Reviewing the Expert Reviews of The Neighborhood Project [Evolution for Everyone]

The Neighborhood Project is written for the full spectrum of readers, from inquisitive high school students to my professorial colleagues. I look forward to reading the reviews by the experts, which I expect to reveal the diversity of opinion that I already know exists among the cognoscenti. So far, there have been three reviews by respected colleagues who unquestionably know their stuff about evolution: Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Laland in the scientific journal Nature, and Jerry Coyne in the Sept 11 Sunday book section of the New York Times.

Kevin's review is my favorite so far, not just because it is laudatory, but because it correctly identifies The Neighborhood Project as comparable in scope to Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape, E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology, and the revolutionary claims of evolutionary psychologists such as John Tooby and Leda Cosmides in the 1990's. All of these authors were reaching for a comprehensive vision of humanity from an evolutionary perspective, and so am I. The general themes are enacted in the story of how I am trying to make a difference in my city of Binghamton (which tragically has just suffered the worst flood in its history) but the story should not mask my serious intent, which I also convey in my academic articles.

Kevin, whose academic specialty is cultural evolution, observes that some readers are likely to approach The Neighborhood Project with trepidation, given the controversies that engulfed the previous efforts. Yet, he is optimistic: "Will Wilson be more successful than his predecessors? One reason he might is his rich, well-informed interpretation of evolution, encompassing biological and cultural evolution, multilevel selection and a sophisticated understanding of how learning and culture build upon genetic predispositions." He stresses (as I do) that my efforts to make a difference in Binghamton are preliminary, but concludes that "If Wilson succeeds, it will be a triumph for science, pluralism, and common sense as much as for evolutionary biology."

Jerry Coyne, whose academic specialty is speciation, is more pessimistic. He wishes me well, but sees my enterprise as "rife with problems". Some of our differences might be temperamental. If you're familiar with the Winnie the Pooh books, then I'm like Tigger, who can't stop bouncing, and Jerry is like Eeyore, whose firm opinion is that nothing will turn out well. But Jerry's review raises two substantive issues that go beyond optimism and pessimism. The first concerns group selection, which I will save for my next post. The second concerns the explanatory scope of evolutionary theory.

Here's how Jerry begins his review: "My undergraduate students, especially those bound for medical school, often ask why they have to study evolution. It won't cure disease, and really, how useful is evolution to the average person? My response is that while evolutionary biology can explain, for example, the origin of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we shouldn't see evolution as a cure for human woes. Its value is explanatory: to tell us how, when and why we got here (be "we" I mean "every organism") and to show us how all species are related. In the end, evolution is the greatest tale of all, for it's true."

Jerry hasn't even gotten to my book yet, and he's emphasizing the explanatory inadequacy of evolution. It explains some things, but then a curtain falls and evolution shouldn't be expected to explain anything on the other side, including anything that might provide a cure for human woes. I must confess that I am mystified by this position. Jerry could be right, but I need his position spelled out in more detail. What is there in the biological sciences that evolution can't explain, for example? How about Jerry's home turf of speciation?

Given Jerry's limited expectations for evolution in general, his reaction to my book is a foregone conclusion: "Wilson further undermines his case by repeatedly counting, as "evolutionary" any human activity involving "variation and selection" including committees that have to decide between alternative plans and children who learn to discard those behaviors that don't bring them rewards. But these issues have nothing to do with biological evolution; they are superficial and meaningless parallels with natural selection's winnowing of genetic variation."

Jerry seldom strays beyond his specialized topic of speciation as a practicing scientist. Perhaps he's unaware of the large community of evolutionists who study individual learning and cultural transmission as products of genetic evolution and evolutionary processes in their own right. Or what evolutionary game theorists call the "replicator dynamic", whereby any process that causes the most successful strategy to increase in frequency counts as an evolutionary process and results in (roughly) the same phenotypic outcome as genetic evolution.

Jerry's pessimism even causes him to bias the facts. He under-reports the number of publications that have resulted from the Binghamton Neighborhood Project and says that one project (Design Your Own Park) went belly-up when it is alive and well. Whatever. I cheerfully admit that I'm just getting rolling, and I look forward to the day when even Jerry credits me with success.

Matt Ridley, the author and journalist with a professional-level knowledge of evolution, has different things to say about The Neighborhood Project that I will address in a separate post. A book like The Neighborhood Project serves as an excellent Rorschach test for the cognoscenti.

More like this