Evolution for Everyone : How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives
What is the biological reason for gossip?
For laughter? For the creation of art?
Why do dogs have curly tails?
What can microbes tell us about morality?
These and many other questions are tackled by renowned evolutionist David Sloan Wilson in this witty and groundbreaking new book. With stories that entertain as much as they inform, Wilson outlines the basic principles of evolution and shows how, properly understood, they can illuminate the length and breadth of creation, from the origin of life to the nature of religion. Now everyone can move beyond the sterile debates about creationism and intelligent design to share Darwin's panoramic view of animal and human life, seamlessly connected to each other.
Evolution, as Wilson explains, is not just about dinosaurs and human origins, but about why all species behave as they do--from beetles that devour their own young, to bees that function as a collective brain, to dogs that are smarter in some respects than our closest ape relatives. And basic evolutionary principles are also the foundation for humanity's capacity for symbolic thought, culture, and morality.
In example after example, Wilson sheds new light on Darwin's grand theory and how it can be applied to daily life. By turns thoughtful, provocative, and daringly funny, Evolution for Everyone addresses some of the deepest philosophical and social issues of this or any age. In helping us come to a deeper understanding of human beings and our place in the world, it might also help us to improve that world.
Evolution is far more than just dinosaurs and fossils, Wilson says, and he enthusiastically explains, with a clear and pleasing style, how it affects our everyday lives. This is Wilson's fourth book on evolution (Darwin's Cathedral, etc.) and is by far the most accessible account of evolution for a general audience, as well as the farthest ranging. Building on diverse examples, Wilson demonstrates that evolution is completely relevant to modern human affairs, including how we use language, create culture and define morality. The discussion is as entertaining as it is easy to follow, covering topics as seemingly unrelated as why the burying beetle commits infanticide and why so many domestic animals have floppy ears. For readers seeking a more technical presentation, Wilson offers both a complete bibliography and list of Web sites for reference. Readers who've grown weary of the usual treatment of evolution as a deadly foe to religion will find Wilson's book a cheerful antidote, breaking new ground in its sweeping breadth and offering much to think about. (Apr. 3)
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March 26, 2007
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Excerpt from Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson
1 The Future Can Differ from the Past
This is a book of tall claims about evolution: that it can become uncontroversial; that the basic principles are easy to learn; that everyone should want to learn them, once their implications are understood; that evolution and religion, those old enemies who currently occupy opposite corners of human thought, can be brought harmoniously together.
Can these claims possibly be true? Isn't evolution the most controversial theory the world has ever seen? Since it's a scientific subject, isn't it hard to learn? If the implications are benign, then why all the fear and trembling? And how on earth can the old enemies of evolution and religion do anything other than come out of their opposite corners fighting?
I might be an optimist, but I am not naive. Allow me to introduce myself: I am an evolutionist, which means that I use the principles of evolution to understand the world around me. I would be an evolutionary biologist if I restricted myself to the topics typically associated with biology, but I include all things human along with the rest of life. That makes me an evolutionist without any qualifiers. I and my fellow evolutionists study the length and breadth of creation, from the origin of life to religion. I therefore have a pretty good idea of what people think about evolution, and I can report that the situation is much worse than you probably think. Let me show you how bad it is before explaining why I remain confident about accomplishing the objectives of this book.
Most people are familiar with the reluctance of the general public to accept the theory of evolution, especially in the United States of America. According to the most recent Harris Poll, 54 percent of U.S. adults believe that humans did not develop from earlier species. That is up from 46 percent in 1994. Rejection of evolution extends to beliefs about the origin of other species, the fossil record as evidence for evolution, and the constant refrain that evolution is "just a theory."
To make matters worse, most people who do accept evolutionary theory don't use it to understand the world around them. For them it's about dinosaurs, fossils, and humans evolving from apes, not the current environment or human condition. The polls don't measure the fraction of people who relate evolution to their daily lives, but it would be minuscule.
It's easy for scientists and intellectuals to smile at the ignorance of religious believers and the general public, but the fact is that they're not much better. The Ivory Tower would be more aptly named the Ivory Archipelago. It consists of hundreds of isolated subjects, each divided into smaller subjects in an almost infinite progression. People are examined less with a microscope than with a kaleidoscope--psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, history, art, literature, philosophy, gender studies, ethnic studies. Each perspective has its own history and special assumptions. One person's heresy is another's commonplace. With respect to evolution, most scientists and intellectuals would say that they accept Darwin's theory, but many would deny its relevance to human affairs or would blandly acknowledge its relevance without using it themselves in their professional or daily lives. In effect, there is a wall within academia that restricts the study of evolution to biology and a few human-related subjects such as human genetics, physical anthropology, and specialized branches of psychology. Outside this wall, it is possible for a person to get a Ph.D. without a single course in evolution or more than a casual reference to evolution in other courses. That is why the term "evolutionary biologist" sounds familiar while the more general term "evolutionist" has a strange ring.