Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Neighborhood Project, Evolution, and Anarchotheism

Wilson, David Sloan.  The Neighborhood Project:  Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.  Boston:  Little, Brown, and Company, 2011.

Superior subtitles for this work:  
Better Living through Evolution
Diversity in Life Cycles of Evolutionary Biologists
What David Sloan Wilson (hereafter DSW) has been thinking about recently

Number of books from the bibliography that I will probably read: at least 4

Gifts and talents of DSW:
Radiant and contagious enthusiasm for evolutionary biology
Wide network of acquaintances among evolutionary biologists

Gifts that DSW did not bring to this book:
Appreciation of the wide diversity of non-evolutionary biologist human life
Coherent political philosophy

Grade I would award this book based on the criteria of "Prove your thesis" (here defined as the subtitle): C-

Grade I would award this book based on the criteria of "Take something you care about a whole lot and make it interesting to other people": A

The above snark aside, I really enjoyed this book, all scattered, disorganized 21 chapters of it.  The author comes across as warm, witty, and nerdy in the best way--caring deeply about his subject material, and wanting the reader to care also.  His book left me wanting to know more about several of his subjects, especially the recently deceased Elinor Ostrom (only woman ever awarded the Nobel in Economics, and a scholar of the management of the commons) and Pierre Teilhard (a Jesuit priest whose work in evolutionary biology and ecstatic Christianity was subject to Vatican censorship).   But those two will have their own entries after I read their books.

Anyway, throughout reading this I thought a lot about my relationship to evolutionary biology, as a theist, an anarchist, and just as a confused pastor's daughter from rural Iowa.  As many of you know, I attended a Christian high school where evolution was part of the Evil World trying to destroy our Christian worldview.  Fortunately, our science teachers explained this to us carefully for about three weeks, discussed the great diversity of creationist scientists, long-day creationism (theistic evolution by another name) vs. short-day creationism vs. intelligent design, etc., then spent the rest of the year teaching the scientific method and real information about the natural world.  So they did the very best they could in an environment of censorship and lies.  (No, I loved my high school! Really!)  But I didn't know much about evolution, and didn't take science classes in college.  So I continued in my ignorance until graduate school.

There during a class on evolution and the novel we actually had to read Darwin's Origin of Species. To my surprise, it was eminently readable and reasonable and focused on nature; it was hardly the straightforward attack on divine origins I had been led to believe.  In the course of that class, I began to understand the immense explanatory power of evolution and how it transformed scientific thought.  Now I appreciate Darwin's work, and the tasks of many scientists who came after him.

So, evolutionary theory explains an awful lot about life on this planet: check.  It's cool and interesting: check. I don't particularly see a disjoint between accepting evolution's role in the development of life and practicing a religion that posits an ultimately divine beginning to that life.  Existence is still miraculous and beautiful and puzzling, regardless of how thumbs developed or the immune system responds to natural selection.  However, as a theist, sometimes I have felt the evil atheist biologists strike back with an unnecessary force against what they perceive as the lies of religion.  We heard Richard Dawkins speak a couple of years ago, and even though I sort of agree with him on a lot of things (the idiocy of religious war, for example), I found his assertion that raising a child in a faith tradition is child abuse a bit much. And David Sloan Wilson, even though he is himself an atheist, agreed. He chronicles how several evolutionary psychologists have attempted to develop an understanding of religion as cultural parasite (a view he says has little to no scientific basis--and i'm happy to accept him at his word), while he advocates for understanding religion as a group-level cultural adaptation (Chapter 18). I guess some purists might still find this offensive, but I much prefer to interpret my life practices as a reasonable adaptation than as involvement with a parasitic system.   You might say that this is a faith-friendly book about evolution.

Indeed, the explanation of evolutionary psychology in this book seems downright Christian and anarchist at the same time. I have always thought of evolutionary psychology as that stupid field of study which attempts to justify gender stereotypes in the name of science (cf. a study that claimed rape as a biological adaptation--that men really are programmed to rape). But DSW explains it as the practice of treating unusual behavior not as pathology but as an adaptation.  Treatment, then, involves figuring out what is triggering this adaptation and how to make the environment friendlier for the person afflicted.  This has the potential to really treat each human being with dignity, avoiding the crippling labels of sinner/saint or sane/insane.  (I read this as anarchist in its potential to alleviate the illegitimate hierarchy of the "normal" over the "abnormal.)

Sadly, DSW does not mention the great anarchist response to evolution, "Mutual Aid," by Peter Kropotkin.  Even more sadly, I have not read this tract from the turn of the last century; more cheerfully, its ideas have wrangled their way into contemporary evolutionary theory, according to The Neighborhood Project.  Kropotkin wrote against the social darwinists of his day who insisted that the most fit individual would and should survive, the rest of the world be hanged.  He argued, instead, that groups of people could increase their own survival by cooperation and helping each other; indeed, Darwin discusses this concept in some of his later writing--evolution sometimes rewards competitive individuals who seek only their own gain, but there is at least as much competitive advantage for individuals to cooperate in groups and act for the good of all.  Individual adaptation vs. group-level adaptation.  And it is from this perspective that DSW writes with great hope, that humans are capable of great cooperation--that perhaps this is the greatness of humanity, that we can work together to achieve great things--and we can harness this for self-government.

DSW doesn't focus quite as much as the self-government angle here.  That is my spin. But it is heartening to learn of research (especially like that of Elinor Ostrom, may her memory be honored) contributes both good models of alternate societies founded on cooperation and mutual aid, and hope that those societies could lead to a better future for humanity. 

On a final note, DSW recounts the life stories of several colleagues of his.  These interested me, but I felt like woven throughout the book was his presupposition that our society makes good use of individuals and their natural abilities, as is the case for so many of those colleagues.  Out here in the non-academic world, that is decidedly a false statement.  Outside of academia, I know many acquaintances who know their gifts and skills to be under-utilized, whether because of unemployment, student debt, or ubiquitious slashing of jobs in human-serving professions for the favor of mammon-serving ones. And I wonder about the evolutionary adaptability for survival of a society that wastes its human resources as abundantly as ours does.

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