Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Evolution for Goodness Sake

Generally, I like the articles Nick Wade writes for the New York Times on science. In fact, I like them so much that I used his work as a template for my April 1 joke about Craig Venter sequencing his own microbiome. But I cannot help but feel that he really punted a bit in his article today entitled "Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes? " The article is mostly about new work by Jonathan Haidt, who has written about "evolutionary views of morality"

I will skip for now discussing my opinions on the meat of the article Haidt's work. But what irked me about Wade's article was the beginning. The article opens with
"Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.

At first glance, natural selection and the survival of the fittest may seem to reward only the most selfish values. But for animals that live in groups, selfishness must be strictly curbed or there will be no advantage to social living. Could the behaviors evolved by social animals to make societies work be the foundation from which human morality evolved?"

I have two problems with this lead in. First, it implies that altruism and related behaviors evolved "to make societies work." This of course is not accurate. Yes, their existence allows societies to work, but they did not evolve to make societies work. Evolution does not have a drive to make societies work. It is a subtle distinction perhaps but an important one.

Second, and more important to me, the introduction could be interpreted as implying that the evolution of altruism itself is not well studied and/or is being debated. This does not appear to be what Wade means (when he says "
Could the behaviors evolved by social animals to make societies work" he means in part, "Given that altruism and other social behaviors evolve ...").

However, in discussions I have had with many people about this article they thought Wade was saying the evolution of altruism itself is under debate. If many people are coming away from Wade's article with this impression that is too bad since the evolution of altruism is well studied (there is a great book on this topic called "The Altruism Equation" by Lee Alan Dugatkin - a good blog about the book is one by Jason Rosenhouse here).

The evolution of altruism is one of my recent pet peeves since it was treated so poorly by Francis Collins in his recent book "The Language of God." In his book, which has some good discussion of how science and religion should be considered separate areas of study, Collins says that since evolution has been unable to explain altruism, therefore God must exist. This not only contradicts his own discussion in the book on how one should not use a "God is in the gaps argument" as evidence for religious beliefs , but it is simply wrong - evolutionary theory can explain altruism (see the Dugatkin book for more detail).

Note I am not saying anything here about whether I think God or gods exist. I personally believe religion and science can and should be separate fields. But certainly, one cannot use misleading references to non-existent gaps in evolutionary biology as evidence for the existence of one's own personal view of God/gods.

So - to sum up a way to long blog --- altruism can be explained by evolutionary biology and if people say otherwise (i.e., Collins) or could be interpreted as implying otherwise even if they do not mean to (i.e., Wade), don't believe it.


  1. Guess he hasn't read much Trivers. By the way, I audited a course by Trivers about the same time that I was preparing for my qualifying exams at Rutgers - I got more out of a class where I didn't receive any credit than any other course that I took.

  2. Oh - I think Wade knows all this I think this is just a case where the wording of the introduction is such that it would take a very careful reader to catch that he is specifically only talking about the new work.

  3. So, what do you think about "Unto Others" by Sober and Wilson?

  4. I have not read that --- but I have a whole collection of interesting books in the area. I think Trivers book "Social Evolution" is hard to top - more because of what it represented at the time than because it is the perfect book. But I really really like the new "Altruism equation" book I referred to because it traces the history of ideas on altruism.


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