The Group: On George Price | The Nation


The Group: On George Price

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It is startling that, in the end, Harman appears unconcerned about the truth of the Price equation—whether it really shows how and why altruism developed among our kind. For him, Price's quest ends with a slam against Wittgenstein's wall. "What we can't speak about," said the philosopher, "we must pass over in silence." Harman freely admits that "real charity may in fact be a uniquely human invention," a possibility that for him is not an irritant but a cause for hope. Harman's acknowledgment that "matters of the spirit like the true motivations behind acts of kindness may be something [science] will never plumb" is one that affirms a gap unbridgeable without the human quality of mind. Whatever we think we know about the origin of altruism in animal species, there is a metaphysical hurdle—a missing link—that cannot be explained through genetics. "There is that haunting compatibility," Robinson insists, "of our means of knowing with the universe of things to be known." Despite this, "we have turned away from the ancient intuition that we are a part of it all. What such a recognition might imply...is difficult to say, but the strange ways of quarks and photons might enlarge our sense of the mysterious nature of our own existence."

The Price of Altruism
George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness.
By Oren Harman.
Buy this book

Absence of Mind
The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self.
By Marilynne Robinson.
Buy this book

Unto Others
The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior.
By Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson.
Buy this book

About the Author

Miriam Markowitz
Miriam Markowitz
Miriam Markowitz is the deputy literary editor of The Nation.

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From an outsider's perspective, it appears as if the epistemology of evolutionary biology is still emerging from the long nineteenth century, lagging far behind physics in its theoretical principles. In physics, we long ago accepted the limitations of the Newtonian model of the universe, wherein matter and the forces that act upon it are entirely logical and predictable. We have embraced quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, and we entertain even more far-out concepts, ones that appear to defy not just physical logic but the limits of what humans can comprehend: string theory, dark matter, many worlds. We have acknowledged that the universe may operate in ways that are not only unpredictable but perhaps unfathomable.

Newton faced Heisenberg and Einstein; Darwin has not confronted a similar challenge. Evolutionary biology, along with the social sciences and especially economics, with its decades-long obeisance to the Chicago School, is only belatedly coming to the conclusion that matter, organic and otherwise, does not necessarily behave rationally, and that humans and animals do not always act to maximize their fitness. It seems odd that the fundamental assumptions of evolutionary theory—that our mercantile world of limited resources is one of gladiatorial brutality, and that evolution functions, through natural selection, optimally most if not all of the time to produce biological winners and losers—have not been revisited sooner with an eye toward how our understanding of physical forces changed so dramatically in the early twentieth century. Those scientists who are beginning to rethink these foundations have suggested that there is no reason for us to assume, a priori, that evolution behaves in a straightforward process of competitive optimization, and that any perceived deviations from this process may be explained away in terms of hidden utility.

* * *

This has not precluded the acolytes of evolutionism from importing their untestable and in many cases absurd hypotheses into sociology, psychology, economics, history, philosophy and finally the arts and literature, which, having languished in the universities with the waning of the star of postmodern theory, are now in desperate need of succor wherever they can find it. Enter the evolutionary psychologists, many of whom have embraced the central tenet of postmodern theory (books are not literature to be read and loved but texts to be mined for evidence) and tweaked it to fit their own reductive agenda: explaining all of cultural and cognitive life in terms of adaptation, of instincts and skills developed in the Pleistocene only because they increased the fitness of early man. In Unto Others, Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, and Sober, a philosopher of science, claim that the conflict between essential egoism and altruism can be resolved only with "an evolutionary perspective": "Observed behavior does not decide the question, and the conceptual arguments furnished by philosophers have not broken the deadlock either."

What is so disturbing about this "deadlock" is that the view that Robinson and Harman share—that the practice of science, even good science, cannot be otherwise than culturally and ideologically inflected, as are all human endeavors, and that there are some questions it may not be able to answer—is not a new one. When E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology in 1975, a group of scientists and educators led by Harvard professors Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin sent a letter to The New York Review of Books decrying Wilson's apparent ignorance of his own unconscious biases, biases that they believed fortified the preferences and privileges enjoyed by men like Wilson. Lewontin, a population geneticist who was perhaps the third scientist to recognize the value of the Price equation, has continued to make this case brilliantly and persistently in that same magazine for the past thirty-five years, and for a long time his allies and antagonists kept these vital discussions in the public eye.

But with the ascension of the God controversy, many scientists have closed ranks. They debate not the significance of one another's work but the very existence of evolution with creationists, many of them provocateurs who have no intention of changing their minds. Worse, the loudest of these scientists have done so with a militancy matched only by their contempt for any idea that does not conform to their own reductive worldview. These are our champions, and we have let them do our thinking for us; we are not experts, and they speak with the authority of science. RichardDawkins.net, which is billed as nothing less than "a clear-thinking oasis," not only hawks chintzy merchandise and anticlerical talking points to preach to the ignorant masses; it also features a forum called "Converts' Corner," where visitors are encouraged to post stories about how they escaped from religion.

David Sloan Wilson, who has stated that his "passion" is "to expand evolutionary theory beyond the biological sciences to include all things human," is also a true believer in evolutionism, but his attempts to revive discussions about evolutionary theory among scientists and the general public are both genuine and ecumenical. (As the foremost advocate for multilevel selection theory, he has often locked horns with Dawkins, who labeled one particularly persnickety response to criticisms by Wilson "The Group Delusion.") I had the pleasure of reading a long e-mail correspondence among theoretical biologists that was initiated by Wilson and titled "If the theorists can't agree," the hope for which was that the scientists would be able to establish some basic principles about group theory, inclusive fitness and kin selection, all of which have been sources of discord and misapprehension among their cohort since the 1960s. Wilson, in particular, was vehement that if the theoretical biologists could not satisfactorily define these terms and delineate a "zone of agreement," there was no way they could properly educate other scientists, students and the public about the state of the field, which has been dominated by Dawkins's paradigm despite the objections of many of his peers. As it turned out, they couldn't.

It is no accident that the scientific assault in the God debate has come primarily from Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both of whom are what Stephen Jay Gould deemed "Darwinian fundamentalists"—ultra-adaptationists who, in their insistence that selection is the only important force in evolution, have "out-Darwin[ed] Darwin." (Dawkins has granted that some evolutionary change may not be adaptive, but only "the boring parts.") It seems that Dawkins has rushed to arms not just because his work is being reconsidered by fellow scientists and the God debate provides a convenient distraction but also because the theories on which he has built his career appear imperiled if he allows even the slightest possibility that those who believe in God are anything but tragically confused.

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