Evolution for Everyone

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.


  1. #1 hazel-rah
    May 21, 2011

    Dr. Wilson – I do not think you have adequately answered the questions I pose in your last posting. When you originally responded to me there, you argued that you cannot devote to this blog as you (or your readers) might like. Thus, I should not expect you to frequently elaborate on the points you make in this forum, no matter how problematic I might find them.

    You are here embarking on another multiple-installment post. On one hand, this suggests to me that you do not find the issues I raised about your Lisbon-EvoS essay worth further consideration. On the other hand, you apparently do have ample time and energy to compose a set of new postings.

    Interestingly, although you have yet not addressed the criticisms raise in your last post, you here pose a set of four challenges to an evolutionary perspective that are not attributed to any particular author. No doubt you will have no problem answering these critiques.

    I will ask you again:

    (1) Isn’t it an exaggeration to compare evolutionists’ professional challenges to the historical persecutions of the Jewish people or the scourges of the Chinese Cultural Revolution?

    (2) Isn’t it possible that such analogies will confuse, offend, or frighten both your allies as well as your critics?

    (3) Would you consider it possible that these historical analogies contribute to a situation in which your critics cannot engage your arguments, because criticism of evolution has been equated with persecution? Do you think this might be a reason for professional academics’ unwillingness to take evolutionists’ seriously?

  2. #2 B. Weeks
    May 21, 2011

    Great post Dr. Wilson!

    I am printing this for future reference. I look forward to your next installment.

  3. #3 Nemo
    May 23, 2011

    Re: 3, Nature has produced some impressive “designs” that I think can only be explained by evolution, because no “designer” in his right mind would’ve conceived them. An insect that mimics a leaf is cool, and it fills an environmental niche… but if you were designing an ecosystem from scratch, why would you ever create such a thing? (I realize here that I’m invoking the argument from personal incredulity, but I think that’s only fair, because it’s the only argument creationists ever have.)

  4. #4 Michael Blume
    May 23, 2011

    Great post, thank you! As a kind of coincidende, I just had to answer very similar queries (especially 1., 2. and 4.) these last months here in Germany. Therefore, I can’t wait to read your answers! 🙂

  5. #5 Michael
    May 24, 2011


    Never underestimate the power of human imagination run wild. They can even make monkeys out of us.

    In pro-evolutionist Bill Bryson’s best seller, “A Short History of Nearly Everything” he writes about “The American Museum of Natural History Hall of Human Biology and Evolution in New York that has an absorbing diorama that depicts life-sized creations of a male and female walking side by side across the ancient African plain. The tableau is presented with such conviction that it is easy to overlook the consideration that virtually everything above the footprints is imaginary.”

    He asked the curator of the museum and paleoanthropologist, Ian Tattersall, if “he was troubled about the amount of artistic license that was taken in reconstructing the figures,” Tattersall replied, “It’s always a problem in making recreations. You wouldn’t believe how much discussion can go into deciding details like whether Neanderthals had eyebrows or not…We simply can’t know the details of what they looked like…If I had to do it again, I think I might have made them slightly more apelike and less human.”

    Talk about honesty in the “sciences.”

    This is chicanery not science. This is imagination not science. This is fraud.

  6. #6 hazel-rah
    May 25, 2011

    Huzzah, Michael!

    I too have had it up to the very brim of my felted derby with these tricksters’ shenanigans.

    Why, just yesternoon, I happened upon a piece on Mr. Darwin our local rag, The Gazette. I chanced to quip to my goodly wife, “My dear, those Darwin hucksters are spouting their hokum and tommyrot, once again! I dare say their wiles give quite a new meaning to the word ‘buffoonery’!”

    My lady responded, “Stuff and nonsense! I declare that they are up to their ‘monkeyshines’ again!”

    “What balderdash!” I guffawed back. Then I had to strike her for trying to best me.

    Huzzah, I say, huzzah! And a fourth Huzzah! for composing an antiquated argument in equally antiquated jargon. I never suspected that my great-great grandfather was on this blog.

  7. #7 supratall
    May 26, 2011

    OK, I’ll come clean: this reminds me of an embarrassingly recent conversation with my materials science-trained boyfriend.

  8. #8 Eleanor
    May 26, 2011

    Looking forward to the next ones in the series.

    P.S. Hazel do you have a blog? Your last post is making my insides giggle. To your other point about the difficulties in the field I think one has to recognise the pressures exerted by the Republicans, with laws being passed against the teaching of Evolution in certain states scientists and people who speak sense really do get a lot of heat. Dawkins for instance is quite public about the amount of death threats he receives from utter scum. Fundamentalists really are about as lowbrow as it gets. Ignorance is vicious.

  9. #9 Eleanor
    May 26, 2011

    Or I should say, ignorance *can be* vicious.

  10. #10 mikmik
    May 28, 2011

    “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?”
    Does this really need to be addressed? Even if you evolved from doorknobs, it would plain that this is inappropriate.

  11. #11 anthony
    June 19, 2011

    I just want to point out that some of the previous comments are complete trolls. Michael’s post is a disagreement with no backing, followed by a non-sequitor anecdote. Hazel-rah’s first comment is an antagonist and her second might as well reside under a bridge. It’s just a troll post.

  12. #12 website design
    June 19, 2011

    Evolution really does permeate just about everything, the only reason I see that atheist or scientists advocate it to religious people is simply because they are missing out on a large portion of the human experience not realizing where we can from.

  13. #13 Jim Mauch
    August 8, 2011

    You can not understand the present anatomy of an organism or the interactions within an ecological system unless you are aware of the its history..its evolution. Without evolution it’s only stamp collecting.

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