In 1975–before most current graduate students were born–Edward O. Wilson published his landmark book titled Sociobiology. Its central thesis was that there could be a single science of social behavior, based upon evolutionary theory, that covered all species, from microbes to humans.
With one major exception, Sociobiology was regarded as a triumph. The main bone of contention among evolutionists who studied social behavior concerned ownership. Other authors had the same vision, and even used the term sociobiology, but none of them had Wilson’s gift for branding new fields of inquiry.
The exception, of course, involved the inclusion of our own species within the new synthesis. The single chapter that Wilson devoted to this subject resulted in a storm of controversy. It might seem that the battle might pit evolutionary biologists against human-oriented scientists and scholars bent on preserving their cherished notion of human uniqueness, but that’s not what happened. Instead, the charge against Wilson, a Harvard professor, was led by two other evolutionary biologists at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, whose academic specialties were paleontology and population genetics, respectively.
This episode in the history of science reveals a more general fact that can be easily documented: The apartheid separating the study of human behavior and culture from the study of the rest of life, which has been in place since before most of us were born, is largely respected on both sides. Many evolutionary biologists, who fully accept the thesis of Sociobiology for all other species and put it to use in their own research, draw the line at humans, sometimes passively and sometimes vigilantly, as in the case of Gould and Lewontin.
What reasons did biologists and non-biologists alike advance for not including humans in the grand synthesis? It’s too dangerous. We’re too ignorant. It’s too complicated. The science is bad. And our rich behavioral and cultural diversity can’t be explained by our genes. In a word, STOP!
This chorus of objections succeeded in stigmatizing the word “sociobiology” for many people. Even my colleagues who study the social behavior of nonhuman species often avoid the word, like timid people who hope to avoid being associated with a relative who committed a heinous crime. The whole process repeated itself when evolutionary psychology was announced as the next big thing in the 1990’s, only to be shouted down by the same chorus of objections, albeit a little less loud.
Mind you, I’m not saying that Ed Wilson in the 1970’s and evolutionary psychologists in the 1990’s got everything right. I wrote one of the first critiques of evolutionary psychology in 1994 and have been working to broaden its conception ever since, which is a major theme of The Neighborhood Project. But there is a difference between a constructive critique that results in scientific progress and a critique that is the rhetorical equivalent of a STOP sign.
Here we are in 2011 and here I am as part of the most recent effort to include humans in the grand synthesis, as part of Darwin’s tangled bank, as I put it in The Neighborhood Project. Unsurprisingly, objections will be raised, and Jerry Coyne has stepped forward to fill the shoes of Lewontin and Gould. Jerry and I were born in the same year and Jerry was present at Harvard as Lewontin’s PhD student during the great clash over Sociobiology. I wasn’t Ed’s student but he did sponsor my first publication on group selection in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, which was also published in 1975. I don’t regard Jerry as a clone of Lewontin, however, and no one should mistake me for a clone of the other Wilson. For that matter, Lewontin and Wilson are not clones of their former selves. Thirty six years is a long time, and if scientists haven’t changed their views during the interval, then science is not what it is reputed to be.
I am therefore willing to examine Jerry’s views on their own merits, and the last two chapters of his book Why Evolution Is True affords a priceless opportunity. The purpose of Jerry’s book–which is excellent in many respects–is to provide an extended argument against religious creationism and its born-again cousin, intelligent design. The penultimate chapter discusses human origins and displays Jerry’s talents in constructive science mode. The final chapter discusses evolutionary psychology and the relevance of evolution for contemporary human affairs, and displays Jerry’s talents in rhetorical STOP mode. The difference is there for all to see.
Piecing together the fragmentary evidence for human origins is one of the most speculative–but also one of the most exciting and worthwhile–scientific enterprises imaginable. The fossil record is so sparse that every new find results in a major revision of the story. Nevertheless, at an appropriately course scale, there’s no doubt that we have discovered the fabled missing links connecting us to our primate ancestors. Moreover, our genomes provide a new kind of fossil record that can be surprisingly detailed and convincing in reconstructing the past. In the following passage, Jerry eloquently describes how evolution can be rock solid true at one scale and still admit great uncertainties at finer scales.
Evolutionary biology is teeming with questions and controversies. How exactly does sexual selection work? Do females select males with good genes? How much of a role does genetic drift (as opposed to natural of sexual selection) play in the evolution of DNA sequences or the features of organisms? Which fossil hominins are on the direct line to Homo sapiens? What caused the Cambrian “explosion” of life, in which many new types of animals appeared within only a few million years?
Critics of evolution seize upon these controversies, arguing that they show that something is wrong with the theory of evolution itself. But this is specious. There is no dissent among serious biologists about the major claims of evolutionary theory–only about the relative roles of various evolutionary mechanisms. Far from discrediting evolution, the “controversies” are in fact the sign of a vibrant, thriving field. What moves science forward is ignorance, debate, and the testing of alternative theories with observations and experiments. A science without controversy is a science without progress.
Hooray for science! But now let’s follow Jerry as he turns his attention to evolution in relation to human affairs. He begins by quoting Nancy Pearcey, a conservative American philosopher and advocate of intelligent design, who expresses a common fear.
Why does the public care so passionately about a theory of biology? Because people sense intuitively that there’s much more at stake than a scientific theory. They know that when naturalistic evolution is taught in the science classroom, then a naturalistic view of ethics will be taught down the hallway in the history classroom, the sociology classroom, the family life classroom, and in all areas of the curriculum.
Note that Pearcey is arguing against evolution on the basis of perceived negative consequences. This is illogical. A theory can be true or false and can have positive or negative consequences in all four combinations. Noting its consequences says nothing about its truth or falsehood.
Jerry correctly observes that Pearcey’s concern is not about evolution per se, but about two worldviews that are part of science as a whole: naturalism and materialism. I cannot improve upon Jerry’s wording:
Naturalism is the view that the only way to understand our universe is through the scientific method. Materialism is the idea that the only reality is the physical matter of the universe, and that everything else, including thoughts, will and emotions, comes from physical laws acting on that matter. The message of evolution, and all of science, is one of naturalistic materialism.
Pearcey should be just as concerned about knowledge that our planet is a speck in the universe as that we evolved from the apes. As an aside, evolution provides an alternative to materialism–ultimate causation–that is permitted but not caused by physical matter. But that’s another story.
Jerry is a naturalistic materialist, but thinks that Pearcey need not worry. Why?
But Pearcey’s notion that these lessons of evolution will inevitably spill over into the study of ethics, history, and “family life” is unnecessarily alarmist. How can you derive meaning, purpose, or ethics from evolution? You can’t. Evolution is simply a theory about the process and patterns of life’s diversification, not a grand philosophical scheme about the meaning of life. It can’t tell us what to do, or how we should behave.
In other words, Jerry Coyne, evolution’s champion against creationism and intelligent design, provides the functional equivalent by claiming that evolution has no relevance for human history, family life, sociology, and “the rest of the curriculum”.
Jerry isn’t talking about the naturalistic fallacy, the venerable claim that you can’t derive “ought” from “is”, for which there is an extensive literature from an informed evolutionary perspective. Granted that what “is” does not automatically become “ought”, but it certainly informs “ought”. Every ethical statement must be combined with facts about the world to prescribe action (what we should do) in the world. The firewall that Jerry builds to keep evolution out of human affairs includes a denial that it has anything to say about our species, beyond our physical bodies and a few basic urges such as to eat and have sex. I wish I could report otherwise, but the final chapter of Why Evolution is True, is a tired rendition of the chorus of objections to sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.
One problem is that it is all too easy to make up an evolutionary reason why modern human behaviors should have been adaptive in the EEA [environment of evolutionary adaptedness]. For example, art and literature might be the equivalent to the peacock’s tail, with artists and writers leaving more genes because their productions appealed to women. Rape? It’s a way for men who can’t find mates to father offspring; such men were then selected in the EEA for a propensity to overpower and forcibly copulate with women. Depression? No problem: it could be a way of withdrawing adaptively from stressful situations, mustering your mental resources so that you can cope with life. Or it could represent a ritualized form of social defeat, enabling you to withdraw from competition, recoup, and come back to struggle another day. Homosexuality? Even though this behavior seems the very opposite of what natural selection would foster (genes for gay behavior, which don’t get passed on, would quickly disappear from populations), one can save the day by assuming that, in the EEA, homosexual males stayed home and helped their mothers produce other offspring….None of these explanations, by the way, are mine. All of them have actually appeared in the published scientific literature.
There is an increasing (and disturbing) tendency of psychologists, biologists, and philosophers to Darwinize every aspect of human behavior, turning its study into a scientific parlor game. But imaginative reconstructions of how things might have evolved are not science; they are stories. Stephen Jay Gould satirized them as “Just-So Stories” after Kipling’s eponymous book that gave delightful but fanciful explanations for various traits of animals.
Only a few pages earlier, Jerry was waxing eloquent about evolutionary biology teeming with questions and controversies and the power of science to shed light even on the remote past, such as human origins and the Cambrian explosion. Suddenly, the very same process of “ignorance, debate, and the testing of alternative theories with observations and experiments” is described as an idle parlor game–mere stories, not science. Jerry has switched from constructive science mode to rhetorical STOP mode.
All scientific fields of inquiry contain examples in which a given hypothesis remains untested, but Jerry is leveling the claim against the entire application of evolution to modern human affairs, with only a few begrudging exceptions:
Yet, we can’t dismiss all behaviors as having no evolutionary basis. Surely some of them do. These include behaviors that are almost certainly adaptations because they’re widely shared among animals and whose importance in survival and reproduction is obvious. Behaviors that come to mind are eating, sleeping…a sex drive, parental care, and favoring relatives over nonrelatives.
I am quoting Jerry at length because I do not assume that he is a clone of Lewontin and Gould in the 1970s’. I’m willing to read and evaluate his work on its own terms. Having done this, I am now in a strong position to say that Jerry has indeed remained unchanged after all these years. His claim that evolution explains our physical bodies and a few basic instincts, but has nothing to say about our rich behavioral and cultural diversity, is like going back to the 1970’s in a time machine. Apart from a few sensible statements about gene-culture coevolution, he still associates “evolution” with “genes” and regards “culture” as outside the orbit of “evolution”, as in these passages.
It’s almost impossible to reconstruct how these features evolved (or even if they are genetic traits)…
There is no reason, then, to see ourselves as marionettes dancing on the strings of evolution. Yes, certain parts of our behavior may be genetically encoded, instilled by natural selection in our savanna-dwelling ancestors. But genes aren’t destiny…
…these acts are largely a matter of choice, not of genes…
None of this has anything to do with evolution, for the change is happening far too fast to be caused by our genes…
Evolution tells us where we come from, not where we can go…
Jerry concludes Why Evolution Is True with an ode to social constructivism uninformed by evolution, about how we can rise above the Hitlers and Stalins to make symphonies, poems, and books to fulfill our passions and emotional needs. No other species has accomplished anything remotely similar. We are a special creation after all.
In The Neighborhood Project, I show that social constructivism isn’t wrong–it just needs to become evolutionary social constructivism. The human capacity for open-ended change, and especially the capacity for symbolic thought that makes us so unique, is a product of genetic evolution and an evolutionary process (employing non-genetic inheritance mechanisms) in its own right. We need to understand our capacity for open-ended behavioral and cultural change in the same detail that we understand the vertebrate immune system, another product of genetic evolution with an impressive capacity for open-ended change (antibody formation and selection). When we do, we’ll be able to make statements that are less idiotic than Jerry’s Scala Naturae account of Hitlers transforming into poets and composers.
Another purpose of The Neighborhood Project is to show how the evolutionary paradigm can be useful for improving the quality of life in a practical sense. It’s time to put Darwin’s theory to work in the real world. In one chapter titled “Learning from Mother Nature About Teaching Our Children”, I describe how an Evolution Institute workshop on childhood education held in 2008 revealed a disagreement among the evolutionists. One school of thought, represented by David Geary, treats modern knowledge such as reading and math as so different from ancient knowledge such as hunting and social relations that different teaching techniques are required. Another school of thought, represented by Peter Gray, maintains that all cultures have bodies of knowledge comparable to reading and math, which can be learned largely without formal instruction in the way that learning and teaching takes place in hunter-gatherer and many traditional societies. Both are reasonable hypotheses informed by evolution. They can be tested by observation and experiment in a large number of ways and the answers can be hugely consequential for how we teach our children. The research is not ethically problematic because everyone wants to improve the quality of education. Evolutionary theory is merely competing with the 1001 flavors of other educational theories in prescribing an effective set of practices. If ever there was a case of science moving forward by “ignorance, debate, and the testing of alternative theories with observations and experiments”, this would be it. Yet, in his review of The Neighborhood Project, Jerry actually criticizes examples of science in progress, such as this one, as “rife with problems”, as if anything short of all evolutionists singing the same tune is a shortcoming. I am operating in constructive science mode, and Jerry is operating in rhetorical STOP mode.
In Jerry’s own book that is excellent whenever he operates in constructive science mode, he misses an important reason why so many people claim to disbelieve evolution. Pearcey is right that people are prone to reject beliefs that they find threatening, as illogical as that might be. The human tendency to accept beliefs when they are useful, regardless of whether they are true, follows directly from evolutionary theory. It follows that when the evolutionary paradigm is shown to be useful for improving the human condition, it will be accepted as readily as the facts of physics and chemistry. I didn’t set out to defend evolution against creationism in The Neighborhood Project, but by demonstrating the tremendous utility of evolutionary science in relation to human affairs, I might just succeed as much, or even more, as Jerry’s effort in Why Evolution Is True.