Great Shades of the Blank Slate; Evolutionary Biology Flirts with Ideology

I must admit that I felt a certain malicious glee on reading E. O. Wilson’s defense of group selection in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  After all, Richard Dawkins dismissed the life work of men like Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt in his The Selfish Gene because, in his words, they were “totally and utterly wrong” in defending group selection.  I happen to admire all three of them because they were the most influential and effective defenders of the existence of such a thing as human nature during the heyday of the Blank Slate.  It was good to see Dawkins hoisted on his own petard.  However, my glee has been dampened somewhat of late by what I see as an increasing tendency of some evolutionary biologists, and particularly those who have come out most strongly in favor of group selection, to adulterate their science with a strong dose of ideology.  Apparently, they have learned little from the aberration of the Blank Slate, or at least not enough to avoid repeating it.

Consider, for example a paper that recently turned up on the website of the Social Evolution Forum with the somewhat incongruous title, “Joseph Stiglitz. The Price of Inequality. Cultural Evolution. The Evolution Institute,” by Peter Turchin, professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Mathematics.  A good part of it was a review of The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz, which, Turchin informs us, he was about two-thirds of his way through.  He notes that “Stiglitz is sympathetic to Leftist ideas.  Actually, he is way out on the Left end of the political spectrum.”  This doesn’t seem to raise any red flags at all, as far as Turchin is concerned.  One wonders, “How can this be?”  Haven’t we just been through all this?  Were not the Blank Slaters who derailed the behavioral sciences for several decades also “way out on the Left end of the political spectrum?”  Did they not villify anyone who disagreed with their puerile notions about human nature as arch-conservatives, John Birchers, and fascists?  Did they not have powerful motives for making the “scientific facts” come out right so that they didn’t stand in the way of the drastic political and social changes they planned for us “for our own good?”  There is no reason that anyone on the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum can’t do good science, but it goes without saying that, when one has strong ideological motivations for having the answers come out one way or the other, that bias must be taken into account and carefully controlled for.  That is particularly true when the answers always just happen to agree nicely with one’s ideological preconceptions.

None of this seems to occur to Turchin, who points out that Stiglitz “inveighs against the ‘Right’ on numerous occasions throughout the book.”  Apparently, we are to believe this is somehow remarkable and heroic, for he continues, “This is unusual for an economist, especially such an accomplished one who is (or, at least, has been) part of the ruling elite. Most economists know very well which side of their bread is buttered. It is curious how economic theories that yield answers pleasing to the powerful and wealthy tend to be part of the mainstream, while those yielding uncomfortable answers are relegated to the fringe…”  To this one can only say, “Surely you’re joking, Professor Turchin!”  Did not Paul Krugman, hardly noted as a conservative wingnut, just win the Nobel Prize in economics?  Has there been a sudden revelation that the economics professors at our great universities have issued a pronunciamiento in favor of the Republican ticket, with the exception of an insignificant “fringe.”  Where is the hard data demonstrating that “most economists” favor the rich elites?  Have all the leading economics journals suddenly gone hard over in favor of supply side economics while I wasn’t looking?

Citing a theme of bête noire of the left Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Turchin continues,

It is interesting to note that when the wealthy ‘defect,’ they actually not only make the overall situation worse, but it is actually a suboptimal outcome for them, too.  At least that is the message of The Spirit Level:  Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Among other things, Wilkinson and Pickett make a striking observation that the expectation of life among the wealthier segment of Americans is less than the median for many European societies that are much more egalitarian – and spend much less per capita on health.

“Much more egalitarian”?  Evidently the authors never lived in Europe.  I lived in Germany, and if they think that the society there is much more “egalitarian” than the United States just because the top 1% take home a smaller percentage of the national income, they’re dreaming.  The country is far more stratified according to social rank and power than the US, and the same families tend to control positions of power in government and industry year after year.  The presence of minorities in positions of political and economic influence is virtually imperceptible.  Think the situation is different in France, another nation that beats the US in terms of income equality?  Just ask any black in Paris whether they think their chances would be better there than here.  Other than that, where is the data on countries where the rich “defect”?  Has such a thing ever actually happened in the sense described in Rand’s novel?  What evidence is there that the health of the top earners in the US, whether better or worse than their European peers, has anything to do with “egalitarianism”?

What, you might ask, does all this have to do with evolutionary biology?  According to Turchin, one of Stiglitz major “shortcomings” is that he “is apparently unaware of the great progress that cultural evolution and cultural multilevel selection theory made in the last decade or so.”  One wonders what, exactly, he is referring to when he speaks of “cultural” multilevel selection theory.  One of the authors he cites in support of this contention, David Sloan Wilson, is certainly well known for his work on multilevel selection.  However, his most cited work is on genetic, and not cultural evolution.  Regardless, Turchin’s point is that science is to be used as a tool to support preconceived ideological truisms.  That tendency to assume that “science” would always get the “right answer” contributed heavily to the debacle of the blank slate.

Turchin continues:

I had a similar experience in the conference the Evolution Institute organized last December in Stanford on Nation-Building and Failed States. One of the participants was Francis Fukuyama, who had recently published a book, The Origins of Political Order, in which he was clearly interested in engaging with evolutionary thinking. Yet he had to resort to appeals to the two tired (and badly wrong) models of human sociality – reciprocal altruism and kin selection.

Here we’ve come back to the point I made at the beginning of this article; the recent marked tendency of group selectionists to adulterate their science with ideology.  As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not particularly fond of Dawkins, Pinker, and some of the other major advocates of reciprocal altruism and kin selection.  However, when Turchin claims that they are “tired and badly wrong” he is just blowing smoke.  The jury is still out, and he has no basis on which to make such a judgment.  On what knowledge does he base this assurance that these theories are “badly wrong”?  Nowak’s “complex mathematical models”?  I was a computational physicist for much of my career, and while Nowak’s models are interesting, the idea that they account for all of the relevant data so thoroughly that they can serve as a basis for the conclusion that inclusive fitness theory is “badly wrong” is laughable.

Turchin is hardly the only one publishing such stuff.  I’ve read several others authors recently who argue in favor of group selection without giving any indication that they have even an inkling of the complexity of the subject, and who rain down furious anathemas on the supposedly “debunked” proponents of inclusive fitness, associating them with evil ideological and political tendencies in the process.  Their tone is typically one of outraged virtue rather than scientific detachment.  Do we really need to go through all this again?  Perhaps instead of declaiming about the philosophy of Kropotkin and crying up the moral superiority of their version of “equality,” advocates of group selection would do well to make sure they have the science right first.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

One thought on “Great Shades of the Blank Slate; Evolutionary Biology Flirts with Ideology”

  1. You should comment there.

    “One of the authors he cites in support of this contention, David Sloan Wilson, is certainly well known for his work on multilevel selection. However, his most cited work is on genetic, and not cultural evolution.”

    He was probably thinking of his book on religion, “Darwin’s Cathedral.”

Leave a Reply