David Sloan Wilson on Completing the Darwinian Revolution

This View of by Life David Sloan WilsonIn the final paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

From this poetic ending we get the title of David Sloan Wilson’s latest book, This View of Life, which seeks to expand the evolutionary worldview beyond the biological realm to the realm of human culture and policy.

Biology is one of the few disciplines that already has its grand unifying theory: evolution by natural selection. It’s what prompted the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky to declared in 1973 that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Evolution by natural selection beautifully explains all things biological from the fossil record to DNA sequences to taxonomical classification, and every plant and animal can be explained fully in terms if its function, evolutionary history, mechanism of behavior, and embryological development—all under one grand unifying theory.

What Wilson is proposing is that the human sciences—psychology, sociology, history, politics, education, etc.—can also be better explained by, and included within, the grand unifying theory of evolution. Wilson is essentially taking Dobzhansky one step further by stating that “nothing in human culture makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

The problem is that this has been stated before, in poor form. We are resistant to the application of evolution to the study of human behavior for two (misguided) reasons: 1) we think evolution means only genetic evolution (which means determinism), and 2) social Darwinism.

Wilson dispels the myth of social Darwinism in the first chapter. He notes, first, that Charles Darwin himself was not a social Darwinist. Social Darwinism has always been a derogatory term associated with eugenics, genocide, and the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which is a phrase coined by Herbert Spencer, not Darwin.

The irony is that, as Wilson writes, “People hardly ever call themselves social Darwinists and those who are accused almost never actually use Darwin’s theory to justify their position.” Darwin himself never adopted the social Darwinist views, recognizing the importance of sympathy and cooperation over competition in human evolution. As Darwin wrote, “selfish and contentious people will not cohere and without coherence nothing can be effected.”

As Wilson states, any tool can be used as a weapon, and evolutionary theory is no exception, but the important point is that the evolutionary worldview does not necessarily lead to the pursuit of ruthless competition. Properly understood, the evolutionary worldview places far more importance on human cooperation, and therefore the social Darwinist views are nothing more than imaginary evils that prevent us from weilding a more accurate picture of reality.

As Wilson repeatedly states, human cultural evolution, being a part of (but distinct from) genetic evolution, is not deterministic. Cultural evolution can take us in a number of different directions, and, unguided, will likely take us where we don’t want to go. Our task is guide the evolutionary process toward appropriate and worthwhile goals.

Wilson, throughout the book, provides several examples of how the evolutionary worldview helps us to more effectively solve problems and manage small groups. But this is where we need to pause to consider the contentious topic of group selection, because it’s easy to dismiss Wilson outright if you take his views on group selection to be wrong. In fact, nothing in the book will make sense except in the light of group selection (or multi-level selection, as Wilson calls it).

The controversy, I believe, is largely illusory and one of perspective. Those against the idea of group selection will note that groups cannot replicate themselves, and therefore cannot participate in the process of variation and selection that is required for evolution. Groups, like bodies, are simply “vehicles” for the genes, and genes are, technically, the only physical material that can actually replicate.

Multi-level selection, as I understand Wilson to be describing it, accepts that genes are the replicators and groups are the vehicles. But the vehicles, in the case the groups, can influence which genes are ultimately passed on, therefore having an indirect but powerful impact on gene transmission.

Think of an individual struggling to survive. If he is well-adapted to his environment, and can outcompete his competition, evade his predators, and secure a mate, then he will pass on his genetic information to future generations. Any genetic variation that makes this more likely will increase his fitness and increase the representation of those genes in the population. Group selection doesn’t factor into this scenario.

But think about this same individual as part of a group that is competing against other groups. Regardless of his fitness level within his group, if another group outcompetes his group, and his group dies off, his genes are not passed on to future generations.

Consider an alternative scenario. What if this individual is part of a group that cooperates more effectively and can fend off the competing group, so that this other group dies off instead. Now, this individual’s genes will have been passed on to to future generations, but only because his group was better at cooperating and outcompeting other groups. This is group selection, even though it is still only the genes that are being transmitted. Selection is working at two levels.

To accept Wilson’s conception of multi-level selection is only to accept that groups can indirectly impact the transmission of genes, which it seems that they clearly can, as when ant colonies that outcompete other ant colonies replicate themselves as vehicles through the genetic replication of its individual members. The genes have an impact on the vehicles and the vehicles have an impact on the genes (and not only from group selection, but also from epigenetics, or the modification of gene expression).

I suspect that a large number of people will turn away from the book on the first hint of group selection, and that is unfortunate. At the same time, Wilson certainly could have done a better job defending his particular conception of group selection. Rather, he seems to pretend it’s not controversial and just assumes that his readers will agree. This is probably a mistake.

So already there are a few hurdles you have to overcome before you can really dig into the main ideas of the book. If you think evolution means genetic evolution only, that any application of evolution to human culture is social Darwinism, or that group selection is flat out wrong in any form, then you will likely dismiss the book before it even gets started. However, if you’re able to see these misconceptions for what they are, the remainder of the book will expand your perspective on using evolutionary theory to solve real-world problems.

So what exactly can the evolutionary perspective offer, in practical terms? That’s the meat and strength of the book, once you clear away the biases mentioned above. Wilson recounts several real-world applications in business, education, and public policy that leverages the evolutionary worldview.

The best way to think of the evolutionary approach to managing teams and implementing policy is to think of the area between Laissez-faire and centralized planning. In terms of Laissez-faire, Wilson writes, “If there is anything that evolution teaches us, it is that the pursuit of lower-level self-interest does not automatically benefit the common good.” As for central planning, Wilson reminds us that “the reason centralized planning seldom works is because the world is too complex to be understood by anyone.” No matter how well intentioned the planning is, there are always unforeseen consequences.

What can work, instead, is a managed process of variation and selection. Once a worthwhile goal is established that considers the common good, a process of planned and unplanned variation and selection can be managed as the optimal way to achieve the stated goal. This scientific-oriented approach to problem solving can be applied not only in biology but also in business, government, and the management of any group.

In the chapter titled “What All Groups Need,” Wilson summarizes the research of Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for her research on the tragedy of the commons. Specifically, she analyzed a worldwide database of groups that had successfully managed common-pool resources. The tragedy of the commons, if you’re not familiar, is the problem associated with a group of people sharing a resource that each individual person is tempted to overuse at the expense of the group.

It turns out that the most successful groups all abided by eight core design principles (CDPs), which can be used as a template for creating effective groups in business, government, education, and more. They include the establishment of clear goals and purpose, collective decision making, fair distribution of costs and benefits, self-monitoring, graduated punishments, local autonomy, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances without top-down rigidity.

Far from being only theoretical, Wilson recounts how he implemented these CDPs with great success by developing an at-risk program for ninth and tenth graders at Binghamton High School. Wilson also shows how the CDPs can be implemented for the management of neighborhoods, religious groups, and socially-minded businesses.

Humans evolved within the context of small groups, and it is through the creation of effective small group dynamics that we are most effective at solving problems. Understanding how to manage groups within the framework of evolutionary theory will not only complete the darwinian revolution but will also give us our best chance to solve our most pressing social problems.

The only thing I would add is that this is not necessarily new; David Deutsch has outlined this evolutionary approach in his book The Beginning of Infinity, and Karl Popper long ago emphasized the evolutionary approach to knowledge and policy. Popper’s “conjectures and refutations” is, after all, the concept of “variation and selection” expressed in different terms. I was somewhat surprised that Wilson made no mention of these authors. Nonetheless, Wilson’s presentation is unique and the practical examples drive home the point in terms of relevance to real-world problems.

In closing, if we’re looking for long-term solutions to our political problems, this is it. Leveraging the evolutionary process of variation and selection to achieve goals brings a level of sanity and rationality to the political process, which should be thought of as a cooperative problem solving activity rather than as a pre-darwinian zero-sum competition between competing factions.

Further Reading

Also check out David Deutsch’s phenomenal The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World for a unique perspective on the evolutionary nature of knowledge and the importance of explanations.

And check out Popper Selections by Karl Popper, the originator of the concept of evolutionary epistemology.