Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives

Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives

by David Sloan Wilson

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Overview

With stories that entertain as much as they inform, renowned evolutionist David Sloan Wilson outlines the basic principles of evolution and shows how, when properly understood, they can illuminate the length and breadth of creation, from the origin of life to the nature of religion. 

What is the biological reason for gossip? For laughter? For the creation of art? Why do dogs have curly tails? What can microbes tell us about morality?


These and many other questions are tackled by Wilson in this witty and groundbreaking new book. Now everyone can move beyond the sterile debates about creationism and intelligent design to share Darwin’s panoramic view of animal and human life, seamlessly connected to each other.

Evolution, as Wilson explains, is not just about dinosaurs and human origins, but about why all species behave as they do—from beetles that devour their own young, to bees that function as a collective brain, to dogs that are smarter in some respects than our closest ape relatives. And basic evolutionary principles are also the foundation for humanity’s capacity for symbolic thought, culture, and morality.

In example after example, Wilson sheds new light on Darwin’ s grand theory and how it can be applied to daily life. By turns thoughtful, provocative, and daringly funny, Evolution for Everyone addresses some of the deepest philosophical and social issues of this or any age. In helping us come to a deeper understanding of human beings and our place in the world, it might also help us to improve that world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780440336808
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/27/2007
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 83,381
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

David Sloan Wilson is distinguished professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University. He is the author of Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, coauthor of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, and coeditor of The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative.

Read an Excerpt

Evolution for Everyone

How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives
By David Sloan Wilson

Delacorte Press

Copyright © 2007 David Sloan Wilson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780385340212

1 The Future Can Differ from the Past

This is a book of tall claims about evolution: that it can become uncontroversial; that the basic principles are easy to learn; that everyone should want to learn them, once their implications are understood; that evolution and religion, those old enemies who currently occupy opposite corners of human thought, can be brought harmoniously together.

Can these claims possibly be true? Isn't evolution the most controversial theory the world has ever seen? Since it's a scientific subject, isn't it hard to learn? If the implications are benign, then why all the fear and trembling? And how on earth can the old enemies of evolution and religion do anything other than come out of their opposite corners fighting?

I might be an optimist, but I am not naive. Allow me to introduce myself: I am an evolutionist, which means that I use the principles of evolution to understand the world around me. I would be an evolutionary biologist if I restricted myself to the topics typically associated with biology, but I include all things human along with the rest of life. That makes me an evolutionist without any qualifiers. I and my fellow evolutionists study the length and breadth of creation, from the origin of life to religion. I therefore have a pretty good idea of what people thinkabout evolution, and I can report that the situation is much worse than you probably think. Let me show you how bad it is before explaining why I remain confident about accomplishing the objectives of this book.

Most people are familiar with the reluctance of the general public to accept the theory of evolution, especially in the United States of America. According to the most recent Harris Poll, 54 percent of U.S. adults believe that humans did not develop from earlier species. That is up from 46 percent in 1994. Rejection of evolution extends to beliefs about the origin of other species, the fossil record as evidence for evolution, and the constant refrain that evolution is "just a theory."

To make matters worse, most people who do accept evolutionary theory don't use it to understand the world around them. For them it's about dinosaurs, fossils, and humans evolving from apes, not the current environment or human condition. The polls don't measure the fraction of people who relate evolution to their daily lives, but it would be minuscule.

It's easy for scientists and intellectuals to smile at the ignorance of religious believers and the general public, but the fact is that they're not much better. The Ivory Tower would be more aptly named the Ivory Archipelago. It consists of hundreds of isolated subjects, each divided into smaller subjects in an almost infinite progression. People are examined less with a microscope than with a kaleidoscope--psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, history, art, literature, philosophy, gender studies, ethnic studies. Each perspective has its own history and special assumptions. One person's heresy is another's commonplace. With respect to evolution, most scientists and intellectuals would say that they accept Darwin's theory, but many would deny its relevance to human affairs or would blandly acknowledge its relevance without using it themselves in their professional or daily lives. In effect, there is a wall within academia that restricts the study of evolution to biology and a few human-related subjects such as human genetics, physical anthropology, and specialized branches of psychology. Outside this wall, it is possible for a person to get a Ph.D. without a single course in evolution or more than a casual reference to evolution in other courses. That is why the term "evolutionary biologist" sounds familiar while the more general term "evolutionist" has a strange ring.

Some intellectuals rival young-earth creationists in their rejection of evolution when it comes to human affairs. A 1997 article in The Nation titled "The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack" put it this way:

The result is an ideological outlook eerily similar to that of religious creationism. Like their fundamentalist Christian counterparts, the most extreme anti-biologists suggest that humans occupy a status utterly different from and clearly "above" that of all other living beings. And, like the religious fundamentalists, the new aca-demic creationists defend their stance as if all of human dignity--and all hope for the future--were at stake.

The famous metaphor of the mind as a blank slate captures the idea that we can understand the human condition without any reference to basic evolutionary principles or our own evolutionary past. The most extreme academic creationists reject not just evolution but science in general as just another social construction, but they are only one particularly fierce tribe that inhabits the Ivory Archipelago. Other tribes are fully scientific but still manage to exclude evolutionary theory. In a 1979 survey of twenty-four introductory sociology textbooks, every one assumed that biological factors were irrelevant to the study of human behavior and society. Fast-forwarding to the present, political scientist Ian Lustick could say this about the human social sciences in a 2005 article:

Of course social scientists have no objection to applying evolutionary theory in the life sciences--biology, zoology, botany, etc. Nevertheless, the idea of applying evolutionary thinking to social science problems commonly evokes strong negative reactions. In effect, social scientists treat the life sciences as enclosed within a kind of impermeable wall. Inside the wall, evolutionary thinking is deemed capable of producing powerful and astonishing truths. Outside the wall, in the realm of human behavior, applications of evolutionary thinking are typically treated as irrelevant at best; usually as pernicious, wrong, and downright dangerous.

It might seem that the situation can't get more bleak, but it does. Evolutionary biologists are themselves conflicted about the study of our own species. When Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson published his encyclopedic book Sociobiology in 1975, his fiercest critics were fellow Harvard evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. Fast-forwarding to the present, the National Science Foundation's most recent and ambitious effort to fund evolutionary research is called the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), whose basic mission is to "help foster a grand synthesis of the biological disciplines through the unifying principle of descent with modification." This language is not as grandiose as it might seem. Biologists expect evolution to serve as a unifying theory, delivering "powerful and astonishing truths," as Ian Lustick put it. Yet, as a curious complement to his diagnosis of the social sciences, not a single member of NESCent's scientific advisory board represents a human-related subject apart from human genetics. It seems that the barrier separating the study of humans from the study of the rest of life is largely respected on both sides, even by evolutionary biologists who are trying to foster a grand synthesis.

Knowing all of this, I remain confident that there is a path around both walls of resistance, the first denying evolution altogether and the second denying its relevance to human affairs. Darwin provides an example for us to emulate: on any given day of his life he might have been found dissecting barnacles, minutely observing the behavior of his children, or germinating seeds that had first been fed to mice, which in turn had been fed to hawks at the London Zoo. The same person who studied earthworms and orchids also studied human morality. Darwin's interests were so far-flung that his mail came by the wagonload from all corners of the globe. One letter about plant distributions in India might be followed by another on the emotional expressions of African natives. Darwin's empire of thought was larger than the British Empire.

How was Darwin able to unite so many subjects and blend humans seamlessly with the rest of life? Perhaps he was a genius. Perhaps there was less to know back then. Perhaps, but the main reason is more interesting and relevant to our own situation. It was primarily Darwin's theory, not his personal attributes or time and place, that enabled him to build his empire of thought. Moreover, his theory was powerful even in a rudimentary form, because Darwin knew so much less about the details of evolution than we do now.

The same theory enables modern evolutionists to build empires of their own. I'm no Darwin, but my own career shows what a good theory can do. I have studied creatures as diverse as bacteria, beetles, and birds. I have studied topics as diverse as altruism, mating, and the origin of species. I can understand and enjoy the work of my colleagues who study an even greater range of creatures and topics. Please don't think that I am boasting about myself--that would be boring. I am boasting about the theory, and the whole point of this book is to show how anyone can profit from it. It takes a great theory, not great intelligence, to acquire this kind of synthetic knowledge.

If our own species can be included in this grand synthesis, there is every reason to do so. It would be like a strange figure emerging from the shadows to enjoy the warmth of a campfire with good company. My own career shows that this is possible. Just like Darwin--not because I share his personal attributes but because I share his theory--I have seamlessly added humans to the bestiary of animals that I study, on topics as diverse as altruism, beauty, decision making, gossip, personality, and religion. I publish in anthropology, economic, philosophy, and psychology journals in addition to my biological research. My books are on subjects that most people don't associate with evolution: Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (co-written with a world-class philosopher named Elliott Sober), Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, and The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (co-edited with a bold young literary scholar named Jonathan Gottschall). These are not popular accounts watered down for a general audience. They are written for the experts, most of whom spend their lives studying a much smaller range of subjects. Evolutionists can stride across human-related subjects at the highest level of intellectual discourse, in the same way that evolutionary biologists are already accustomed to striding across biological subjects.

Darwin should be emulated in another respect. His interactions with people from all walks of life were primarily respectful and cordial. We can learn from his humility and good humor in presenting his theory to others, in addition to the theory itself. Since writing Unto Others and Darwin's Cathedral, I have spoken about evolution, morality, and religion to diverse audiences around the world. Perhaps my most memorable experience was a televised conversation with a group of faculty and monks from St. John's University in Minnesota, a Catholic university and the oldest Benedictine monastery in North America. My co-author Elliott Sober was invited to converse with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, making me unspeakably jealous. These encounters are the very opposite of the sterile "debates" that are staged between creationists and evolutionists. If this kind of cordial dialogue can take place for evolution and religion, then surely it can take place for evolution and any other human-related topic.

Continues...

Excerpted from Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson Copyright © 2007 by David Sloan Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Sovranty on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is an introduction for anyone to incorporating evolution into everything. It is written specifically for those who may feel the sciences (in particular evolution) are intellectually too tasking. David Wilson uses a journalistic approach that I akin to the like of a gossip column - a distracting, mesmerizing description of an aha! disaster that you can't keep from reading while in line at the grocery store. In this manner, Wilson is able to help the reader apply evolutionary thought and science to everything from daily life decisions to politics to the humanities in a less-than-scary manner.
hayleyscomet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
You know the old saying, "Nothing in biology makes sense except under the light of evolution"? Well, Wilson takes it one step farther--nothing makes sense except under the light of evolution. He applies evolutionary thinking to absolutely everything.And, strangely enough, it works. The basic premise of this book is that selection promoting groups as a whole (vs. other groups) is stronger than selection promoting individuals (vs. other individuals) within groups. Altruism trumps selfishness; at least under certain conditions. And then he goes on to apply this concept on levels even lower than genes--starting with molecules in the primordial stew of early Earth--all the way up to human culture, morality, and religion. And he touches on everything in between: dung beetles, egg-laying hens, Abraham Lincoln, laughter, primates, economics, etc. I've seen criticisms of the book that the scope is too grand; but after talking with him, I see that this is exactly the way his mind works. Everything fits.And, ok, maybe I used to believe everything I read, but I've learned how to be a scientist since then. He's got some big unsubstantiated claims ("untested hypotheses," he admits himself), but at the same time he's got a lot of support packed into that book. (And, by the way, he uses his sources well--he references scientific articles in a very accessible way, and he also makes good use of the internet, refering readers to websites as well as books.) But even apart from the what's interesting here scientifically (in scientific terms, we're talking about "multi-level selection theory"), Wilson is putting out his worldview here, and it's one I quite like. He aims to tear down some of the walls of what he refers to as the "Ivory Archipelago" of academia, both between disciplines and between academia and the general public. He also aims to tear down walls between science and religion. As atheists go, Wilson is on the complete polar opposite end of the spectrum as Richard Dawkins. Wilson sees the conclusions of his evolutionary thinking as complementary to the goals of religion. Indeed, Wilson's conclusions go far beyond the scope of science: he believes that we can, and therefore must, use the theory behind cultural evolution to improve the world. And so, Wilson says he actually gets along with highly religious people better than the average person who simply does not care, because they are working towards similar goals. He models a refreshingly affirmative portrayal of atheism.It's hard to give the book justice in such a short review, because it simply covers so much. I loved it, though, and imagine it's worth a re-read at some point to try and absorb more of it. And I would be happy to call myself an evolutionist, as Wilson does, in addition to an evolutionary biologist.
motjebben on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a must-read - NO - MUST-HAVE book! I can envision myself referring back to it to use the well-illustrated fundamentals of evolutionary thinking in examining all aspects of my life and the universe.Not only does David Sloan Wilson introduce evolution to the layman, he brings it up-to-date - for those of us that were lucky enough to be taught the concepts decades ago - with the latest thinking, theories, discoveries and facts. And he distinguishes between hypotheses and what is fact and teaches the reader how to distinguish between the two. He points out that good science is self-correcting and builds knowledge, "one-brick-at-a-time."It is particularly interesting to read his explanations about practical realism (which I'll paraphrase for my own selfish purpose as: knowledge that is based on common-sense, but may not be fully scientifically "valid" yet "works" from an evolutionary standpoint) and factual realism, which always predicts a particular outcome given the same conditions and circumstances (IS based on scientific evidence). Practical realism trumps factual realism when it provides an evolutionary advantage. This explains a lot of our beliefs that actually do not make much factual sense.Finally, I appreciated Wilson's prescriptions for us as humans and groups and his optimistic prognosis for us all - given the right conditions and circumstances. As others have mentioned, this IS an "all-encompassing" book that has a HUGE scope, but Wilson pulls off this goal with aplomb!I urge EVERYONE to read this book and buy a copy for frequent reference!
mkjones on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent introduction to general evolutionary thinking, even though the author is one of the new spokespersons for multilevel selection, and this book promotes group selection quite a bit. (I was surprised that "group selection" and "multilevel selection" were not even in the index!)Wilson looks at groups as individuals, and individuals as groups. He states "groups become organisms when selection within groups is suppressed, enabling selection between groups to become the primary evolutionary force." When adaptations increase communication and cooperation within the group, a group can function more like an individual. For example, he cites research that shows that human gaze and finger pointing can indicate direction and intention, and is important behavior not found in other primates. Additionally, laughter and dance are behaviors important for human group cohesion. Even though he's not religious himself, Wilson is quite favorable towards religions and believes that they provide important social functions.Wilson discusses research that shows that some tasks are better performed by groups, even better than the best member of the group by themselves! He believes that human groups were originally much more egalitarian, and that the ability for the rest of the group to stone a difficult member kept individuals more humble than in chimp social groups.
Stbalbach on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book. Opened new vistas on how to see the world. Life changing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an interesting book. It needs to be read slowly and carefully. At times it seems long winded with examples that I could not see how they related to whatever he was trying to explain.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Waste of.......
N_Hoepner More than 1 year ago
Let me open with my own biases up front. I am a Christian, with a Masters in Military History (I'm a soldier), and an interest in evolution and atheist theology. I read this book to keep up with both. David Sloan Wilson is clearly a creative, entertaining writer. His book is at its best in the early chapters, with many examples of the amazing ways organisms adapt to their changing environments. In fact, he could have called the book "Adaptation for Everyone," since (like every book on evolution I've read) there is no example cited of a species actually turning into another species. The book starts going astray when Wilson applies evolution to things like culture, international relations, and social improvement. The theme of the book is that evolution is the answer to all things, and that a person who can think in evolutionary terms can solve any and every problem in any field. What comes out, though, is not real solutions, but bland well-worn truisms that require no "evolutionary thinking" to deduce. For example, all of chapter 33 is devoted to proving that people whose basic needs met, and whose circumstances are good, tend to be more positive and altruistic than those in poor or harsh circumstances. No kidding, really? So the solution is to change environments so that everyone's circumstances are good. In other words, if we solve all the world's problems, we'll solve all the world's problems. Wow. Similarly, chapters 29 - 31 are aimed at proving that we don't really need religion, just good moral principles without any "irrational" supernatural beliefs, and everything will be fine. Chapter 31 is a listing of "evolutionary wisdom" for the behaviors of nations in the "global village." It includes 'brilliant' insights such as "powerful nations should learn the virtue of humility" and "morality is required for morale." Ah, how would we know these things without Evolution to guide us? One could summarize these three chapters as "we should all just get along" - and lose no real content thereby. What is particularly exasperating is Wilson's assumption that religious beliefs are somehow "irrational" (as he states specifically in Chapter 29). He never bothers to demonstrate why this is so - he says so, and that makes it so. It never occurs to him that he is only right if atheism is right, a position both unproven and unprovable. On the other hand, if there is a God, then it is the atheists who are irrational. Wilson spends no effort considering this - and since this belief underpins the entire argument of his book, the whole thing falls like a house of cards if that one unproven element turns out to be wrong. To use Wilson's own metaphor, a flimsy scaffold to stand on! This book is another in a long line of evolutionist books that promise that "evolution and religion, those old enemies...can be brought harmoniously together." But what Wilson preaches is not evolution, which is a theory about the rise of bioligical diversity. No, he preaches evolutionism, the idea that evolution is everything. And he does indeed offer peace - just as soon as the religious people surrender and accept Evolution as God. If you have an interest in the latest evolution thinking, find this book in a library like I did. Don't waste money buying it, there are better books out there.