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.