There are religious objections to the theory of evolution, but not scientific ones. There may be a few rogue scientists, seldom biologists, who object to evolution, but they are not the cause for 54% of Americans (latest Harris poll) rejecting the idea that humans developed from earlier species. The theory of evolution (and it is perhaps essential to re-state that "theory" in science does not mean "hypothesis" or "guess") is as soundly based as any scientific theory, and the odds that it will be overturned by future evidence are about the same as the odds that, say, atomic theory will be. Scientists have tried to make headway against fundamentalists who believe in a literal Bible (or Koran), in creationism, or in the Intelligent Design which is creationism in new clothes. Scientists have the bulk of the evidence, and fundamentalists have the faith. The two world views won't come to an agreement, but David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University, does not involve himself in the religion versus science debate. He is, admittedly, an academic biologist, which just about guarantees that he is an evolutionist, and furthermore, he is not a religious man, at least in the way ordinary believers would like to define religion. The approach he describes in his book, -Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives- (Delacorte Press) is not a salvo into the argument between science and religion. It is instead a highly original and refreshing approach which grew out of a course Wilson teaches, with the same name as the book, and the course is indeed for everyone, not just science majors and not just undergraduates. The course, and the book, is not a denunciation of the detractors of evolution, nor a in-depth study of evolutionary details. Rather, it is an invitation to look at how evolutionary biologists do their work and an invitation to feel free to "try this at home" to see how evolution itself operates on many levels. Readers who take Wilson up on the invitation are in for a new way of looking at evolution, and a charming and amusing narrative that presents the subject in many novel ways.
Wilson shows that evolution's basics are easy to grasp, and they are certainly not counterintuitive like the principles in "hard" science like relativity or quantum mechanics. There are three ingredients that are essential, but anyone can understand them. There is variation among individuals in a species; there are consequences from this variation that make some individuals better at surviving and reproducing; and there is heredity that makes children resemble their parents. It isn't hard to understand any of these three ingredients, but when they are combined, they allow for successive generations to change, to increase fitness, and to become better adapted. Wilson's review demonstrates the principles working at all levels, not only for animals that are familiar to us as species, but within genes, cells, organs, bodies, social groups, nations, and religions. Time and again he shows what he calls "roll-up-your-sleeves" science, careful, non-esoteric work that produces one more brick, one more fact, in the evolutionary edifice. "The idea that science is hard to do and facts can never become reliable is incorrect at the brick level," he writes.
Evolutionary principles can be shown in higher social levels. Wilson decries the "social Darwinism" of the nineteenth century which justified levels of inequality. Human groups and nations can aspire to higher understanding of evolution. "We are not fated by our genes to engage in violent conflict," he writes, and shows that like everything else in the evolutionary realm, violence is a strategy that works sometimes but loses to less bloody strategies under other conditions. Not only nations but religions can be understood as social forces that whatever their devotion is to the supernatural, they are products of social selection, like bodies and beehives seen at other levels in this book. Wilson's previous book _Darwin's Cathedral_ was about his research in this realm, and shows that religions can be understood from an evolutionary perspective if examined for what they cause people to do. There are social studies about us, and about other primates, and about "lower" species, and even about tumors that show that there is a strong evolutionary urge to discourage cheaters and extract punishment in the constant battle between good and bad at all levels. Altruism can be encouraged. Wilson's optimism, both about the improvement of our futures and about the ongoing importance of scientific endeavor, is a delight. He writes, "The most extraordinary thing about public awareness of evolution is not that 50 per cent don't believe the theory but that nearly 100 percent haven't connected it to anything of importance in their lives." Here is a fine invitation to start making those vital connections.
on April 21, 2007
As an avid reader of evolutionary biology books, I almost didn't get past the basic-sounding title. But then I saw that it was written by David Sloan Wilson, an eminent evolutionary theorist, and I found a real gem. In this very readable book, Wilson opens with a discussion of how simple and productive evolutionary thinking can be. He shows how he leads undergraduates from all disciplines to use an evolutionary viewpoint (asking "why" questions) to get a new perspective on life. Much of the book consists of examples taken from his career of asking and answering the right questions in various areas of biology as well as in the social sciences. The book really does have something (a lot) for everyone. For the lay reader, it opens up new perspectives on the world. For students, he provides a role model for a successful academic career. For teachers, he shows how evolutionary thinking can make biology exciting and add new dimensions to the humanities. For those already knowledgeable, he provides new leads, interpretations, and inspiration. While the overwhelming majority of biologists are comfortable with the basics of evolution through natural selection, most still are unfamiliar with the power of asking "why?" questions. Too many biologists dismiss it as "just-so stories" or hand waving. Let Wilson show you why evolutionary thinking is for everyone.
on October 17, 2007
It is distressing to see yet more unnecessary arguments revolving around evolution: misunderstandings on the one hand and dogmatic insistence on the other. And it may surprise you to discover where we find the scientists and the people of religious faith.
A key point, and one that it developed exceptionally well in this terrific book, is that evolution is not just about human origins, dinosaurs and fossils. The model can be usefully applied to almost every facet of existence. Living systems have a natural tendency to evolve toward ever-greater order and complexity, while "inorganic" matter tends toward increasing entropy.
David Sloan Wilson has written some excellent scholarly works on evolution and this is his first book for a general audience. He is a man on a mission. Five years ago he attracted considerable praise, but also some controversy for his book Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society in which he attempted to bridge the gap between evolutionary theory and religion.
Wilson is distinguished professor of biological sciences with a joint appointment in anthropology at Binghamton University. He has become convinced that evolution can be more widely accepted once people understand its consequences for human welfare and he now directs a campus-wide evolutionary studies program called EvoS that is being adopted by other universities.
He is on record as saying that, "When evolution is presented as unthreatening, explanatory, and useful, it can be easily grasped and appreciated by most people, regardless of their religious or political beliefs."
Wilson must be a natural teacher: his language is straightforward and evocative and he knows when and how to insert the compelling anecdotes. He outlines the basic principles of evolution in a way that should be easily accessible for non-experts. He then uses these evolutionary principles to explain a range of phenomena: Why do wild dogs have curly tails? Why do some beetles commit infanticide? Why do people engage in behaviors that do not seem to be adaptive, like laughing and creating art?
He uses published research to try and answer many other questions. For example, is there a biological advantage to being a highly sensitive person? One answer is that under very stressful conditions, they are able to find meaning where other cannot. This brings to mind the work of Viktor Frankl who found that people who could find meaning in the face of terrible adversity were more likely to survive the concentration camps of the Holocaust.
Wilson also believes that religion is a social glue that enables groups of people to interact, function and survive as coherent units.
Nobody will agree with every one of his hypotheses, but they are fun and interesting reading, and his writing always stimulates and challenges. Even if you disagree with some of his conclusions, or feel that they undervalue human spiritual experience, they are well worth reading.
Richard G. Petty, MD, author of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life
on June 28, 2007
David Sloan Wilson is an eminent evolutionary biologist whose major claim to fame is his steadfast and highly creative support for group selection theory and the importance of altruism in a period, roughly the years 1965 to 2000, when the notion was considered beyond the pale by most biologists. While there is still a sizeable minority who reject these notions, both theory and evidence have quite strongly supported DS Wilson's position.
There are many books upholding evolutionary theory, but Wilson's contribution is distinctive in its thorough-going humanity. Rather than tediously dissect the absurd arguments of Intelligent Design critics, he showers the reader with page after page of delightful science stories. Like Einstein and many other scientists, Wilson does not believe in a personal God, but rather that God is revealed in the wonder of the natural world and the capacity of humans to love and care for one another.
Many opponents of evolutionary biology have never actually met a working scientist and do not know how science operates. They believe a scientific discipline is like a religious cult, deeply protective of its dogmas and viciously ostracizing dissenters and innovators. While this is somewhat true, especially in the short run, for the social sciences, it is not at all true for the natural sciences, including biology. Biology journals frequently publish critiques of natural selection (e.g., the great Stephen J. Gould's) and frankly, I am a bit bored with their openness. There is not a single cogent critique in the whole literature. Wilson gives the flavor of openness and delight in discovery that characterizes many, perhaps most, evolutionary biologists.
Wilson asserts the simplicity of the basic mechanism of evolution: hereditary reproduction, non-directed variation (mutation), and selection based on fitness. He addresses nicely the major conceptual difficulty in understanding this process, which is how such undirected processes can product complexity and beauty. The great work on evolutionary transmission by Szathmary and Maynard Smith certainly helps make this process concretely comprehensible, and validates the notion of emergence in complex dynamical systems, which operates in many spheres of natural science.
Wilson stresses that cultural evolution is subject to the same dynamic as genetic evolution: heredity, non-directed mutation, and selection. He applies this to the evolutionary interpretation of human religion, summarizing very nicely his book, Darwin's Cathedral. I quite agree with his theory of religion (which, by the way, is not atheistic), and came to the same opinion, independently, several years ago. He contrasts his position, which is basically that religions survive to the extent that they foster prosocial behaviors and attitudes among adherents, with the cognitive theories of Boyer and Atran. I think the latter theories are in fact complementary to Wilson's account of religion. And, as Wilson makes clear, having a scientific theory of religion is not necessarily an atheistic enterprise. There are, after all, scientific theories of science itself.
This book is a defense of evolutionary theory, but Wilson smuggles in enough of his own personal life to make this an autobiography as well. Indeed, I believe the autobiographical side of the book is among its most attractive features. Wilson is never self-aggrandizing, and he never misses a chance to say how much scientific curiosity enriches his life. By his own account, he has had a rich and fulfilling life. His description of his family relationships is deeply moving, enough so that I was impelled to reread two of the novels written by his father, Sloan Wilson (The Man in the Gray Flanner Suit and A Summer Place).
"The most extraordinary fact about public awareness of evolution is not that 50 percent don't believe the theory but that nearly 100 percent haven't connected it to anything of importance in their lives." (p. 315)
This is a bit curious, but when you consider that Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology was published only 34 years ago, and further that evolutionary psychology has only recently made its way into the curriculum of our university psychology departments, it is understandable. For my part, like David Sloan Wilson (son of Sloan Wilson who wrote a couple of fiction bestsellers in the 1950s, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and A Summer Place), I took to the application of evolutionary ideas to my life the way a duck takes to water. But the overall public awareness and acceptance has lagged, in part due, as Wilson explains, to the failure of the larger academic community to incorporate evolutionary ideas and findings into their fields of study.
That is changing fast with evolutionary medicine, evolutionary psychology and other scientific approaches now established fields of study. What David Wilson hopes follows is an awareness of evolutionary ideas and principles in the social sciences and the humanities, which is one of the reasons he wrote this book which grew out a class he taught to undergraduates.
The essence of evolutionary thought as applied to our daily lives is to ask the question, how does such and such a behavior or such and such an idea relate to the way evolution works? For example, not so long ago we were urged to drink lots of water every day (probably from studies funded by bottled water companies!). But if you think about the human experience in the Pleistocene in what is called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) you might ask yourself, how was it possible for humans to drink so much water? Clearly humans would develop an ability to function very well, even optimally, without having to drink so much water, which in those days and climes would have been difficult to do safely. Consequently, doing this "thought experiment" I began to doubt the necessity to drink so much water. And lo and behold it came down from newer studies that actually humans don't really need to drink so much water! David Sloan Wilson gives a number of other examples of evolutionary thinking that has helped us to better understand ourselves and our place in the world and our communities. He is very strong on the idea of cooperation as an adaptive force in evolution, especially human evolution.
One of the ideas that most impressed me is his recognition of the arms struggle between society and the "selfish" individual. Some old-line evolutionists are loath to accept altruism and other seemingly selfless behaviors that benefit the tribe or larger groups as adaptive (other than through kinship) since the genes that code for such behavior would be easily overrun by genes from individuals looking out only for themselves. But what I think is overlooked is the human ability to spot these cheaters and keep them in check or to kick them out of the tribe or worse. Wilson makes the very interesting point that gossip is part of this process. Through gossip a society "maintains a dossier of information on every member and quickly detects social failings." (p. 160). Sociopaths don't fare well in communities in which everybody knows everybody else. But of course gossip doesn't work well, and a sociopath can flourish, where almost everyone is a stranger to one another, which is usually the case in our big cities. This lack of communal checks explains in large part why there is so much crime in our cities.
Another interesting and fundamental idea is what Wilson calls "dancing with ghosts." The idea is that the adaptations we made during the EEA in some cases no longer apply effectively to the current environment. Thus the very nice ability to efficiently put on fat when large amounts of sugar, carbs and fats are temporarily available worked well in the prehistory when the dearth of winter or the dry season was to come; but in today's world of supermarkets and a MacDonald's on every corner, this ability has become a detriment leading to obesity and chronic disease. Many people in the West are dancing with the ghosts of "eat your fill when it's available." This predictive adaptive response (PAR) is no longer adaptive. Wilson gives some other examples relating to pronghorn antelopes that still "flee with amazing speed and endurance from predators that no longer populate the American plains" and baby sea turtles that mistake the lights of the city for the moon shining off the ocean and crawl in the wrong direction. (pp. 52-53)
Wilson also argues convincingly for the idea that life in the ghetto is more dangerous than say life in the suburbs because young people in the ghetto must take greater chances in order to be gain status and wealth. For a person like David Sloan Wilson to risk his life for some status gain would be foolish since he is going to gain enough wealth and status to be successful because of his many social and economic advantages. For a guy in the ghetto, it is sometimes worth the risk (or so it seems) to fight another at the drop of an insult because of the gain in status that can lead to better mating opportunities and a greater command of turf. When the environment is "unstable" and "life expectancy" is "low," a good strategy is to "take care of immediate needs and reproduce early." When you have a "stable environment and high life expectancy" on the other hand, you should "plan for the long term, including delayed reproduction."
There is also a lot in this book about religion from an evolutionary point of view, which I don't have space to go into, some of it based on Wilson's earlier book Darwin's Cathedral (2002).
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Understanding Evolution and Ourselves"
on June 23, 2007
David Sloan Wilson's book is a gem. In some ways, it's the best general statement of how evolutionary science would explain human life. It's written in a clear and engaging style that will appeal to general readers as well as scholars. I will use it as a reading for a general course on evolution for undergraduate students from across my university, and I anticipate that it will stimulate their interest.
This book is based on Wilson's course on the idea of evolution at Binghamton University, which is the one required course for an interdisciplinary program on "Evolutionary Studies." The course and the book survey Wilson's many interests and research topics in evolutionary reasoning. The book organizes all of this into a broad evolutionary view of how human life fits into the order of nature. He shows how evolutionary thinking provides a common language through which the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities can be unified into a shared vision of liberal education.
The general theme of the book is conveyed by the title. It's a book "for everyone," a book that makes evolutionary reasoning comprehensible to any human being willing to think about it. And it presents evolution as a way of making sense of our lives as fitting within the natural order of the whole. In arguing that we are "100 per cent a product of evolution," Wilson denies both religious creationism and secular creationism. The religious creationist believes that human beings are set apart from nature by their God-given traits. The secular creationist believes that human beings are set apart from nature by their capacities for rational choice and cultural learning, which create a human realm of artifice outside of nature. The religious creationist denies Darwinian evolution completely. The secular creationist accepts Darwinian evolution as explaining the ultimate causes of the living world as including the human body, while insisting that the human mind and human culture transcend Darwinian evolution. Both forms of creationism assume the idea of human beings as "transcendent selves" above the natural world.
To support his claim tht Darwinian evolution explains all of human life, Wilson must defend a broad conception of evolution as including group selection as well as individual selection and cultural evolution as well as genetic evolution. He must then show how human evolution working at many levels provides the ultimate explanation for uniquely human traits such as family life, morality, politics, religion, science, and the arts (including dance, music, literature, and the visual arts).
Edward O. Wilson's SOCIOBIOLOGY began the contemporary intellectual movement for applying evolutionary thinking to the social behavior of all animals, including human beings. Now, David Wilson's EVOLUTION FOR EVERYBODY surveys the main ideas in that intellectual movement while pointing ahead to new frontiers of research.
on May 13, 2007
If, as any reputable biologist believes, evolution in as close to being a fact as possible then it affects everything living around us, and including ourselves. As a professional biologist I have no bone to pick with this idea, but I have been critical of oversimplifying the evolution of life and of humans. Not only are humans not "just animals", animals are not just animals! This does not require a mystical belief in a vital force or in a creator god driving the process (although one can believe either, if it helps), but it does require a respect for a highly complex process which we simply do not completely understand.
David Sloan Wilson in "Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think about our Lives" breaks new ground in the debates over evolution by applying it to our everyday life without being patronizing or totally antagonistic to religious views. This is indeed refreshing. I am an agnostic who somewhat leans toward Buddhism (as Wilson does), but I respect diverse views on the meaning of life as long as they don't include my being forced to agree with them. I cannot see much use in insisting in an atheistic society any more than a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu one. Wilson's call for respect, humility, consensus and wisdom in the global village is an example of a more sensible appeal to evolutionary theory. I think that nearly every natural history oriented biologist, including Darwin himself, has cringed at the application of brutal Social Darwinism as an excuse for racial, class and sexual bias. We as a species are very plastic in our behavior and we will never help the human condition by going to some "natural undomesticated man" ideal- an ideal that leads to as much abuse as those of fundamentalist beliefs.
On a final note I must agree with Wilson that each person can become a scientist, at least in the sense that they can have some understanding of scientific principles and history. I will only add that much of biological research in certain areas will undoubtedly be done in the future by knowledgeable amateurs, especially in taxonomy, basic ecology, population monitoring, and other areas often unfunded by research grants. The use of the Internet is adding to the activities of amateurs and will continue to do so in the future.
This is a wonderful book with something for everyone. While I don't agree with everything Wilson says, I agree with most of it and all parts of the book are highly stimulating. If you are at all interested in evolutionary theory (as I think everybody should be) I recommend that you read it!
on May 21, 2007
This is a wonderful book that will change lives. Just about any
phenomenon can be viewed from an evolutionary perspective - from the big
questions of religion and war, to the curious such as why we smile. The
book is only 350 pages, but has 36 chapters, each one packed with
information easily accessible to a general reader (I could only digest
50 pages a day). Abundant references to further reading. A central
thread is that seeing the world as an evolutionist is not hard and many
age-old mysteries can and have been recently solved by so-called
amateurs relying on the power of the idea of evolution, it is a wide
open field that you don't have to be a "scientist" to understand or even
on December 20, 2008
I am a professional Biologists and found this book interesting and thoughtful.
I think this is a clever book, and one that leads the reader on an intellectually satisfying journey.
I am a little concerned that the title may mislead some people. The author successfully makes the case that Darwinism should be an important foundational concept for serious thinkers in the Social Sciences, Religious Studies and Economics, as well as in Biology. "Evolution for Everyone" refers to the idea that serious investigators in all areas, not just in the sciences, should understand and make use of the theory. The writing in not especially technical (kudos to the author for largely abstaining from the jargon), but the interplay between ideas and evidence is pretty complex (and interesting). Thus, it requires the reader's attention if he/she is really to get much out of the reading.
When I first read the title, I expected that it would be a relatively light hearted primer on evolution for those non-scientists who have an interest in the interaction of science with the so-called "culture wars". There are many other books that better fill this latter role (including the one from the National Academy of Sciences which can be downloaded free from their website).
Basically this is a fascinating work if the reader is willing to stretch his or her brain.
on August 13, 2007
I'm a broad reader and an evolutionist. I'd read a review, bought the book, read it and am truly disappointed. Wilson brags constantly about a previous book he wrote, saying he described religion in evolutionary terms. Sadly, he's doing the reverse in this book: Describing evolution as an acolyte rather than a scientist.
He spends too much time making a claim, waving a wand, and claiming he's proven something. His chapter on laughter is a good example: Lots of muttering, no scientific linkage and then a claim it must be evolutionary. He writes well so even that might have been passable and he does have occasional real examples that are worth reading (keeping this review from being a 1).
What's bad are the sections that completely lack logic, such as on page 184, where he's claiming the importance of dance in evolution. Not only does he show no evidence, he makes a false logical claim while talking about the military. As he writes: "The visceral power of dance made it possible for armies to be formed out ot people who had no objective reason for fighting. Merely by marching in time and other intense communal activities, they become emotionally bonded to each other. ... J. Glenn Gray puts it this way in 'The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle': 'Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle ... has been the high point of their lives...."
Notice, first, that he's quoting one man's opinion ("I believe") as factual support. More importantly, notice how Gray is specifically describing the effects of shared combat. Not dancing. Not marching. Not "other intense communal activities." Combat.
I hate it when people on my side are just as ignorant and pompous as the people I oppose. I'm afraid that people will not learn about evolution from this book, only that some evolutionists believe in it as strongly as others believe in the false science of ID. This book damages our cause, and I suggest people avoid it.