Gintis and other economists have noted [pdf] that the latest elaborations of Darwinian ideas can explain cooperation as well as competition in the economic arena, and they are modifying the rational-choice model accordingly. The template for cooperative behavior comes from so-called group selection, which holds that traits can persist or spread in a population even though they can be costly to the individual if they bestow an advantage on the group. Behavior that is self-sacrificing might create such well-adapted societies that selfish individuals cannot compete with them. In the evolutionary view, group selection fostered pro-social tendencies such as honesty, trustworthiness, consideration, and loyalty—traits that were useful or necessary in the later development of civilization. “Of course, these moral predispositions moderate rather than eliminate considerations of self-interest and loyalties to kith and kin,” Gintis wrote last March in the journal Science.
The selective tension between self-interest and collective welfare reflects a long-standing argument in political science. “So much of the debate in the history of political theory ultimately comes down to a debate about human nature,” says Larry Arnhart, a political theorist at Northern Illinois University. In his blog Darwinian Conservatism, Arnhart uses evolutionary principles to critique political issues, such as the bailout packages approved last year by Congress. If humans are noble savages, given by nature to goodness, he argues, then government must take care not to corrupt our lofty intentions. If we are degenerate at heart, then government must act to rein in our base impulses. Because of the interplay of individual survival and group selection, evolutionary biology suggests we might be a little bit of both. “A growing number of political scientists are looking to biological science for guidance on that,” Arnhart says.
Amid the hordes of converts to Darwin’s ideas, two groups remain conspicuous holdouts: artists and religious believers. Artists are “likely to regard science in general, and evolution in particular, as irrelevant to their concerns or even as a threat to everything that they hold dear,” David Sloan Wilson writes in Evolution for Everyone. Yet he sees evolutionary theory breaching even that resistance. In 2005 Wilson coedited The Literary Animal, a collection of essays applying Darwinian concepts to literary analysis. Literature, he says, is “the fossil record of cultural evolution. If you’re an evolutionist and you like to read, every time you pick up a novel the evolutionary themes just leap out at you”—sex, death, kinship, self-sacrifice, competition.
The very existence of art begs to be explained in evolutionary terms, Wilson says. Artistic expression has all the earmarks of a genetically evolved capacity: It appears early in life, is enjoyable for its own sake, exists across all cultures, and is mediated by ancient neural pathways in the brain. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico suggests that art evolved as a way for potential mates to show off their intellectual fitness. (See the 5 Questions column with Geoffrey Miller from the February 2009 issue of DISCOVER.)
Wilson thinks art—especially the collective making of it that is common in traditional cultures—gives a selective advantage because it helps to organize cooperative behavior. The same reasoning applies to religion, he argues. His studies have documented ways in which religious feeling and organization confer survival benefits on believers by promoting cooperation within, and sometimes between, groups.
Cosmological natural selection could help explain the seemingly arbitrary values of fundamental constants.
“A given religion adapts its members to their local environment, enabling them to achieve by collective action what they cannot achieve alone or even together in the absence of religion,” Wilson writes. “The primary benefits of religion take place in this world, not the next.” The religious emphasis on otherworldly beliefs evolved, Wilson says, because supernatural explanations seem to motivate human cooperation better than factual ones. From an evolutionary perspective, it does not matter what you believe in, as long as that belief works to give you a selective advantage.
Harnessed to a supernatural dimension, the belief in evolution could itself evolve into a kind of religion. Witness the case of one Michael Dowd, an itinerant minister who calls himself an “evolutionary evangelist” and preaches the “holy trajectory” of evolution. “I thank God for the entire 14-billion-year epic of cosmic, biological, and human emergence,” he notes on his Web site. “Ironically, evolution gives us a more intimate and personal relationship with God because God is no longer far off, unnatural, and impotent. And it gives us a way of thinking about religion that helps us understand how and why religions are different, and how we can cooperate across ethnic and religious differences to cocreate a thriving world together. Both of these are, to my mind, really Good News.”
In imbuing science with a sense of personal meaning, Dowd resembles Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist who envisioned humankind and the universe evolving in the direction of a divine, infinitely complex consciousness he called the Omega Point. But the two remain an extremely rare breed: devout believers in science whose teleological claims flout the rigors of scientific verification. Unlike Dowd and Teilhard de Chardin, Wilson espouses a strictly secular enthusiasm. However much they may disagree about the ends, though, these very different Darwinian thinkers agree on the means.
“Organisms evolve, and at the end of the day, we are organisms,” Wilson says. “You just can’t deny that.”
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