Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Positive Social Context For Evolutionary Theory

Now we all know that evolution can have a pretty bad rep. Apart from the people that flat out refuse to believe in it, those that cannot help accept at least the basic principles still can feel uneasy about what it implies. The misconceptions from the Selfish Gene and the constant referring to things like the Holocaust as "Social Darwinism" implies a lot about the morality of humans and our place in the natural world. Natural selection is amoral, no doubt about that, but applying evolutionary principles to human society can bring on some of the most immoral acts ever to fall upon humanity, right? I mean evolution by natural selection is every man, woman and child for themselves right? Screwing over your neighbor to get ahead? We couldn't possibly base a moral society on such immoral principles. How did morality even evolve anyway? See, there has to be something that transcends pure biology and natural selection to answer these questions. I may accept evolution, but I would never suggest reverting to such a primal, barbaric way of life.

Ignoring the fact that if there is one model for society that rewards the guy that screws over his neighbors to get ahead it is capitalism. Ignoring the fact that countless immoral and terrbile things, Holocaust included, were done in the name of religion and by people who didn't even believe in speciation or the theory of evolution. Ignoring the fact that there are chapters in these evolution books like "Nice Guys Finish First" that are dedicated entirely to answering these sorts of questions. Regardless of the terrible rep that evolutionary principles have in the minds of many non-biologists out there, thanks in part to a sensationalist media (and in part to poor communication on the part of scientists, let's keep it real), what does the evidence tell us about the application of evolutionary principles to our society? And I mean real evolutionary principles, not some randomer with no biological background slapping a name on a historical period.

David Sloan Wilson is a very famous American biologist that has contributed enormously to the field of Anthropology and Evolutionary Theory. Although I disagree with his position on the unit of selection debate, I think the project that he is undertaking is freaking fantastic.

For those of you who cannot access that Nature article, here are the highlights:

Some seven years ago he set out to see whether the residents of Binghamton could be made more caring by improving their environment using evolutionary principles. Wilson began with a survey, asking locals to what extent they agreed with statements such as 'It is important to help other people'. He combined this information with other measures of community spirit — from the number of people who display Christmas decorations, to the rate of return of deliberately 'lost' letters. Using technology based on geographical information systems (GIS), he turned the data into maps of the city, revealing caring and less-caring areas as nice 'hills' and nasty 'valleys'.

Wilson's studies of local schoolchildren showed that those with strong social tendencies hailed disproportionately from supportive neighbourhoods; statistical analyses confirmed that this relationship was not an artefact driven by another variable, such as income. He argues that children can be made into 'good Samaritans' or 'bad eggs' by their surroundings because, like other animals, humans are predisposed to cooperate selectively with those who are likely to reciprocate.

There's hope for the future guys! Raise kids in a better environment and they will do better, it's not about money or how many immigrants you have as next door neighbors.

So he has a hypothesis, based on biological and evolutionary principles, as to why this may be the case. So next step, put that hypothesis to the test. How?

Wilson is not content just to study good behaviour, he wants to engender it. The Neighborhood Project details his efforts to “raise the valleys of my GIS maps into hills” by forging alliances with local teachers, school superintendents, politicians and business people to create an evolution-inspired task force dedicated to beautifying the city.

Cue to the sound of Republican heads exploding. Let's put this hypothesis to the test people! Can he do it? Can he "raise those valleys" by applying evolutionary principles to his hometown?

Ever in the spirit of presenting "both sides", the author does have his reservations:

Wilson's attempts to harness his research to improve society are admirable, but there are reasons to be cautious. Evolutionary theory is one of the most fertile, wide-ranging and stimulating of all scientific ideas, yet therein lies the danger: just about anything can be endorsed by an evolutionary hypothesis. For instance, at the first Evolution Institute workshop in 2008, one evolutionist claimed that knowledge that did not exist in ancestral environments, such as mathematics, can never be picked up spontaneously by children. Another claimed that all subjects can be learned readily in a supportive environment. Some advocated child-directed learning; others, direct instruction. Although Wilson is right to claim that evolution can deliver multiple solutions, it is also credible that some of these evolution-inspired hypotheses are wrong.

To which I say yeah, sometimes hypotheses are wrong, no fucking shit. That's why scientists don't just sit around, coming up with hypotheses and just running with the one they like best. They actually put them to the test, the most crucial part of science, to see if their hypotheses have any merit. To a scientists it seems like one of the most banal statements to make in a scientific journal, but I'll let it slide assuming it was included to make sure the non-scientists reading it out there don't get their hopes up.

Anyway, I think it's a great idea, and I can't wait to see the results. It's time to tackle the terrible image that evolution has in the media today.

Just to be clear, I don't advocate tackling it because I somehow think that nature should be viewed as moral, or because making evolutionary theory more morally palatable would somehow make it better. I want to tackle it because the rep it currently has in the media is wrong, these "positive" aspects of evolutionary theory have been ignored in favor of more sensational tragic headlines, and I think it is a fascinating aspect of a wonderfully rich and diverse theory.

Also if we know there are glaring problems with the current system of education we have, why the hell not give it a shot? The potential benefits of such an idea working are incredible.

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