Culture Evolutionary psychology Intelligent Design

Prominent evolutionary psychologist tries to fix a has-been town, and its religion

Spread the love

In Nature News (8 June 2011), Emma Marris recounts how evolutionary biologist D. S. Wilson is trying to apply  his theories to once-prosperous Binghamton, New York (pop 47,000). In “Evolution: Darwin’s city,” she explains that he has focused much of his research on “the long-standing puzzle of altruism,” (“why organisms sometimes do things for others at a cost to themselves”).

====================================================

The challenge Wilson has undertaken is to turn bad neighbours into good ones, and unwilling students into willing ones, using evolutionary psychology (though puzzled colleagues doubt that he is really doing EP). The problem is that he simply doesn’t have the needed grasp of human nature. Evolutionary psychology makes that impossible, as we shall see.

====================================================

Some wonder why that’s even a puzzle, where humans are concerned. Darwinian social theory dictates that the default switch must be set to selfishness, because then the awesome power of natural selection can be shown. From an ID perspective,  the human default switch is not in fact set to selfishness exclusively and natural selection plays a limited role in human history. So Wilson’s “puzzle” disappears in favour of innumerable conflicting motivations, many of which do not happen to be especially selfish.  

Wilson (not to be confused with sociobiology founder (and now target) E. O. Wilson) isn’t having much luck explaining to townsfolk how his evolutionary psychology can fix their problems:

The connection is less clear for Miriam Purdy, the principal of Regents Academy, a school for at-risk teenagers at which Wilson has been advising. When I ask how she sees evolution playing into the incentive programmes, Purdy surprises me and Wilson by saying that she doesn’t believe in evolution.

“Fearful and socially isolated” religious folk

Soon, the story homes in on religion.

Wilson would like to understand from an evolutionary perspective why the membership of open churches in Binghamton is currently declining, but ‘closed’ churches are booming.

The challenge Wilson has undertaken is to turn bad neighbours into good ones, and unwilling students into willing ones, using evolutionary psychology (though puzzled colleagues doubt that he is really doing EP). The problem is that he simply doesn’t have the needed grasp of human nature:

Wilson’s trait of interest is the ‘openness’ of churches. Traditional protestant denominations, of which Wilson is fond, tend towards openness: details of belief and moral codes are individual, arrived at after prayer and discussion. Newer, conservative churches that adhere strictly to the Bible as a literal text would be considered less open.

Wilson would like to understand from an evolutionary perspective why the membership of open churches in Binghamton is currently declining, but ‘closed’ churches are booming.

Absent the “evolutionary perspective” there is no mystery to solve. “Openness” just means that one’s spiritual life turns out to be Binghamton, cubed – or worse, “me,” cubed. A “less open” church hopes to shut out Binghamton for a brief while, in pursuit of higher things. But Wilson, an atheist, has a different answer,

Perhaps uncertain times create a fearful and socially isolated populace, interested in firm and clear guidance. Or perhaps closed churches uplift their members or focus on group solidarity and recruitment.

Ah yes, they “cling bitterly” to their religion – echoes  of something there …?

====================================================

Will Wilson’s ideas work? Maybe. The Hawthorne effect is a well-established effect in social psychology, by which any intervention that attracts attention will have an initial favourable effect. But that effect fades if no real change has occurred, only a momentary enthusiasm.

===============================================

Marris observes,

The work has been met with curiosity and befuddlement. Richard Sosis, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, says that the work is wholly appropriate. “Religion is something that is human, generated from the human mind, which has been designed by natural selection.” He adds, “People are looking forward to seeing how this all unfolds, and the kind of success he has with it.” However, Ron Numbers, a historian of science and religion at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is “a little ambivalent and confused”. Religious groups develop naturally owing to many historical factors, he says. “Going into some evolutionary account about this doesn’t add anything to our knowledge.”

Yes, that’s the difference between “some evolutionary account” and actual history, depressingly bound to facts. Wilson is currently putting a lot of energy into using an “open” church as a basis for renewal operations?

Will any of it work? Maybe. The Hawthorne effect is a well-established effect in social psychology, in  which any intervention that attracts attention has an initial favourable effect. But that effect fades if no real change has occurred, only a momentary enthusiasm. That’s why we hear about so many great new urban renewal projects in the Sunday supplement – and that’s the last we ever do hear of them.

Reflections

My bias is that I live in a naturally good neighbourhood in a comparatively safe and prosperous city. So am well aware of the role that policy choices have played in making and keeping it so, over the last seventy years. Strikingly absent from Marris’s account of Wilson’s venture was any discussion of how social and economic policies imposed from above might have shaped what Binghamton is now. Or whether, historically speaking, there is much hope for improvement.

This is not a prescription, only an observation: When a town exists only because of an industry, and the industry closes, the inhabitants might be best off to migrate rather than try to “save” it. The town is only an abstraction; the people are real, and they would be just as real somewhere else. But it’s hard to leave one’s home town, and lots of decaying towns are actually more fun for long-time residents than a new venue would be. That doesn’t change them. Life is full of these dilemmas, which are not the province of the “selfish gene.”

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

6 Replies to “Prominent evolutionary psychologist tries to fix a has-been town, and its religion

  1. 1
    uoflcard says:

    Evolution psychology…simply unbelievable. So a complex sequence of mutations built up an innate tendency for humans to be “interested in firm and clear guidance” when there are uncertain times? What a steaming, heaping pile. I feel so bad for that town

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    …he has focused much of his research on “the long-standing puzzle of altruism,” (“why organisms sometimes do things for others at a cost to themselves”).

    I’d sure like to know how they measure altruism, scientifically, that is.

    How do they know it comes at a cost and isn’t a benefit?

    How Darwinism stifles clear thnking.

  3. 3

    There is one thriving industry in that town that goes unmentioned, but dominates everything in this article and in the town: SUNY Binghamton. The university is about 15,000 students and probably dominates the economics of the area, which is only 47,000. So we are looking at a school 1/3 the size of the town. perhaps 1/2 counting support personnel. What happens to the town, happens to the school.

    All that to say, prof Wilson is disingenuous if he says he is studying altruism–he’s trying to keep viable the lifestyle of a moneyed academic who would rather live in a town than a monastery.

  4. 4
    News says:

    Mung, I have often questioned the classification. It appears to have been developed to equate human behaviour with that of animals, which conveniently eliminates the bothersome distinctive created by having a mind.

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    An interesting point News.

    One has to wonder why it is that humans can actually reason about whether they wish to be altruistic.

  6. 6
    News says:

    Robert Sheldon above raises a good point: When a town has thriving industries and adds a university, the job market gains depth. When the university is the only important institution, however, it can hinder economic growth because the leadership class does not need economic growth to keep getting a salary. This is part of the problem of avoiding discussion of economics.

Leave a Reply