Science & Tech

Finishing What Darwin Began

Portrait of Charles Darwin, c. 1870 (Library of Congress)
David Sloan Wilson's new book argues that evolutionary biology can inform society and politics.

In This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson continues the project of scientific imperialism that has defined much of the latter part of his career. This View of Life takes as given that humans are shaped by our evolutionary past, and proceeds to show how general principles derived from the discipline can be applied to policy decisions and social problems, guiding our species-wide goals to further our flourishing. Wilson aims to break evolution out of its biological box, offering it as a universal framework for understanding and shaping human phenomena.

This is an ambitious program. But first one has to address the historical elephant in the room: the misapplication of evolutionary principles. The prosecution argues that evolution stands of accused of aiding and abetting the abominations that culminated in Nazi Germany. After the defeat of Hitler’s regime, evolutionary theory retreated into the redoubt of biology, concerning itself with natural history, laboratory experiments, and abstruse mathematical models. And there it should stay, argue its critics, lest we repeat the mistakes of the past.

David Sloan Wilson rejects this argument in totality. He notes that the opprobrium hurled at evolution’s application to social problems draws from Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought. Hofstadter was a man of left-wing commitments writing in 1944, as the war against Hitler’s regime was still a live concern. His was not a dispassionate scholarly analysis. He aimed to produce something which could be deployed in the fight against “racism, nationalism, or competitive strife.”

This View of Life highlights how men as diverse as Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, and Thomas Malthus were not united in their views, nor were they the cruel anti-humanitarians that their detractors portray them as (Hitler’s own views were scientifically inchoate at best, and ignorant at worst). Wilson’s arguments are familiar to libertarians in particular, many of whom have long argued that Hofstadter misrepresented classical liberals.

The argument for the defense that one encounters in This View of Life may not entirely convince, at least in the chapter-length treatment Wilson provides. The great evolutionary geneticist R. A. Fisher’s central work, Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, contains a long exposition of eugenicist thought as applied to humanity. To not put too fine a point on this, contemporary readers invariably find this section quite offensive. And yet Fisher himself was a complicated figure, a patriotic British Tory conservative and Anglican Christian. The past was truly a different age.

Most of This View of Life, though, presents a forward-looking positive vision, not a backward-looking apologia. Wilson argues cogently that humanity, both in its biology and its culture, is a product of evolution. The central pillars of his narrative are the “four major questions” elucidated by the ethologist Niko Tinbergen in the 20th century as essential aspects of any evolutionary analysis. First, what is the function of a trait? Second, what is the history of the trait over many generations? Third, what is the physical mechanism of the trait? Finally, how does the trait develop during the history of the particular organism?

At this point you may wonder how Wilson applies these questions outside of biology, in religion for example, thereby completing the Darwinian revolution. Though This View of Life touches upon religion, it is in an earlier book, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, that he elaborates in detail how religious belief systems are evolutionarily shaped cultural phenomena.

Consider the trait of missionary activity. The function of the trait is to increase the flock and bear witness to the message of salvation. In regards to its history, the earliest records of missions go back to Buddhism, many centuries before Christ, during the reign of the Emperor Ashoka. The trait seems to have become common in many Roman “mystery religions,” culminating with Christianity, and later adopted by Islam, evolving over time in vigor and centrality to various faiths. The mechanism is straightforward. Believers leave their homelands and propagate their views. Finally, the nature of missionary activity has changed in many religions over time, as aims and methods have been refined – changes that develop through selection.

A specific religion can be thought of as a cultural organism. Consider the Western Christian tradition – the Roman Catholic Church and the eruption of the Reformation. It made forays into organized missionary work under Gregory the Great in the sixth century a.d., but it truly refined the process in the 16th and 17th centuries with the emergence of orders such as Jesuits – missionary arms of the Church tasked with countering the spread of Protestantism – taking the faith across the oceans to new lands.

The application of evolutionary principles to religion illustrates that This View of Life is not wedded to genetics. Genetics revolutionized our understanding of evolution in the 20th century, but in our time Wilson wants to push evolution beyond its genetic basis. All that evolution requires is inheritance of characteristics. This vision is grounded strongly on a “multi-level” understanding of organismic complexity, extending ideas Wilson developed in the early part of his career. In the biological context, that means viewing organisms from their simplest level – that of the gene – up to the individual, above that to kin groups, and then to large entities such as tribes and nations. And once you extend your analysis to large groups, cultural processes become much more powerful than biological ones.

Due to its ambition, This View of Life takes aim at the incumbent imperium of applied social science: economics. Wilson has no time for the utilitarian individualism of neoclassical economics and its fixation on static equilibria. He rejects Homo economicus as intellectually impoverished, with thin insights not conducive to fostering human flourishing. Just as with the refutation of the arguments popularized by Hofstadter, skeptics may raise their eyebrows at the broad-brush dismissal of economics in Wilson’s narrative, but the thing to focus on is the alternative vision he presents. You can set This View of Life next to Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World with no guilt.

It is simply a fact that humans are fundamentally social animals. Though the liberal vision emphasizes the centrality of the individual in terms of worth, our evolutionary history suggests that human uniqueness lies in our incredible sociality and cultural creativity. Individual human beings exist, but so do a wide range of social organizations. Consider the various city-states of ancient Greece, with their myriad political systems, or the communes of the Burned-over District of upstate New York in the 19th century after the Second Great Awakening. Religions, civic associations, and polities: These are all unique and ubiquitous to our species.

Evolution on the individual level favors selfishness, as one might see in Homo economicus. Greed is, on the one level, good. But Wilson shows that in the broader context of animal breeding, maximizing the most “fit” lineages results in lower overall productivity, as rapacious individuals tear down the social fabrics on which they rely to exist. It is often the case that selection for groups of cooperative organisms, who may on an individual level be less impressive, results in greater yield. Evolution is more than the sum of its parts.

And so it is with human societies, as the total drive toward selfishness leads to a war of all against all, and social collapse. Homo economicus may win against other members of their own tribe, but their tribe always loses to Homo sapiens, which is a much less rapacious creature. This View of Life presents a progressive vision of human complexity increasing over the eons, as bands becomes clans, and clans become tribes, and tribes become nations. The ultimate level of organization Wilson envisions is a global one.

But here he does not imagine a centralized, top-down leviathan. Rather, he posits iterative experimentation as an essential feature of evolutionary systems, which evolve and change over time. They depend not on eternal equilibriums, but on contemporary responses to current conditions. Wilson inveighs against laissez-faire, but does not offer up as a utopian uniform alternative a centralized command economy. Evolution is not top-down design, as might apply to a physical system, but bottom-up adaptation and experimentation, as is the norm in biological systems. Small businesses, civic associations, localities, and nonprofits will likely drive social change and advancement on a global scale in the view promulgated in Wilson’s narrative. They incentivize innovation and promote what works.

This View of Life begins with a discussion of the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, an evolutionary biologist, Jesuit priest, and philosopher, whose impact in the 20th century has been largely forgotten in the 21st century. It concludes with a frank admission that Wilson is aspiring to the same aim of de Chardin’s work in The Phenomenon of Man, which argued that humanity is pushing forward the project of increased social complexity so that there will evolve a supreme-consciousness, the “Omega Point.” In a broad sense Wilson too aspires to the Omega Point. He states that the “evolutionary worldview” in This View of Life is an ethic, while “evolutionary theory” is simply a description. This is a large step for a scientist – so large that it changes his work from that of a scientist to that of a pundit.

Most evolutionary biologists would no doubt feel The Phenomenon of Man is a bizarre work. Richard Dawkins has praised sharp critiques of The Phenomenon of Man. In his scientific work Dawkins has suggested that humanity is good not in spite of its nature, but because of it. Similarly, many scientists will look askance at the grand claims Wilson promotes in This View of Life, as he mixes “is” and “ought,” jumping from a positive description of reality to normative prescriptions for human happiness and well-being.

In contrast, religious conservatives may see Wilson’s visions as materialistic and hubristic. Its ultimate evolutionary basis, and nearly messianic aims, ensure that This View of Life will alarm many traditionalists.

The fact is, one can argue that Wilson’s This View of Life is all of these things, and that the author believes in the importance of his vision to such an extent that he is not particularly concerned with causing alarm. Wilson begins the book as an evolutionary biologist, describing the facts as they are. He ends it like de Chardin, an evolutionary priest, preaching to the unconverted the good news at hand.

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