Man on a Darwin Mission
When you think of helping people in the inner city, do you think of Darwin? Probably what comes to mind are religious missions, government social workers, the Red Cross, the Peace Corps, or UNESCO. David Sloan Wilson, author of Evolution for Everyone, who has spent a lifetime studying evolution, had a “Damascus moment” a few years ago; the idea that Darwinism is so powerful and productive, it can improve people’s lives. Like an apostle, he has taken his faith to the streets of Binghamton, New York.
We only have his account of his mission work. He told it in New Scientist on August 29.
My new mission was not a complete break from what I had been doing before. Throughout my career, I have studied the fundamental problem of how altruism, cooperation and other traits that are good for the group can evolve in any species. I have also studied the evolutionary origins of human characteristics such as gossip, decision-making, physical attractiveness and religion. But that was all academic research: how would my ideas fare on the streets of Binghamton?
Wilson’s apostolic team went door-to-door to take measurements of “prosociality,” the kind of altruistic good will that seeks the good of the community. “We did this using a variety of methods, including experimental games, door-to-door surveys and questionnaires aimed at schoolchildren, and by observing the frequency of spontaneous prosocial acts such as people picking up and posting a stamped addressed envelope left on the sidewalk, or the extent to which people decorated their houses during Halloween or Christmas.” Measurements were duly taken and maps were made of prosociality.
The maps showed that altruism is not evenly distributed around the city, but is clustered in hotspots, forming hills and valleys and rugged terrain. Not surprisingly, the communities doing well mutually followed the Golden Rule: “As an academic evolutionist, I knew that prosociality can evolve in any species when highly prosocial individuals are able to interact with each other and avoid interacting with selfish individuals – in other words, when those who give also receive.” These communities also got the most social support from multiple sources, including “family, neighbourhood, school, religion, and through extracurricular activities such as sports and arts.”
Wilson was puzzled, though, why prosociality was high in some areas and low in others. “Do people who are genetically predisposed towards altruism tend to flock together? Or do people become more altruistic when they interact with others who display this trait? Or are external environmental conditions the major influence?” He figured that all three play a role. Philosophically, though, that provides two escape hatches for a theory, like a doctor saying your laziness is caused by genetics, your parents’ bad discipline, or your astrological sign. Which is the dominant factor?
Additional measurements showed that people change their prosociality habits to match the neighborhood they move into. It seemed intuitive to Wilson that prosociality is a good thing to promote: “Promoting prosociality is a good idea not only as an end in itself, but because living in a caring, supportive neighbourhood carries many additional benefits, from lower crime rates to a healthier developmental environment for children.” Next, therefore, he wanted to experiment to see if he could turn a “valley” into a “hill” of altruism. He did this with a “Design Your Own Park” initiative, giving neighbors a creative opportunity to work together. “Most people scarcely know their neighbours,” he said, “but there’s nothing like a common goal to bring people together.” Another experiment is trying to improve improve the curriculum for Binghamton High School students who are falling behind.
Wilson drew on the guidelines by Nobel economist Elinor Ostrom, who defined the criteria in which group projects succeed, such as clearly defined goals and equitable sharing of costs and benefits. “One year into our initiative, five schemes are up and running and showing great promise, though it is too early yet for a real assessment of success.”
One question that arises, though, is what does Darwin have to do with all this? “A group that functions well is a bit like an organism with numerous organs: remove any single organ and the organism dies,” he said. Granted, but such words were spoken 2,000 years ago by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 12 to show how a church needs each individual to function as the body of Christ. Isn’t Darwinism essentially selfish, like Richard Dawkins preaches? Isn’t Darwinism descriptive, not prescriptive? Wilson feels justified by faith in the initial successes his team is seeing with his experiments on human subjects. He crows,
This proves that educational policy informed by evolutionary theory can make a difference on the ground. Indeed, I am convinced that a Darwinian perspective can improve policy in many arenas. At the Evolution Institute we are using evolutionary science to help address a whole range of issues in addition to education, such as risky adolescent behaviour, failed nation states and human regulatory systems at all scales.
First Binghamton, then the world. For Wilson, this is a global mission, and he is passionate about it:
This kind of work is what evolutionary science should be all about. Evolution is fundamentally about the relationship between organisms and their environments. Field studies – rather than lab-based research – should form the foundation of research on all species, humans included. Yet the vast majority of studies in the human-related sciences are not based on field research, and the most field-oriented disciplines, such as sociology and cultural anthropology, have been least receptive to the modern evolutionary perspective.
Don’t think for a minute, though, that Wilson’s mission is motivated by the agape love Paul described in I Corinthians 13, or Jesus’ command to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” That becomes clear in his last paragraph:
What we have done in Binghamton is to establish a field site for human-related evolutionary research. It could prove as useful as Tanzania’s Gombe national park has been for the study of chimpanzees and the Galapagos Islands for the study of finches.
Wilson admits to being no different from any other evolutionary biologist. In his case, though, he works on human subjects.
Update 09/09/2011: In Nature 09/08/11,1 Kevin Laland reviewed Wilson’s book The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time (Little, Brown, 2011). As a fellow evolutionist, Laland was mostly impressed, but he did bring up the fact that previous attempts by evolutionary sociologists (Desmond Morris and E. O. Wilson in particular) at “Mixing sociology, anthropology and psychology with evolution can be explosive.” Therefore, “Readers conscious of this backdrop might be forgiven for approaching The Neighborhood Project, by biologist David Sloan Wilson, with trepidation.”
Waltzing through the book with pleasure, Laland had little negative to say, But in the last two paragraphs he raised some red flags:
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.
In other words, evolutionary theory not only lacks any guarantees of success, it lacks any reliable way to measure what is right or wrong. Laland ended by noting that the Binghamton project is too young to evaluate. He wished it success, hoping that it would prove “a triumph for science, pluralism and common sense as much as for evolutionary biology.” Time will tell. The track record has not been good.
1. Kevin Laland, “Evolution: Small-town utopia,” Nature, 477 (08 September 2011), page 160, doi:10.1038/477160a.
This deluded maniac must be dismissed at the outset on charges of being hopelessly inconsistent with his own belief system. Remember the danger we described in his Evolution for Everyone curriculum back in 2005? (Re-read the 12/21/2005 entry.) Now he is on the loose trying to delude the world.
Whatever good he accomplishes with high school students and parks projects derives not from Darwin, but from Christ. Like all fallen, sinful humans, Wilson has a deformed, dead image of God imprinted on his soul. That is what drives him to improve things. One cannot derive true altruism from Darwin, even if he believes that altruism somehow “emerges” in human social groups by evolutionary processes just like it might in bacteria cultures or buffalo herds. Why? Because there is no should in the Darwin dictionary. (He would never consider the possibility, being an evolutionist, that the appearance of cooperation in bacteria colonies and buffalo herds might be due to designed traits created into them. Instead, he ascribes magical powers to the environment to “naturally select” prosociality; see the fallacy of this reasoning in Randy Guliuzza’s latest ICR Acts & Facts article.)
Because Darwinism has no moral compass, it is utterly hopeless for Wilson to go on this mission. Evolution is what evolution does. Think about it: if evolution produced Binghamton before he got there, then he is interfering with evolution to try to change it. If evolution produced the world we have, then he is interfering to try to improve failed nation states. What is failure? What is improvement? These concepts have no meaning in a Darwinian world. His mind is an illusion. His mission is an illusion. Good ideas are an illusion. At best, his work should be seen as a self-serving plot, just like his evolutionary theory predicts. At worst, he should be viewed as a pawn of his own selfish genes, without the slightest control over what evolution is doing to him.
David Sloan Wilson has a super-bad case of the Yoda Complex, in which he envisions his mind on some higher plane than the rest of humanity. With his academic elitist friends, he looks down on the rest of us, viewing others as evolved primates, while he himself has access to the truth of Darwin. That is why we call him a deluded maniac, no matter how worthwhile his projects seem on the outside.
Wilson hasn’t come anywhere near Damascus. He needs a genuine Damascus moment, one that is a complete break from his evolutionary past; one that acknowledges that everything he has been doing all his life, despite his passion for it, is 100% opposed to what is right and good; one that receives the enlightenment of eternal Truth from outside himself; one that calls him to fall on his face off his Yoda pedestal and repent; one that receives mercy and grace to live as a truly altruistic creation of his Maker, empowered by His spirit. Pray that, during his self-righteous experimentation on other humans, David Sloan Wilson will enter a gospel-preaching church and observe true agape love inexplicable by Darwin. Pray his Maker will meet him before he meets his Maker.