Genesis by Edward O. Wilson book coverThere exists within evolutionary theory a deep contradiction, one that Charles Darwin noticed back in the nineteenth century. The problem is this: how can evolution by natural selection account for altruistic behavior that benefits the group at the expense of the individual?

The standard view of natural selection, operating at the level of the gene, goes as follows: genetic mutation results in variation in form and function in the individual, which either confers an advantage or disadvantage (or is neutral) in relation to other individuals. If the mutation enhances survival and reproduction in a particular environment, then that individual will flourish and the frequency of those genes will increase within the population.

Continue reading “Edward O. Wilson on the Origin of Altruism”

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.”

Continue reading “David Sloan Wilson on Completing the Darwinian Revolution”

The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The human mind is plagued by a host of biases, and one of the most prominent is the “false dilemma” fallacy. This fallacy occurs whenever two choices are presented as the only options when a spectrum of possible choices exist, and is especially prevalent in debates regarding human nature.

Human nature is often presented as either innately good and corrupted by society (following Jean Jacques Rousseau) or as innately bad and civilized by society (following Thomas Hobbes). As you can imagine, the truth is much more complicated.

Continue reading “The Domesticated Ape: Explaining the Paradox of Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution”

The Selfish Gene by Richard DawkinsI should start by stating the obvious, that The Selfish Gene is a terrible choice for the title. It sends entirely the wrong message and gives people an excuse not to read the book. This, of course, was not lost on Richard Dawkins, as he would later admit that three better alternative titles would have been The Cooperative Gene, The Immortal Gene, or The Altruistic Vehicle.

In the title The Selfish Gene, the emphasis should be on “gene,” not on “selfish,” as there is no gene that codes for selfishness. But Dawkins should have anticipated the confusion and the tendency for critics to use this against him (without reading, as Dawkins said, the footnote to the title, which is the book). Nothing screams social darwinism more than the The Selfish Gene, even though the book is clearly anti-social darwinism in content.

Continue reading “The Immortal Gene: How Our Bodies Act as Temporary Vehicles for DNA”