From: Dace (email@example.com)
Date: Thu 04 Mar 2004 - 23:19:06 GMT
While I'm not in agreement with this book review, it does bring up a lot of
issues we've been tossing about lately. From *Skeptic,* Vol. 10, No. 3.
Unmasking Darwin's Cathedral: It's Not Just About Religion
A review of *Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and The Nature of
Society,* by David Sloan Wilson, The University of Chicago Press, 2002; 268
Peter A. Corning
From *The Mark of Zorro* to *Spiderman,* literature, film and comic books
have exploited the storyline of a super-hero disguised as a milquetoast: a
self-indulgent fop, a mild-mannered newspaperman, or a terminal geek.
Biologist David Sloan Wilson could hardly be likened to a milquetoast and
neither could his acclaimed book *Darwin's Cathedral.* In fact it is a
major contribution to a highly visible and sometimes bitterly controversial
debate. Wilson advances the thesis that organized religion, for the most
part, is not an irrational phenomenon, much less a non-functional cultural
In many ways Wilson contradicts the many skeptics of religion. Religious
organizations, he says, perform an important adaptive role in human
societies. They represent culturally-evolved "workarounds" that often
provide unifying, coordinating, and supportive functions for large-scale
human groups. In other words, moral systems may contribute significantly to
our biological survival and reproduction. Other evolutionary theorists have
made similar arguments over the years (Sir Arthur Keith, Edward O. Wilson,
and Richard Alexander come to mind), but none (to my knowledge) has proposed
it as a testable scientific hypothesis or marshaled an array of concrete
evidence in support of it.
Wilson's thesis, however, unwittingly masks an accomplishment that is much
more far-reaching and, I would argue, ultimately more important. In effect,
Wilson has completed the theoretical scaffolding for the scientific
revolution that the other well-known Wilson (Edward O.) began with the
publication of his landmark 1975 book *Sociobiology.* E.O. Wilson had hoped
to transform the social sciences, but, in retrospect, he did not have the
theoretical tools to complete the job. D.S. Wilson, in showing that
religious organizations may well be biological adaptations, has now brought
the single most important feature of human societies-- our plethora of
functionally organized social groups, ranging from families to football
teams, large-scale corporations and even governments-- unequivocally into
the evolutionary paradigm. Thanks to Wilson's dogged efforts over the years
to resurrect group selection as an important evolutionary mechanism, we now
have the basis for a full-fledged bio-sociology-- or sociobiology as the
late John Paul Scott (the originator of the term) meant it to be used.
*Darwin's Cathedral* provides a model for how to pursue an evoluionary social science.
E.O. Wilson, in his discipline-defining volume, outraged many social
scientists of the day (and some of his biologist colleagues as well) with a
claim that sounded like pure disciplinary hubris. Evolutionary biology,
Wilson wrote in his introduction, was destined "to reformulate the
foundations of the social sciences." He suggested that the humanities and
social sciences should be re-conceived as "specialized branches of biology."
Most flagrant of all, was his famous claim in the final chapter on the
evolution of humankind that human behavior is governed by invisible
"epigenetic rules" (though Wilson didn't actually deploy this term until a subsequent book). In short, our genes are ultimately in charge. To many social scientists, this sounded like Social Darwinism deja vu. The very term "sociobiology" became an epithet in some quarters.
The most serious problem with E.O. Wilson's newborn sociobiology, though,
was not its inflammatory rhetoric, nor even its attempt to biologize human
behavior. The root problem was that Wilson's formulation, and his basic
claim for his new discipline, was constricted in several ways by the
reigning theoretical paradigm of the time-- neo-Darwinism. first, Wilson
presupposed that cooperation and social organization in nature were based on
altruism. Indeed, in the introduction to his massive tome, Wilson made the
surprising assertion that altruism was "the central theoretical problem" of
sociobiology. Wilson was not alone in this view. Along with many other
biologists of the 1970s, including George C. Williams, William D. Hamilton,
John Maynard Smith, Richard Dawkins and even David Sloan Wilson in his early
writings, E.O. Wilson assumed that social cooperation (read altruism) was
greatly constrained by the inherent "selfishness" of living organisms.
Wilson even parroted Hamilton's early contention (though both theorists
later changed their views) that there are only three categories of social
behavior: altruism, selfishness (meaning acitons that exploit another
organism) and "spite."
Accordingly, Wilson and many other theorists assumed that group selection in
favor of cooperation/altruism would work only if it could overcome the
countervailing pressure of individual selection, which would inevitably
favor selfishness, cheating and spite. (Of course, this constricted view of
cooperation overlooked the entire category of win-win "mutualism," which
characterized the many symbiotic relationships between members of different
species, as well as the many forms of mutually-beneficial social cooperation
among conspecifics that were later "discovered" by the so-called game
theorists of the 1980s.) Wilson even devoted an entire chapter of his
encyclopedic volume to "Group Selection and Altruism," where, ironically, he
presaged the "multi-level selection" paradigm that has become popular in
recent years. Nevertheless, Wilson concluded that group selection could
occupy only a "very narrow window" in evolution. (Other theorists, like
George C. Williams, were even more disparaging.) The most promising
opportunities for explaining the evolution of social behavior, Wilson
believed, were Hamilton's inclusive fitness theory (or "kin selection" in
Maynard Smith's term) and perhaps Robert Trivers' "reciprocal altruism."
Many social scientists were not impressed.
Later on in *Sociobiology,* in his chapter on humankind, E.O. Wilson opined
that ethics, religion and culture were likely to be adaptive; religions
evolve to advance the welfare of their practitioners, he suggested,
anticipating the other Wilson's thesis a quarter of a century later. Even
more surprising was his assertion that, in human evolution, individual
selection and group selection might have been mutually "reinforcing." (In
fact, this was also Darwin's view in *The Descent of Man,* and it was shared
by such distinguished evolutionary theorists as R.A. Fisher, Julian Huxley,
Sir Arthur Keith and, more recently, Richard Alexander.) However, Wilson's
speculations about human evolution were ad hoc and ultimately unpersuasive,
given his theoretical inclinations.
The sea change that led to David Sloan Wilson's ultimately more successful
attempt to account for social behavior in human societies was a result of
several convergent tidal shifts. For one thing, Wilson is a beneficiary of
the growing realization that much, if not most, social behavior is both
cooperative and selfish, even in the immediate, "proximate" sense; it
involves the production of functional synergies that are mutually
advantageous. This is clearly the case with the vast array of symbiotic
partnerships in nature, more of which are being discovered all the time.
And it is reflected also in the many successful game theory models of social
cooperation. These models share the basic assumptions that the participants
are unrelated to each other (thus tacitly contradicting a key tenet of
inclusive fitness theory) and, more important, that cooperation is mutually
beneficial (indeed, the synergies are routinely quantified in the payoff
matrices). There are many examples in the natural world.
Equally important, the problem of "cheating," once viewed as an almost
insurmountable obstacle in cooperation in nature, has been deflated in
importance by the many models (and innumerable field studies and
experimental tests) showing that "punishments" of various kinds can (and do)
curtail the tendency to cheat (or "defect" in game theory parlance).
Moreover, it is now increasingly evident that many forms of cooperation, in
nature and human societies alike, are self-policing, because the "goods" can
only be produced through the interdependent actions of the participants.
Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary, in their 1995 volume on *The Major
Transitions in Evolution,* utilize a metaphor from rowing to illustrate this
point. If two oarsmen are rowing a boat in tandem, each with two oars, it
is possible for one of the oarsmen to slack off (cheat) without preventing
the boat from reaching its goal. This represents the classic game theory
paradigm. But if the two oarsmen are seated side-by-side, each with only
one oar, then both oarsmen must pull their full weight or the boat will go
In other words, social cooperation and sociality, both in nature and in
humankind, very often depend not on kinship or altruism but on economics, or
the material costs and benefits and how these are distributed. As David
Sloan Wilson's arguments for group selection matured over the years (his
initial paper appeared in the same year that *Sociobiology* was published),
he ultimately gained traction in the debate by adopting this more liberal
interpretation. Wilson also coined the term "trait group selection" to
convey the idea that group selection operates on any functionally-important
adaptation that represents the joint product of two or more interacting
genes, or genomes, or individuals. Indeed, group selection (along with
functional synergy, I might add) provides the explanation for why we have
interdependent genomes and complex multicellular organisms. And the very
same principle applies also to the evolution of "superorganisms."
So why do I call *Darwin's Cathedral* a landmark in sociobiology and the
social sciences? It's not just that a revitalized group selection paradigm
(what I like to call "Holistic Darwinism") enabled David Sloan Wilson to fully apprehend the evolutionary significance of organized human groups. Even more important for the future of an evolutionary social science was Wilson's shift of focus from the "ultimate" level-- where natural selection and the evolved genetic substrate of human behavior are the primary concern-- to the "proximate" level, where the immediate problems of adaptation (i.e., survival and reproduction) are the issue.
Wilson himself is a bit defensive about this approach. He points out that
Darwinian fitness is, strictly speaking, a relative concept; it depends on
the context and the nature of the competition. He also frets about the
challenge of translating a given social behavior, or organization, in a
human society into the "currency" of Darwinian fitness. But, in fact, the
prospect for an evolutionary social science is stronger than he supposes.
First, as Wilson himself argues, fitness per se is not the primary issue
when the focus is on the proximate level. Rather, the concern is with the
concrete "bioeconomic" problem of meeting basic survival and reproductive
needs in a given context. This is not fundamentally different from the
challenge that confronts ethologists and behavioral ecologists in the
research relating to adaptation in other species. But, more important,
there have been some significant efforts over the years, most notably in the
so-called "survival indicators" program, to spell out in detail the menu of
"basic needs" that define the problem of adaptation in human societies. In the survival indicators framework, no less that 14 primary needs "domains" have been identified and documented, both for individuals and groups/populations. Hence, a concrete analytical paradigm already exists for assessing biological adaptation. (An in-depth article of mine on this project, entitled "Biological Adaptation in Human societies: A 'Basic Needs' Approach," appeared in the new *Journal of Bioeconomics* in 2000.)
In sum, it is now possible to "reformulate the foundations of the social
sciences in a rather different and perhaps more productive way than E.O.
Wilson may have envisioned. Wilson stressed the ultimate level in
evolution. But it is also possible to build a bio-social science that is
focused on the proximate problem of biological adaptation. This allows us
to plug the social sciences directly into the evolutionary paradigm, and
vice versa. As David Sloan Wilson points out, rational choice economics, a
dominant influence in the social sciences of the 20th century, has no
substantive content; many neo-classical economists are clueless about the
biological imperatives that shape the agendas of most human beings most of
Likewise, classical "functionalism" in mid-20th century sociology had the
right methodology but the wrong problem. It is not about the survival of
social systems, or "pattern maintenance" in sociologist Talcott Parsons'
well-known euphemism. It's about the relationship between social systems
and the biological surivival of its members, and any others who may happen
to be impacted; in other words, how the system contributes to, or detracts
from, the biological (functional) imperatives in human societies. (In a
highly symbolic act of interdisciplinary reconciliation, Wilson finds the
pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim's functionalism very compatible.) Some
biologically-oriented anthropologists have done a commendable job of getting
the adaptation problem into better focus, but the cleavage between these
anthropologists and their rejectionist colleagues in cultural anthropology
shows that the battle is far from won.
Thus the theoretical revolution in the social sciences that E.O. Wilson
launched remains an active combat zone, but David Sloan Wilson has pointed
the way to victory.
Peter Corning is currently director of the Institute for the Study of
Complex Systems in Palo Alto, CA. He holds a Ph.D. in the social sciences,
and did his post-doctoral training and research in biology and behavior
genetics. He is a member of several scientific organizations and a past
president of the International Society for the Systems Sciences. He has
also published more than 150 research papers and articles and four books.
Most recent is *Nature's Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of
Humankind* (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
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