I spend much of my time talking with people about subjects, such as education or economics, that have not been traditionally approached from an evolutionary perspective. For me, evolution provides a framework for thinking about all living processes, a fact that is already established for the biological sciences and is in the process of becoming established for the study of humanity. When I try to explain how a given human-related topic can be approached from an evolutionary perspective, the response that I often get is “Very interesting–but what’s evolution got to do with it?”
The people who pose this question typically accept the theory of evolution and assume that their own ideas are fully compatible with it. Sometimes they are even professional evolutionists, so the question cannot be dismissed as naïve. The implicit meaning of the question is “Of course what you say is compatible with evolution, but what have you told me that wasn’t already discovered without using the E-word, or which requires using the E-word in the future?”
My next few posts attempt to answer this question with the respect that it deserves, based on discussions that recently took place at three Evolution Institute workshops on ethics, evolutionary mismatch, and economics. The first was co-hosted by the Prindle Institute of Ethics and the others were co-hosted by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center.
Here are four reasons why evolution might indeed be irrelevant for the study of a particular trait, even though the trait is a product of evolution.
1) All branches of knowledge should ideally be consistent with each other, but every branch need not be consulted for the study of any particular branch. I rarely feel the need to consult quantum physics when I study evolution, and perhaps evolution rarely needs to be consulted for the study of many traits, in humans and nonhumans alike.
2) A reasonable research strategy is to study what is, without worrying much about how it got that way. After all, something like the brain is available to be studied in minute detail, whereas how it got that way is more speculative. Why speculate when you can study the real thing?
3) The concept of design long predates the concept of evolution. The fact that an object or process is well designed for a purpose can be established without knowing about the designing process. An insect that mimics a leaf is well designed to avoid detection by predators. Who cares if it is a product of evolution or a supernatural agent?
4) Human-related subjects such as economics or education have been studied by very smart people for a very long time. If science and scholarship result in the accumulation of knowledge, then people who start out employing different assumptions and perspectives will eventually reach the same conclusions. If so, then approaching a longstanding subject from an evolutionary perspective will merely affirm what has already been discovered.
These reasons for ignoring the E-word have a measure of legitimacy, but I will argue that they fail for the study of any major biological or human-related subject. Starting with 4, let’s consider the proposition that all smart people employing the tools of science and scholarship will eventually reach the same conclusions, no matter what their starting position. Even when this holds true, the evolutionary perspective can distinguish itself by getting there faster than other perspectives. In addition, positions can remain apart no matter how much time is provided. Thomas Kuhn forever changed the philosophy of science with his concept of paradigms, which noted that systems of thought become limited by their assumptions, requiring a process of selection among paradigms for a convergence of views. A paradigm can remain trapped within its own world forever unless challenged from without.
I find it useful to compare the philosophical concept of paradigms with complex physical and biological systems. Complex physical processes such as the weather exhibit properties such as multiple local equilibria, which resist incremental change, and sensitive dependence, whereby the tiniest difference in initial conditions results in a divergence over time. Might complex systems of thought share these properties of complex physical systems?
Or consider the process of biological diversification at a large spatial and temporal scale. Populations diverge whenever gene flow is disrupted, which can happen by virtue of geographical isolation or because of traits that prevent individuals from mating even when they are mingling with each other. The disruption of gene flow generates hundreds of species and subspecies in island archipelagos such as the Malay Archipelago, as first demonstrated by Alfred Russell Wallace.
Is the fragmentation of knowledge in academia the cultural evolutionary equivalent of the disruption of gene flow in genetic evolution? Would the Ivory Tower more aptly be called the Ivory Archipelago, as I suggested in my book Evolution for Everyone? If so, then the views of different groups of people studying the same subject would not be expected to converge in the absence of communication, which would require not only talking with one another, but sharing the same conceptual framework. Evolutionary science uniquely provides a framework for studying all traits in all species in the biological sciences, and is in the process of expanding to include all human-related subjects, which is why I spend so much time talking with folks who ask “What’s evolution got to do with it?”
To summarize, when longstanding subjects such as economics or education are considered from a modern evolutionary perspective, sometimes the result is merely an affirmation of what has already been discovered. It’s not as if no durable knowledge has accumulated for these subjects. Yet, the implicit assumption that everything about the subject is consistent with evolution without requiring much knowledge of evolution will also prove to be false–sometimes even profoundly false at an elementary level, as I recount for economics in my series titled “Evolution and Economics as Different Paradigms“, based on previous Evolution Institute meetings. When it comes to reasons for ignoring the E-word, we can strike #4 off our list.
Before I address the other three arguments, what is the evolutionary perspective, which provides a conceptual framework so general that it can be applied to all traits in all species? Books are written on that subject, but I will provide the briefest of guides in the next installment.