Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Science and the Media, part 1

As someone who is very involved in the fight for quality science education in the US, nothing is more frustrating than seeing how often and how flagrantly science gets distorted in the popular media. Most Americans get what little knowledge they have of science not from scientists but from journalists and TV producers. Unfortunately, much of what passes for science in newspapers, popular magazines and on television is either drastically oversimplified, wildly exaggerated, or just plain wrong. This example caught my eye on the web.

The headline is “Evolutionary theory says self-interest dictates our behavior, so why do we show such generosity at Christmas?.” So what’s wrong with this headline? Two things. First, it’s false. Second, even if stated correctly it only gives half the picture.

Evolutionary theory does not say that self-interest dictates our behavior. Many in the related field of sociobiology infer FROM evolutionary theory that self-interest dictates SOME types of behavior. It is important to distinguish between scientific theories and the inferences drawn from them. It’s also important not to oversimplify, which is something that both sociobiologists and journalists reporting on their work often do.

It is much too simplistic to pretend that “evolutionary theory” says that genes must replicate themselves and must act selfishly in order to do so, and that this is the only, or even the primary, factor dictating human behavior. Human reproduction does not happen in a vacuum, nor does human behavior. We are influenced not only by the genetic necessities of life, but by cultural inputs as well, and it simply isn’t true that only selfish behavior aids in reproduction. Human beings live in groups, and not just families but communities, tribes and nations as well. Altruistic behavior helps societies remain stable and more peaceful, thereby creating a more conducive atmosphere for raising children. By helping our fellow man, we build safer and more supportive communities, and it seems to me that this is every bit as much a positive for the propogation of the species as selfish behavior.

The author of the article does get it right, but he has likely been failed by an editor supplying the headline. The author cites studies on altruistic behavior that strike the right balance:

Strong reciprocity promotes kindness and discourages cheats, but is it a product of our genes or in our culture? It can’t be entirely genetic, since different human societies (with very similar genes) vary greatly in their tolerance of cheating. Fehr and Fischbacher argue for gene-culture co-evolution: cultural and institutional environments promote social norms that favor the selection of genes that promote cooperation.

This type of work is every bit as much a product of work in the field of sociobiology as Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene is. And neither are a part of evolutionary theory itself; both are inferences drawn from evolutionary theory and applied to the question of human behavior.