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Is Conservatism a Species?


A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Nicholas Wade’s new book The Faith Instinct here on NRO. In my review, I mentioned evolutionary psychologist David Sloan Wilson’s book Darwin’s Cathedral, with a side comment on Wilson’s “adaptationist” approach to the evolution of religious belief. Then last week I posted a different piece touching on some issues in the sociology and philosophy of science.

If any of that engaged your attention, I very strongly recommend you block out 65 minutes and 49 seconds of quiet time to watch the latest Bloggingheads diavlog (yeah, that’s what they call it — don’t blame me). It features David Sloan Wilson himself in discussion with human-science blogger Razib Khan, whom I last saw flitting from group to group, like a bee in a flower garden, at the Singularity Summit in October (for more on which, see the latest issue of National Review).

What are they discussing? Well, the central issue is group selection, but they manage to touch on a remarkable range of sub-topics, from the sociology of science to sexual harassment, from economics to law, from teenage mental health to political correctness. I’d like to say there’s a modest overlap with some of the themes in WAD, but that would be idle boasting. I’m a mere dilettante; these guys think about this stuff 24/7 (in Wilson’s case, for 30 years). I do get mentioned by name, though, at 41m31s.

Here’s a sample quote from Wilson, starting at 32m48s:

It’s Evolution 101 that the brain is a product of natural selection, and we should [inaudible] beliefs for their survival value, not for their truth value. The idea that we believe things and profess them aggressively and defend them aggressively on the basis of what they might cause people to do, not on the basis of their truth value, is something we should expect from all human thought …

But science is supposed to be different; and science is different, to the extent that it’s practised successfully. Science is a cultural system for holding each other accountable for what we say. …  It’s unnatural to believe things purely on the basis of their truth content, but that’s what scientists try to do. They don’t always succeed, and some of the most spectacular failures are collective, because when everyone wants to believe in a falsehood, then there’s no disagreement [which is] necessary for science to operate.

Wilson has an ear for a memorable apothegm:

Parasitism is something small exploiting something big; predation is something big exploiting something small. [43m44s][On evolutionary theory as a "toolkit" for economic enquiries, in contrast to the more mathematical spproach of neo-classical economics]  If your drain is clogged, who’re you going to call — a plumber or a mathematician? [54m36s]

The question I put in my subject line is pondered, though very briefly, at 45m30s.


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