Evolutionary thought has developed more or less continuously in the life sciences since Darwin but experienced a case of arrested development in relation to human affairs. Religious creationism was only part of the problem. Efforts by scientists to explain human behavior and culture from an evolutionary perspective—and resulting public policies—proved to be highly problematic, stigmatizing evolution in relation to human affairs for many secular thinkers.

A renewed effort to rethink humanity from an evolutionary perspective didn’t gather steam until late in the 20th century. At first the enterprise was regarded as controversial but by now it has become part of mainstream science, which can be seen by perusing the academic literature. This amounts to a second wave of evolutionary thought, which adds our own species to what Darwin called “this view of life”.

A third wave is even more recent—using “this view of life” to improve, in addition to understanding the human condition. Given the past history of Social Darwinism, skepticism about applying modern evolutionary science to public policy is understandable. Nevertheless, if public policy should be informed by science, and if scientific knowledge about humans can be informed by evolution, then modern evolutionary science cannot fail to become useful for public policy formulation and more generally for improving the quality of everyday life.

EVOLUTION: THIS VIEW OF LIFE (TVOL), which is celebrating its first anniversary on Darwin’s 204th birthday, is the only media outlet that reports all three waves of evolutionary thought as a seamless whole. The editors are practicing evolutionary scientists and people closely in tune with the science who serve on a pro bono basis, as they would as editors of an academic journal. Collectively, we have more expertise than most other science media outlets.

As someone who became entranced by evolution as a college student in the 1970’s and made it my career, I have ridden all three waves of evolutionary thought. I have also helped to build programs that catalyze 2nd and 3rd wave evolutionary thought, including EvoS, a campus-wide evolutionary studies program that has grown into a consortium, and the Evolution Institute, which connects the world of evolutionary science to the world of public policy formulation. These two programs, in turn, have led to the creation of TVOL, following the vision of Robert Kadar, its creator and Managing Editor. I’m proud to team up with Robert as Editor-in-Chief to catalyze all three waves of evolutionary thought still further.

What does it mean to study major policy issues such as financial regulation, education, or failed states with the same toolkit that Darwin used to study barnacles and orchids? That is the topic of a special issue of the Journal of Economic and Behavior Organization (JEBO) titled “Evolution as a General Theoretical Framework for Economics and Public Policy”, which is based on an Evolution Institute project funded by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent). The lead article for the special issue, which I wrote with economist John Gowdy, has two goals: first, to describe the evolutionary perspective as concisely as possible; and second, to consider reasons why evolution might not add value to the study of any given policy issue.

To accomplish the first goal, we rely upon a classic paper written by Nobel Laureate Niko Tinbergen in 1963 titled “The Methods and Aims of Ethology”. Tinbergen shared the Nobel Prize with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch in 1973 for establishing the study of behavior (Ethology) as a branch of biology. At the time, the idea that a behavioral trait such as aggression could be studied in the same way as an anatomical trait such as a deer’s antlers was not widely accepted. Tinbergen showed that four questions need to be addressed to fully explain any product of evolution: its function, history, mechanism, and development. Ever since, “Tinbergen’s four questions” have been used to describe a fully rounded evolutionary perspective. We use them to show how evolution can function as a general theoretical framework for economics and public policy, just as Tinbergen used them to establish the field of Ethology. As an aside, Tinbergen’s older brother, Jan, shared the first Nobel Prize in economics, but history will probably accord Niko with a greater contribution to the field.

To accomplish the second goal, we list four reasons why evolution might not add value to the study of any particular subject, based on conversations with literally hundreds of colleagues from the basic and applied human-related disciplines. Most of them are open-minded about evolution, even if they have received no training in it that relates to their professions. What they want to know is how an explicitly evolutionary perspective adds value to their current perspective. Here are four reasons why evolution might not add value that deserve respectful consideration.

1) Human-related subjects have been studied by very smart people for a very long time. If science and scholarship result in the accumulation of knowledge, then people who start out employing different assumptions and perspectives will eventually reach the same conclusions. If so, then approaching a longstanding subject from an evolutionary perspective will merely affirm what has already been discovered. The evolutionary perspective won’t be wrong, but it will usually reinvent the wheel.

2) The concept of design long predates the concept of evolution. The fact that an object or process is well designed for a purpose can be established without knowing about the designing process. An insect that mimics a leaf is well designed to avoid detection by predators. Who cares if it is a product of evolution or a supernatural agent? Similarly, if a corporation or market process functions efficiently, who cares if they are products of bio-cultural coevolution?

3) A reasonable research strategy is to study what is, without worrying much about how it got that way. After all, something like the brain is available to be studied in minute detail, whereas how it got that way is more speculative. Why speculate when you can study the real thing?

4) All branches of knowledge should ideally be consistent with each other, but every branch need not be consulted for the study of any particular branch. Evolutionists rarely feel the need to consult quantum physics, and perhaps evolution rarely needs to be consulted for the study of many traits, in humans and nonhumans alike.

Each of these points has a degree of legitimacy, but they all fail for any sizeable human-related subject—or so we claim in our article. The human-related disciplines are famously fragmented. If they haven’t converged with each other, why should they converge with the evolutionary perspective? Attributions of function can be very tricky and false attributions can result in lines of inquiry that are long roads to nowhere (e.g., religious creationism). Some of the most foundational debates among evolutionists concern the appropriate attribution of function (e.g., when a trait counts as an adaptation and when it can be said to be “for the good of the group”). Generic functionalist thinking isn’t good enough. It’s true that each of Tinbergen’s four questions can be studied separately, but the whole point of his article—and the fully rounded evolutionary approach—is that they are best studied in conjunction with each other. It’s especially important to combine the study of mechanisms (what evolutionists call proximate causation) with the study of function and history (what evolutionists call ultimate causation). Studying what is, without knowing what it’s for and how it got that way, isn’t good enough.

The other twelve articles in the special issue begin to substantiate the claim of the lead article that evolution can and should provide a general theoretical framework for economics and public policy (3rd wave) as it does for the academic study of humans (2nd wave) and the life sciences (1st wave). Please visit the JEBO website to download the articles, which are available free online for a six-month period, or to purchase a hard copy.

It might seem aggrandizing to call 2nd and 3rd wave evolutionary thought historic, when only time can tell, but consider what time has already told for the first wave. What Darwin called “this view of life” has indisputably transformed the way we think about the living world. It is transformative, not because it instantly provides all the answers (no theory can do that) but because of how it organizes existing information and guides the search for new information. In this capacity, it begins to prove its worth right away. That’s what we’re in the process of discovering for 2nd and 3rd wave evolutionary thought. Like Thomas Huxley encountering Darwin’s theory for the first time, we will find ourselves saying “How stupid of me, not to have thought of that!” The prospect of transforming our ability to solve the problems of modern human existence are especially heady. I feel lucky to be present at this period of intellectual history—and to report it to the general public on the virtual pages of TVOL.

Update: The JEBO special issue is still in production.

Published On: February 11, 2013

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .


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