Evolution For Everyone

On the cusp of the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species next year, American biologist David Sloan Wilson has written Evolution for Everyone as an open invitation to the party. Be you sports jock or pet bird enthusiast, armed with an evolutionary mindset and a "roll up your sleeves" approach to the topic at hand, you too can get a publication in Nature or Scientific American.

That’s right folks, neo-Darwinism is the key to unlocking every door within the "ivory archipelago" (Wilson’s description of the ivory towers that populate a university and are happy to leave biology to the biologists). The experts, you see, are usually so preoccupied with their own narrow fields of interest that they fail to keep abreast of important developments in other disciplines like, uh, biology. David Wilson assures us that any dilettante can make the big grade with the help of an online scholar search engine and a judicious literature review. It’s worked for him, and it can work for you too!

Sorry? Does it seem like this has little to do with evolution? Much like the swirls of DNA of which we are made, Evolution for Everyone strings together interesting science and a lot of junk biography (the penultimate chapter should have either been deleted or dumped on Facebook). The importance of this book, however, lies in its claim that every human endeavour – art, religion, literature, humor -- needs to be reinterpreted in the light of evolution. Once that happens we will not only come to see how the obvious has been sitting under our noses, we will also be able to make enormous leaps and bounds in our self-understanding and in the quality of policy prescriptions!

Wilson puts Billy Graham to shame in his zeal for converts. Welcoming Darwin into our hearts is not just an option, it’s an imperative. We are called upon to adopt the attitude of the Prodigal Son, to be humble, to come to our senses and leave behind husks of theories that say human beings are special. In short, we should "change the way we think about our lives". To that end he even recalls the lamentation of a colleague at non-believers’ hardness of heart: "Don’t they know that lives are at stake!"

Like Nietzsche’s madman carrying a lantern in the middle of the day and crying out to a disbelieving public that there is no God, David Wilson recognises that Joe Public is still only paying lip-service to evolution. He has yet to realise that evolution is not confined to science – Darwinism is metaphysical: it is part of the building blocks of being. When he says that capital E "Evolution" is for everyone, he means everyone. Any attempt to defend, say, an analysis of 17th Century French poetry without making use of the Darwinian triumvirate of "adaptation, consequences and heredity" is hubris and special pleading.

Wilson is well acquainted with the ivory archipelago’s opposition. Postmodernists refuse to extend to science the tolerance they show to Native American spirit worship. Indulging in his own deconstructing, Wilson pooh-poohs envious opponents who are afraid of methods and learning that they do not possess. Does this mean that Dante’s Inferno or Calvin’s Institutio Christianae Religionis are intimately connected to gene replication? The answer is "Yes!" He gives us the following justification.

Wilson would have us believe that humans are 100 percent the product of evolution. The study of birds, businessmen and bacteria should therefore be "seamless". What is more, there is no such thing as an individual, only societies. Human beings are the eukaryotic (complex structures formed of cells) collection of single-celled organisms. Indeed, human society itself is little different to the diffused intelligence of a beehive. Hence when it comes to the "body politic", Wilson is a literalist. Intelligent decisions are the results of pheromones and feedback thresholds that have randomly mutated and led to success. "Individuality" is simply the name we give to an organised group that has been especially successful in resolving "within group" conflict.

In a more chilling vein, Wilson then redefines ethics. Ethics is a cosmic battle of good vs. bad. Good decisions altruistically favour other members of a group; bad decisions selfishly benefit oneself over the others. This battle is of cosmic proportions because it affects all life. The slime mold dictyostelium discoideum is a solid citizen and should be enrolled among the saints; chimpanzees are more selfish; and cancers are fatally so – for themselves and for their hosts. Ethics has nothing to do with freedom.

Beginning with DNA and building all the way up to human beings, ethics is all about achieving a "between group" altruism and "within group" selfishness that allows an organism to flourish and replicate. This is how nature develops. We are not the alpha-male dominated society that chimps live in, because our cavemen ancestors learned to throw stones – and so allow groups of weaklings to ward off alpha males without having to resort to hand-to-hand combat. Adaptation, consequences, heredity. Hey presto, hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies are egalitarian. They survive through playing down macho self-assertion in the interests of the group, enforced by religious and social sanctions that are purely evolutionary.

Human beings do share much with other living organisms, both plant and animal. We need to take cognisance of the subconscious influence of biology on our desires and motivations. But it is equally true that we differ from other multicellular organisms because of our rationality. Our freedom and awareness even influence our appetites in such a way that they are different to animal appetites. We can grow in virtue or diminish in humanity according to vice – if I want to lose weight I can choose to eat less. Wishful thinking, Wilson would say. Human rationality, he contends, is just the last room to be added in a mansion of many rooms.

Ah, but what a room! The last room to be added is an observatory equipped with a telescope that allows us to take in all things. It is because of this human capacity to know and to carry out science for the sake of knowledge itself that philosophers have described the human soul as being, in a certain way, all things. Unlike, for instance, slime mould or guinea pigs.

We are so unlike these that the late David Stove, an Australian philosopher, said in his book Darwinian Fairytales that the application of neo-Darwinism to ourselves is a "ridiculous slander": "If a Darwinian writer, in giving an account of fly life, were to mention the existence of fly hospitals, everyone would see the absurdity at once. Similarly, if a Darwinian writer, in giving an account of pine life, were to tell us that there is a pine priesthood, or unemployment relief for "disadvantaged" pines."

It may interest the neo-Darwinian apostles of atheism, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens and their ilk, that Wilson shows that religion does not tend to "poison everything". (He has even written a book defending it in his own way: Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society.) However, he likes religion because it has high practical benefits for the individual and for social behaviour. This reduction of all culture and religious explanation to so many "proximate" mechanisms for the "ultimate" goal of survival and replication is an a priori belief that blinds Wilson from appreciating the truth or falsity of those proximate mechanisms.

Wilson occasionally admits that the Gospel of Darwin is not infallible -- but not with great conviction. No matter how much he might roll up his sleeves and monitor human behaviour he will only ever rediscover his own a priori categories of adaptation, consequences and heredity – never the idea that humans have such unique dignity that they should never be used as a means.


Dr Richard Umbers is a Catholic priest. He lectures in philosophy in Sydney.


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