Darwin was a polymath. In addition to his many other interests, he was an experimental psychologist studying the ability of people to recognize particular emotions in others, based on photographs. You can read more about this at Scientific American.
I’ve repeatedly posted on the concept of “group selection.” One of the biggest proponents of group selection,” David Sloan Wilson, doesn’t believe the concept has had a fair hearing by biologists. He’s got a point. Many of the discussions of group selection theory have been marked by name-calling rather than calm scientific discussion. D.S. Wilson has now taken the unusual step of publishing his defense of group selection in a series of posts at Huffington Post. In the first installment (published December 27, 2008), D.S. Wilson advocates for a “truth and reconciliation” process.
It is precisely because I am such an idealist about science that I am calling for a truth and reconciliation process for group selection. Something has to change. The controversy didn’t need to drag on for decades and it will continue for decades more unless something deliberate is done. The goal is to be constructive–to heal rather than aggravate old wounds. Yet, even healing can be painful, for scientific conflict no less than political conflict. Another reason to initiate a truth and reconciliation process is because group selection is arguably the single most important concept for understanding the nature of politics from an evolutionary perspective.
I learned of D.S.Wilson’s Huffpo series today while attending a lecture by Mark Borello, a historian of science who was giving a talk at Washington University. The title to his talk says it all: “Evolutionary Restraints: The Contentious History of Group Selection from Darwin to E.O. Wilson.” In the post-talk discussion, a general consensus was reached that the pro- and anti- group selection contingents have been talking past each other for decades, yet it is difficult to sort out why they argue so passionately. Don’t both groups have access to the same facts? The philosophers at today’s talk suspect that the problem is that the different camps come to the debate armed with different conceptions of causation. That seems correct to me too, but . . . still . . . why can’t we see eye to eye? Or, at least, why can’t we agree on what it is we disagree about?
What is the main difficulty with group selection? D.S.Wilson presents it in his second installment at Huffpo:
[C]onsider some standard examples of social adaptations: the good Samaritan, the soldier who heroically dies in battle, the honest person who cannot tell a lie. We admire these virtues and call them social adaptations because they are good for others and for society as a whole–but they are not locally advantageous. Charitable, heroic, and honest individuals do not necessarily survive and reproduce better than their immediate neighbors who are stingy, cowardly, and deceptive.
Do you see the problem? The individuals who exhibit altruism often don’t pass on their genes to the next generation. Their good works, which undoubtedly improve the prospects of the others in their group, often fail to benefit the altruistic individual, evolutionarily speaking.
Most behaviors that we call prosocial require time, energy, and risk on the part of the prosocial individual. Most behaviors that we call antisocial deliver an immediate benefit to the antisocial individual. If most antisocial behaviors are locally advantageous and most prosocial behaviors are locally disadvantageous, then we have an enormous problem explaining the nature of prosociality, including the nature of human morality, from an evolutionary perspective.
The above paragraphs are the background of group selection in a nutshell. The contentiousness of the issue suggests why D.S.Wilson is suggesting a “truth and reconciliation process” rather than a calm review of scientific facts. He has already published 14 installments at Huffpo (you can see the list of links here). Or, if you want to get a big dose all at once, consider reading “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology,” by D.S. Wilson and E.O.Wilson (no relation). It was published in December 2007 by the Quarterly Review of Biology and it can be found online here. BTW, D.S. Wilson’s co-author, eminent entomologist E.O.Wilson, now 80-years old, has made a recent dramatic conversion to group selection, after being a group selection skeptic most of his life. Here is what E.O. Wilson said in an interview published by Discover Magazine:
EOW: I’m taking the idea of kin selection, and I’ve critiqued it. Kin selection is the idea that cooperation arises, especially in the eusocial insects—bees, wasps, ants, termites—because of individuals favoring collateral kin: not just Mom and Dad or your offspring but, just as important, brother, sister, cousin, and so on.
D: So you cooperate with close kin because it helps get some of your shared genetic heritage into future generations.
EOW: I found myself moving away from the position I’d taken 30 years ago, which has become the standard theory. What I’ve done is to say that maybe collateral kin selection is not so important. These ants and termites in the early stages of evolution—they can’t recognize kin like that. There’s very little evidence that they’re determining who’s a brother, a sister, a cousin, and so on. They’re not acting to favor collateral kin. The new view that I’m proposing is that it was group selection all along, an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin.
D: The notion of group selection is heresy, is it not, in the current thinking about evolution?
EOW: Yes. I’m being provocative again, because this is a radical departure.
To jump ahead, the general solution (according to D.S.Wilson and E.O.Wilson) was anticipated by Darwin, and it consists of a
return to the simplicity of the original problem and Darwin’s solution. As Ed Wilson and I put it in our recent review article titled “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology”: Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.
This battle over the viability of group selection theory is heating up, just as it has been heating up for decades. This is a fascinating topic for the reasons D.S.Wilson suggests: group selection theory is potentially a powerful tool for understanding those two perenially hot topics: religion and politics.
I’ll be working my way through D.S.Wilson’s Huffpo articles and posting on them from time to time. From my reading of D.S. Wilson’s prior works (including Darwin’s Cathedral), he is a terrific writer and thinker. Even if he can’t hit the grand slam, I’m hoping that he can put his finger on exactly why the opposing camps disagree. That would be a good start, indeed.
Edge.org recently posted Daniel Dennett’s discussion of “The Computational Perspective.” At the linked site, you’ll find the video of Dennett’s lecture, along with Dennett’s PowerPoint slides. Dennett’s focus was whether things that are more complex can result from less complex things. Dennett assures us that the answer is yes, and that this is exactly what Darwin demonstrated. This same principle was demonstrated by Alan Turing: The net result is “competency without comprehension.” For the second half of his talk, Dennett applied this same principle to the magnificent aspects of human culture, including the words of our languages, which have “tremendous replicative power.” Dennet concludes that humans are the effect of the purposes of life, not the causes. We tend to project our views back onto nature, and we have the capacity to “discover the reasons everywhere in the tree of life.” Looking forward, we are also “the first intelligent designers of the Tree of Life.” At the this same page at Edge.org, you can also view 45-minute lectures regarding evolution by Alvaro Fischer, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Helena Cronin, Nicholas Humhrey, Ian McEwan.
Darwin gets the lion’s share of the acclaim, even though both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace co-announced the discovery of natural selection to the Linnean Society in 1858.
Thing are changing, and it’s now time for Mr. Wallace to get a bit more of the stage. This, according to an in-depth article on Alfred Russel Wallace called “The Man Who Wasn’t Darwin,” in the December, 2008 edition of National Geographic. Reading the article I leaned that Wallace was by no means a one-trick pony. Rather:
[Wallace's] writings, on subjects from evolutionary theory and social justice to life on Mars, are coming back into print or turning up on the Web. He is recognized among science historians as a founder of evolutionary biogeography (the study of which species live where, and why), as a pioneer of island biogeography in particular (from which the science of conservation biology grew), as an early theorist on adaptive mimicry, and as a prescient voice on behalf of what we now call biodiversity. That is, he’s a towering figure in the transition from old-fashioned natural history to modern biology. During his years afield Wallace was also a prolific collector, a ruthless harvester of natural wonders; his insect and bird specimens added richly to museum holdings and the discipline of taxonomy. Still, most people who know of Alfred Russel Wallace know him only as Charles Darwin’s secret sharer, the man who co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection but failed to get an equal share of the credit. Wallace’s story is complicated, heroic, and perplexing.
In this six minute Youtube video, David Attenborough illustrates this deep truth: All Life is Related. This is an especially elegant story these days, where so many people are looking for so many ways to divide humans from the other animals, and to divide many groups of human animals from other groups of human animals.
BTW, for anyone who hasn’t yet viewed any of David Attenborough’s nature DVD’s they are all thought-provoking and beautifully filmed. They aren’t just spectacular videos of animals in the wild; they also contain Attenborough’s elegant descriptions and explanations of what you are viewing. One of Attenborough’s more recent efforts is Planet Earth (a STEAL for $36). I have just ordered, but have not yet viewed his most recent series, Nature’s Most Amazing Events.
I’ve repeatedly written about Geoffrey Miller based on the many provocative ideas presented in his earlier book, The Mating Mind. (e.g., see my earlier post, “Killer High Heels“). A gifted and entertaining writer, Miller is also an evolutionary psychologist. His forte is hauling his scientific theories out into the real world in order to persuade us that we didn’t really understand some of the things that seemed most familiar to us.
In his new book, Spent, Miller asks why we continuously buy all that stuff that we don’t really need? Miller’s answer is twofold. Yes, human animals have been physically and psychologically honed over the eons this to crave certain types of things over others to further their chances at survival and reproduction. That’s only half the answer, however. We must also consider “marketing,” which is
The most important invention of the past two millennia because it is the only revolution that has ever succeeded in bringing real economic power to the people. . . . it is the power to make our means of production transform the natural world into a playground for human passions.
Is the modern version of marketing a good thing or a bad thing? The answer is yes.
On the upside it promises a golden age in which social institutions and markets are systematically organized on the basis of strong purple research to maximize human happiness. What science did for perception, marketing promises to do for production: it tests intuition and insight against empirical fact area market research uses mostly the same empirical tools as experimental psychology, but with larger research budgets, better-defined questions, more representative samples of people, and more social impact.
Here is a July 2009 interview of Geoffrey Miller by Geraldyne Doogue of the Australian Broadcast Network:
Most of us are quite familiar with the downside of marketing. It encourages us to buy things we don’t really need. But marketing doesn’t merely clutter up our houses and garages; it corrupts our souls:
There are some new local humanist centers springing up and they resemble churches in many ways, according to an article by USA Today. What do they do?
[They meet] monthly with about 10 families. Acosta says trips to museums and a parenting course called “Compassionate Communication” are planned. The Harvard chaplaincy also hosts “Humanist Small Group” biweekly Sunday brunch discussion and buys drinks at biweekly “Humanist Community Pub Nights.” Last month, it hosted holiday-style celebrations around Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and is hosting a talk by humanist writer and director Joss Whedon of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame.
What is the long-term outlook for such groups? I have always assumed that there was something about traditional churches that would help keep the group intact, something having to do with a solution to the fear of death. Churches work hard to play up both the fear and the solution. Non-believers tend to have a different focus: the here and now.
The USA Today article quotes Richard Lints, a professor of philosophical theology who
doubts humanism can sustain itself in the local congregations Epstein envisions because community is not a natural part of humanism, where the individual is the ultimate source of meaning. If humanism becomes concerned with the “greater good,” and a sort of natural moral order that implies, it starts to resemble religion and humanists will back away, he said. “At the heart of the humanist project is deep individualism,” Lints said. “It’s always going to be difficult to sustain a real robust community.”
Certainly one of model of such a community has been successful, that of the Ethical Societies such as this one. Also, consider that many religions are not traditionally religious–they run along a continuum. As proof, consider the scorn heaped on Unitarian Churches by right wing fundamentalists. Here’s one dramatic example.
Can non-theistic “churches” hold together? Time will tell.