David Sloan Wilson, evolutionary biologist

Evolution's biggest fan talks about his plan to make evolution popular, how religion benefits society, and his feud with Richard Dawkins. Interview by Madolyn Rogers

May 25, 2008

Photo courtesy of Binghamton University

David Sloan Wilson is passionate about evolution. The 58-year-old biologist at Binghamton University in New York believes all aspects of human life — politics, economics, psychology, art, religion, and so on — can be explained using evolution's principles. He likens the rise of evolutionary theory to a "Darwinian revolution" that took place in the 20th century for the biological sciences, but is only now taking place for the study of people.

Lately, his views on the evolutionary role of religion have entangled him in a scientific scuffle with the "new atheists," notably Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Wilson is openly critical of Dawkins' views on the evils of religion, and he calls the best-selling The God Delusion by Dawkins a "dreadful book." Although Wilson describes himself as an atheist as well, he holds that religion performs important societal functions and shouldn't be dismissed.

Wilson's views on how evolution works are equally controversial. Together with Harvard University sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, he's helped reinvigorate the idea that evolution happens to groups, not just individuals. The consequences of this hypothesis are huge, as it means evolution might explain the origins of altruism and social cooperation.

Wilson uses every available avenue to spread his message. He's published four books, the latest being Evolution for Everyone, and teaches an undergraduate class of the same name at Binghamton. He started a web-based evolutionary studies course there, called EvoS, and recently started blogging for the prominent Huffington Post. Wilson presented his ideas as part of a panel on the origins of morals at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston in February 2008.

Can you tell me about the EvoS course?

We need to make evolution unthreatening, explanatory, and useful. Unthreatening — it does not threaten your basic values. Explanatory — everyone loves to put a jigsaw puzzle together, or to read a mystery and see all the loose ends tied up. It's tremendously satisfying to have unconnected things connected. And oh boy, does evolution do that well. Useful — I can take these ideas and I can actually put them to use in my own life. If you can pull that off, then evolution will be as alluring as it used to be threatening. Everything I do, from my book to my course to my campuswide program to my research, is dedicated to that. Even though it seems this is a problem that will never go away, that it will always be the case that half of Americans don't believe in evolution, I disagree. That's how I begin my book. I say, "This is a book of tall claims about evolution. That it can be uncontroversial. That the basic principles are easy to learn. That everyone should want to learn them. That evolution and religion, those two enemies that currently occupy opposite corners of human thought, can be harmoniously brought together." Those things might seem to be impossible, but I actually have great confidence that is our future.

So even with some of these social movements like intelligent design, you think there's the possibility to counteract that?

Absolutely. I think it will be irresistible once we make these associations.

Your new book Evolution for Everyone has been described as your first book for a general audience. What made you decide to write it?

I've been teaching "Evolution for Everyone" for many years. Your average economics course, your sociology course, much less [your] English course and so on, isn't going to say anything about evolution. And if it does, that thing will be hostile or skeptical. So it's very important to implement all of this at the college level, which we're doing at our university. I started teaching "Evolution for Everyone" at the freshman level, and it worked great. So it was a natural step to represent this in book form.

How did you become a blogger for the Huffington Post?

Totally by accident. An article came out by myself and the great E.O. Wilson on rethinking sociobiology and putting group selection on the map. Another blogger for the Huffington Post, Dan Agin, wrote a blog about it. So I said, "Dan, I want to write something — will you post it for me?" and Dan wrote back and said, "I could do that, but why don't you become a blogger?" So I did, and I'm testing it out to see if it's worthwhile. I think it's a very nice outlet.

You seem to have a very passionate audience responding to your blogs.

It's like you're a coffee shop: People read your blog and then they start to talk to each other. I do think it's very important, and everyone will agree, that there be high-quality intellectual discourse. That's not something that should be confined to universities. What concerns me about the books that have come out on atheism — Dawkins' book and Dennett's book and Hitchens' book — is they're just low-level discourse. They're like South Park's "Blame Canada" campaign. It's a lot of scapegoating. The people involved are so passionate about religion, in the sense that they think it's detrimental, that they have lost their senses in their own right. I'm here to say it would be much more interesting to have a public discourse about religion that was more factually correct.

"What concerns me about the books on atheism is they're just low-level discourse. They're like South Park's "Blame Canada" campaign. It's a lot of scapegoating. The people involved are so passionate about religion, in the sense that they think it's detrimental, that they have lost their senses in their own right."

Richard Dawkins doesn't admit any positive qualities at all to religion.

Yeah, "Religion is bad, bad, bad." Obviously there are big problems out there associated with religion, so we do need solutions to these problems. But if you don't [correctly] diagnose the problem, then your solution is very unlikely to be a correct solution.

Do you think it's a dangerous idea to say there's no value in religion?

Very much so. For one thing, it triggers the very kind of "us-them" thinking and hostility of which religion is often accused. The really scary person is Hitchens. Who needs religious fundamentalism when we have Hitchens? That guy is crazy as far as his warlike stance, his us-vs.-them, "it's a clash of civilizations, we need to develop the most horrible weapons we can." Well, I'm sorry, that is definitely part of the problem.

You've criticized Dawkins in essays. Have you gotten any reaction from him?

Yes. I should say first that I admire Dawkins. Thousands of people became interested in evolution through his books, and I agree with much of what he says. But on certain subjects, such as group selection and religion, he has become extremely dogmatic. Even worse, he's lost touch with the actual scientific literature. Here's another symptom of what's wrong with public intellectual discourse. There are dozens and dozens of scientists whose work we should know about, but who does the public know when it comes to evolution? You could really count them on one hand, even if you're missing a couple of fingers. There's Richard Dawkins, there's E.O. Wilson, and then there might be a few more. These are like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. That's where everyone gets their science. Moreover, once you achieve iconic status, you become unaccountable. I think Dawkins has become unaccountable. He doesn't think he has to back up what he says. In my Skeptic article I take him to task on this, and in his reply he said, "What I say doesn't depend on the facts of evolution." I beg to differ.

You've described the main role of religion as being that of a superorganism. Can you explain what you mean?

A superorganism is an extreme metaphor for a group as a cooperative unit, in which people are working more or less harmoniously to achieve shared goals, and in which there are mechanisms that make it difficult to cheat. So it's basically a group that functions like a team. There are two routes to success in life. One is at the expense of your neighbor, and the other is working with your neighbor. Even when we're selfish in our own minds, society is constructed in such a way that the only way to realize our self-interest is by cooperating, not by exploiting our neighbors. Society is cooperative, even if individuals aren't in their personal motivations.

How does religion promote that?

Let me count the ways! When we tell people that if they're bad they'll go to the bad place, and if they're good they'll go to the good place. When we use the metaphor of kinship, so we call each other 'Brother' and 'Father' and so on. In addition to these obvious examples, some are less obvious. Original sin, for example. It's part of normal human psychology that if you commit a transgression, you're eager to make amends. The concept of original sin is basically saying you sinned through Adam. So therefore we need to repent. To the extent that you can instill that belief in a normal human mind, that is going to make people more compliant. The end state that it achieves, and I can say this with authority because I do study this, is that the average conservative religious believer is in a much happier and less stressed frame of mind than the average non-believer or even liberal religious believer. So there is a ton of evidence that religious belief is admirably designed. I say admirable even though I'm an atheist. As a biologist, when I see a beautiful adaptation — the butterfly's wing, or the shape of a fish—I just have to admire it for its design. I have the same admiration for the design of religious groups, and I also admire the degree to which they succeed at forming community among their members.

This is something that's started recently, hasn't it, this idea of bringing evolution to bear on the study of religion and taking a less confrontational approach?

Yes. I see things changing in a number of ways. I really think lots of folks now are sufficiently unthreatened about evolutionary ideas that it doesn't bother them, and in fact they think it's cool that we used to be apes. So we're sort of reconciling ourselves to it. That'll be a generational thing. That's why it will surprise us. The old folks won't change, but the young folks growing up in it will be much less threatened by it and it will come into the population that way.

Madolyn Rogers, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned a B.S. in Spanish from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, a B.S. in biology from the University of South Florida, and a Ph.D. in developmental biology from Stanford University. She has worked as a reporting intern at the Stanford University Medical School, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Madolyn will spend her summer in the Bay Area as a writing intern for the Joint Genome Institute, a Department of Energy consortium.

© 2008 Madolyn Rogers