Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Evolution for Everyone"

David Sloan Wilson is Distinguished Professor, Departments of Biology and Anthropology, and Director of EvoS, Binghamton University. His first book for a general audience is Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.

He applied the "page 69 test" to Evolution for Everyone and reported the following:
Evolution for Everyone describes the basic principles of evolution in a way that anyone can understand, and then relates evolution to the human condition in addition to the natural world. Page 69 is from a chapter titled "Welcome Home, Prodigal Son," which explores what it means to regard ourselves as 100% a product of evolution, abandoning the hubris that we have special properties breathed into us by a higher power. There is also a secular version of this hubris, in which our special properties are supposedly based on culture and learning. "Hubris, all hubris!" is how page 69 ends, but you'll have to read the book to discover how I deliver on my extravagant claim.

One of the joys of writing a book is the emergence of themes that were not necessarily planned at the beginning. In my case, Evolution for Everyone became a reflection on science as an everyday "roll up your sleeves" activity, like gardening and construction work, and scientists as just like other folks who come from all walks of life, rather than an elite caste. It is possible for anyone to understand and even contribute to the profound discoveries that are taking place right now, as evolutionary theory expands beyond the biological sciences to provide a unifying framework for understanding the human condition.

Page 69:

To be precise, the statement “Believing that we have god given abilities is good for us” could be factually correct while the statement “We have god-given abilities” is in all likelihood incorrect. I make this statement with confidence, not because I am hostile to religion, but because supernatural explanations of ourselves have proven their inadequacy many times over, along with supernatural explanations of the physical world and the rest of nature. The next time that you visit a doctor, you should hope that she is enlightened enough to appreciate the importance of belief for physical and mental health, but you should also be glad that she doesn’t resort to supernatural explanations any more than your car mechanic.

Abandoning supernatural explanations is only the first step in our multi-step road to recovery. The world is full of people who have already abandoned supernatural explanations, who fully accept the fact of evolution and human origins, and yet haven’t a clue about what evolution can tell us about our bodies, minds, and societies in any detail. Your aforementioned doctor is probably among them, as I will show in the very next chapter. The secular belief that we stand apart from the rest of nature takes a variety of forms, but most emphasize open-ended abilities such as learning, language, culture, and rational thought. These capacities supposedly enable us to play by different rules than other species and do not require a detailed knowledge of evolution to understand, even though they presumably arose by a process of genetic evolution. A common claim is that “biology” sets broad limits to our behavior, such as eating and procreation, but that “culture” determines what we do within the broad limits, such as making art rather than babies. It is true but boring to point out that we like to eat and have sex; far more interesting is our rich cultural diversity, about which evolution has nothing to say. Above all, we can choose our own destiny because our behavior is not genetically determined, unlike all other species. Add the appropriate mood music, and humanity becomes like Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise, confidently going where no one has gone before.

Hubris, all hubris! In the first place, it places too much emphasis on our uniquely human attributes. In the second place, it fails to appreciate how much evolution is required to understand our uniquely human attributes.
Learn more about Evolution for Everyone at the publisher's website and read an excerpt.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue