Tag: David-Sloan-Wilson

Evolution imprisoned in biology classrooms

June 6, 2010 | By | 3 Replies More
Evolution imprisoned in biology classrooms

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.

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Regulation as a prerequisite to meaningful cooperation

October 8, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More
Regulation as a prerequisite to meaningful cooperation

While I was reading up on free market fundamentalism, and I happened across an intriguing article by biologist David Sloan Wilson. As I started reading this article, I was wondering this: Even assuming that a “free market” works wonders in small societies, can societies be scaled up in size guided only by the free market, without formal regulations? D.S. Wilson argues that this is the wrong question. All societies are regulated. The only question is how they are regulated.

D.S. Wilson notes that humans are incredibly cooperative, especially in “small face-to-face groups.” In fact, we regulate each other’s conduct so easily in small groups that “we don’t even notice it.” This gives us the illusion that there is no regulation keeping things in check. All well-functioning groups, large and small, human and non-human, are highly regulated, however. Small groups often seem to work well without formal regulation, but free market fundamentalists (and others) confuse this lack of formal regulation for the total lack of regulation.

This self-organizing ability to function as cooperative groups is “so perfectly natural” because it evolved by a long process of natural selection, in humans no less than bees. By the same token, functioning as large cooperative groups is not natural. Large human groups scarcely existed until the advent of agriculture a mere 10 thousand years ago. This means that new cultural constructions are required that interface with our genetically evolved psychology for human society to function adaptively at a large scale.

Wilson’s approach makes intuitive sense. Throughout the Pleistocene (from about 2 MYA until 10,000 years ago), people lived in small groups. They lacked written language and written laws. They used unwritten techniques (presumably customs, habits, ostracism and various other informal methods of social control and punishment) to coordinate community efforts and punish cheaters. These informal methods worked well enough and long enough that we can now sit here and ponder how well they worked. But just because those ancient forms of regulations weren’t written down doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. And it doesn’t mean that ancient societies weren’t tightly regulated. Just as human households are highly regulated without formal rules, so are small societies. So are non-human societies:

These social preferences go beyond our own species. Cooperation and cheating are behavioral options for all social species, even bacteria, and cooperation survives only to the extent that it is protected against cheating. The eternal conflict between cooperation and cheating even takes place within our own bodies, in the form of genes and cell lineages that manage to game the system at the expense of the organism upon which they depend. We call them diseases, but they are really the failure of a vast system of regulations that enable us to function as organisms as well as we do . . .

What about the eusocial insects, such as ants, wasps and bees? Wilson would argue that a well-functioning hive doesn’t simply happen, and it certainly isn’t driven by something as simplistic as the “self-interest” of individual bees:

[B]ee behavior cannot be reduced to a single principle of self-interest, any more than human behavior. There are solid citizens and cheaters even among the bees, and the cheaters are held at bay only by a regulatory system called “policing” by the biologists who study them.

According to D.S. Wilson, you’ll find regulation (informal or formal) everywhere you find a well-functioning society of living organisms. Further, a human society based merely on individual selfishness can’t self-regulate because we can no longer depend on selfishness to be well-tuned or consistent thanks to Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant destruction of rational choice theory.

Regulation runs a continuum from informal to formal. It is not like regulation itself just showed up for the first time in modern human societies. D.S. Wilson argues that in all large-scale societies, “regulation is required or cooperation will disappear, like water draining from a bathtub.” Without some form of regulation, all societies become rudderless and unproductive. Therefore, there must always be some form of regulation. The question to decide is “What kind of regulation?”

Let there be no more talk of unfettered competition as a moral virtue. Cooperative social life requires regulation. Regulation comes naturally for small human groups but must be engineered for large human groups. Some forms of regulation will work well and others will work poorly. We can argue at length about smart vs. dumb regulation but the concept of no regulation should be forever laid to rest . . . We also need to change the metaphors that guide behavior in everyday life to avoid the disastrous consequences of our current metaphor-guided behaviors. That is why the metaphor of the invisible hand should be declared dead.

I would agree that the “invisible hand” is shorthand for the informal regulations that have been since prehistoric times to facilitate social coordination of small primitive societies. Rather than declaring the “invisible hand” to be dead, though, it might be more accurate to suggest that the “invisible hand” lives on in modern societies, quietly and substantially supplementing our formal regulations. Seen in this way, the “invisible hand,” used in the complete absence of consciously planned social regulations and laws, is not a method for creating or maintaining a complex functioning modern society. Rather, it is the path back to the Pleistocene.


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David Sloan Wilson suggests truth and reconciliation process for the group selection combatants

October 7, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More
David Sloan Wilson suggests truth and reconciliation process for the group selection combatants

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.


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Does evolution explain human nature?

May 26, 2009 | By | Reply More
Does evolution explain human nature?

“Does evolution explain human nature?” This is a typical Templeton Foundation question, in that it is laden with ambiguities. Only when one figures out the meaning of “evolution,” “explain,” and “human nature” can one really get to work.

I suspect that the Templeton questions are drafted vaguely in order to invite a wide range of participants, who must often roll up their sleeves to define the component elements of the question as part of their answer.

I don’t mean to sound like a pedant here. The reason I am posting on this question is that despite the wobbly question, Templeton has once again done a good job of assembling a wide range of opinion on an important set of issues. You can read the many responses here. My favorites are

Frans de Waal,

If we look at our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technological advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than that of a chimpanzee, does not contain any new parts. Our intellect may be superior, but we have no basic wants or needs that cannot also be observed in our close relatives . . .

Lynn Margulis

[R]eligion serves an obvious evolutionary function: it identifies, unifies, and preserves adherents. Admonitions to desist from the seven deadly sins inhibit behaviors that threaten group solidarity and survival. Greed, for example, privileges the individual in seasons of limited resources. Lust – the biblical coveting of the neighbor’s wife (in its male-centered perspective) – interferes with ideals for the nurture of healthy children and effective warriors. Prohibiting sloth enhances productive work intrinsic to survival and reproduction of the social unit. Anger, perhaps useful in battle, destroys family and other social relationships. Envy and pride promote individual interests above those of the larger social unit. The survival value of prohibiting sin seems obvious . . .

I disagree with neo-Darwinist zoologists who assert that the accumulation of random genetic mutations is the major source of evolutionary novelty. More important is symbiogenesis, the evolution of new species from the coming together of members of different species. Symbiogenesis is the behavioral, physiological, and genetic fusion of different kinds of being; it leads to the evolution of chimeric new ones.

Geoffrey Miller

My own research has been inspired mostly by good-genes sexual selection theory (the idea that animals choose their partners based on cues about genetic quality) and costly-signalling theory (the idea that only animals in good condition can afford seemingly pointless displays like extravagant plumage). These theories have proved enormously useful in understanding a range of human behaviors that have seemed to have no clear survival payoffs, like music, dance, art, humor, verbal creativity, conspicuous consumption, and altruism.

Robert Wright

What Darwinism tells us is how natural selection gave human life its distinctively rich texture of meaning. Darwinism can also give us guidance as we try to better ourselves and make that meaning richer still. What Darwinism does not tell us is why there is meaning at all.

David Sloan Wilson

Genes are only one mechanism of inheritance. Some immunological, psychological, and cultural processes also count as evolutionary. They too rely on the open-ended variation and selective retention of traits, but they are based on non-genetic inheritance mechanisms. People and cultures shaped by these fast-paced evolutionary processes no longer have the same “nature,” any more than two bacterial strains that have diverged by genetic evolution. In this fashion, my simple and seemingly boring formula can be understood to say that humanity as a whole does not have a single “nature.” Instead, each and every person and culture has its own “nature.”

There’s lots more to read (by these authors and others) at the above link


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Charles Darwin’s exceedingly dangerous idea

March 28, 2009 | By | Reply More
Charles Darwin’s exceedingly dangerous idea

In Darwin’s dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Daniel Dennett describes Darwin’s idea as the “best idea anyone has ever had.”

In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and a physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.

What exactly was Darwin’s dangerous idea? According to Dennett, it was “not the idea of evolution, but the idea of evolution by natural selection, an idea he himself could never formulate with sufficient rigor and detail to prove, though he presented a brilliant case for it.” (42) Dennett considers Darwin’s idea to be “dangerous” because it has so many fruitful applications in so many fields above and beyond biology. When Dennett was a schoolboy, he and some of his friends imagined that there was such a thing as “universal acid,”

a liquid “so corrosive that it will eat through anything! The problem is: what do you keep it in? It dissolves glass bottles and stainless steel canisters as readily as paper bags. What would happen if you somehow came upon or created a dollop of universal acid? With the whole planet eventually be destroyed? What would it leave in its wake? After everything had been transformed by its encounter with universal acid, what would the world look like? Little did I realize that in a few years I would encounter an idea-Darwin’s idea-bearing an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks are still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.

(63) Darwin’s idea is powerful, indeed. Many people see it as having the power to ruin the meaning of life.

People fear that once this universal acid has passed through the monuments we cherish, they will cease to exist, dissolved in an unrecognizable and unlovable puddle of scientific destruction.

Dennett characterizes this fear is unwarranted:

We might learn some surprising or even shocking things about these treasures, but unless our valuing these things was based all long on confusion or mistaken identity, how could increase understanding of them diminish their value in our eyes? (82)


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Group selection theory attempts a comeback

March 3, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More
Group selection theory attempts a comeback

Over the past few weeks, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday, we’ve seen many articles published on the topic of evolution. The November 20, 2008 edition of Nature contains a drawing of Darwin on the cover, and the entire issue is titled “Beyond the Origin.” Inside this issue is an article by Marek Kohn titled “The Needs of the Many,” an article summarizing current thinking on group selection.

Kohn carefully sets out some definitions at the beginning of his article. For instance, he recognizes that modern evolutionary theory is based on the idea that selection “sees” individuals and acts on them through the genes they embody. Compare that to “group selection”:

The idea that evolution can choose between groups, not just the individuals that make them up–has a higher profile today than at any time since its apparent banishment from mainstream evolutionary theory. And it gets better press, too. This is in part owing to the efforts of David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University in New York, who argues that the dismissal of group selection was a major historical error that needs to be rectified. And it does not hurt that he has been joined by Edward O. Wilson, the great naturalist and authority on social insects. They and many others have worked to reposition group selection within the broader theme of selection that acts simultaneously at multiple levels.

Buried in the dispute about the extent to which group selection occurs are numerous definitional issues such as the proper way to define “group,” “altruism,” and “selfishness.”


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Giving religion its evolutionary due

December 29, 2007 | By | 12 Replies More
Giving religion its evolutionary due

If you’re tired of hearing heated yet worn-out arguments regarding religion and science, check out this intellectually nimble and energized exchange published by Edge.org: Responses by David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, P. Z. Myers and Mark D.  Hauser to Jonathon Haidt’s “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.”  Here’s a link to Haidt’s […]


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What does evolution really have to do with religion? David Sloan Wilson argues that it’s time to find out.

August 28, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More
What does evolution really have to do with religion?  David Sloan Wilson argues that it’s time to find out.

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, is a runaway bestseller.  Dawkins is a relentless one-man religion wrecking-crew.  He carries a sharp knife for the many arguments that religions are somehow useful or worthy. But isn’t religion sometimes good? Doesn’t religion sometimes heal the sick and feed the poor?  When it comes time to complement religion, Dawkins tends to […]


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