David Sloan Wilson is known as an ardent promoter of group selection, the evolutionary idea that the unit of selection is not the gene or individual, but groups of individuals whose differential extinction and reproduction (group “splitting”) can give rise to traits that are maladaptive within groups, like purely altruistic behavior. (E. O. Wilson, not a relative of D. S., shares this view). But Wilson’s many attempts to push this view haven’t won over most evolutionists, for we have very little evidence that this kind of selection has occurred in nature. I won’t dwell on the group selection debate today; if you want to see a good critique of the idea, read Steve Pinker’s excellent Edge Essay, “The false allure of group selection.”
D. S. Wilson is also engaged in other enterprises promoting his view of evolution, particularly his website The Evolution Insittute, which, along with his other projects, has been generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation. And, as with so many Templeton fundees, Wilson shows the expected weakness for religion. After all, that’s what Templeton loves, since Sir John T. started the Foundation as a vehicle for showing that science gives evidence for God. And although Wilson himself is an atheist, he osculates faith on a regular basis.
Case in point, his new essay on “Does a God exist? Actually, yes.” Now that’s weird for an atheist, right? Well, not for a Templeton-funded atheist. But what is the kind of God that Wilson envisions if not the theistic one?
Before getting to his god, Wilson disposes of several others, including a theistic God that intervenes in the universe. (Wilson does say that it’s possible that a nonfunctional and vestigial deistic God could exist.) He then looks for other kinds of gods using these definitions (his emphasis):
God (or Goddess): A superhuman being worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes.
Worship: An act of devotion, usually directed toward a deity. The word “worship” is derived from the Old English weorþscipe, meaning honor shown to an object, which has been etymologised as “worthiness or worth-ship”—to give, at its simplest, worth to something.
Well what could qualify as a god that can be worshiped if not a theistic one? Wilson brings up the Gaia Hypothesis of Lovelock, the idea that the Earth is a self-regulating “superorganism” in which both living creatures and their physical environment are coadapted—and self-regulating—in a way to keep life safely and happily on our planet. Wilson properly dismisses this idea, which I’ve never found to have any merit, as it’s quasi-teleological, lacks a mechanism for the self-regulation, and is susceptible to evolutionary changes in organisms that are detrimental to other organisms or to their environment.
So Gaia is not a god. But Wilson manages to find one! And, mirabile dictu, it turns out to be the “superorganisms” that comprise social insects and humans, and Wilson’s own line of work. Here’s what he says:
Superorganisms do exist, even if the whole earth does not qualify as one. Scientists agree that social insect colonies such as bees, ants, wasps and termites qualify as superorganisms because they are products of between-colony selection. The general rule is that any biological unit acquires the properties that we associate with “organism” when it is a unit of selection. Organisms and social insect colonies qualify and the whole earth does not.
Is it accurate to say that honeybees worship their hive? If by worship we mean subordinating ones [sic] own interest to the interest of a larger whole, then honeybees do worship their hives and the cells in our bodies worship us. If we wish to define worship in a way that requires conscious intent, then it would be a more distinctively human phenomenon. It is fascinating to note that religious believers themselves often compare their communities to bodies and beehives, as in this quote from the Hutterites, a Christian sect that leads a highly communal lifestyle:
“True love means growth for the whole organism, whose members are all interdependent and serve each other. That is the outward form of the inner working of the Spirit, the organism of the Body governed by Christ. We see the same thing among the bees, who all work with equal zeal gathering honey.”
Well, the notion that social insects are products of between-colony selection is controversial at best. To most evolutionists eusociality—insect societies that have castes, some of which are usually sterile—are explained more easily by kin selection: the relatedness of ancestral social insects to their offspring, who may have stayed in the same nest (with that relatedness enforced by the haplodiploid genetic condition of Hymenoptera). And kin selection is not “group selection”—at least not in a way that makes individuals “subordinate their own interest to the interest of the larger whole (the nest or hive).” In fact, what happens is that genes in individuals that reduce their own reproduction but still enhance their propagation through queens or other individuals leave more copies than “selfish” genes that allow workers to reproduce. There is no “worshiping”, even in this sense. To even use the term “worship” in this way is invidious—an unconscionable nod to religion. And if bees worship their hive by subordinating their own genetic interests to the whole (they don’t), then soldiers worship their army and volunteer firemen, who often die in the line of duty, worship the fire station.
But wait! It gets worse. For Wilson believes, without the slightest evidence, that humans are also “superorganisms,” with many of our behaviors (especially altruistic ones) shaped by group selection. (E. O. Wilson proffered the same thesis in his book The Social Conquest of Earth, which I reviewed—not positively—in the Times Literary Supplement. You can see a copy of my review here.) When you read the bit below, remember that Wilson’s statement that “small groups [of humans] are thought to have been units of selection,” really means “I, D. S. Wilson, think that small groups of humans were the units of selection”:
Recently, the concept of superorganisms has been extended to human evolution. Small groups are thought to have been units of selection, in the same way as single organisms of solitary species and social insect colonies. Individuals work on behalf of others and their group as a whole, sometimes because they want to, and sometimes because they are morally obligated even if they don’t want to. Do such individuals worship their groups? This strikes me as a valid statement, based on the face value definition of “worship” and its etymological origin. Moreover, when people worship gods of their own construction, these gods are usually symbolic representations of their groups, as Durkheim proposed long ago and a great deal of scientific evidence has affirmed since. The gods don’t exist in a literal sense, but the groups that they stand for do exist.
Today, there are innumerable cultural entities that deserve the status of superorganisms, at least crudely, because they have been units of selection. Some are called religions, others are called nations, and others are called corporations. All of them call upon their members to work on their behalf. Those that are not called religions often have the same trappings as religions and use the same lexicon of words. Kings are worshipped and often regarded as divine. In a 1990 Atlantic Monthly article titled “The Market as God” the theologian Harvey Cox shows how Capitalism has all the trappings of a religion. The pantheon of superorganisms in modern life is like the pantheon of Hindu gods, some strong and others weak, some benign and others malevolent.
Well, I belong to a group of evolutionary biologists, but I don’t worship it. I belong to the University of Chicago faculty, but I don’t worship the University, either, though I like it. Do workers at Ford Motors worship their CEO? I doubt it. Yes, individuals do like belonging to groups (after all, we evolved in them), and sometimes make sacrifices for them, but more often then not we gain more than you lose by joining a group. Most human groups are not “superorganisms” in which members of a soccer club lose their well being for the greater glory of Manchester United, or workers at the Planters Peanut factory sacrifice their well being for the sake of Propagating Peanuts. Just because one type of human group is religious, and believes in supernatural beings that must be propitiated (my definition of religion), doesn’t mean that all of them are religions or engage in the act of worship. And peanut companies aren’t supernatural.
In the end, Wilson jumps the rails by praising the work of the muddle-headed Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who had a teleological theory of human evolution. Humans, said Teilhard, were being propelled (by God) to some apex of perfection called “The Omega Point.” No such teleological forces have been identified, of course, and Teilhard is regarded by all thinking evolutionists as a crank. (If you want to see a hilariously splenetic takedown of Teilhard’s views of human evolution, read Peter Medawar’s review of his book The Phenomenon of Man. Both Richard Dawkins and I think that this is the best review—in terms of dry humor and devastating criticism—ever written of a popular science book.)
By praising Teilhard’s book, and even the teleological idea of the Omega Point, Wilson completely jettisons his credibility:
Recent developments in evolutionary thinking called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis are overturning conventional wisdom that evolution is always undirected. The French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was prescient when he described humanity as just another species in some respects but a new process of evolution in other respects, which began as “tiny grains of thought” and then coalesced into larger and larger groups. Looking forward, Teilhard envisioned a single global consciousness called the Omega Point. The main updating required for Teilhard’s vision is to note that there is nothing inevitable about reaching the Omega Point. It is something that we must steer toward by mindfully selecting our practices with the welfare of the whole earth in mind. If this isn’t worshipping a Goddess that actually exists or can be brought into being, what would be?
Note to D. S. Wilson on the last sentence: no, it isn’t worshiping a Goddess. It’s just people trying to improve their lot.
Admittedly, here Wilson notes that the teleology might be not in the forces of evolution but in the hands of humans, who do act with purpose. But by noting that the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis says that evolution can be “directed” by something other than natural selection, Wilson is making a statement that is wrong. There is no such evidence, except perhaps perhaps the long-accepted view that evolution is restricted and channeled by developmental and genetic constraints. But what Wilson is talking about here are dubious ideas that evolution is “directed” by the organism evolving “evolvability”, producing mutations that are adaptive when needed, and creating a physiological system that, without being selected, can nevertheless respond adaptively to environmental change. Only a few outlier biologists have this view.
So we see in this piece Wilson acting deviously in two ways. First, he pretends that evolutionists agree that there are novel ways that evolution is directed—ways that severely violate modern evolutionary theory. More important, he gives people the idea that evolution itself has produced gods in the form of superorganisms that are “worshiped” by their constituent individuals. Both of these are misleading distortions: one of science and the other of society. What Wilson is doing, like so many of his Templeton-funded colleagues (viz. Martin Nowak at Harvard), is both promoting his own controversial biological agenda at the same time as he’s giving credibility to religion. This is a good case of natural theology: Wilson doesn’t believe in God, but he doesn’t mind using science to buttress those who do. Well played, Templeton!
h/t: Kit P.