Survival of the Nicest?

In Higher Superstition, a book remarkable both for its influence on the intellectual community and for its obtuse ignorance of the actual state of science, the authors told us that

Science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise…. Reality is the overseer at one’s shoulder, ready to rap one’s knuckles or to spring the trap into which one has been led…by a too complacent reliance on mere surmise…. Reality is the unrelenting angel with whom scientists have agreed to wrestle.

Any reader who wants to test this charmingly naive view of science should immerse himself or herself in the literature of evolutionary biology. Indeed, the immersion does not have to be very deep before the currents and countercurrents of ideology can be felt tugging at one’s understanding. Unto Others, a collaboration between Elliott Sober, one of the founders of the modern philosophy of biology, and David Sloan Wilson, one of the most creative theoreticians in evolutionary studies, wades into this turbulent stream at precisely the point where so many other adventurers have been swept away: the problem of the origin of altruistic behavior. Can natural selection have made us genuinely cooperative and unselfish in pursuit of the greater good of the many, or is apparent altruism nothing but an artfully disguised version of every man for himself? Have Professors Sober and Wilson really collaborated in order to spread enlightenment, or are they engaged only in a bit of academic career building, each using the other as a tool of their separate ambitions?

Darwinism, born in ideological struggle, has never escaped from an intimate reciprocal relationship with world views exported from and imported into the science. No one challenges the claim that evolutionary theory has had a wide effect on social theory. It is a cliché of cultural history that the explanation of evolution by natural selection served as an ideological justification for laissez-faire competitive capitalism and the colonial domination of the lesser breeds without the law. Nor are these evidences only of the quaint naiveté of the nineteenth century. Social Darwinism has had a continuous and vigorous life until today. Only three years ago a leading publisher of psychological monographs produced a book by a professor of psychology at a first-rank Canadian university claiming that the evident moral and cognitive superiority of Europeans over Africans was a consequence of natural selection in a cold rather than tropical climate. All the Africans got out of their experience of the survival of the fittest were greater libidos and longer penises. The slightest suggestion, however, that evolutionary biology has imported some of its conclusions from social theory and political prejudice will be greeted by incredulity and indignation on the part of scientists convinced of the intellectual autonomy of the study of nature. Even those who insist that they concentrate on the “internal” history of science agree that Darwin’s notion of the struggle for existence, and the consequent differential survival of those types with greater fitness for …

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Letters

Higher Superstition’: An Exchange December 3, 1998