Evolution for Everyone: A Review

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My wife says she will disown me if I continue to describe every human behavior and every human trait as adaptive. I had better get a separate bank account, because I have just read David Sloan Wilson’s splendid book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives (Delacorte, 2007).

Professor Wilson begins by showing how intuitive evolutionary theory really is: Variation plus consequences of that variation plus heredity. A population of moths varies in color (the variation), and some are more subject to predation (the consequence). The offspring of the more cryptic (camouflaged) moths resemble their parents (heredity), so gradually the color of the population drifts toward more crypsis. That’s it. To show his students that they are now experts, Professor Wilson pairs them up and has them conceive possible reasons why infanticide may be adaptive. If you answered lack of resources, poor quality of offspring, and uncertain parentage, you are an expert evolutionist and ready to read the book.

If there is an underlying theme to the book, it is that organisms cooperate at all levels as much as they compete. Indeed, Professor Wilson devotes many pages to between-group selection and applies it to human interactions at the inter-tribal and international levels. He notes that selfishness is easily recognizable in individuals but not so easy to see in nations. Certain utterances that might be called patriotic are in fact selfish and would be so recognized at the individual level but are praised at the national level. His fervent hope is that an understanding of evolutionary theory will somehow limit selfish behavior among nations. Though we have expanded the meaning of tribe to nation or language group, we may have to expand it to all of humanity before this vision comes true, and I am not quite so optimistic about that possibility.

We talk of an ivory tower; Professor Wilson sees an array of disconnected ivory towers, which he calls the ivory archipelago. Each tower represents an academic discipline, and the towers are connected loosely if at all. Too many of the inhabitants of the towers are wholly unaware of evolutionary theory and as a result make elementary mistakes. Every few years, it seems, Professor Wilson discovers one of these fields and, in a remarkable display of virtuosity, finds a way to apply evolutionary theory to one of the towers in the archipelago.

Here is one example of how Professor Wilson operates: Perhaps because I teach a design course to freshmen, I was especially interested by a chapter on teamwork. One of our goals is to teach teamwork, and we are confident that teams perform better and more creatively than individuals. I was as dismayed as Professor Wilson to read disparaging comments about groupthink and team performance. We are social animals, he says, and evolutionary theory suggests that we should perform well in teams. He read the literature, suspected that the results were skewed by tasks that were too easy, put together a small team, and devised an experiment that distinguished between hard and easy tasks. The result: Teams performed better than individuals on hard tasks, except for one case where an individual essentially commandeered a team and imposed his will (in my class, we call such individuals overachievers, and we do not mean that as a compliment).

I liked Professor Wilson’s approach to religion, though I occasionally thought he sounded defensive; he shows preliminary evidence that religious behavior is adaptive, no matter what supernatural baggage is attached, and that facile explanations such as fear of death are wrong. I wish I were as sanguine about the John Templeton Foundation, which supports a dialog between science and religion – as long as they are reconciled. (See, for example, John Horgan’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Alexander Saxton’s in Free Inquiry.)

A reviewer’s job is to heap praise when due but also to criticize. I liked the way Professor Wilson went out of his way to share credit for his discoveries and indeed to boast about the accomplishments of others, but I thought there was too much bio- and autobiography in the book. Even though I know Professor Wilson slightly (having spent a week with him and his family and around 150 of our closest friends at a conference on a comparatively remote island), I found the autobiography in the second-last chapter completely out of place, as were many too-personal paragraphs elsewhere. The index looked good, but when I tried to look up some key words, I could not find selection, group selection, moth, and others. I thought also that he should have defined such terms as autosome, metastasis, meiosis, and maybe even facultative as it is used in biology.

This morning, just as I was finishing the book, I heard the Administrator of NASA interviewed on the radio. He allowed that global warming may indeed be a fact, but that there is no reason to believe that the present climate is the best possible climate, and maybe we therefore need not do anything about global warming. Any evolutionist who has read this book will be able to say with some confidence, “There is no ‘best’ climate. There is only the climate we are adapted to right now. If that climate changes, then we will very likely become maladapted.”

Let us hope that Darwin’s theory “changes the way we think about our lives.”

References.

John Horgan, “The Templeton Foundation: A Skeptic’s Take,” reprinted at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/horgan06/horgan06_index.html .

Alexander Saxton, “‘Sir John’ Templeton’s Foundation and the New Trinitarianism,” Free Inquiry, June/July, 2007, pp. 27-34.

“NASA Administrator Michael Griffin Not Sure That Global Warming Is a Problem,” NPR Press Release, http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr[…]ml?pid=22729 .

12 Comments

This link doesn’t work:

John Horgan, “The Templeton Foundation: A Skeptic’s Take,” reprinted at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/horgan06/horgan06_index.html .

Cut & pasting does work.

Oh, sorry - the program has superscripted the -rd associated with the digit 3 and apparently fouled up the link. At the risk of ducking responsibility, I blame Microsoft Word for initiating a lot of bad defaults such as that. I don’t know how to fix it without hiding the link, and I am old-fashioned enough to want the link to show up explicitly in the reference.

I blame Microsoft Word for initiating a lot of bad defaults such as that. I don’t know how to fix it without hiding the link, and I am old-fashioned enough to want the link to show up explicitly in the reference.

The moment that Word makes the substitution, you can hit undo (Control Z) and it will remove the substitution.

It’s a kwickxml issue, but can be resolved if you don’t rely on automatic linking. Also it copies and pastes just fine in my firefox.

Any evolutionist who has read this book will be able to say with some confidence, “There is no ‘best’ climate. There is only the climate we are adapted to right now. If that climate changes, then we will very likely become maladapted.”

Heh. I’ve not read the book, but when I heard him say that, I grumbled ineffectually, “What does ‘best climate’ mean? It’s our climate.”

No, it is not a Word problem, but an effect of a bad example set by Word years ago. In fact, I did not compose in Word, and, when I have to use Word, I disable most of the defaults. I realize, by the way, that language evolves, but I’d prefer gradualism with a time constant longer than 1 lifetime, rather than the punctuation occasioned by the success of Word.

Matt Young Wrote:

His fervent hope is that an understanding of evolutionary theory will somehow limit selfish behavior among nations.

I probably need to read the book, because the description of characteristics applied to levels is confusing. Individuals (which seems to be a rather established level of evolution and economy, btw ;-) can be selfish, and at which levels of interaction this is showing is one discussion. It is quite another to attribute behavior to groups and their interaction.

Matt Young Wrote:

Teams performed better than individuals on hard tasks, except for one case where an individual essentially commandeered a team and imposed his will (in my class, we call such individuals overachievers, and we do not mean that as a compliment).

Teams may perform better at the task, but the group behavior is not guaranteed to be good according to other parameters.

I am reminded of game theory, where individuals are doing well at that task solving by using the strategy of tit-for-tat with slight forgiveness. That is also a nice behavior. But they can be beaten by cooperating team with sacrificial patsies. I don’t think maffia’s are quite as wished for in real life. :-)

Matt Young Wrote:

“There is only the climate we are adapted to right now. If that climate changes, then we will very likely become maladapted.”

And while our children’s children’s … children may adapt again, we will loose a lot of species diversity ‘capital’ along the way.

Matt Young Wrote:

I’d prefer gradualism with a time constant longer than 1 lifetime, rather than the punctuation occasioned by the success of Word.

Word.

Ehrm, … or words to that effect.

“In the Beginning was the Word”

:-)

As someone who studies Molecular Evolution I am always slightly irked by the focus on adaptation versus evolution as a whole. I also think it is one of the points that gets missed in the Evolution vs Creationism debate. Most people with a cursory knowledge of evolution (or the strawman of “evolutionism” that some seem to prefer”) focus entirely too much on adaptation and believe that only positive mutations that confer a selective advantage are responsible for evolutionary changes. Which of course for those of us on the Molecular or Pop. Gen. end of things know is quite far from the truth. Neutral Evolution is at least as important, if not more important, than Adaptive Evolution.

Ok sorry folks, thatw as ym rant :) Just one of my pet peeves.

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As someone who studies Molecular Evolution I am always slightly irked by the focus on adaptation versus evolution as a whole. I also think it is one of the points that gets missed in the Evolution vs Creationism debate. Most people with a cursory knowledge of evolution (or the strawman of “evolutionism” that some seem to prefer”) focus entirely too much on adaptation and believe that only positive mutations that confer a selective advantage are responsible for evolutionary changes. Which of course for those of us on the Molecular or Pop. Gen. end of things know is quite far from the truth. Neutral Evolution is at least as important, if not more important, than Adaptive Evolution.

It’s a valid point. A couple of things, though. Adaptive complexity is the “sexy” part of evolution. It’s what people focus on because it makes for a compelling (and relatively non-technical) narrative. Second, selection does do the heavy lifting. Drift, various mechanisms of speciation, mutations like gene duplication, these are all integral features of evolution taken as a whole. But we have eyes because creatures who could see out-competed creatures who couldn’t (in certain niches). We have wings because flying helped ancient creatures survive and reproduce. Without the ratchet of selection, none of the really interesting features we see in the living world –meaning, subjectively, the features most in need of explanation– could have even gotten off the ground, as it were. And, finally, the book isn’t closed on the insights to be gained by focussing on adaptation. To some, it may seem that the more rigorous and technical aspects of molecular evolution have eclipsed the 19th Century gentleman naturalists musings on “nature red in tooth and claw,” but concepts like Dawkins’s “the extended phenotype,” ESS, and other interesting investigations of complicated co-evolutionary relationships show that there’s still more to be learned.

Still and all, I largely agree with your take, as far as public perception of what evolution “is” or “means.”

CJO:

Adaptation does tend to be the “sexy” aspect of Evolution, although in my line of research it tends to get a little blurry at times. And your right in that adaptation is hugely important, although it is important to keep in mind that Drift can overcome selection, which is impressive. The fixing of deleterious mutations, the loss of advantageous ones, etc. I think my main point was simply “Don’t focus too much on adaptation, our interpretations are much richer when we look at and consider evolutionary forces as a whole.”

It makes things more complex, but in my opinion it makes it much more worthwhile.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on May 31, 2007 2:23 PM.

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