Friday, May 04, 2007

David Sloan Wilson

I just finished his Evolution for Everyone. (It's the kind of book I had a hard time putting down. (Click here for all my posts about the book.) It's a very personal book. The last couple of chapters especially are autobiographical — and not always self-flattering. He describes himself as a mediocre student — who didn't do well in math and science (at his "safety" school no less) even though he wanted to be a scientist. He also failed socially — overly prolonging an unfortunate relationship and marriage into which he was apparently driven primarily by loneliness.

Throughout the book Wilson talks about how belief systems succeed or fail depending on the practical actions they invoke in their followers. Throughout the book also, he talks about how anyone can be an evolutionist. It's easy, he says, to understand how to think from an evolutionary perspective. All one needs is a basic course — or this book. He speaks of the evolutionary perspective as if it opens one's eyes to how the world really is. He doesn't use these term, but one might imagine him saying that the scales have fallen from his eyes.

In fact, if one applies Wilson's method to himself, thinking like an evolutionist has led him to behave in a way that has resulted in his own success. He met and married the woman he loves. He has become a very successful scientist. He teaches at a University which has adopted his EvolS program — which is something like evolution through the curriculum. The book ends with these words.
It is awesome and humbling to contemplate that we are the product of that same sculpting action [that formed the creatures around us], not only our bodies but also our minds and the very thoughts that run through our minds. I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to be present during the early days of Darwin's theory, when the idea was so new and so much remained to be discovered. Then I realize that I am present during the early days of Darwin's theory. The intellectual events taking place right now are as foundational as the events of 150 years ago. How amazing that virtually anyone can partake in the excitement, as an observer or a participant, as I hope you have seen on the basis of this book. Evolution theory is not the kind of belief system that hurls you like an arrow in a previously chosen direction. It is more like a sailboat or kayak bobbing by the shore, inviting you to take your own voyage of discovery.
Compare that to his discussion of the practical benefits of religion.
I have spoken with many religious believers who feel that my focus on practical benefits misses the sense of the religious experience, which is a deeply felt relationship with God. I agree with them as far as the psychological religious experience is concerned, but that is exactly what the proximate/ultimate distinction leads us to expect. I could be right that religion is all about practical benefits in terms of what religious belief causes people to do (the ultimate explanation, which corresponds to the horizontal dimension of religion), and they could be right that their own religious experience is based far more on their relationship with God than on practical benefits for themselves or anyone else (the proximate explanation, which corresponds to the vertical dimension of religion). The proximate explanation need not bear any relationship to the ultimate explanation other than reliably causing the right behavior, as we have seen with our example of the flowering plant. By the same token, people fall in love in part of have children (an ultimate explanation), but that doesn't remotely describe the subjective experience of falling in love (the proximate explanation).
Seeing the light of the scientific theory of evolution seems to have saved Wilson's life. He argues for it with much of the same zeal as a religious convert. (It's important to note that Wilson proselytizes as much for science as he does for evolution. His notion of "turning the crank of science" appears repeatedly in the book. Scientific facts, once arrived at by the difficult work of science are durable. They are the bricks of which the explanatory edifices of scientific theories are built.)

Wilson makes the point that most religions — at least initially — develop belief systems that merge what he calls practical realism (successful behaviors that result from their beliefs) with factual realism (accurate perceptions of the way nature works). In his own case, since his belief system is scientific evolutionary theory (which is factually realistic) and since he lives in a world which favors good scientists (which makes it practically realistic), that's not hard to do.

The scientific evolutionary perspective is the right way to understand much of how the world works — whether or not it saved his life, and notwithstanding the fact that he was open, honest, and courageous enough to tell us so. In Evolution for Everyone Wilson invites everyone to join him in this happy confluence.

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