Evolution for Everyone

Greetings from Lisbon, where I am helping to inaugurate the first EvoS program in Europe. EvoS (for Evolutionary Studies, pronounced as one word) teaches evolution across the curriculum. I started the first program at Binghamton, others are sprouting across the United States, and the first program in Europe has started thanks to a petite woman with a lot of energy named Filipa Vala and a university willing to innovate during the hardest of economic times.

EvoS-Lisbon concluded its first year with a symposium on free will. Filipa didn’t know how many people would attend, beyond the students in her “Evolution for Everyone” course, but the room filled to overflowing with people eager to hear what evolutionary science might have to say about our capacity to decide our own future.

After the symposium, we discussed the day over food and wine at a fine restaurant. One of the dishes was a kind of sausage called “Farinheira” that I was told originated during the Inquisition, when Jews in Spain and Portugal were being forced to convert to Christianity. Eating sausage was a sign of conversion and the Jews invented this kind of sausage without pork so they could maintain their faith.

I couldn’t help noticing a similarity between Jews hiding their faith during the Inquisition and the way that evolution has been hiding for the study of humanity during the last half-century or so. How else can the sheer novelty of an EvoS program and the symposium that took place earlier in the day be explained? One of the talks, by an evolutionary social psychologist named Thomas V. Pollet, showed how some of the classic studies in social psychology cry out for an evolutionary explanation, but are only newly being explicitly approached from an evolutionary perspective. The next speaker was an economist named Jose Maria Casto Caldas, who modestly said that he didn’t yet know enough about evolution to call himself an evolutionary economist, but proceeded to give a perceptive account of the history of evolutionary thinking in economics–slight as it is.

The most amazing tale of hiding came from Michael R. Rose, who is well known for his work on the evolution of aging but has had a hidden interest in free will for many years. Michael entered graduate school in the 1970’s and had an enviable choice between working with Brian Charlesworth in the UK or Richard Lewontin at Harvard. He traveled to Harvard to explore that option just after the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. The story of how Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould organized a Marxist attack against Wilson for the final chapter of Sociobiology on humans is well known, but Michael actually witnessed one of the first meetings during his visit. He was shocked, describing it during our dinner in Lisbon as like the thought control that took place in Maoist China. Michael wanted no part of it and elected to work with Charlesworth in the UK. He also started to work with John Maynard Smith during the early days of evolutionary game theory, to which he made important contributions. It was then that he began to develop an interest in how our capacity to invent our own future evolved, which he termed the evolution of free will. He has been developing his ideas ever since, but always hidden, based on his experience at Harvard, which convinced him that going public might ruin his career. His talk at Lisbon was one of the first times that he has come out of hiding.

Those who did openly think about human sociobiology and its successor, evolutionary psychology, describe it as a battle with their careers very much in the balance. When I organized the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) at Binghamton University in 1993, I brashly invited Gould to be the keynote speaker. He accepted but the founding members of HBES were so aghast that they forced me to retract my invitation. One of them actually said that it would be like inviting Hitler to a Jewish convention. I admire Gould’s and Lewontin’s positive contributions to evolutionary science, but their role in stigmatizing the study of evolution in relation to human affairs is nothing to be proud of.

The urge to suppress evolutionary thinking in relation to human affairs is due in part to the use of evolution during the first half of the 20th century to justify inequalities of all sorts, from eugenics to genocide. I do not want to hide this history; on the contrary, the Evolution Institute recently sponsored a workshop in collaboration with the Prindle Institute of Ethics that was all about being mindful of the past and explicit about the values that inform current EI projects.

Thankfully, the atmosphere surrounding the inauguration of EvoS-Lisbon was as open and friendly as can be. Most of the students in Filipa’s “Evolution for Everyone” class took it out of sheer interest, even when it didn’t satisfy any of their degree requirements, and the class was held on a Saturday when they could have been on the beach. For the people who overflowed the lecture hall for the symposium, it was obvious that disciplines such as social psychology and economics cry out for an evolutionary perspective. And Michael’s long-hidden talk on free will showed how evolution is needed to understand our capacity to shape our own future–the very capacity that Gould and Lewontin thought they were defending and insisted that “biological determinism” denied.

Michael describes his experience visiting Harvard in his book The Long Tomorrow and is completing a book on free will. The symposium talks will be featured on the EvoS-Lisbon website. Filipa is working on a documentary of the symposium and looks forward to expanding EvoS-Lisbon with her associates–the Portuguese economy willing. Rethinking economics from an evolutionary perspective might well help our economies run better. Let’s hope that the inquisition against evolution is over, and what better way to celebrate than over good food, good wine, and good company in Lisbon.

Comments

  1. #1 BC
    May 17, 2011

    Fine. But please do not equate evolutionary psychology with the study of evolution.

  2. #2 Roy Niles
    May 17, 2011

    But then when will you, D.S.W., come out of hiding and recognize that, as someone has said earlier, all traits in the end evolve from strategically successful behaviors.

  3. #3 J. A. LeFevre
    May 18, 2011

    Free will looks to me like the simplest solution to evolving a brain which is adaptable to perturbations in the environment. Free will could provide for behavioral variations which assist an animal evade predators or to hunt adaptive prey. Free will could allow for much more complex movement and much more varied rout or destination selection than hard-wired instinct. Free will would, of course, be influenced or biased by experience while still allowing flexibility. Too much free will (or too little instinct) could make the young particularly vulnerable – not enough experience bias for quick reactions, and it appears to me that parenting evolved to address this specific problem. I think it proved much easier (or at least more effective) to evolve parents for free-will brained critters than to evolve the necessary suite of instincts for adequately adaptive, competitive behaviors. I am suggesting that the free will we enjoy as humans is an evolutionary extension of the free will all birds and mammals must cope with to compete in life. Too much instinct and we would be too predictable – too easy prey for those of sharper tooth or claw.

  4. #4 B. Weeks
    May 18, 2011

    The inquisition is not totally over.

    Here is a quote from a college professor who graded an assignment I recently submitted that discussed the possibility of leadership ability having some evolutionary origin.

    ” I frankly have my doubts about this, but go ahead and use this model if you feel comfortable with it”

  5. #5 hazel-rah
    May 19, 2011

    To B. Weeks: You professor’s commentary on your paper hardly sounds like an ‘inquisition.’ It actually sounds like open-mindedness mixed with healthy skepticism.
    I worry that the position you take – and that Dr. Wilson’s post takes as well – is going to be interpreted as a kind of paranoia on the part of evolution’s defenders. Obviously, some professional academics are skeptical about evolutionary theories applied to human affairs. How would you rather have it? What you are describing here is not an inquisition. It’s called ‘critique.’ It’s what academics do, and the good ones do it to everything (even the positions they agree with). If you want blind acceptance, try religion.

    Dr. Wilson: As for Gould and Lewontin are concerned – yes, they were a pain in the ass. But those comparisons with Maoist China and Hitler are WAY over the line. The next time you (or your contemporaries) are looking for some clever analogy, it would be nice if you had some consideration for the suffering that people actually experienced in real historical crises – not the professional pissing matches that you describe here.

    I have a related question for you: Why did the workshop on ‘Ethics After Darwin’ not include a single individual whose qualifications included the history of science and technology? If you intend not to ‘hide that history,’ it seems like a good place to start would be to engage some people with knowledge of the historical applications of Darwinism. Maybe I’m just being unrealistic in thinking so.

    Then again, I also realize I’m being unrealistic in thinking you’ll actually respond to this question. The numerous spam commentaries on your blog attests to your disinterest in following up on anything your readers might have to argue.

  6. #6 David Sloan Wilson
    May 19, 2011

    Hazel-rah–you have prodded me into replying to your comment. To begin with your last point, please don’t confuse lack of time for disinterest. Anyone who knows me knows two things: 1) I love talking about evolution with everyone; and 2) I have many projects going at once and struggle to meet my teaching and research commitments. Ask my graduate and undergraduate students at Binghamton if I should be spending more time replying to comments on my blog. I can scarcely find time to write a post, much less respond to comments as much as I would like to. I value blogging as a medium of communication that is absolutely free, more free-spirited than academic writing, and a way to think through issues for myself. The comment section enables readers to communicate back to me (I do read them) and to each other. That’s the best I can do in a time-limited world.

    I agree with you that science and scholarship are all about skepticism, but skepticism can be constructive or obstructionist. The same goes for political discourse, which can become so obstructionist that it comes to a grinding halt. The nature of discourse, and why it only sometimes leads in constructive directions, is a topic that I look forward to exploring from an evolutionary perspective. I regard it as a special case of cooperation and conflict, about which evolution has much to say.

    When discourse goes the way of one ideology trying to suppress other ideologies, along with other forms of thought that qualify as non-ideological, the tactics can range in their severity from torture and death to mere words. I’m thankful that scientists are no longer burned at the stake, but the threat of professional death is no small matter either. You know that science and scholarship have gone in an obstructionist direction when a scientist or scholar can’t openly employ an evolutionary perspective for fear of professional death.

    A common rhetorical strategy is to portray oneself as morally superior to one’s opponent. As if you are sensitive to the suffering of others and I’m an insensitive lout. Another rhetorical strategy is to trivialize the subject at hand. As if the issues at stake are a mere pissing match. A third strategy is to question the qualifications of one’s opponent. As if I organized a workshop on Ethics after Darwin and somehow left out qualified scholars. Frankly, these tiresome strategies don’t deserve a reply.

    Finally, when I praise the virtues of the evolutionary perspective, it is not to say that evolutionists currently have things right. It is to say that evolutionary science (not just theory, because science is an interplay between theory and empirical research) provides a way of organizing past information and guiding the search for new information that applies to all living processes, therefore all human processes. The fact that this still needs to be articulated and defended in 2011 says it all about the suppression of evolutionary thought in relation to human affairs.

  7. #7 B. Weeks
    May 19, 2011

    Hazel-rah

    Possibly I am being hypersensitive at this point. However, as Dr. Wilson explains as long as the critique doesn’t become obstructionist, then such critiques are fine. Graduate students like myself can ill-afford to be obstructed from pursuing our interests from professors with an ideological bent. I am planning on writing a dissertation involving evolution and behavior. I shall then see exactly how much of the inquisition is left in such academic pursuits in the social sciences.

  8. #8 hazel-rah
    May 19, 2011

    Dr Wilson: I’m glad you felt ‘prodded’ to respond to my comments. That is (obviously) what I intended. On the other hand, you have not actually answer any of my concerns. Instead you mistakenly assume that I am taking some moral stance toward you. However ‘tiresome’ you find my ‘rhetorical strategies,’ being blown off like that is just as tiresome.

    First, I asked a perfectly legitimate question on why your conference on ethical challenges in evolutionary public policy would not include a historian of science. You seem to think that I was implicating you of purposefully neglecting to invite such a person. I did not (and do not) suggest any such thing. The conference that you link to in this post seems like it would require someone with strong knowledge about the historical successes and failures of applied evolutionary science.

    Second, I was also trying to make a point about the historical analogies drawn by you and your colleagues. Don’t you see the risks (to your own arguments) in drawing comparisons between your profession’s disagreements and the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, or the Inquisition? Don’t you think that your argument might be interpreted as exaggerated or reactionary, by both your detractors and potential allies?

    On that note, I do apologize for describing the debates over evolution a ‘pissing contest.’ That was rude and out of line. My comments were heated because I find some of the comparisons made here (particularly those referencing Jewish persecution) naïve, unproductive, and belittling of great suffering.

    Finally, I don’t buy the ‘professional death’ argument, I do not see how evolutionists have suffered so badly. They publish in both academic and popular arenas, teach classes on evolution and a variety of subjects, and receive tenure, raises, and grants. Certainly your own career attests to this, as does Dr. Rose’s. If they are being ‘persecuted’ and ‘stigmatized,’ it’s a pretty quiet kind of violence (compared to the bloody historical imagery they invoke).

    Let me prod you one last time: Gould et al publicly criticized sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. As a result, he was called ‘Hitler’ by the HBES ‘Jews,’ and excluded from their meetings. That example seems to speak to the opposite of what you’re arguing here… critics of evolutionary science get stigmatized as ‘anti-science,’ ‘ideologues,’ and ‘secular creationists.’ That sounds like obstructionist stigmatization to me.

  9. #9 hazel-rah
    May 19, 2011

    B.Weeks: I wish you all the luck in the world on your dissertation. If you would, please keep in mind that all people have an ‘ideological bent’. Graduate students are incredibly compromised in the choices they can make. They can also not afford (or be expected) to sacrifice their educations and careers into a meatgrinder of egos and battling first principles. The professors might cry foul at every criticism, but they still have jobs and insurance at the end of the semester.

  10. #10 David Sloan Wilson
    May 20, 2011

    Dear Hazel-rah,

    Quickly, Melvin Konner was invited to the ethics workshop to speak on the history of Darwinism. His classic book The Tangled Wing has recently been published in an updated edition. Melvin is not a primary scholar on the history of Darwinism but his talk provided a fine overview of the subject, as I think you’ll agree when it is posted on the EI website, which will also provide a guide to the primary scholarly literature on the subject. You can judge how well we succeed.

    Without addressing every one of your points in detail, I agree with you that human thought is always vulnerable to influence based on values, with examples of obstructionist stigmatization on all sides. That’s because human thought is designed to produce action, not truth, and the relationship between the two is complex.

  11. #11 hazel-rah
    May 20, 2011

    Dr. Wilson,

    Melvin Konner is an odd choice to speak on that matter, but I’ll check that out when it is posted. Thank you for your answer.

    As for the rest of your response, you do not address any of my other points in any kind of detail. I did not argue that ‘human thought is always vulnerable to influence based on values’. And I don’t understand the statement ‘human thought is designed to produce action, not truth, and the relationship between the two is complex’. That is not an answer, it’s a non sequitur. And it doesn’t really even make sense, standing on its own.

    Now, I pointed out to you that your posting is peppered with comparisons between evolutionary science and various historical nightmares. Doing so, I suggested that:

    (1) these comparisons are exaggerations,

    (2) both your defenders and critics are likely to find them to be so, and

    (3) this behavior might be one explanation for why evolutionists are not being taken seriously in the academy. That is, it is historically naive, melodramatic, and ultimately avoids criticisms by stigmatizing the very act of critique.

    Now, you have not addressed this issue, but you should, because it is is none-the-less the central theme to which you return, throughout your post on Lisbon.

  12. #12 David Sloan Wilson
    May 22, 2011

    Hazel-rah

    To respond to your three comments:

    1) In an essay on the suppression of evolutionary thought in academia, I do not regard it as either an exaggeration or in poor taste to draw comparisons with other cases of cultural suppression, even when the tactics were more brutal. It would be an exaggeration to say that there was no difference in tactics, but this was not my claim.

    2) So far, you are the only one who has raised an objection along these lines, either publicly or privately.

    3) What makes you think that evolutionists are not being taken seriously in the academy? They are not taken seriously in certain corners of the academy, especially those most concerned with cultural studies. The reason is not (for the most part) that evolutionists are prone to exaggeration and cultural studies professors scrupulously avoid exaggeration. Antipathy to evolution runs far deeper. It is based on past theories of cultural evolution that turned out to be wrong (e.g., as a linear progression), and on the use of evolution to justify inequality–including the holocaust during World War II–although religion was good enough for the spanish and portuguese catholics during the Inquisition, and millions of people have also been killed in the name of malleability.

    It’s easy to understand why people most interested in culture and protecting the rights of various cultural groups should be most nervous about evolutionary thinking, based on past experience. The best way to deal with this nervousness is to be mindful about the past and constructively skeptical about current inquiry. If our capacity for culture evolved by genetic evolution and itself is an evolutionary process, then a sophisticated knowledge of evolution is required to achieve positive outcomes agreed upon by consensus.

  13. #13 hazel-rah
    May 22, 2011

    Thank you for your response, Dr. Wilson.

    You do not see the exaggeration in these historical analogies. We differ on that point. More than anything, you and your colleagues are just being foolish in drawing those kinds of comparisons. So far, the predicament of evolutionists has been compared to historical examples of apartheid, totalitarianism, religious inquisitions, and thought control. The survivors of socio-political persecutions (and their descendents) dislike seeing their suffering employed as a rhetorical device in qualitatively different circumstances. That is not being ‘mindful of the past’ (as you say), and I imagine it will bite you in the ass some day.

    As for my ‘lone objection’ to your rhetoric, this is quite patently an ad hominem response on your part – a tiresome strategy if there ever was one. The same argument I make here has been made many times over – by George Levine, Susan McKinnon, Robert Young, Jonathan Marks, and several others. But that is beside the point. I am one of your readers. I have read nearly everything you publish. And I am trying to tell you something important: When I encounter these kinds of egregious, uninformed, and reactionary historical analogies, it makes me afraid for the future of evolutionary science.

    Where did I get the impression that evolutionists are not taken seriously in the academy? From you… that is the core of your argument, here and in many other publications. Your response here is simply equivocation. Yes, I mean ‘certain corners’ of the academy. On that note, it might be fun for you to try out your historical analogies in some of these corners – perhaps someone versed in Judaic studies or South African politics. After you do, it might also be worthwhile to run your postings and responses through a Logic 101 course and learn all about ad hominem fallacies and strawmen.

  14. #14 Ross
    October 22, 2011

    Hazel-rah. Whilst I think that you make a good observation – and perhaps we shouldn’t equate ideologically motivated arguments in academic circles with ideologically motivated occurrences of actual social persecution due to the real degree of difference in real life consequences. However, Steven Pinker describes in one of his books the aggressive student actions directed at, I believe Ed Wilson, as a result of the politically motivated position and actions taken by Gould and Lewontin. Intolerance springs to mind.

    We would do well to remind ourselves that the difference is only one of degree – fundamentally however, the principle is the same.

    The danger, as I see it, that such ideology begins to pervade early education – as it did so in the UK in the 60’s and 70’s and from which our institutions have yet to fully recover. Young minds are there to be encouraged to explore rather than to be indoctrinated. After that, its up to the individual which point of view they adopt – but hopefully as intelligently and tolerantly as one might expect from a good, encouraging educational system. It may well be yet be shown however that this institutional bias has had a significant social cost – which does constitute real life consequences for those affected. Granted, not the Inquisition or the Holocaust – but nevertheless still significant.

    I for one would rather accept the exaggeration if accompanied with this caveat in mind – rather than not have it at all. Lets not play too safe.

  15. #15 Ross
    October 22, 2011

    Hazel-rah. Whilst I think that you make a good observation – and perhaps we shouldn’t equate ideologically motivated arguments in academic circles with ideologically motivated occurrences of actual social persecution due to the real degree of difference in real life consequences. However, Steven Pinker describes in one of his books the aggressive student actions directed at, I believe Ed Wilson, as a result of the politically motivated position and actions taken by Gould and Lewontin. Intolerance springs to mind.

    We would do well to remind ourselves that the difference is only one of degree – fundamentally however, the principle is the same.

    The danger, as I see it, that such ideology begins to pervade early education – as it did so in the UK in the 60’s and 70’s and from which our institutions have yet to fully recover. Young minds are there to be encouraged to explore rather than to be indoctrinated. After that, its up to the individual which point of view they adopt – but hopefully as intelligently and tolerantly as one might expect from a good, encouraging educational system. It may well be yet be shown however that this institutional bias has had a significant social cost – which does constitute real life consequences for those affected. Granted, not the Inquisition or the Holocaust – but nevertheless still significant.

    I for one would rather accept the exaggeration if accompanied with this caveat in mind – rather than not have it at all. Lets not play too safe.

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