[Paleopsych] Harvard Mag: Edward O. Wilson: Intelligent Evolution

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Edward O. Wilson: Intelligent Evolution

    The consequences of Charles Darwin's "one long argument"
    by Edward O. Wilson

      Pellegrino University professor emeritus Edward O. Wilson, a
      scholarly giant of biodiversity and sociobiology, remains at heart
      a teacher. His latest lesson concerns the continuing consequences
      of Charles Darwin's "timeless and consistently inspirational"
      science. At a moment when discussion of evolution and "intelligent
      design" preoccupies American political discourse to a surprising
      degree, shedding more heat than light on the nature of life and
      life science, Wilson invites the serious public to do what far too
      few of us have done: to read what Darwin wrote.

      In November, W. W. Norton & Company will publish From So Simple a
      Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin. For this single,
      enormous volume, Wilson has selected the versions of, and written
      introductions to, each of the iconic texts: The Voyage of the
      Beagle ("intellectually the most important travel book of all
      time"); the first edition of On the Origin of Species ("the
      greatest scientific book of all time"); The Descent of Man, and
      Selection in Relation to Sex (the further step that "Darwin had to
      take...from the premise that evolution is universal"); and The
      Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals ("both an
      old-fashioned descriptive treatise and the most modern of Darwin's
      major works," which "could serve as a guidebook for novelists" --
      and "as part of the foundation of modern psychology").

      Wilson has also written a general introduction, placing Darwin at
      the very center of the revolution in modern life science and
      understanding, and an afterword, on the "noble yet troubling
      legacy" that unfolds today in the collision between religious faith
      and scientific humanism. In those essays, reprinted here, Wilson
      draws on his lifelong immersion in the scientific enterprise and
      his study of the foundational Darwinian texts to present his view
      surrounding these "great unanswered questions of philosophy."

                                                              ~The Editors

      ~ o   o   o  ~

      We must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble
      qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with
      benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest
      living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated
      into the movements and constitution of the solar system -- with all
      these exalted powers -- Man still bears in his bodily frame the
      indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

      ~Charles Darwin
      The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871)

    Great scientific discoveries are like sunrises. They illuminate first
    the steeples of the unknown, then its dark hollows. Such expansive
    influence has been enjoyed by the scientific writings of Charles
    Darwin. For over 150 years his books, the four most influential of
    which are reprinted here for the first time as a bound set, have
    spread light on the living world and the human condition. They have
    not lost their freshness: more than any other work in history's
    scientific canon, they are both timeless and persistently

    From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin,
    edited, with introductions, by Edward O. Wilson, will be published in
    November 2005 by W.W. Norton & Company.

    The four classics, flowing along one to the next like a well-wrought
    narrative, trace the development of Darwin's thought across almost all
    of his adult life. The first, Voyage of the Beagle (1845), one of
    literature's great travel books, is richly stocked with observations
    in natural history of the kind that were to guide the young Darwin
    toward his evolutionary worldview. Next comes the "one long argument,"
    as he later put it, of On the Origin of Species (1859), arguably
    history's most influential book. In it the now middle-aged Darwin
    massively documents the evidences of organic evolution and introduces
    the theory of natural selection. The Descent of Man (1871) then
    addresses the burning topic foretold in On the Origin of Species:
    "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." Finally,
    The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) draws close
    to the heart of the matter that concerns us all: the origin and nature
    of mind, the "citadel" that Darwin could see but knew that science at
    the time could not conquer.

    The adventure that Darwin launched on all our behalf, and which
    continues into the twenty-first century, is driven by a deceptively
    simple idea, of which Darwin's friend and staunch supporter Thomas
    Henry Huxley said, and spoke for many to follow, "How extremely stupid
    of me not to have thought of that!" Evolution by natural selection is
    perhaps the only one true law unique to biological systems, as opposed
    to nonliving physical systems, and in recent decades it has taken on
    the solidity of a mathematical theorem. It states simply that if a
    population of organisms contains multiple hereditary variants in some
    trait (say, red versus blue eyes in a bird population), and if one of
    these variants succeeds in contributing more offspring to the next
    generation than the other variants, the overall composition of the
    population changes, and evolution has occurred. Further, if new
    genetic variants appear regularly in the population (by mutation or
    immigration), evolution never ends. Think of red-eyed and blue-eyed
    birds in a breeding population, and let the red-eyed birds be better
    adapted to the environment. The population will in time come to
    consist mostly or entirely of red-eyed birds. Now let green-eyed
    mutants appear that are even better adapted to the environment than
    the red-eyed form. As a consequence the species eventually becomes
    green-eyed. Evolution has thus taken two more small steps.

                               Crabo cribrarius

    All drawings from The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to
    Sex, by Charles Darwin, in two volumes (New York: D. Appleton and
    Company, 1871) unless otherwise noted. Scans of drawings courtesy of
    Kathleen Horton

    The full importance of Darwin's theory can be better understood by
    realizing that modern biology is guided by two overwhelmingly powerful
    and creative ideas. The first is that all biological processes are
    ultimately obedient to, even though far from fully explained by, the
    laws of physics and chemistry. The second is that all biological
    processes arose through evolution of these physicochemical systems
    through natural selection. The first principle is concerned with the
    how of biology. The second is concerned with the ways the systems
    adapted to the environment over periods of time long enough for
    evolution to occur -- in other words the why of biology.

    Knowledge addressing the first principle is called functional biology;
    that addressing the second is called evolutionary biology. If a moving
    automobile were an organism, functional biology would explain how it
    is constructed and operates, while evolutionary biology would
    reconstruct its origin and history -- how it came to be made and its
    journey thus far.

     The impact of the theory of evolution by natural selection, nowadays
    grown very sophisticated (and often referred to as the Modern
    Synthesis), has been profound. To the extent it can be upheld, and the
    evidence to date has done so compellingly, we must conclude that life
    has diversified on Earth autonomously without any kind of external
    guidance. Evolution in a pure Darwinian world has no goal or purpose:
    the exclusive driving force is random mutations sorted out by natural
    selection from one generation to the next.

                           Tragelaphus strepsiceros

                   All biological processes are ultimately
                obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry,
                     and arose through evolution of these
              physicochemical systems through natural selection.

              Sitana minor (male with the gular pouch expanded)

    What then are we to make of the purposes and goals obviously chosen by
    human beings? They are, in Darwinian interpretation, processes evolved
    as adaptive devices by an otherwise purposeless natural selection.
    Evolution by natural selection means, finally, that the essential
    qualities of the human mind also evolved autonomously. Humanity was
    thus born of Earth. However elevated in power over the rest of life,
    however exalted in self-image, we were descended from animals by the
    same blind force that created those animals, and we remain a member
    species of this planet's biosphere.

    The revolution in astronomy begun by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543
    proved that Earth is not the center of the universe, nor even the
    center of the solar system. The revolution begun by Darwin was even
    more humbling: it showed that humanity is not the center of creation,
    and not its purpose either. But in freeing our minds from our imagined
    demigod bondage, even at the price of humility, Darwin turned our
    attention to the astounding power of the natural creative process and
    the magnificence of its products:

      There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,
      having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and
      that, whilst this

      planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity,
      from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most
      wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

                                          Darwin, On the Origin of Species
                                                     (first edition, 1859)

                                ~ o   o   o  ~

      If I lived twenty more years and was able to work, how I should
      have to modify the Origin, and how much the views on all points
      will have to be modified! Well, it is a beginning, and that is

      ~Charles Darwin
      Letter to J.D. Hooker, 1869

    Darwin lived thirteen more years after writing this letter to Joseph
    Hooker, and he did manage to modify the theory of evolution by natural
    selection, expanding it in The Descent of Man (1871) to include human
    origins and in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
    (1872) to address the evolution of instinct. The ensuing 130 years
    have seen an enormous growth of the Darwinian heritage. Joined with
    molecular and cellular biology, that accumulated knowledge is today a
    large part of modern biology. Its centrality justifies the famous
    remark made by the evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky in
    1973 that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of
    evolution." In fact, nothing in science as a whole has been more
    firmly established by interwoven factual documentation, or more
    illuminating, than the universal occurrence of biological evolution.
    Further, few natural processes have been more convincingly explained
    than evolution by the theory of natural selection or, as it is
    popularly called, Darwinism.

    Thus it is surpassingly strange that half of Americans recently polled
    (2004) not only do not believe in evolution by natural selection but
    do not believe in evolution at all. Americans are certainly capable of
    belief, and with rocklike conviction if it originates in religious
    dogma. In evidence is the 60 percent that accept the prophecies of the
    Book of Revelation as truth, and yet in more evidence is the weight
    that faith-based positions hold in political life. Most of the
    religious Right opposes the teaching of evolution in public schools,
    either by an outright ban on the subject or, at the least, by
    insisting that it be treated as "only a theory" rather than a "fact."

    Yet biologists, particularly those statured by the peer review and
    publication of substantial personal research on the subject in leading
    journals of science, are unanimous in concluding that evolution is a
    fact. The evidence they and thousands of others have adduced over 150
    years falls together in intricate and interlocking detail. The
    multitudinous examples range from the small changes in DNA sequences
    observed as they occur in real time to finely graded sequences within
    larger evolutionary changes in the fossil record. Further, on the
    basis of comparably firm evidence, natural selection grows ever
    stronger as the prevailing explanation of evolution.

                           Cercopithecus petaurista

      From left to right: Semnopithecus comatus, Cebus capucinus, Ateles
                      marginatus, and Cebus vellerosus.

    Many who accept the fact of evolution cannot, however, on religious
    grounds, accept the operation of blind chance and the absence of
    divine purpose implicit in natural selection. They support the
    alternative explanation of intelligent design. The reasoning they
    offer is not based on evidence but on the lack of it. The formulation
    of intelligent design is a default argument advanced in support of a
    non sequitur. It is in essence the following: There are some phenomena
    that have not yet been explained and that (and most importantly) the
    critics personally cannot imagine being explained; therefore there
    must be a supernatural designer at work. The designer is seldom
    specified, but in the canon of intelligent design it is most certainly
    not Satan and his angels, nor any god or gods conspicuously different
    from those accepted in the believer's faith.

    Flipping the scientific argument upside down, the intelligent
    designers join the strict creationists (who insist that no evolution
    ever occurred in the first place) by arguing that scientists resist
    the supernatural theory because it is counter to their own personal
    secular beliefs. This may have a kernel of truth; everybody suffers
    from some amount of bias. But in this case bias is easily overcome.
    The critics forget how the reward system in science works. Any
    researcher who can prove the existence of intelligent design within
    the accepted framework of science will make history and achieve
    eternal fame. He will prove at last that science and religious dogma
    are compatible! Even a combined Nobel Prize and Templeton Prize (the
    latter designed to encourage search for just such harmony) would fall
    short as proper recognition. Every scientist would like to accomplish
    such an epoch-making advance. But no one has even come close, because
    unfortunately there is no evidence, no theory, and no criteria for
    proof that even marginally might pass for science. There is only the
    residue of hoped-for default, which steadily shrinks as the science of
    biology expands.

    In all of the history of science only one other disparity of
    comparable magnitude to evolution has occurred between a scientific
    event and the impact it has had on the public mind. This was the
    discovery by Copernicus that Earth and therefore humanity are not the
    center of the universe, and the universe is not a closed spherical
    bubble. Copernicus delayed publication of his masterwork On the
    Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until the year of his death
    (1543). For his extension of the idea subsequently, Bruno was burned
    at the stake, and for its documentation Galileo was shown the
    instruments of torture at Rome and remained under house arrest for the
    remainder of his life.

    Today we live in a less barbaric age, but an otherwise comparable
    disjunction between science and religion, the one born of Darwinism,
    still roils the public mind. Why does such intense and pervasive
    resistance to evolution continue 150 years after the publication of
    The Origin of Species, and in the teeth of the overwhelming
    accumulated evidence favoring it? The answer is simply that the
    Darwinian revolution, even more than the Copernican revolution,
    challenges the prehistoric and still-regnant self-image of humanity.
    Evolution by natur-al selection, to be as concise as possible, has
    changed everything.

    In the more than slightly schizophrenic circumstances of the present
    era, global culture is divided into three opposing images of the human
    condition, each logically consistent within its own, independent
    premises. The dominant of these hypotheses, exemplified by the
    creation myths of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions (Judaism,
    Christianity, and Islam), sees humanity as a creation of God. He
    brought us into being and He guides us still as father, judge, and
    friend. We interpret his will from sacred scriptures and the wisdom of
    ecclesiastical authorities.

    The second worldview is that of political behaviorism. Still beloved
    by the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states, it says that the
    brain is largely a blank state devoid of any inborn inscription beyond
    reflexes and primitive bodily urges. As a consequence the mind
    originates almost wholly as a result of learning, and it is the
    product of a culture that itself evolves by historical contingency.
    Because there is no biologically based "human nature," people can be
    molded to the best possible political and economic system, namely, as
    urged upon the world through most of the twentieth century, communism.
    In practical politics, this belief has been repeatedly tested and,
    after economic collapses and tens of millions of deaths in a dozen
    dysfunctional states, is generally deemed a failure.

         Callionymus lyra (upper figure, male; lower figure, female).

                         The hereditary responses and
                 propensities that de ne our species arose by
                  evolution, forming the behavioral part of
                    what Darwin called the indelible stamp
                             of our lowly origin.

              Dog "in a humble and affectionate frame of mind."

    Drawing of dog from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,
    by Charles Darwin (London: John Murray, 1872)

    Both of these worldviews, God-centered religion and atheistic
    communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical
    worldview, scientific humanism. Still held by only a tiny minority of
    the world's population, it considers humanity to be a biological
    species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world,
    acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex
    inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature
    exists, and it was self-assembled. It is the commonality of the
    hereditary responses and propensities that define our species. Having
    arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which
    humanity lived during more than 99 percent of its existence, it forms
    the behavioral part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called the
    indelible stamp of our lowly origin.

    To understand biological human nature in depth is to drain the fever
    swamps of religious and blank-slate dogma. But it also imposes the
    heavy burden of individual choice that goes with intellectual freedom.

    Such was the long journey for Darwin, the architect of the
    naturalistic worldview. He began his voyage on the Beagle as a devout
    Christian who trained for the ministry. "Whilst on board the Beagle I
    was quite orthodox," he wrote much later in his autobiography, "and I
    remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though
    themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable
    authority on some point of morality." His later drift from the
    religion of his birth was stepwise and slow. Still on H.M.S. Beagle
    during its circumnavigation of the globe (1831-1836) he came to
    believe that the "false history" and reports of God's vengeful
    feelings made the Old Testament "no more to be trusted than the sacred
    books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian." The miracles
    of Jesus seemed to him to suggest that people living at the time of
    the Gospels were "ignorant and credulous to a degree almost
    incomprehensible by us." The growth of disbelief was so slow that
    Darwin felt no distress. In a striking passage of his autobiography he
    expressed his final and complete rejection of Christian dogma based
    solely on blind faith:

      I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be
      true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that
      the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father,
      Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly

      And that is a damnable doctrine.

    Did Charles Darwin recant in his last days, as some religious critics
    have hopefully suggested? There is not a shred of evidence that he did
    or that he was presented with any reason to do so. Further, it would
    have been wholly contrary to the deliberate, careful manner with which
    he approached every subject.


                              Rhynchaea capensis

    The great naturalist did not abandon Abrahamic and other religious
    dogmas because of his discovery of evolution by natural selection, as
    one might reasonably suppose. The reverse occurred. The shedding of
    blind faith gave him the intellectual fearlessness to explore human
    evolution wherever logic and evidence took him. And so he set forth
    boldly, in The Descent of Man to track the origin of humanity, and in
    The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to address the
    evolution of instinct. Thus was born scientific humanism, the only
    worldview compatible with science's growing knowledge of the real
    world and the laws of nature.

    So, will science and religion find common ground, or at least agree to
    divide the fundamentals into mutually exclusive domains? A great many
    well-meaning scholars believe that such rapprochement is both possible
    and desirable. A few disagree, and I am one of them. I think Darwin
    would have held to the same position. The battle line is, as it has
    ever been, in biology. The inexorable growth of this science continues
    to widen, not to close, the tectonic gap between science and
    faith-based religion.

    Rapprochement may be neither possible nor desirable. There is
    something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies
    societal conflict. In the early part of this century, the toxic mix of
    religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking
    seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the
    effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.

    In any case, the dilemma to be solved is truly profound. On the one
    side the input of religion on human history has been beneficent in
    many ways. It has generated much of which is best in culture,
    including the ideals of altruism and public service. From the
    beginning of history it has inspired the arts. Creation myths were in
    a sense the beginning of science itself. Fabricating them was the best
    the early scribes could do to explain the universe and human

    Yet the high risk is the ease with which alliances between religions
    and tribalism are made. Then comes bigotry and the dehumanization of
    infidels. Our gods, the true believer asserts, stand against your
    false idols, our spiritual purity against your corruption, our
    divinely sanctioned knowledge against your errancy. In past ages the
    posture provided an advantage. It united each tribe during
    life-and-death struggles with other tribes. It buoyed the devotees
    with a sense of superiority. It sacralized tribal laws and mores, and
    encouraged altruistic behaviors. Through sacred rites it lent
    solemnity to the passages of life. And it comforted the anxious and
    afflicted. For all this and more it gave people an identity and
    purpose, and vouchsafed tribal fitness -- yet, unfortunately, at the
    expense of less united or otherwise less fortunate tribes.

    Religions continue both to render their special services and to exact
    their heavy costs. Can scientific humanism do as well or better, at a
    lower cost? Surely that ranks as one of the great unanswered questions
    of philosophy. It is the noble yet troubling legacy that Charles
    Darwin left us.

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