E. O. Wilson and Alan Alda discuss human evolution

Yesterday the Chicago Humanities Festival, an esteemed local event, sponsored a dialogue between the famous biologist E. O. Wilson and the actor, writer, and science popularizer Alan “Hawkeye” Alda. (It was cosponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Scences—the AAAS.) The talk, in the large and famous Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, was preceded by a private lunch with AAAS members in the Economics Building across the street. Ed (for whom I used to teach) and Alda didn’t show up except at the end, but I managed to get two photos:

Wilson (he’s 88 now, and still running around the world and cranking out books):

Alda (right), who’s 81 and of course quite active as well. It’s heartening to see both of these guys still doing their thing as “advanced seniors”.

The hourlong discussion at the chapel was advertised like this:

In this rare public conversation, Alda engages Edward O. Wilson, one of the most celebrated biologists of our time, whose The Origins of Creativity offers a sweeping examination of the relationship between the humanities and the sciences and how both are rooted in human creativity—the defining trait of our species. Join a master communicator and the “senior statesman of science” for an eloquent exploration of creativity and its manifestations throughout human history.

Wilson and Alda took their places onstage while the Chapel organist played some lively (but loud!) tunes. (The two organs in the Chapel are magnificent, and have resonance chambers built into the walls. And the Gothic design, long and high, provides great acoustics, though not so much for speech.)

The pair was introduced by Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet who was twice Poet Laureate of the U.S. She stood in the raised pulpit to make her introduction! This was all quite funny because both Wilson and Alda are atheists (well, Alda says he’s an “agnostic”).

The event was sold out, and the Chapel holds 1700 people!:

So what did they talk about? Sadly, I was disappointed, even though Alda did a lovely reading from Wilson’s new book, recounting a story that a young San man (formerly “Bushmen”) told to others of his group around a campfire in Africa. You could tell that Alda was a skilled actor, as his reading was mesmerizing, with great pacing and intonation. But the conversation itself largely centered not on creativity, but on altruism and cooperation; and Wilson used the occasion to relentlessly push his theory that these phenomena, as well as human brain size, empathy, and creativity, were the result of selection among human groups rather than Darwinian selection acting on individuals.

Wilson has been pushing this idea for years, but almost no biologists buy it because of the problems with evolving many traits by group selection, which is inefficient compared to individual selection. If you want to see my take on this idea, read my TLS review of Wilson’s 2013 book, The Social Conquest of Earth. Wilson, it seems, believes that nearly every trait that marks us as “human” evolved on the savannah by differential survival and reproduction of hominin groups.

Much of the first half of the conversation centered on empathy, which both men agreed meant not sympathy for another, but the ability to put oneself into someone else’s shoes. (Empathy is usually required for true sympathy, but they aren’t the same thing.) And clearly empathy, part of Dennett’s “intentional stance“, would have been adaptively advantageous in early humans. If you can imagine what someone else feels or thinks, then you can more easily predict what they are going to do, and if you can do that, then you can either get along with them better or obviate their attempts to outcompete you. Either way, you gain an advantage over others, which could translate into more reproduction.

The problem is that that this advantage accrues to the individual, not to the group, although groups full of empathic individuals might survive better, and grow larger, than groups full of clueless people. But how does empathy spread through a population in the first place? Almost surely through individual selection—the form of selection that Wilson largely rejects.

Not only did Wilson claim that empathy (and also altruism) evolved by group selection, but that large brain size in humans, which started increasing several million years ago, was explained by the need for an apparatus to devise and express empathy! Well, that might be true, but there are lots of theories about why human brains got bigger, including the advent of cooking, tool use, and so on; and we have no way to distinguish among them. It’s also possible that even if the phenomena are connected, adoption of empathy was a consequence rather than a cause of the increase in brain size. We just don’t know, but Wilson stated his take quite strongly. The important thing is that there would surely be an individual selection advantage to having a bigger brain: all kinds of benefits would accrue to someone with more complex neuronal wiring. You simply don’t need to invoke an unparsimonious process to explain this trend.

Wilson then said he was going to give the audience an equation about how group selection worked, and my heart sank as I imagined him trying to spout math. Fortunately, he said just this: “Within groups, selfish individuals outcompete altruistic ones. But altruistic groups outcompete selfish ones.” The audience applauded loudly, but of course didn’t realize that that is one of the big problems of group selection. Not only is the turnover of individuals within groups faster than the turnover of groups themselves (via splitting and extinction), but once you have a group of all altruists, it’s unstable to the invasion of selfish individuals who gain but do not give. One selfish person in an altruistic group will begin breeding like rabbits compared to the others. It’s thus quite problematic to assert that some many aspects of human behavior and morphology evolved by selection among groups rather than among individuals. If you want to read a comprehensive critique of the problems with group selection, you couldn’t do better than Steve Pinker’s Edge piece, “The false allure of group selection.

Creativity entered the conversation in only one way. Alda asked, quite reasonably, if it were possible for there to be any rapprochement between science and the humanities/arts. Wilson’s answer was intriguing but, to me, unsatisfying. What he did say that edified the audience was that we are an “audiovisual” species: we depend on sight and hearing more than on our other senses. We belong, said Wilson, to one of the few animal groups that are like that, which include birds, crickets, and frogs. Most animals, he added, depend on chemicals to communicate (think ants), or sometimes electrical stimuli.

To Wilson, this mandates a revolution in the arts and humanities, for our arts are based on only these two senses, and we neglect the way other animals can communicate—ways based on their different evolutionary pathways. Wilson added, noting that this may anger many in the audience (after all, it was a “humanities” festival), that “the difference between art and science is that art has no roots.” By that he meant that science, especially science involving human behavior, has “roots” in evolution, so we can investigate behavior using that framework. Art doesn’t take into account any evolutionary roots, although it could be approached that way (there are, for example, people who do “Darwinian analysis of literature”). And I’m sure that one could discover stuff about the arts from an evolutionary standpoint: why do humans like certain types of painting or music? Perhaps evolution can make some contribution there.

The problem is that that is a form of analysis, and not the form of art itself, which involves imagination. What would arts and humanities firmly based on evolution be like? How would they differ from ancient and modern art, music, and literature? What would have changed in, say, Picasso or Tolstoy? Wilson didn’t say. But he’s long espoused an absorption of art into science, in the way an amoeba engulfs its food. So while I agree that science can have a some role in understanding art, I don’t think that “giving art roots” is going to change its creation.

Wilson did try such a fusion, for I gather (according to Alda) that Wilson wrote a novel from the point of view of ants. That’s creative and fun, but since we don’t really know what the consciousness of an ant is like, we’re hardly at the point where we can do something like this accurately. It’s a form of science fiction that, while informed by science, is not going to revolutionize the arts in toto. This is a one-off, a niche genre.

At the end there was about ten minutes for questions from the audience, and most weren’t that interesting. One woman asked Wilson, since she thought he wrote so poetically, which poets he most admired. And sadly, he gave no names, but just went on about how reading poetry could help improve one’s prose. I wanted to hear names!

Alda pitched Wilson softballs, which is fine because this was a conversation, not an interrogation. And Alda was also funny, cracking jokes and being entertaining. He’s also clearly up on evolutionary biology and theories about human behavior, though he didn’t seem to know much about group selection—or, if he did, he chose to avoid it.

I like Ed: he helped get me into Harvard (long story) and I was a t.a. for two years in his Bio 1 class. Despite his huge fight with my advisor Dick Lewontin about sociobiology, Wilson was always nice to me: a real Southern gentleman (he hails from Alabama). But, as I’ve said before, I cannot understand why he seems to be staking his reputation on the claimed importance of group selection. Some of his colleagues have told me that Ed feels as if his career has been incomplete without a “big idea”, and group selection has become that idea. But Wilson is immensely famous, and rightfully so: for his scientific work, his books, his popularization, and his efforts to conserve wildlife. He doesn’t need a big idea! And it makes me sad to see him pushing a broken-down view of evolution—one rejected by a large majority of biologists—as a way to cap his career. So be it.

What bothered me more was that the audience filed out of Rockefeller Chapel thinking that group selection was the be-all and end-all of evolution. I resisted asking Ed a question, as I didn’t want to go after him in public and it simply wasn’t the time or place, but I wish that there was a banner over the exits that said “Individual selection, not group selection!”


  1. BobTerrace
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Group selection might be Wilson’s “big idea” but is was proclaimed by David Sloan Wilson (and Elliott Sober) years before Edward Osborne Wilson joined him with it.

  2. Thanny
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I really don’t understand how anyone can suggest group selection works.

    It’s not even logically possible, when you drill down into the details of how it would have to work (i.e. it boils down to groups having to reproduce faster than than the individuals of which they are comprised).

    To the best of my estimation, no one who talks about group selection as if it’s a valid concept is actually talking about group selection. They’re usually talking about individual selection for traits that foster living in groups, or perhaps kin selection.

    • burt simon
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      Sorry for getting to this discussion so late. I hope Jerry lets me post! I’ll just respond like this: Group selection works by fairly simple rules, but they’re not the same as the rules for individual level selection. This is because a group’s genetics changes over time, but an individual’s doesn’t. Group fission supplies the randomness that group extinction works on. It doesn’t matter that individual level events occur much more often than group level events. Take a look at Simon & Pilosov, Group level events are catalysts in the evolution of cooperation, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 2016. And by the way, I think if you talk to Steve Pinker you will find that his views have changed since he wrote the Edge article.

      • Posted November 7, 2017 at 4:50 am | Permalink

        Sorry, but I just did talk to Pinker and no, his views have NOT changed since he wrote the piece.
        Once again you tout your own work but we don’t need to invoke to invoke group selection if the trait can be explained by individual selection, as Wilson’s traits can be. There is no point building an elaborate theoretical edifice to explain something that can be explained more parsimoniously by something we already know works.

        You only seem to post on this site when the subject is group selection and you have an opportunity to tout your own work.

        • chrism
          Posted November 7, 2017 at 10:34 am | Permalink

          Thank you, Jerry, for the link to Pinker’s piece. I first came across group selection when I read Robert Ardrey’s Social Contract (a good read in many respects, and it did lead me on to read Rousseau!)and I was aware that the concept was considered wrongthink by most. As with many things, simpler explanations are more likely to be true, and if all the observed effects of supposed group selection can be explained at the gene selection level, why would one look for more complexity?
          Honestly, taking bees as an exemplar for the way things might work in other kinds of groups is a bit daft.

  3. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you should have brought a sign that said “individual selection, not group selection” & quietly held it up at the appropriate times. 😀

    • Posted November 6, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      That’s disruption of a speaker!

    • TJR
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Or maybe

      Group Selection is White Supremacy

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        Ha ha! I tried to come up with one just as good but can’t!

        • John Frum
          Posted November 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

          How about “Check your group privilege”.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

            Damn. That’s good!

  4. George
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, while this was going on at Rockefeller, nearby at the Logan Center the Chicago Humanities Festival (which is not affiliated with the University of Chicago – it uses space at many Chicago area schools) was debasing itself. It had a program with ASTROLOGER (not a typo – did not mean astronomer) Chani Nicholas. She calls herself The Activist’s Astrologer.

  5. Posted November 6, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    “The audience applauded loudly…”

    There is something about group selection that appeals to people, or something about individual selection that does not. I think it is because traits we like, such as altruism, are always attributed to group selection, rightfully or wrongfully. But could not a trait we don’t like, such as superior ability to conduct warfare against other groups just as easily be attributed to group selection? Would they applaud then?

    • Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Shhh! You’re spoiling the Moralistic Fallacy.

    • peepuk
      Posted November 7, 2017 at 2:23 am | Permalink

      “ability to conduct warfare against other groups”

      Ironically (emotional) empathy seems to fuel aggression.

      See “https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/09/the-violence-of-empathy/407155/”:

      “more empathic people were more aggressive when exposed to the suffering of strangers.”

  6. Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    “Within groups, selfish individuals outcompete altruistic ones. But altruistic groups outcompete selfish ones.”

    This is why group selection appeals so much to the social engineers of the SJW left.

    • Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Many New Agers, not just the left, look for evolutionary support for the notions of human altruism, empathy, compassion, cooperation, etc. but still bypass the evolutionary explanations such as kin selection. They are desperate to prove that humans are innately good. David Loye in Darwin Loves You tried desperately to prove that Darwin believed in Peace and Love, not in competition or violence. The marxist left, similarly, thinks humans are born without original sin and that only society corrupts them, thus their support for social engineering. For all of these, Nurture outcompetes Nature. I myself dont understand why group selection would be needed anyway since kin selection achieves the same thing. Isn’t it amazing how these basic rational ideas get twisted in the interest of one ideology or another? At the root is suspicion of Darwin because they cannot accept human fallibility or evil. They still don’t understand how a central mechanism of evolution, variation, can and will produce ideas and actions that we do not like….and people who carry out things we don’t like. Sigh….

      • Posted November 13, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        I think group selection appeals to them because they’re trying to engineer societies (groups) and see their utopia as superior to other models. A certain Biology 101 teacher in rural Minnesota described Population Genetics as rival populations competing against each other, with the ones that “learn how to love each other” prevailing.

        • Posted November 14, 2017 at 4:38 am | Permalink

          Now why would ants or wolves need to engineer their societies, if group selection takes care of altruism?

          I’m not saying group selection is a common occurrence, but from the point of view of gene selection, I don’t understand what’s so special about an individual.

  7. Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    To Wilson, this mandates a revolution in the arts and humanities, for our arts are based on only these two senses, and we neglect the way other animals can communicate….

    “Smell-i-vision replaces television!”

  8. John Simons
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    The criticisms of Wilson’s views on group selection seem compelling, but I assume that either he or someone who shares his views has offered a detailed and well informed response to them.I would welcome a reference to such a response.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Does a body good to know a couple alter kockers like these can still get out and kick it. 🙂

  10. Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    My gut feel on the group selection controversy is that it boils down to an argument between those that are looking at nature acting on a somewhat simplified model (sexually reproducing organisms subject to random mutation undergoing natural selection) vs those that are looking at a more complex model (or reality and not a model at all) in which virtually everything has an effect on everything else. Pinker seems to tacitly acknowledge this by starting his article by stating that he wants to restrict the “is group selection real” question to the simplified model.

    Virtually all levels of nature and behavior have effects on each other. The simplified model of evolution is particularly clean in this respect as species membership is a fairly clean division of individuals into groups, organisms are fairly distinct from everything else, and survival to reproduce is close to a purely yes/no question. But reality is not so simple. Species aren’t so well defined, membership in a group is not fixed, nature and nurture have a complex relationship, etc.

    So perhaps group selection is a bit like understanding the nature of human consciousness. We need to first be sure of exactly what question we are asking before we can really attempt to answer it.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      To me Group selection seems like combining sociology with evolutionary biology.

  11. Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    The Blank Slate was dismantled by a scientific outsider and graduate of the University of Chicago by the name of Robert Ardrey. Richard Dawkins praised Ardrey for a number of things in “The Selfish Gene,” but said that he and Konrad Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong,” about group selection. Steven Pinker writes a book about the Blank Slate with only a few lines about Ardrey, claiming that he was “totally and utterly wrong,” period, on Dawkins authority, without mentioning that Dawkins was only referring to group selection. Ardrey becomes an unperson, and is replaced by E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. Then, lo and behold, none other than Wilson comes out in favor of (you guessed it) group selection! History is nothing if not ironic.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      I believe Wilson has said some nasty things about Dawkins as well, which only lowers opinion of Wilson. I can only think of M.A.S.H. when Alan Alda comes up. Still see the reruns on TV sometimes although the early ones were best.

      • Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        In the end it’s really pointless to look at controversies like this in terms of morality, because there is no such thing as objective morality. In the end you are only informing us about what amounts to a personal emotional whim. I know that such moralizing behavior is natural and ubiquitous, whether on the Internet or anywhere else. That doesn’t make it any less absurd.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      I’m having trouble parson this. In your 1st sentence by “Blank Slate” do you mean Pinker’s book with that title or the concept?

      • Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        I refer to the Blank Slate orthodoxy described in Pinker’s book, which prevailed in the behavioral sciences for upwards of half a century, at least in the US. Its basic premise was that there is no such thing as human nature, other than urinating, breathing, etc. Pinker describes the phenomenon very well. My problem with his book is that he bowdlerizes the history of the affair to dismiss the outsider Ardrey as “totally and utterly wrong” when the theme of all Ardrey’s work, that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important, has actually been triumphantly vindicated. Ardrey was a far more significant player in the affair than Wilson, or Lorenz, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, or anyone else, for that matter. His sin was that he shamed the academic and scientific establishment by making them a laughing stock, eventually forcing them to admit that they were wrong. His significance was certainly no secret to the high priests of the Blank Slate. Anyone can confirm that for themselves by glancing through the pages of “Man and Aggression,” edited by Ashley Montagu.

        • darrelle
          Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

          So, Pinker wrote a book eviscerating the Blank Slate concept which Ardrey also spent some effort opposing and earlier than Pinker did, so they are in full agreement that it is bunk? But Ardrey was was the first to really take on the Blank Slaters and in his book Pinker didn’t give Ardrey the credit he was due and actually dismissed him as totally wrong? Regarding his arguments against Blank Slatism? Or just about Group Selection? Or he wasn’t clear about it?

          I’m familiar with both the Blank Slate concept (though not the history you are talking about) and Pinker’s book, though it has been some years since I last read it. Unfortunately I don’t distinctly remember Ardrey at all.

          • Posted November 6, 2017 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

            The money quote from Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”: “But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of ‘The Selfish Gene,’ for example, Dawkins wrote, ‘The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.’)” There is not the faintest mention of the group selection context of this quote at all. You may not remember Ardrey, but the Blank Slaters of old certainly do. For example, from the first paragraph of a letter to the editor submitted by prominent Blank Slaters entitled “Against Sociobiology” (Google it) that appeared in the “New York Review of Books” shortly after Wilson’s book appeared in 1975 we read, “From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.” The Blank Slaters of old certainly haven’t forgotten Ardrey. A scary screen shot of him actually appeared in a recent PBS special about Homo naledi, attacking him after all these years for his “hunting hypothesis,” confirmed by PBS itself in another special about early man that appeared almost two decades ago. Amusingly enough, at least to the best of my knowledge, no one had ever even suggested that Homo naledi hunted. If I may digress, since tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Herbert Spencer, mentioned in the above letter, predicted how it would end with uncanny accuracy in his “A Plea for Liberty,” which is also available online. Given what he said there, it’s no surprise that his historical legacy has also been bowdlerized and trashed. He was actually more of a Lamarckian than a believer in natural selection.

  12. onychomys
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    It’s seems weird that Wilson doesn’t think his work with MacArthur on islands counts as a big idea. He invented an entire field of study!

  13. Posted November 6, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I have often wondered why Wilson takes the group over the individual.
    It occurred to me that he has spent to much time with ants…. hmmm,
    he is trying to save humans (as a species) from themselves…. hmmm, think group.
    Then i looked at the Prof(E)’s last photo,
    Celebrate the Social life of Ideas.
    Leave it there and good on these two gents. for being out and about and promoting
    By the way, i hope the good Prof(E) is still doing it in his eighties.
    We (the group) are going to need all the help we can get.

    • Posted November 6, 2017 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      The thing is, evolution is about allele frequencies. I really don’t see what the fuss is about from a selfish gene’s point of view.

  14. John Frum
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Alan Alda might get his old job back as if there’s another Korean War they’ll have to make a new series of M.A.S.H.

  15. Posted November 6, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    It would be helpful to use the abbreviation AAA&S for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Just to distinguish it from the (frankly more important) American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

  16. mirandaga
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    “The problem is that that is a form of analysis, and not the form of art itself, which involves imagination.”

    A good point. When I lived in Cambridge years ago, I was involved in a study conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Psychology called (don’t ask me why) “Project Zero.” In the study, I and other poets were put in separate rooms and told to write a poem. Every 15 minutes or so a researcher would come into the room, hit “play” on a tape recorder, and tell me to “verbalize.” The idea, apparently was to catch me in the act or creation and report what was going on. The study came up with some credible results—e.g., that poets who had been writing for more years tended to talk less about form than those who had been writing for fewer years. I could have told them this had they simply asked me, but that, of course, would not have constituted “evidence.”

    My point in the present context is that experts in evolution are rightly disdainful of people who dis evolution without knowing much about the actual process of evolution, but are not averse to dissing creationism without know much about the actual process of creation. This is not to say that scientists might not be very creative people; I know many who are. But I know none who entertain the possibility that artists—that is, people who actually create things—might have something of value to contribute to the conversation about evolution vs creationism. The closest I seen anyone come to it is Thomas Nagel, whose theory of “natural teleology” comes very close to what I would consider an accurate account of creativity in action—not that Nagel seems to be aware of this.

    Jerry asks, “What would arts firmly based on evolution be like?” Conversely, “What would evolution firmly based on arts be like?” I don’t see it happening any time soon, but I’ve long been of the opinion that a serious, collaborative effort between evolutionary biologists and artists might shed some significant, and surprising, light on these questions.

    • Posted November 7, 2017 at 12:13 am | Permalink

      You seem to be conflating the process of creating art with creationism. And correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t a proposal of the origin of biodiversity that contradicts evolutionary theory (which is demonstrably true) necessarily false? We don’t need to know much about creationism, just that it contradicts what can be shown to be true.

      • Posted November 7, 2017 at 12:15 am | Permalink

        necessarily be* false

        sorry for typos

      • mirandaga
        Posted November 7, 2017 at 12:45 am | Permalink

        “You seem to be conflating the process of creating art with creationism.”

        I’m not conflating, I’m comparing. What I’m suggesting is that if we’re going to reject creationism we would do better to understand what creationism is, and the best (albeit not perfect) model we have might well be the process by which humans create (as opposed to manufacture or engineer) something–namely, the arts. If you have a better model, I’d be happy to hear it. What, in your view, does creationism means?

        • Posted November 7, 2017 at 1:04 am | Permalink

          Creationism is the view that the universe and life, humans in particular, require divine intervention to come into existence, usually due to a literal reading of the scriptures of a religion. Such a belief contradicts observable evidence of the Big Bang and evolutionary theory. Thus it is false. I do not understand how art creators will be able to contribute to whether a certain theory is true.

          • mirandaga
            Posted November 7, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            “Creationism is the view that the universe and life, humans in particular, require divine intervention to come into existence.”

            A good answer as far as it goes. My follow-up question would be “What do you mean by ‘intervention’?” For example, both a poem and an automobile require human intervention to come into existence, but the nature of the intervention is entirely different. Even among products that employ written language, a poem and a PhD thesis require human intervention to come into existence, but again the nature of the intervention is entirely different. Jerry made the point that art and analysis are different forms of human intervention, the difference being that “art involves imagination.” Bingo!

            We tend to use the term “imagination” lightly, almost patronizingly, as when we say that children have wonderful imaginations, by which we mean, among other things, that there’s no need to take them seriously. I wrote my PhD thesis at UC Irvine on Samuel Taylor’s Coleridge’s theory of imagination, which he defines as “A repetition on the finite mind of the Infinite I AM.” Not a self-explanatory definition by any means, but one that explicitly compares human and divine intervention. And yet even in terms of human intervention there is no “evidence,” outside the work itself, that one object is the product of imagination and another is not.

            What I’m getting at is this: Is there a version of “divine intervention,” one that can be extrapolated from an understanding of how human imagination works, that is consistent with the theory of evolution? Clearly, I think there is, though my knowledge of how imagination works far outstrips my knowledge of how evolution works. Hence the need for collaboration.

            • Posted November 7, 2017 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

              No form of divine intervention on species is consistent with evolution. Evolution is random mutations combined with adaptation to the environment. It is a mindless process. Even if intervention happened on the environment, it would just be normal evolution, not creationism.

              • mirandaga
                Posted November 7, 2017 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

                “Evolution is random mutations combined with adaptation to the environment. It is a mindless process.”

                This is a fairly good description of what artistic creation is. Ask any artist.

              • mirandaga
                Posted November 8, 2017 at 12:19 am | Permalink

                Or consider Robert Frost’s description of how a poem comes into existence: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting…unfolded by surprise as it goes.” Evolution and creation have more in common than than otherwise.

              • Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:36 am | Permalink

                I fail to see how a melting ice cube has anything in common with random mutations and natural selection, nor do I understand your claim of similarity between evolution and artistic creation.

              • mirandaga
                Posted November 9, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

                “Nor do I understand your claim of similarity between evolution and artistic creation.”

                I take it from the respectful tone of your response that you’re trying to understand, which is the most I can ask for—so thanks for that. Let me try again.

                If, for the sake of argument, we think of the universe as something created—or, as I do, as something in the process of being created—then the closest analogy we have in human terms is art. This immediately excludes “intelligent design,” because that’s not how art is created. A work of art does not exist in the artist’s mind before the process begins, as, say, a building or even a letter to the editor might. The thing to be created is discovered in the process of creation. In a word, it evolves. The artist starts out, reacts to what comes as it comes (think “adaptation to the environment”), makes instantaneous choices (think “random mutations”) on the fly, all the while trying to keep the intellect out of the way (think “a mindless process”).

                Robert Frost again: “It [a poem] finds it own name as it goes. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”

                And speaking of “sects and cults,” none of this has anything to do with religion per se. Religions are to “God” what fan clubs are to celebrities—superfluous and, more often than not, downright silly.

                I’m not asking you to buy any of this, but only to see why, based on this notion of creation, one might consider evolution and creationism to be compatible, not to say synonymous.

              • Posted November 9, 2017 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

                Then wouldn’t that be theistic evolution, not creationism? And although I understand that some artists and writers don’t plan out how to make their art, some writers do plan out what to write before writing them, and I assume there would be some who do the same with art. What would make a god, assuming one exists, choose the former process rather than the latter? Related to the assumption, how would we differentiate between an unguided process from a “make it up as you go along” process?

            • mirandaga
              Posted November 10, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

              How do we differentiate between a work of imagination (art) and one of what Coleridge refers to as “fancy” (craft)? The short answer is, “we” can’t—that is, not in any way that will result in consensus. This is because there’s nothing outside the experience of the work itself that one can invoke as “evidence.” Some people consider Michelangelo’s “David” as an impressive block of marble. You either connect with the spirit captured in the statue or you don’t.

          • mirandaga
            Posted November 7, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

            The Coleridge quote should be “A repetition in the finite mind,” not “on the finite mind.” Not that this clarifies much!

  17. @EdGibney
    Posted November 7, 2017 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    “…but once you have a group of all altruists, it’s unstable to the invasion of selfish individuals who gain but do not give.”

    Is this true for species with large memories, reputations, and gossip? I just finished Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation and these are important points in the discussion of how cooperative groups might be stable.

  18. Joe Funderburk
    Posted November 10, 2017 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Have seen EO Wilson speak and he can be very dry. I imagine that this venue was much better to discuss his ‘big idea’. Was it taped? Will it be on Utube?

    • Posted November 10, 2017 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure whether it was taped, but I think it was. If it appears on YouTube I’ll either link to it or post it.

  19. Posted November 15, 2017 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    in his latest book, Behave, Robert Sapolsky also/still defends multilevel selection and neo-group selection. The latter holds the following idea: “some heritable traits might be maladaptive for the individual but adaptive for a group” (P; 363). H goes on explaining how a selection of a group of subordinated chickens will outcompete a selection of prolific egg layers (he refers to Bijma, P., Muir, W. M., & Van Arendonk, J. A. (2007). Multilevel selection 1: quantitative genetics of inheritance and response to selection. Genetics, 175(1), 277-288. Last but not least, he contradicts Jerry Coyne: “Most in the field now both accept multilevel selection and see room for instances of neo-group selection, especially in humans.” Who is right, where is the majority in the field? Of course, the usual suspects endorse the book (E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Haidt) and the inevitable Richard Dawkins is severely attacked in the book.

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