The Evolution of Evolutionary Theory: Philosophical Observations on E.O. Wilson’s, THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF NATURE June 2, 2012Posted by ronwhite54 in Public Policy.
I’ve been reading E.O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth (Norton: 2012) and thought it would be a worthwhile topic for the APLS Blog. I will limit my comments to a few general philosophical points, in the hope that others might follow up with other more specific lines of discussion.
First of all, this book is about the recent “evolution” of evolutionary theory and the revolution that is now underway in evolutionary biology from the “exclusive fitness paradigm” (kin altruism and gene selection) to the “eusocial paradigm” (group selection). This is portrayed not only in terms of the evolution of science, but also the evolution of his own thought. That, of course, really makes for compelling reading for those of us that have read his earlier books, and it’s also a sound business plan for selling his books, but we’ll leave that for a later topic.
It is noteworthy that although he has changed his mind on the nature of evolutionary theory, he is still a positivist at heart, which means that he is still engaged in the quest to “biologize” philosophy and the social sciences, and he still views Science as one single, unified line of inquiry rooted in Newtonian Science. Hence, he still believes that the ultimate goal of Science is to generate one single over-arching theory rooted in physics, therefore he still pursues mathematical modeling as a primary scientific value. Moreover, don’t expect to find anything in this book on the sociology of scientific knowledge or the economics of science. Like all well-versed positivists, these forces are conveniently “bracketed” if not totally ignored. And as an evolutionary philosopher, I’m still puzzled by his woefully misguided understanding of what philosophers actually do, especially philosophers of science. Any good philosopher would quibble with his use of notoriously vague concepts such as “eusocial” and “conquest.” And he still has not done much evolutionary economics, evolutionary politics, or complex adaptive systens theory.
To me the biggest hole in the new Eusocial Paradigm is it’s failure to take cultural evolution seriously. Or to be more precise, his attempt to explain it in biological terms. If one of the necessary conditions for the emergence of eusociality was the “defense of a stable nest,” then why isn’t the emergence of cultural evolution attributed to the “defense of a stable nest of ideas?” Sure, he acknowledges that human cultural evolution is responsible for most of what we regard today as valuable. But why are some nations more innovative and adaptive than others? Why is the culture of Science constantly under assault? One reason for Wilson’s persistent myopia is that he assumes that Science and scientists are primarily engaged in the pursuit of Truth and that social structure and economics are relevant only to the extent that they either advance that goal or impede it. Finally, I would add that Wilson is still the undisputed master of seamlessly shifting between “facts” and “values.” If violating the “naturalistic fallacy” were a crime, E.O. Wilson would be on the “most wanted list” of serial offenders.
However, in the final analysis this is obviously an important, even revolutionary book. It’s written with typical Wilsonian charm and grace, and you’ll learn a whole lot about ants, termites, and humans and about the recent history of evolutionary theory. This is all important stuff. However, as a philosopher I would argue that we still cannot understand biological evolution apart from an over-arching theory of cultural evolution. To get to that higher level of philosophical analysis we must eventually escape from the Wilsonian “black box” and re-examine the seminal works of the evolutionary philosophers: Charles Sanders Peirce, F.A. Hayek, Karl Popper, and Thomas Kuhn. .