivory Tower as the “Ivory Archipelago.” Darwin anticipated the broad scope of his theory, but many teachers in the humanities refuse to have anything to do with well-substantiated principles of biology, even modern findings would be highly informative to their fields of study.

Though not mentioned by Wilson in the video one such topic was discussed in detail by Geoffrey Miller in his book, Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior (2009). In Spent, Miller points out that most specialists involved in the field of marketing:

still use simplistic models of human nature that remain uninformed by the past twenty years of research on human nature–research by evolutionary anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and evolutionary psychologists. Marketers still believe that premium products are bought to display wealth, status and taste, and they miss the deeper mental traits that people are actually wired to display–traits such as kindness, intelligence, and creativity. They don’t put consumption in its evolutionary context, or trace its prehistoric roots, or understand its adaptive functions. As a result, they don’t have access to a good map of the human mind, or of this brave new semiotic world in which it dwells. What marketers need is Darwin.

(Page 12).

The refusal of humanities teachers to consider the substantial body of work created by evolutionary biologists has led to a “fragmentation of knowledge.” If given a chance, the findings of the biology could further the “unification of knowledge” between the humanities and the biological sciences. What humanities could benefit from a healthy dose of evolutionary biology? Consider this graphic display by Wilson during his talk:


In this talk, Wilson had three aims:

1. How evolutionary theory leads to a kind of transcendent knowledge.
2 Evolution and morality (including religion)
3. Evolution and public policy.

Early in the video (11:30), Wilson discusses the nuts and bolts of evolutionary theory. It took Wilson almost one minute to describe. Its simplicity led Wilson to make this comment:

Learning about natural selection is like having a premature orgasm. You think it’s going to take a long time and lead to a tremendous climax, but then it’s over almost as soon as it began.

Wilson makes a convincing argument that many aspects of natural selection are intuitive. They are “simple but profound.” He uses the example of infanticide, inviting his audience to intuitively and correctly reason that infanticide can occur due to lack of resources, due to low quality offspring and uncertain parentage.

At 23:30, Wilson gives a simple and convincing presentation of the value of multi-level selection theory. What happens when you put a “good” person and a “bad” person together on an island? The clear answer is that goodness tends to be inherently vulnerable to evil. But what happens when you put a group of good people together on an island far away from another island containing only a group of “evil” people. In this case, the group of good people thrive whereas the group of evil people will self-destruct. In other words groups of good people survive better than groups of “evil” people. Wilson’s point is that evolution can explain the “full spectrum of human behavior,” not just the dog eat dog imagery so often associated with natural selection. Real-life experiments regarding the egg-laying ability of hens dramatically illustrate this point at 26:00. The bottom line is that there is much more to evolution than genetic evolution, and all of us would be wise to keep this in mind.

Could the study of religions benefit from evolutionary theory? David Sloan Wilson would obviously agree with this statement, given that he co-authored Darwin’s Cathedral. He also suggested to the audience that they Google “evolutionary religious studies” and see for themselves what a burgeoning field of study this is.

At the 39:00 mark, Wilson argues that an understanding of evolution will eventually be recognized to be essential for understanding all aspects of public policy. Currently, the public is massively ignorant about evolutionary theory, and Republican politicians have been famously unwilling to recognize the value and success of evolutionary theory. This rejection, however, is depriving politicians of critically important knowledge. Wilson indicates that they newly formed “Evolution Institute” is designed to lend a hand. At the 38:00 mark, Wilson chides those who study adolescent risk as though it is only a pathology, and not an apparent adaptation. He argues that the recent financial crash could benefit from a study based upon evolutionary theory, which is essentially a study of the “regulation of social interactions.” He recommends the work of NESCent regarding “the nature of regulation.” Another emerging public policy area would be Darwinian medicine, which Wilson presents as an alternative to the mechanistic/reductionistic traditional medicine. His argument is that evolution theory can inform basic questions that need to be asked.

A more detailed discussion of religion starts at 41:00 mark. At the 45:00 mark, Wilson recognizes many of the accomplishments of Richard Dawkins, but indicates that he disagrees with Dawkins regarding Dawkins’ claim that religions are always maladaptive. The problem, according to Wilson, is that Dawkins has almost entirely (and needlessly) rejected the power of group selection to explain religious societies. Wilson holds that religions are communitarian and many religious claims miss out on truth value, but these claims often do have value in terms of survival and reproduction. Wilson also adds that there are many secular beliefs out there, including patriotism, and the doctrines of Ayn Rand (which he discusses at length in his book); he characterizes her as a fundamentalist. He warns that we need to worry about Rand’s “free market fundamentalism” and other stealth religions, not just traditional religions. We need to take special care to recognize and deal with these “stealth religions,” because they are better disguised than traditional religions.

I find David Sloan Wilson’s writings and talks well considered and highly convincing. He makes his presentations on an even keel, and I find that he addresses those with whom he disagrees (e.g., Richard Dawkins) in a respectful way based upon the evidence.



Category: Education, Evolution, Human animals, ignorance

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Lori says:

    Is this fellow any relation to E. O. Wilson who gave us sociobiology?

    It's good to know that evolution can explain the “full spectrum of human behavior,” not just the dog eat dog imagery so often associated with natural selection. At first blush I thought, oh great, yet another re-emergence of social darwinism.

    I'll try the suggestion to Google “evolutionary religious studies.” I wonder if the model of it is similar to that of the "Christianity Meme." Hmm, seems the "Christianity Meme" blog is no longer online. Oh, well.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Lori: No relation to E.O. Wilson, though they share the same last name.

      I don't believe that studying evolution will fully "explain the full spectrum of human behavior." I don't believe that Wilson or anyone else believes this. On the other hand, natural selection offers a framework to the humanities where there often isn't one, and evolutionary theory can thus enrich the humanities, if only given a chance.

      Equating sociobiology (now referred to as "evolutionary psychology") as "social darwinism" is a massive misunderstanding, one which David Sloan Wilson addresses during the last few minutes of his talk. Also, see here: http://dangerousintersection.org/2007/08/13/no-ap… I find it fascinating that sociobiology doesn't present any problem for ANYONE as long as it is applied only to animals other than human animals.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    To follow up:

    I am persuaded by the work of David Sloan Wilson. Neither he nor am suggesting that natural selection is somehow in error. Rather, natural selection successfully explains the real-world complexity that I see with my eyes, a real world where thriving societies are generally not driven, day to day, by the principle of dog-eat-dog. Natural selection appears to play out differently in individuals versus societies. Further, cooperation appears to be an extremely clever survival tactic that dovetails seamlessly with natural selection.

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