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Electrifying the corpse: The reaction to E. O. Wilson disowning Darwinian kin selection


We were all taught to look up to E. O. Wilson as the eminent, gentlemanly, Dear Pastor … Darwinist, not the “secular bigot” kind. And some were duly grateful.

So Wilson disowning his own kin selection theory was an almost incredible development. That theory – that caring for others can be explained by a desire to pass on our selfish genes – is the heart and soul of the “evolutionary” psychology he founded.* Which in turn is the heart and soul of pop science coverage of human psychology.

Leon Neyfakh  offers a look at what happened:

What Wilson is trying to do, late in his influential career, is nothing less than overturn a central plank of established evolutionary theory: the origins of altruism. His position is provoking ferocious criticism from other scientists. Last month, the leading scientific journal Nature published five strongly worded letters saying, more or less, that Wilson has misunderstood the theory of evolution and generally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One of these carried the signatures of an eye-popping 137 scientists, including two of Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard.

– “Where does good come from?: Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson tries to upend biology, again”  (Boston Globe, April 17, 2011)

The cause of their dismay and anger is spelled out:

The puzzle of altruism is more than just a technical curiosity for evolutionary theorists. It amounts to a high-stakes inquiry into the nature of good. By identifying the mechanisms through which altruism and other advanced social behaviors have evolved in all kinds of living creatures — like ants, wasps, termites, and mole rats — we stand to gain a better understanding of the human race, and the evolutionary processes that helped us develop the capacity for collaboration, loyalty, and even morality. Figure out where altruism comes from, you might say, and you’ve figured out the magic ingredient that makes human civilization the wondrous, complex thing that it is. And perhaps this is the reason that the debate between Wilson and his critics, actually somewhat esoteric in substance, has become so heated.

It’s heated because the commander of the beachhead of materialist atheism into human psychology has abandoned the battle …

Some wonder, whatever the history of evolution, why a comparison between the behaviour of ants and humans need be attempted. Why would behaviour not arise from circumstances? And, between ant and human, the circumstances could hardly differ more. What was the idea anyway behind a general theory that ignores circumstances?

No matter, Wilson now has a different idea, one that more approaches a reality most humans will recognize:

Wilson is not arguing that members of certain species don’t sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their relatives. They do. But it’s his position that kinship and relatedness aren’t essential in causing the development of advanced social behaviors like altruism — that the reason such behaviors catch on is that they’re evolutionarily advantageous on a group level. That socially advanced organisms end up favoring their kin, Wilson argues, is a byproduct of their group membership, not the cause.

Precisely. If you favour free and fair elections, it would hardly be surprising to discover that your parents did too. But the idea, not the genes, explains why – for example – you can make common cause with like-minded people across the globe.

Also why you and countless unrelated people regard “me and my family only” groups as the blighted moral basis of a backward society. The latter is hardly what we’d expect if Wilson’s critics were correct on the basis of human evolution. Why don’t we all admire them and consider the shambles they create normal?

Of course, one could critique Wilson’s view by pointing out that non-genetic group membership can lead to violent, destructive worldwide causes as well. That must be set against any proposed benefits of group selection for human evolution. But at least we are now back in a universe most human beings recognize.

But Wilson’s abandoned acolytes rage on, undiminished in their ambition to reduce their moral betters to the size of themselves.

For is that not what truly lies beneath all these attempts to locate behaviour they cannot imitate in a mindless mechanism?

*Briefly, you don’t think, and neither do your genes. Your actions are merely the outcome of genetic programs that helped early man survive. This explains music, literature, religion, self-sacrifice, politics, everything. But especially religion, an apparent obsession for the evolutionary psychologist.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

Hi Denyse, My eye was drawn to the following sentence from the article in "The Boston Globe":
Figure out where altruism comes from, you might say, and you’ve figured out the magic ingredient that makes human civilization the wondrous, complex thing that it is.
There is a reductionist fallacy here: knowing where something comes from does not tell you what it is. And if that be the case, then the controversy about the origin of altruism can tell us nothing about the nature of good. On the other hand, if it could be demonstrated that altruistic behavior, even in human beings, is at all times wholly determined by our genes and/or our environment, then that would invalidate the very concept of altruism. I conclude that while uncovering the ongoing cause of a behavior can bring it into question, uncovering its origin cannot. vjtorley

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