Saturday, April 30, 2011

Not busy anymore, so...

Time for some more blogging! This time, a blurb on a scientist who's stirred up trouble lately:
What [E.O.] Wilson is trying to do, late in his influential career, is nothing less than overturn a central plank of established evolutionary theory: the origins of altruism. His position is provoking ferocious criticism from other scientists. Last month, the leading scientific journal Nature published five strongly worded letters saying, more or less, that Wilson has misunderstood the theory of evolution and generally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One of these carried the signatures of an eye-popping 137 scientists, including two of Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard.
Personally I'm rather open to the idea that at least a small portion of human altruism might be driven towards gene preservation. After all, humans are, at the very least, biological. Of course, if dubious mathematics was the only issue here I doubt this topic would be generating as much controversy as it is.

Something I have always suspected is that much of the objection has an ideological rather than a scientific basis, that evolutionary theory must, in the eyes of some, remain a certain way so that it can best uphold, beneath a thin veneer of scientific prestige, their personal beliefs on the nature of the human person. Kin selection theory, if one is not careful (and many aren't!), can easily lead to the implication that human free will is illusory, that human decisions are driven primarily by unconscious biological impulse rather than a deliberate desire to conform to some normative standard.

And Wilson doesn't even seem to be trying to get rid of biological explanations of altruism altogether, since he's trying to promote group selection as an alternative to kin selection. Of course, that doesn't seem to matter to some people. The orthodoxy must be defended, lest their personal beliefs (horrors!) be forced to change with the science. Some scientists they are!

Meanwhile, there's this whole idea of sociobiology trying to explain social structure through wholly natural explanations, as if human culture was somehow a by-product of selection, but I'll talk about that next time.

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