Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Frans de Waal   posted by p-ter @ 11/14/2006 05:34:00 PM

The most recent Current Biology has an interview with Frans de Waal. His take on public opinion of biology:
Apart from the perennial controversies surrounding evolution here in the USA - an issue beyond the grasp of my European brain - there have been dramatic changes in public opinion in favor of those who try to put human behavior in an evolutionary light. The days when Ed Wilson got doused with water are behind us. One can now say (as I like to do) that humans are essentially apes and suggest genetic influences on behavior without meeting the incredible hostility that marked the 1970s.

One time, long ago, I was attacked for claiming that male chimpanzees are dominant over females - how did I know this? wasn't I projecting male prejudices onto their society? - whereas recently, I attended a lecture where a speaker listed biologically based gender differences, a lot of them, and I saw young people in the audience yawn! Apparently, the effect of the Y chromosome on behavior has become a boring topic.

I lecture in many countries, and often end up in public debates. Until recently, I found the French most averse to Darwinian explanations. But even there, all of a sudden the sun has come through the clouds: comparisons between apes and humans are accepted when only a few years ago they were seen as deeply offensive. Evolutionary explanations are becoming all the rage among French intellectuals.

In about three decades, the general public in the West has moved from fear of biology to fascination. Now let's see if the social sciences will follow by putting more evolution into their thinking and curriculum. It is bound to happen