Saturday, April 07, 2007

Evolution's Empire   posted by Razib @ 4/07/2007 12:44:00 AM

David Sloan Wilson, the doyen of Multilevel Selection theorists, has a new book out, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. It seems pretty clear to me that Wilson is trying to "do a Dennett" here. But unlike Dennett, who was not a scientist himself and so operated within standard evolutionary science by regurgitating Richard Dawkins' work (who was himself simply a channel for W.D. Hamilton and John Maynard Smith), Wilson is known to be something of a heterodox figure because of his emphasis upon higher levels of selection than the individual. Via these models of interdemic (group) selection Wilson has attempted to revive functionalism within anthropology (see Darwin's Cathedral). An extract of his book up over at the The New York Times:
If our own species can be included in this grand synthesis, there is every reason to do so. It would be like a strange figure emerging from the shadows to enjoy the warmth of a campfire with good company. My own career shows that this is possible. Just like Darwin-not because I share his personal attributes but because I share his theory-I have seamlessly added humans to the bestiary of animals that I study, on topics as diverse as altruism, beauty, decision making, gossip, personality, and religion. I publish in anthropology, economic, philosophy, and psychology journals in addition to my biological research....

Having reread Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, which Wilson co-wrote with Elliott Sober, I am not surprised at the boasting above. Unlike Darwin or E.O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson doesn't mask his ego under a self-deprecating exterior, he makes it clear that other scientists just lack his subtle perspective, his Olympian breadth of knowledge. Other scientists find math hard, are cowed by Political Correctness and swept along with the latest scientific fashions. They can't see what's right before their noses, mere mortals that they are. Wilson's ego is big enough to venture boldly into some pretty treacherous waters, recall that several years ago he wrote to defend Kevin Mac Donald against charges of anti-Semitism (Mac Donald works within a group selectionist framework). Unlike some of the cheerleaders for group selection theory he notes in Unto Others that shifting the level of selection up the hierarchy simply moves the conflict to that level (i.e., from inter-individual to inter-group). At the end of the day I often find Wilson's work just a bit too clever by a half, but I'll pick up this book for laughs and the bibliography. Even if Wilson's ideas are crap because all sorts of stuff have been blended together to produce a confused mush, the raw material of his sources are often quite illuminating.