The Human Swarm by Mark MoffettIn most accounts of world or macro history, you get a few introductory sections or chapters on our hunter-gather past before moving on to the civilizations of written history. Yet 6,000 years of written history represents only three percent of our collective 200,000 year history as a species. Surely this span of time has more relevance and deserves more attention than it is typically given.

The Human Swarm by biologist Mark Moffett does not suffer from this limitation; it takes 21 chapters and 275 pages before the author gets to the societies of written history. In what truly represents a biologist’s take on the history of our species and societies, the majority of the book discusses our deep evolutionary past and our connections to other social species, including chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins, elephants, and even ants.

Continue reading “Review of The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall”

Blueprint by Nicholas ChristakisSocial scientists can approach the study of human culture, broadly, by either focusing on differences or similarities. All too often, they choose to accentuate the differences, elaborating on what divides us and on our more aggressive and sinister behaviors. Since cultural differences are so obvious, the countless cross-cultural variations in human behavior would seem to dispel the possibility of cultural universals.

In Blueprint, Nicholas Christakis makes the opposite case: that our genes code for universal traits—the social suite—that underlie all superficial variation in human behavior and provide the foundation by which we form social networks. Christakis uses the metaphor of viewing two mountains from a 10,000 foot plateau, noting that one mountain appears three times the size of the other, until you descend from the plateau. Then, you realize the two mountains are 10,300 and 10,900 feet tall, and are not so dissimilar from this enlarged perspective.

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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.

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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.”

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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 Beginning of InfinityExpanding on the work of Karl Popper, The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch represents what may be considered the definitive work of the philosophy of science for the twenty-first century. What follows is a brief outline of that philosophy.

In general, Deutsch is making the claim that knowledge and biological adaptation share a similar history of development (although they are much different in other important ways). In terms of biological adaptation, variation in genes results in different biological forms which are then selected via the process of natural selection. The information needed to assemble biological forms is contained within the genes.

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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”