Yes, the abandonment was recounted in “E.O. Wilson’s Theory of Altruism Shakes Up Understanding of Evolution” by Pamela Weintraub. Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson’s 1975 Sociobiology was thought to give evolutionary psychology some respectability. Wilson, who learned his trade studying social insects, promoted the idea of kin selection – that people are genetically programmed (“bred into their bones”) to behave in socially constructive ways in order to help the genes they share with others get passed on. For example, a woman looks after her sister’s children to help the genes she shares with her sister get passed on. And she looks after her new neighbour from Rangoon’s children to help … hey, … wait a minute.
So the scientific world quaked last August when Wilson renounced the theory that he had made famous. He and two Harvard colleagues, Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, reported in Nature that the mathematical construct on which inclusive fitness was based crumbles under closer scrutiny. The new work indicates that self-sacrifice to protect a relation’s genes does not drive evolution. In human terms, family is not so important after all; altruism emerges to protect social groups whether they are kin or not.
Wilson has been a familiar face in the Darwin racket for nearly four decades, touted in legacy media as an eminent, impressive scholar who made evolutionary psychology into a real science – when his theory was so obviously out of touch that the simplest experience of non-Harvard life confutes it.
For one thing, as agnostic philosopher David Stove points out, in human terms (as opposed to insect terms), altruism is not what needs explaining, but the lack thereof. The recent Toronto subway shutdown (a minor event, to be sure), here and here, provides a useful multicultural snapshot of what Stove means: It was the boor, the unsocial person who was “out of it”, not the social person. Everyone seemed to recognize the danger of an out-of-control crowd. (We’ve all heard the cautionary tales, many of them true.) And the only genetics involved was the fact that we were all humans, endowed with the intelligence to see that danger and remember the tales.
Evolutionary psychology is never going to be a science because it is a discipline without a subject: Its tailless ape, whose behavior requires an explanation other than conscious human awareness in real time, does not exist.
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.