Evolution in everything

By Razib Khan | March 30, 2013 7:08 pm

After reading Nature’s Oracle (yes, a lengthy review will be up soonish) I am even more struck by how evolutionary process suffused W. D. Hamilton’s whole worldview. This resulted in some peculiar conflicts over his career with those who wished to partition evolutionary and biological processes away from the domain of humans. Of course Hamilton himself focused for most of his scientific life on non-human phenomena in the specific details (e.g., the utilization of hymenoptera to illustrate inclusive fitness), but he always believed that his evolutionary insights were general. This makes sense in light of his idolization of R. A. Fisher, for whom evolutionary genetics was a practical science (he was a eugenicist). One of the biographical details which receives great attention in Nature’s Oracle is Hamilton’s untimely approach of an anthropology department the early 1960s in the interest of pursuing graduate work on the evolution of social behavior. It was a reflection of his absolute naivete as to the political climate during this period.

Many of Hamilton’s speculations seem likely to be wrong. Some of them are clear patently offensive to many. And yet the more I think about it the more I suspect that the Hamiltonian way of looking at things, where evolution is seamlessly integrated with the broader phenomena of living organisms, allows for maximal insight. E. O. Wilson famously asserted that “genes keep culture on the leash.” Hamilton agreed with this perspective. To some extent it is true and trivial. But it not always trivial.

I have suggested periodically that to a great extent even many biologists who don’t focus upon evolution don’t understand the process in their bones. By this, I don’t mean that these biologists don’t grasp the descriptive process of evolutionary change. They may even understand the conditions necessary for adaptation, or the power of stochastic forces on the genomic level. But very rarely do these biologists view evolution as part of a synoptic whole, a theory of the phenomena of living organisms. W. D. Hamilton had such a view, even if in the details many of his inferences generated from his internal framework were wrong. He was a master of the algebra of evolution, and evolutionary processes loomed large in the mechanism of his inferential engine.

This need not be so. There are areas where biological evolutionary process is not informative, at least in a non-trivial sense. There may even be domains where cultural evolutionary models are also uninformative. Rather, evolutionary process is a tool in a broader project to understand human culture. This is anathema to many social scientists, who do not believe that biological forces, and in particular evolution forces, present us with non-trivial implications. Because this is the a priori position it is almost impossible to make many social scientists (those familiar with formal modeling are generally excepted from this category) understand why evolutionary processes might actually be relevant.

Part of the problem here is that for various reasons that the sample space of researchers engaging in this sort of consilience is small, and restricted to particular scientific subcultures (e.g., evolutionary psychologists, the group of anthropologists around Robert Boyd, etc.). That means that the full range of nuanced possibilities often gets ignored, and big splashy assertions get press and acclaim. With all due to respect to E. O. Wilson his speculations about humans often indicate a lack of genuine focus on the topic. He is fundamentally steeped in ants, and people are a sidelight.

MORE ABOUT: W. D. Hamilton

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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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