Suzan Mazur, author of Darwin Overthrown: Hello Mechanobiology, thinks that the World Science Festival is falling a bit behind the times. This year, it features David Sloan Wilson, lecturing on his new book, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution:
The problem with Wilson’s perspective is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been discredited. Biology is no longer the descriptive science it once was. It is increasingly a quantitative science as a result of huge advancements in instrumentation. Suzan Mazur, “World Science Festival Feeds Public Bogus Science” at Oscillations
She reviews the history of researchers gradually coming to terms with the fact that natural selection no longer functions as a stand-in answer for what is happening within and among life forms. But here’s something interesting:
Nevertheless, in his latest book (two previous books concerned religion) David Sloan Wilson—-curiously one of the Altenberg 16 scientists—-continues the futile attempt to validate natural selection and his own thinking that there is group selection. He references the work of ISSOL president Niles Lehman, another Templeton grantee, who is now collaborating with British theologian Christopher Southgate to find purposeful RNA fragments that agree to cooperate. Suzan Mazur, “World Science Festival Feeds Public Bogus Science” at Oscillations
Group selection? Last we heard, the idea had devolved into a multi-party shootout. But maybe things have quieted down a little.
Now here’s the odd part: In his book, Mazur tells us, Wilson devotes a chapter to “The Problem of Goodness” (how goodness can evolve by Darwinian means). Yes, since she mentions it, that’s the D.S. Wilson some of us remember. And she’s right to wonder why this should be considered science. Many of us do.
It is hard to be precise about what “goodness” means. So trying to figure out how it evolves is not a promising endeavor.
A contrast might help: If we ask, how flight evolved in birds, we start with a clear idea of what we mean by flight. That clear idea enables us to rule out a number of scenarios that would not lead to flight. If we are lucky, we will hit on one that is highly likely but we can live with several that are at least likely. Specificity enables us to rule out a number of interesting but unworkable or unsupported ideas. That’s disappointing. But progress sometimes consists, at first, of knowing what we are not looking for.
To the extent that “goodness” is a variable idea, we would need a different evolution story for each trait that is admired in a given culture. At that point, we might as well be writing a sequel to Clan of the Cave Bear. That’s only a problem if people insist on treating the work as science.
See also: Astronomer Martin Rees Reacts To Suzan Mazur’sDarwin Overthrown. Rees has been in the background of creative thinkers in biology who are grappling with what we now know.
David Sloan Wilson: Trying to rescue Darwinism from Darwin’s sinking ship
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