Friday, July 20, 2007

A Somewhat Less Objectionable Form of Darwinism

At, the biologist David Sloan Wilson has published a serious critique of Dawkins's treatment of religion. To understand where Wilson is coming from, note that is devoted to debunking all claims of the supernatural; a further clue is that Wilson's essay was later re-posted for discussion on Democratic Underground. Wilson is the author of Darwin's Cathedral, an effort to explain religion from the Darwinian, evolutionary viewpoint.

So what possible difference could he have with Dawkins? Quite a bit actually, but principally that he endeavors to explain, that is, not explain away religion. In doing so, he also offers a picture of Darwinism that is subtly, but importantly different from Dawkins's view, and which he claims has in fact superseded Dawkins-style "selfish gene" monism.

Wilson has many hard words for Dawkins' utter lack of interest in the actual body of data on religion. When Dawkins claims that religion is not good for the individual or group, Wilson says he's just ignoring the hard, scientific data -- both experimental and that collected by observation and study of religious life and history. Wilson himself sees "religious studies" as a wonderfully full and accurate body of data on religion which can be used to see in what way religion is adaptive for those who practice it. His look at Jainism is a nice, counter-intuitive example of how a religion which enjoins on its priest total celibacy, pure vegetarianism, homelessness, obsessive cleanliness, and even fasting to death can be beneficial for the group (the Jain congregation) as a whole.

Wilson's main theoretical beef with Dawkins is the later's rejection of group selection. In the Dawkins view, expounded in his Selfish Gene, selection works solely and purely at the individual level. The organism is the gene's way of preserving the gene, and societies are simply the individual's ways of preserving himself. To put it differently, all the genes we find in a population are there because they help the spread of individuals, regardless of their effect on social groups. The contrary viewpoint is the idea of group selection, that is, that some genes spread because they promote group survival. As Wilson argues, Dawkins was expressing the reaction against sloppy forms of group selectionism.

The relevance to this is that if religion is not good for the individual then it is good for nothing, because saying the "religion gene" spread because it was good for the group is group selection, which is not allowed. This plays into Dawkins's argument that religion is a selfish meme, a cultural idea that spreads despite being maladaptive for both individuals and groups.

Wilson claims however that today group selection is back in a much more rigorous form. Dawkins's dismissal of group selection is simply out of date. In other words, it is quite possible that the "r gene" spread because the "r gene" formed groups that are adaptive and persistent.

He also adds in the concept of "major transitions" -- such as that between prokaryote and eukaryote, unicellular and multi-cellular, single organism and colony. Whereas Dawkins sees these major transition as making no difference for the basic selfish gene idea, Wilson (following the argument of Lynn Margulis) argues that contemporary biology shows that such "major transitions" can in fact almost completely suppress individual selection. Your mitochondria have different DNA from your cell nucleus and have been argued to be once independent organisms now assimilated into your cells -- but for selection purposes you and your mitochondria are almost entirely one. Could it be that human groups are another such "major transition," such that culturally and genetically selection is (or in some circumstances can be) almost entirely group based?

Now, this is a pretty minimal argument. What it says is merely that a survey of major religions shows that they can all be plausibly argued to be good for their practitioners, usually as individuals, but always as groups. Truth is not at all at issue here.

But it makes slightly more plausible the idea that traditional wisdom (in the broad sense, the right management of life, including the traditional injunctions of morality, such as the Golden Rule) can be explained as the result of the operation of biological laws. It also opens (at least a bit more than Dawkins would admit) the possibility that humanistic learning (comparative religions, for example) may actually have something to say to biology. It also removes to a certain degree the objection I've long felt that the purely individual-selection, selfish gene paradigm of Darwinian explanation involves injecting poisonous sense of deceit in our view of human social relations (see more here and then here). With the concept of "major transitions" and a (revised) group selection, one can possibly say that something like real altruism does in fact exist, that when someone dies "for the group," this could be considered even in the most hard-headed Darwinian analysis, as an accurate description of what is happening.

Now all this does is perhaps put Darwinism about on the level of Neo-Confucianism or Aristotelian philosophy as doctrines that are compatible with some form of traditional wisdom, if not with Christianity. But given the importance of biology -- in which Darwinism is the fundamentally unifying concept -- for any understanding of the world, that's not nothing.

So don't get your hopes up -- if you are looking for a Darwinian who can reconcile Darwin and the supernatural -- let alone true Christian faith -- he's not your man. But if you are looking for a way in which modern biology can be seen as broadly compatible with humanistic wisdom, then his work, as a temporary way station, is worth a look.

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