Monday, June 25, 2012

My Inner Conflict with E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson
E.O. Wilson, a highly regarded entomologist, scientist and author has recently published an article called "Evolution and Our Inner Conflict."  The basic gist of the article is that our conflicting urges to compete and co-operate is not derived of kin-selection theory, but of multilevel selection theory.
"I am convinced after years of research on the subject that multilevel selection, with a powerful role of group-to-group competition, has forged advanced social behavior — including that of humans, as I documented in my recent book “The Social Conquest of Earth.”"

As much as I respect E.O. Wilson, this article was really very superficial.  He really didn't add to the conversation by saying that people competed on individual and group levels, thus we have conflicting motivations.  That much has been known for quite a long time.

And more pointedly, such reasoning -- from theory to alleged fact -- is a finely-honed example of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) thinking.  For example:
"Probably at this point, during the habiline period, a conflict ensued between individual-level selection, with individuals competing with other individuals in the same group, versus group-level selection, with competition among groups. The latter force promoted altruism and cooperation among all the group members. It led to group-wide morality and a sense of conscience and honor."
Simply because you notice coincident occurrences or trends does not mean your conclusion is justified or sound.  As the rebuttal to post hoc ergo propter hoc goes, "correlation does not mean causation."  There is no causal connection between noting that people compete on a social and individual level, and the conclusion that therefore we have mixed intentions and are "complicated."

Furthermore, I'm not a fan of glad-handing the religious community by co-opting religious language to explain biological impulses.
"The competitor between the two forces can be succinctly expressed as follows: within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue."
Sin and redemption as individuation and co-operation?  No thank you.  Some domains are necessary to keep apart because they don't play well with others.  Such is the religious and the scientific domains.  Wilson's conflation of the two domains detracts from the credibility of his report, even if he is on to something (which is quite possible, but remains to be seen).


Jim McDowell said...

This is an interesting matter, though, Kane. I think the scientific community is bothered by the existence of altruism, and is searching for its purely materialistic origin. In much the same manner, the origin of matter and energy ex nihilo, which has prompted the "quantum shift" notion reveals the same type of angst amongst the materialists. As a theist, I enjoy following the ideation from the materialists. Much, I suppose, as atheists watch the theologians tackle their troubling issues. And its not just a matter of enjoying others' discomfiture, but ultimately of learning at the interface of the materialist and metaphysical realms. Keeping them separate is not the ultimate answer, I think.

Kane Augustus said...

Hello, Jim.

Thank you for participating at my blog. I really appreciate you bringing your perspective, and I'm flattered that you've done so on my blog.

I do fondly recall our time at McMaster University taking that course on the integration of evolution and religion, so it seems appropriate that you would comment on this particular post.

It would seem to me that the scientific community prefers the notion of altruism, but that they don't place it on the back of any moral precursors. That is, altruism is a funtion of survival moreso than a moral compulsion.

Nevertheless, your comments are well-received, Jim, and I think we agree with each other on at least one point: if science and religion cannot play well with each other, then they should at least work co-operatively to resolve questions arising from our human experiences.