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The kinds of reasoning used to explain behavior that is good for the group but perhaps not so good for the individual performing it is as old as Darwin. Until George Williams demolished whole classes of argument in his lovely 1966 book, "Adaptation and Natural Selection", it was common to invoke "group selection" as an analog to individual selection, and explain, in a vague, hand-waving sort of way, how altruistic behavior could arise by enhancing the survival of the herd, or school, or flock. And after Dawkins, both the individual and the group were banished from consideration, and the selfish gene reigned supreme.
Only one category of altruism has been taken as consonant with the unit of replication being the gene, namely "kin selection". This is the favoring of relatives: since relatives share genes, helping a gene-mate helps one's own genes, whether or not it benefits one's self. Yet much altruism in nature goes unexplained by kin selection. Think of the soldier who falls on the hand grenade so his (unrelated) buddies can live. There are many more examples from the lives of many creatures, most of whom never saw a war movie. How does one explain the clear patterns of altruistic behavior in animals at all levels of consciousness and cuddliness? Wilson, a biologist, and Sober, a philosopher, dare to think the unthinkable, or at least the unfashionable: is it possible that individuals or groups really do play a replicator role in evolution? They believe that group selection deserves another chance, but this time more rigorously specified.
I was very impressed with the first half of the book, in which they justify a group-selection model for adaptive evolution that can explain a persistent strain of altruism. What they show is that selection can take place at the level of a group of individuals in many more sorts of situations than were thought possible. (A nice bonus of this approach is that kin selection can be explained more simply using this more general context of the group.) Groups, however ephemeral, do have a role to play in selection.
The second half of the book is less convincing, as it involves psychological and philosophical arguments for "psychological altruism" in humans (that is, you not only behave unselfishly, but "want" to behave unselfishly), which, by its very nature, is hard (or very hard) to tease out in experiments, or to introspect to. However, the authors are reasonably convincing that nature would most likely not employ some Rube Goldberg-type of mental devices that depended on hedonism (pleasure-and-pain-driven behavior) to accomplish important tasks, such as child-rearing, but rather build in directly the mechanism to make a parent care to care for its child. In that way, the care of its child would be a primary motivation, rather than an intrumental one (sorry about the jargon!) on the way to getting pleasure or avoiding pain. Parents will find this convincing, as the desire to take care of one's children seems not to depend on how much we "enjoy" doing it.
This book is detailed, conscientious and well-written, but it covers a lot of ground and many of its arguments, especially in the second part, are subtle. So I recommend reading it more than once: this is contentious material. While the authors do not make anything of the political and social implications of their work, these are always waiting in the wings. Altruism, after all, is in direct opposition to selfishness. Many people see in this a political point, and a social point. Those issues are not properly a part of such a work, but do give great interest to its arguments and conclusions. And whether or not its conclusions finally survive intact, this book's arguments and approach seem exemplary and fruitful.
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If it is the case that mutually beneficial cooperation amongst group members will tend to defeat the survival strategy of competing groups who cannot get their cooperative act together, then we need to know about it. Those of us who feel overwhelmed by greed and dominance can take a great deal of solace from the fact that research is finding simple, good-natured cooperation amongst group members... self-selected by whatever criteria are mutually acceptable... create within their group a strategic competitive advantage.
In some cases the group in question is a religious group and in other cases the group is military or polical or economic. The specific purpose of the group matters less than the fact of orchestrated activity by rational means.
Religion is not the only issue, nor the most important issue. Dr. Wilson makes it clear early in the book that what's at stake here is the ultimate fate of the species. Can we learn this lesson of cooperation that natural selection teaches us in time to preserve the species as a whole, or not?
I have spent much of my adult life with the most pessimistic of conclusions on this question. For the first time I believe that the process of natural selection may itself be a model that can be learned from and turned to survival advantage for our species. Sure, the odds remain against our ultimate conquest of the obstacles before us, but David Sloan Wilson has given us good reason to hope... and to struggle ever more vigorously against the forces of deterioration that challenge us.
I read this book after coming away from "Do Unto Others" which Dr. Wilson co-wrote with philosopher of biology, Elliott Sober. The philosophical credentials Dr. Wilson brings to "Darwin's Cathedral" are impeccable. The two volumes together have transformed my conclusion about the future of the human species, and may well transform yours...
To Wilson's credit, he has written carefully about both scientific and religious issues, and readers with an interest in either field will find that he has covered both fairly. His coverage of the science involved begins with an interesting history of "the wrong turn" evolutionary theory took fifty years ago, when it deliberately ignored the influence of group selection. Especially if one accepts that there is for our species not only an inheritance of genes, but also an inheritance of culture, evolutionary influence by and upon religious groups, especially in light of the examples Wilson discusses, now seems obvious. For instance, evolution often studies population changes due to gains and losses from births, deaths, and in the case of religion, conversion and apostasy. The early Christian church is shown to have made gains compared to Judaism and Roman mythology because of its promotion of proselytization, fertility, a welfare state, and women's participation. There is a temple system in Bali dedicated to the water goddess essential for the prosperity of the rice crops; "those who do not follow her laws may not possess her rice terraces." The religious system encompasses eminently practical procedures for promoting fair water use and even for pest control. Religious morality is shown to build upon the principles of the famously successful computer strategy Tit-for-Tat. There is a significant problem, of course, in religions' dealing with other groups; it is not at all uncommon for a religion to teach that murdering those who believe in other religions is different from murdering those inside one's own religion. There is a degree of amorality shown in such competition, no different from the amorality that governs the strivings of ferns, sparrows, and lions.
Wilson's many examples are fascinating and easy to take, but _Darwin's Cathedral_ is not light reading; although Wilson wanted to write a book for readers of all backgrounds, he has not "'dumbed down' the material for a popular audience," and admits that there is serious intellectual work to be done in getting through these pages. There is valuable and clear writing here, however, and a new way of looking at religion which may become a standard in scientific evaluation.
We pick up the plot in medias res--the hero has stumbled, uninspired through a few years of peacetime which hold none of the promise that seemed evident prior to the war. The author does a good job of plugging us into this man-and-his-family plot without either the soap suds or a preachy tone taking over. Nothing in the book is a particular revelation--there are no real gasps in the plot. But the enterprise is carried off in a competent, undecorated style which keeps one hooked right through to the end. There's a world of metaphor here, but these characters feel real, and the metaphoric situations that the hero and his family must endure to find a place in a changed world come off more live than memorex. A domestic drama can indeed be written without losing the reader or drenching the reader in soap.
This is one of those good rainy afternoon reads. It won't save your soul, but it might help you slog through another cloudy day.
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