[asa] David S Wilson

From: Randy Isaac <randyisaac@comcast.net>
Date: Sat May 05 2007 - 19:45:33 EDT

[Moderator Note: This is reposted from earlier today since it got
munged the first time. This post contains some "taboo" words. If you
respond to it, I would advise you to only quote sections that are
pertinent to your post if you want it posted in a "timely" fashion.--TG]

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.
Wilson discusses most of these topics in more detail in his recent
book "Evolution for Everyone."

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.

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.

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.

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 22:23:50 2007

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