Saturday, December 13, 2008
Book Review: Evolution for Everyone
David Sloan Wilson’s “Evolution for Everyone” truly lives up to its title. Written in an engaging, accessible style, it is hard not to be carried away by the author’s enthusiasm for his topic. Although I am usually suspicious of authors who claim one pet theory can explain every known phenomenon under the sun (think of Freudians, behaviorists, etc.), Wilson ably demonstrates how evolution can indeed be applied to a variety of academic disciplines, and more importantly, to explain a variety of phenomena that one encounters in everyday life.
In this book, the author’s initial aim is both to introduce the reluctant reader to the basics of the theory of natural selection, as well as to clear away misconceptions about what it is and isn’t. In doing this, he seeks to demythologize science, assuring the reader that the scientific method consists of nothing more than “ensuring accountability for factual claims,” which when accumulated can build a sturdy scaffold to support a theory. Wilson repeatedly states that science is simply a “roll up your sleeves” activity like gardening or construction, that requires hard work and sweat, yet like gardening and (some) construction work, can be practiced by anybody.
I found the strongest parts of his book to be in the first half, in which he proceeds from a basic description of natural selection to fascinating examples of how adaptive behavior and traits evolve in various species, and eventually, how the theory can be applied to broader topics such as personality traits, perceptions of beauty, and social behavior. One of the underlying premises of his book is that evolutionary theory, even though it doesn’t always lead to behavior in the wild that humans would think of as benign (e.g., beetles and monkeys practicing infanticide), nevertheless favors cooperative social behavior in the long run, rather than the popular notion of “nature red in tooth and claw.” Although I found myself skeptical of some of the broader treatments of evolutionary life applied to nations and religions in the latter parts of the book, his cheerful and humane style disarms the reader, and keeps one engaged with his argument.
In short, I would heartily recommend this book.
Incidentally, on a related note, anybody who is interested in learning more about Wilson and his research should check out his website at http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/ . He refers to it several times in his book, and posts quite a few publications--not just his own but those of his students as well. And for those of us Stanford students from the Fall 2008 Darwin seminar, if you didn't get your fill, you should check the related link to a program that Wilson leads, EvoS, the Evolution Studies Program at Binghamton University. Their website is at http://evolution.binghamton.edu/evos/ .