Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives

By Razib Khan | April 16, 2007 8:56 am

evoevery.jpgYou know a scientist has made it to the “big time” when they are given the opportunity to write to a general audience. Some thinkers, such as Richard Dawkins, have made their name via popularization. Others, such as E.O. Wilson, only became notable figures outside of academia after having established their reputation and stature within science. David Sloan Wilson has taken the latter path. Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives is an ambitious book, as the title should make clear. But just as E.O. Wilson’s forays into popularization have been powerfully colored by the science which has shaped his life, so Evolution for Everyone is much more intelligible in the context of David Sloan Wilson’s intellectual projects. E.O. Wilson spent the first part of his career defending the importance of organismic biology against the molecular brigades led by James Watson, while his middle years were spent elucidating the nascent orthodoxy culminating in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Contrastingly, David Sloan Wilson has been the grand strategist behind the guerrilla war on behalf of group selection. But it is perhaps due to his scientific heterodoxies that David Sloan Wilson has finally reached the prominence which has allowed him to have a voice to speak to a mass audience. Just as his father, the novelist Sloan Wilson, achieved celebrity status via novels which examined the human condition, so his son’s oeuvre tends to be highly biased toward an examination of our own species through the lens of evolution.


Evolution for Everyone is characterized by a rapid-fire sequence of chapters which begin from the basics and ascends circuitously up the ladder of complexity and controversy toward an understanding of human nature. While Richard Dawkins’ early scientific popularizations, such as The Selfish Gene, exhibited a laser-like topical focus upon abstract concepts, Wilson’s prose comes at you in scattershot bursts as he sweeps across innumerable subjects, all the while lacing the evolutionary logic through the narrative. Some of the chapters in Evolution for Everyone are exceedingly succinct, a few pages before the leap to another idea. The core abstraction which serves as the axis mundi of the book is the idea of adaptive evolution; natural selection operating upon heritable variation. A close reader will note that Wilson barely touches upon molecular evolution & the empire of neutralism. Rather, Evolution for Everyone reflects the author’s specific interests in evolutionary ethology and human sociology, putting the spotlight upon these two areas of study. Just as Daniel Dennett tried his had at the imperial game in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, so Wilson spends a great deal of time attempting to show the utility of evolutionary logic in resurrecting functionalism within the human sciences, in particular anthropology. Wilson’s somewhat perfunctory abstract opening gives way almost immediately to his interest in the origin of human cooperation and higher order cultural structures, as he revisits arguments made in his previous works, Unto Others & Darwin’s Cathedral. Though this focus makes the subject relevant and engaging to the lay reader, it does seem that Wilson spends a bit too much time on topics that are at the margins of evolutionary science. While it is a shame that the social sciences and humanities have an allergy to evolutionary thinking, neglecting the molecular genetic substrate which biological evolution is built upon to shed light on these issues might give the public the wrong impression about the general thrust of the research programs.
One of the strengths of Dawkins’ writing is the singular attention in his prose to a particular issue at hand, a consistent reaffirmation of a way to look at the world, whether it be the “gene’s eye view” or “extended phenotype.” David Sloan Wilson does not have this strength, his argument is more diffuse, promiscuously dispersed across fields. Wilson explores the empirical nature of evolutionary biology through a description of basic experimental procedures which can shed light upon scientific questions. He highlights the use of adaptationist functional analysis in comprehending the ultimate utility of biological characters. He even addresses and argues for the the richness which evolutionary thought may add to the humanities. Separate they are all tantalizing tidbits, but fundamentally Wilson never drives the drill-bit to the core because another factual morsel around the corner attracts our attention, draws away our eye. Having read Wilson’s other work and knowing his role in the “levels of selection” debate it is difficult not to note that he consistently attempts to interject a conceptualization of adaptation working upon various levels of organization, from the gene up to the species level. There are even a few oblique jabs at Richard Dawkins which come close to dismissing him as a peddler of tautologies. But I suspect that the novice reader to whom Evolution for Everyone is putatively addressed simply won’t pick up on these details. It is after all somewhat much to assume that readers who are initially presumed to be innocent of evolutionary understanding will glean the subtle waters of scientific controversy which roil the field.
Speaking of controversies, one of the issues that any book on evolution aimed at the general audience is expected to do is address the theory as it intersects with American cultural winds and public policy. Wilson’s treatment of this point is novel, rather than frontally decompose the claims of Creationists his tactic involves simultaneous dismissal coupled with an exploration of a debate from an evolutionary angle, illustrating the fruitfulness of the latter without paying much attention to the arguments of the former. Wilson analyzes and discusses religion in a general sense, bringing together social and scientific concerns. Strangely, he also makes numerous references to The Templeton Foundation, on the whole giving it a positive evaluation (it has funded his research on cooperation). In regards to religion as it plays out on the level of individuals he seems to believe it has had a predominantly salutary influence, and on the scale of groups he vigorously promotes a functionalism which contends that religion exists primarily to further the good of these groups. That is, religion has selective value. Though personally an atheist Wilson sees no reason to deny the practical good religion does, and he expresses open hope that those who reject the supernatural may one day be able to mimic the positive horizontal social benefits of religious organizations without needing to ape the supernatural vertical aspects. His intellectual breadth falls short in my eye when he claims that Buddhism is a step in the right direction, as I have noted before the reality is that modally Buddhist believers exhibit a great deal of belief in a “vertical” dimension to their faith, it is the elite intellectuals (like Wilson) who are comfortable with a godless dharma. Wilson’s basic tack in regards to addressing the threat posted by Creationism to the evolutionary project is to offer up both goodwill toward religionists and keep open the alternative avenue of accommodating and exalting religious values while accepting the relevance of naturalism in describing the universe around us. Ultimately I suspect one problem with this is that he does not position himself behind any single evolutionary idea as an alternative to the propaganda spewed forth by the Creationists.
Evolution for Everyone was a quick and enjoyable read, the prose was breezy if not always artful. But, I’m honestly not convinced that David Sloan Wilson wrote a book that was as accessible or relevant to the audience he seems to want to reach, the broad general public. The data and analyses presented are intelligible and illuminating if one actually understands evolutionary biology and the controversies within the field beforehand. Though a well versed reader does not need a point-by-point refutation of the false claims promoted by Creationists, the 50% of the American public which has bought into the Creationist propaganda might be served by at least a tacit and nominal engagement of these talking points. Though I benefited from a further exposition on Wilson’s thoroughgoing functionalism on many levels of biological and social organization, I am not convinced that without a fundamental grounding in molecular/Mendelian dynamics one can truly comprehend the grand scope of evolution’s algorithmic power, from molecules to morphology to sociology. For the well informed reader the retreads of arguments made in Wilson’s previous books might seem somewhat superfluous and unnecessary, thin gruel to the rich gravy that could be found elsewhere. The disjointed and episodic nature of WIlson’s narrative leaves the reader fundamentally wanting more, as if the main course never arrived after several rounds of appetizers.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution
  • Colugo

    From your description of his latest book, DS Wilson appears to be more of an adaptationist when it comes to human social behavior, including institutions like religion, than evolutionary psychologists, the dual inheritance school, and many other evolutionary ecologists interested in human behavior. The ‘adaptationist program’ – or rather, a grossly straw-manned distortion – was one of the main targets of attack by anti-sociobiologists and the like (pluralists, holists, dialectical biologists, DST et al.). Dismissive rhetoric like “Panglossianism” and “Just-So Stories” is still ritually (and usually vacuously) invoked. Yet, DS Wilson’s adaptationism doesn’t raise the same ire since it’s not “reductionist.” (Although it arguably is, as a variant of Universal Darwinism.)
    This doesn’t make DS Wilson right or wrong, sophisticated or not – it’s just an observation about the various critics and supporters of particular scientific theories.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    colugo, wilson is hard to pin down. i actually liked his relative transcendence of the various “camps” re: “evolutionary psychology,” etc. on the one hand, i think his argument about the relevance of evolutionary theory to english literature is a bit glib and underdeveloped, but he isn’t one be modest and he stakes out the grand program of evolution with chapter titles which talk about how he’s not afraid of genetic determinism (in part because of his emphasis on biologically rooted, but facultative, behavior). additionally, his adaptationism is post-biological, e.g., his emphasis on functionalism within the human sciences utilizes social structures as the phenotypes upon which selection operates (he makes copious reference to boyd & richerson’s work, and he would surely go further than either because he seems to accept the likelihood of genetically operant group selection in humans in addition to cultural dynamics). he does make a reference to the “just so” criticism, though in my opinion he generally avoids addressing this critique in a detailed fashion, i believe he assumes the readers will be seduced by his adaptationism (the strategy he employs against creationism).
    p.s. a lot of the book is drawn from wilson’s interdisciplinary project on evolution which he started at his university. can’t link to it now cuz his site is down, but google his name and you’ll find it.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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