We Need an Evolutionary Worldview

A review of David Sloan Wilson’s "This View of Life"

Posted Mar 05, 2019

David Sloan Wilson’s newest book, This View of Life, is an ambitious attempt to integrate Darwin’s big ideas in a way that helps provide a roadmap for our shared future. Darwin’s ideas put humans on the same plane as all other life forms. While some might be put off by this idea, Darwin had a different spin. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” he wrote in 1859.

Bess-Hamiti / Pixabay
Source: Bess-Hamiti / Pixabay

Darwin’s ideas on life resulting from the process of natural selection underscore the inter-connectedness that we all have with one another. And with all of the birds. And flowers. And fish. Darwin’s big idea connects the entirety of life together. I’d say that there is grandeur in this view.

I think that David would agree. David has been using evolutionary principles as a guiding set of tools to understand a broad array of organisms for decades. He has studied zooplankton,  freshwater fishes, various insect species, and, most recently, a quirky ape that we call Homo sapien. David’s versatility in his scholarship owes partly to the power of evolutionary ideas that follow from Darwin’s writing. Using his “evolutionary toolkit,” David has conducted research to shed light on such important attributes of the human experience as:

And more.

In This View of Life, David makes the case that an evolutionary worldview is essential for us to solve the current problems that we face on our planet. His reasoning is mapped out, starting with an introduction to basic evolutionary principles and moving up to how we can use the evolutionary worldview to help create well-functioning and rewarding societies. To my mind, this book is powerful and should be read by anyone who cares about how we can, as a shared community, work to make this world a better place.

This book is rich in information, including anecdotes and research examples that put a face to the various premises in Wilson’s broader argument. Here, I provide snapshots of some of these detailed examples to explicate how powerful an evolutionary worldview is in shedding light on so many different phenomena (which is a core theme that runs throughout).

Psychopathic Chickens

In a summary of William Muir’s research on egg productivity in chickens, David essentially tells a story of how non-selfish behaviors can lead to increases in reproductive outcomes.

In this study, the first step was for the researchers to selectively breed hens who had produced the most eggs. After several generations, the grand-offspring of the originally successful hens were all-out psychopaths, behaving aggressively to all of the other hens. Apparently, their earlier success had resulted partly from bullying behavior. The overall production rates dropped.

In another condition, the researchers selected the members of the most productive hen houses to be selectively bred. Here, egg productivity increased across time. The chickens in these houses were not only productive, but they were also not jerks to each other. And this fact led to overall increases in productivity. So there is a lesson in how “goodness” can evolve.

The Evolutionary Importance of Holding Hands

Clinical psychologist Jim Coan’s research on treating individuals afflicted with stress disorders was described. A simple anecdote reveals a major lesson about the human condition. Coan described a war veteran who didn’t want to talk about his experiences. One day, he agreed to talk about these experiences, but only when his wife is present, holding his hand. In this context, he spills all the tea, so to speak.

So much of therapy these days is done in a one-on-one basis. This simple story suggests that we might want to question this practice. Humans evolved as a hyper-social and groupish ape. Our pre-agrarian ancestors were always surrounded by kin and close friends. There are lessons here for therapy as well as for other contexts where we traditionally have people engage in tasks in isolating settings. Understanding our evolved psychology can shed light.

The Value of Dirt

Early in the book, David talks about the human immune system as both a product of evolution and as an evolutionary process itself. The immune system takes in information across the lifespan and develops responses to threats based on this large-scale kind of data collection. Immunological processes are evolutionary in nature. And we need potential threats to our immune system early in life so that the system can function properly. For this reason, efforts to eradicate germs in our often sanitized modern world, in fact, has led to all kinds of immunological disorders that seem to be specific to the “modern world.”

Education

David draws heavily on Elinor Ostrom’s core design principles that underlie the functioning of effective human groups. Generally, these principles map onto the kinds of principles that work for relatively small, self-organizing groups that are premised in an egalitarian mindset.

In a recent project, David and his colleague Rick Kauffman applied Ostrom’s model in the schools in Binghamton, NY. They created a school-within-a-school, comprised fully of students who had failed a high proportion of classes the prior year. This school-within-a-school was based on an evolutionary mindset and on Ostrom’s core design principles. The students in this program thrived academically and socially compared to students in a matched control condition.

Many other examples of success in organizing social groups are provided, including successful churches, business, and governments.

Bottom Line

Darwin’s ideas on the nature of life were famously published in 1859. 160 years later, applications of Darwinian ideas to all aspects of the human condition are in the early stages. To this point, evolutionary principles have hardly made a dent in our understanding of the human experience. The potential for new knowledge along this front is extraordinary.

In This View of Life, David Sloan Wilson looks to address this fact. This book is powerful, inspirational, and forward-thinking. Interested in how we can shape a brighter tomorrow? Read this book.

References

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1st ed.). London: John Murray.

Wilson, D. S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon: New York.