[asa] David S. Wilson

From: Randy Isaac <randyisaac@comcast.net>
Date: Fri May 04 2007 - 22:36:57 EDT

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David Sloan Wilson gave two lectures at the ecumenical roundtable on =
science and religion meeting in Manchester, NH on April 20 and 21.
After =
the Friday night lecture, a few of us sat down for a couple of hours
of =
informal dialog with him. I'll try to convey a few of the main themes, =
though I won't retain the flow or sequence of the talk.

Atheism: In his presentations, Wilson said nothing to indicate his
views =
on the existence of God so in our informal discussion I asked David =
"What, if anything, do you feel your studies tell us about the
existence =
of a transcendent God?" After a few exchanges where he wanted a =
definition of what I meant by "God", he stated that given his
assumption =
of naturalism he felt all aspects of human behavior could be =
satisfactorily explained. Therefore he had no need of God. I took the =
approach of questioning why the existence of God was mutually
exclusive =
to any scientific explanation, using the typical arguments of laws of =
physics not being mutually exclusive to God's involvement. He then =
asserted that a God that didn't make a difference wasn't worth
believing =
in. I volunteered that the very existence of naturalism and the
natural =
world itself was unexplained in his worldview and that only with a =
concept of a Creator could his presupposition of naturalism make
sense. =
At that, he deferred to others in the group for their opinion and the =
conversation drifted on. I would only comment that this is a key issue =
for us. Those who believe that there is no scientifically detectable =
influence of God, meaning a deviation from patterns amenable to =
scientific study, need a coherent reply to those who feel that this =
makes God of little value.

Socio-evolution. Wilson builds on a fairly long history of work in =
evolutionary sociological studies though he says this line of research =
has not been well accepted in higher education. He cited two walls of =
resistance to evolution: the facts of the past (it's hard to grasp
long =
time spans of billions of years) and the impact on humans. Humans
fear a =
threat from evolution in two ways: the loss of morality or a moral =
standard, and a limitation of human potential (genetic determinism). =
Wilson feels both threats are not real and he likes to stress two =
positives from evolution: a better understanding of human behavior
and a =
benefit to realizing our future potential.

Group evolution. He describes evolution as "the replicator dynamic."
By =
that he means "any process that causes the most successful behavior =
strategy to increase in frequency." He cited for example the work of =
Lynn Margulis and the role of symbiotic relationships in evolution. =
Evolution is all about an organism and its environment. Understanding =
evolution means going beyond mutations. One must note the transition
of =
evolutionary focus from groups OF organisms to groups AS organisms.=20

Altruistic virtues. Wilson thinks that groups of altruistic
individuals =
are more likely to survive and that this explains the rise and =
persistence of altruism and similar virtues. He cited one animal study =
as a demonstration and a classroom discussion illustration. The animal =
study compared two flocks of hens, each grouped into cages of 9-10
hens. =
One flock was artificially selected for individual top egg-layers
while =
the other flock was selected for cage-level top egg-layers. After six =
generations, the flock selected for individual performers was
decimated =
and only a few battle-scarred hen-pecked warriors remained with low
egg =
production. The other flock that was selected for group performance =
still thrived with high egg production. Conclusion: groups of hens
that =
had a positive influence on each other had a higher survival rate.
Ergo, =
groups of altruistic organisms can have better survival rates.
The other study was an illustration of our perception of the
altruistic =
effects. He cited the following classroom discussion that he has with =
his students:
Q. What are the characteristics of a good person?
A. kind, loving, peaceful, unselfish, etc. etc. (the usual religious =
Q. What are the characteristics of an evil person?
A. mean, lying, murderous, etc. etc. (the usual vices)
Q. What would happen if a good person and an evil person are stranded =
together on a desert island?
A. The good person would soon be devoured by the evil person.
Q. What would happen if a group of good people were stranded on one =
island and a group of evil people were stranded on another?
A. The evil group would soon kill each other off while the good group =
would find a way to survive.
The discussion continues with variations on the theme. The message is =
that we perceive goodness, especially altruism, to be beneficial in =
group survival while the vices can have beneficial survival in other =
Wilson concludes that altruistic religious values have thrived due to =
the benefit of group survival but that the vices persist because they =
have survival benefits in certain types of situations. In general, he =
says a diversity of cultural traits is important to longterm survival
in =
a variety of environmental stresses.

Liberalism vs conservatism. He described liberalism as having a
premium =
on individuals as agents of change and conservatism as having a
premium =
on obedience to authority. He described studies of students in the =
Binghamton, NY area by classifying their religious denomination as =
liberal or conservative and then comparing their social
characteristics. =
That approach drew some flak from the audience and he agreed it was
not =
optimal but he had no other data available in the large study that he =
analyzed. He showed various differences in traits such as liberals =
tending to be more comfortable being alone and more stressful with
other =
people. Overall, his point was that this diversity in prosociality was =
an important consequence of evolution--each end of the spectrum had =
survival value in different situations.

Morality. For Wilson, morality is "the common sense of group
survival." =
He went on to say that "moral sense trumps religion" though I'm not =
quite certain what he meant by that. In this context he also talked =
about "factual realism" vs "practical realism." He thinks that science =
favors factual realism while evolution and religion favor practical =
realism. "The god of science is factual realism" while evolution and =
religion emphasize anything that helps survival, whether it is factual =
or not. That is, if a belief has survival value, its factual reality
is =
not important for evolutionary survival. Nor, he claims, is it for =

Religion. Wilson says there are six hypotheses of religion, 3 of them =
non-adaptive and 3 adaptive. I didn't catch the non-adaptive ones but =
the 3 adaptive ones are individual level, group level, and parasitic. =
His own approach is group level adaptive and he strongly disagrees
with =
Dennett, Hitchens, Dawkins, Stenger, etc. who have focused on the =
parasitic view of religion. Wilson believe the data strongly favor a =
very positive role of religion in group survival.

Sexuality. Wilson believes that most evolutionary studies on sexual =
selection and behavior miss the boat by focusing solely on
reproductive =
functions. He says such a study must also take into account sex as =
"social currency." By that he means sex used as a means of social =
dominance, subordination, or other social interactions.=20

Homosexuality. He cited work that indicate widespread homosexuality in =
nature but that none of it was exclusively homosexual. That is, only =
bisexual. He cited an article on "prison homosexuality" that candidly =
pointed out the use of homosexuality in defining the power structure =
within the prison. You either become a "man" or a "punk" in the power =
struggle and you have to play that role, or else. He also cited
studies =
of bonobo-monkeys where female-female homosexuality is used as a means =
of offsetting male dominance. In other words, he says sexuality is
used =
as a tool to establish social status and achieve social goals.

Sexual morality and the Bible. Wilson derives an interesting sexual =
morality from his work. Based on morality as the common sense of group =
survival, sexual behavior ought, in his mind, to be optimized for
group =
survival and not for social stratification. He then noted that Old =
Testament sexual morality was extremely well tuned to optimize the
goal =
to "be fruitful and multiply." He then cited a work on sexuality in =
Roman culture but unfortunately I missed the title and author. He
claims =
this study showed that in the days of Cicero, the Roman sexual climate =
was characterized by widespread homosexuality as a social means of =
stratification, etc. But he said over the ensuing two hundred years,
it =
evolved from an aggressive to a much more egalitarian form. He even =
claimed that the Roman sexual mores in circa 200AD were quite similar
to =
those reflected in the New Testament. I don't recall what social
driving =
forces effected these changes (Karl, do you remember?). Overall, he
was =
quite positive toward biblical sexual morality in the sense that he =
argued from an evolutionary perspective that sex should not be used to =
dominate or control others but should be used for procreation and for =
mutual consensual relationships. In that sense, he said homosexuality =
shouldn't be viewed as wrong per se, that is, wrong based on gender,
but =
that either hetero- or homosexual behavior could be wrong to the
extent =
they are misused.

Morality and religion. Finally, he noted the benefit of church policy: =
avoid excesses of relativism and do not permit virulent behavior. To =
prevent something, call it a sin or a disease or proscribe it. Wilson =
didn't say how strong such a morality should be or the consequences of =
failing to adhere to such morality.

In summary, Wilson's ideas are thought-provoking and worthy of closer =
examination. Clearly, I disagree with his perspective that this is a =
comprehensive naturalistic explanation that eliminates the need for
the =
idea of God. Nothing in his work, per se, argues against the existence =
of God. It is merely another classic case of "I can explain x, y, or z =
and therefore God wasn't involved" which we have long argued is =
incorrect. He does make a strong argument that atheistic evolution
does =
not necessarily lead to a lack of morality or deny the universal moral =
sense. Personally, as a natural scientist, I have trouble with the =
verifiability and falsifiability of these social theories that can =
easily fall into the trap of "just-so" stories. But the data are =
interesting and this line of work should be followed with interest.


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Received on Sat May 5 19:07:13 2007

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