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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Evolution and Ethics

Few sciences have a history as mixed with villainy as evolutionary biology. I say this as someone who spent years studying evolution and who now studies its history -- its a subject of endless fascination for me. But I began thinking about some of the perverted uses toward which it has been put over the years after reading Olivia Judson's column in the NYTimes today calling for the death of the term "Darwinism."

Of course, words don't die that way, but perhaps Judson's plea will kick the can along a little further. The article's main point of interest to me was its failure to talk about the different ways in which Darwinism and Darwinist has been used outside of evolutionary biology -- the unsavory connotations which probably have more than a little to do with her curtain call. There's "social Darwinism" a popular term in the latter half of the nineteenth century which had a bit of an afterlife in the US during the early twentieth -- the idea that the more competent and affluent sectors of society would multiply and the the impoverished only fell to their appropriate level to die out. Then there was eugenics -- social Darwinism cubed -- which was advocated by the grandson of Charles Darwin and became a core justification for the Holocaust. And today, Darwinism remains a term of disparagement within pyschological and sociological circles for practitioners of "evolutionary psychology" and sociobiology. I'm pretty sure that its these pejorative uses and that historical baggage that Judson dislikes the most about "Darwinism" and wishes her field could finally divorce itself from.

This connection to evolutions bette noir also makes for an interesting tie-in to an article published yesterday on E. O. Wilson. Wilson's prestige as an entomologist has never been in question -- he's long been one of the world's foremost authorities on ants and social insects. But starting in the seventies with his book "Sociobiology," Wilson's been a bit of a pop bad boy of evolutionary theory. As the article points out, this is largely the work of Steven Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins -- the former an accomplished popular science writer himself and the latter the proponent of the selfish gene.

Neither Gould nor Dawkins have produced a quarter of the influential core scientific research that Wilson has -- they've long served more as popularizers than practitioners. Wilson's my vote for the mantel of our twentieth-century Darwin. His work on kin and group selection will probably have even more influence in the twenty-first century than Darwin's work on sexual selection. I don't think the orthodoxies laid down by Gould and Dawkins still have the currency they had ten or twenty years ago. But Wilson's difficulty in getting his term "sociobiology" to stick (a term which the article suggests many scientists avoid using even if pursuing its research aims) has a lot to do with the damning Darwinisms of the last century. It remains enormously difficult to assess the ramifications of a given evolutionary theory on human social groups because it's so close to what those social Darwinists and eugenicists of years past sought to do.

It reminds me of something I figured out during a frozen road trip up to Colorado back in college: the application of science to society -- the ethics of science -- has to be wholly extrinsic to science. You just can't evaluate the validity of a given interpretation of human populations or subjects using numbers, experiments, or peer-reviewed journal publications. I realized this because I was traveling with an ex-Air Force classmate who'd just finished reading The Bell Curve. We spent hours arguing on whether -- as the book argues -- certain racial groups are less intelligent and hence less capable of succeeding in society. I'd taken a recent course in sociology and was studying evolution and statistics, so I thought I'd be able to talk him down. We went back and forth as he cited studies and statistics, and I pointed out methodological problems and what I took as pretty heavy cultural problems with the thesis. And I imagined what it would be like to have a major sociologist -- someone with a strong grasp the research -- on a stage with the writers of the book. But I realized the same thing would happen -- they'd argue but neither side would convince the other. It wasn't just because the other position was essentially racist -- not rooted in figures but in a deep-seated belief about other groups. It was also because my position, and the one I assumed a true sociologist would take, was equally not rooted primarily in facts. It is an ethical, not a scientific stance.

You could show me studies of various racial groups with all the controls you might dream up and I'd still refuse to believe there are inherent differences in capacity. My stubbornness stems from a belief that it's just untenable to both believe that certain groups have an innate superiority or inferiority and to believe the essential principle of our society -- that all are created equal and should be afforded equal opportunity. It may be a principle toward which we strive, one that it's almost impossible to achieve, but equality is something that most of us believe in. There are some questions essentially extrinsic to science -- even for the scientist. This points up the absurdity of Wilson's suggestion, related in the article, that "many human activities, from economics to morality, needed to be temporarily removed from the hands of the reigning specialists and given to biologists to work out a proper evolutionary foundation." Imagine you had a "proper evolutionary" explanation for ethics -- how it worked, the purpose it served. How would that effect the current issue? Assuming you could get this model to take a stand on the question of equality -- how much would it matter? At the end of the day, the principle of equality remains the foundation of our society. Wilson's dream of an evolutionary ethics, even if possible, won't put the philosophical and religious moralists out of work. It would just join the chorus (with what might prove a pernicious influence).

Which is why scientists shy away from terms (like Darwinism, or Sociobiology) that serve as hot spots for ethical tussling. They serve as reminders of how fragile science's status can be. Hard science -- the core research -- works blindly and equally for ethical and reprehensible purposes. The physics of nuclear power and nuclear weapons aren't that different. It's up to the ethics of the scientist and the society to separate one from the other.

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