Why A Think Tank?

Why an Evolutionary Think Tank Is Needed

David Sloan Wilson and Jerry Lieberman
Co-founders of the Evolution Institute


A Delayed Revolution

When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, it was obvious to everyone that it would revolutionize our understanding of humanity. Yet, by the early 20th century, evolutionary theory was largely restricted to the biological sciences and avoided for most human-related subjects. Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, offered this assessment in 2005:

Of course social scientists have no objection to applying evolutionary theory in the life sciences—biology, zoology, botany, etc. Nevertheless, the idea of applying evolutionary thinking to social science problems commonly evokes strong negative reactions. In effect, social scientists treat the life sciences as enclosed within a kind of impermeable wall. Inside the wall, evolutionary thinking is deemed capable of producing powerful and astonishing truths. Outside the wall, in the realm of human behavior, applications of evolutionary thinking are typically treated as irrelevant at best; usually as pernicious, wrong, and downright dangerous.

What accounts for this remarkable state of affairs? Part of the problem is that evolution became associated with political ideologies that favor inequality, which became labeled Social Darwinism. Those who disagreed with the ideologies distanced themselves from evolutionary theory rather than challenging whether the ideologies really follow from the theory.

Another problem was the allure of theories such as behaviorism in psychology and rational choice theory in economics, which claimed to explain the length and breadth of human behavior on the basis of a few minimalistic principles. If these claims were true, then who needs evolutionary theory, other than to explain how the rules of operant conditioning (in the case of behaviorism) or individual utility maximization (in the case of rational choice theory) arose in our species? These grand minimalistic theories had to fail before the need for a more complex understanding of the human organism could re-occupy center stage.

Economics as an Example

All of this is now rapidly changing. Virtually every human-related subject is being approached from an evolutionary perspective, mostly within the last ten or fifteen years. The field of economics provides a good example. Economists are in the process of deciding on their own that the picture of human nature depicted by rational choice theory, often referred to as Homo economicus, does not adequately describe human behavior. Real people are driven by a more complex set of preferences that must be discovered by empirical inquiry. This was the birth of experimental and behavioral economics. Any empirical research program must be guided by a theoretical framework, however. What is the theoretical framework for experimental and behavioral economics? One answer to this question is “psychology” and cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were indeed the primary inspiration for experimental and behavioral economists at the beginning. Yet, the study of psychological mechanisms must address the question of where they came from and why they function as they do, which leads to a consideration of genetic and cultural evolution. In this fashion, the field of economics is increasingly becoming a blend of biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and classically trained economists who share a common conceptual framework that rests upon evolutionary theory.

A similar story can be told for virtually every human-related subject area, including the humanities in addition to the human-related sciences. It is not an exaggeration to say that the 21st century will witness an integration of knowledge for humanity comparable to the integration that took place for the rest of life during the 20th century (and continuing).

From Research to Higher Education and Beyond

These developments are already in full swing at the level of scientific research and academic scholarship, but they are only starting to be reflected in higher education and public policy formulation. Evolution is still taught primarily as a biological topic at the vast majority of colleges and universities. The human-related academic disciplines do not change overnight, especially against the background of skepticism and threat described by Ian Lustic in the passage quoted above. The situation for public policy formulation is even worse. Most politicians don’t dare use the E-word and are advised by experts who themselves have no evolutionary training.

It is possible to accelerate the acceptance of evolution in relation to human affairs, but only with a concerted effort. In 2003, one of us (DSW) created a campus-wide evolutionary studies program called EvoS, which has become a model for an international consortium of programs supported by the National Science Foundation. Thanks to this concerted effort, evolutionary theory will provide a common language for the study of all biological and human-related subjects sooner rather than later.

The Evolution Institute was founded by us in 2007 to accomplish for the world of public policy formulation what EvoS attempts to accomplish for the world of higher education. DSW’s background in evolution and JL’s background in humanism and public policy provide the complementary skills required to form a think thank. Together with our advisory board, we can provide a direct connection between current evolutionary research and real-world applications.

How a New Theoretical Perspective Can Make a Difference

For those who are not yet familiar with modern evolutionary theory in relation to human affairs, it might seem strange that a theoretical perspective can provide new solutions to some of life’s toughest problems, when previous efforts have failed. To make this idea more intuitive, consider the following passage from Darwin’s autobiography, in which he recalls a field trip to a valley in Wales that he took as a young man with his professor, Adam Sedgwick.

We spent many hours in Cwm Idwal, examining all of the rocks with extreme care, as Sedgwick was anxious to find fossils in them; but neither of us saw a trace of the wonderful glacial phenomena all around us; we did not notice the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders, the lateral and terminal moraines. Yet these phenomena are so conspicuous that…a house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley. If it had still been filled by a glacier, the phenomena would have been less distinct than they are now.

This passage vividly illustrates the need for a theory to see what is in front of our faces. Darwin and Sedgwick could not see the evidence for glaciers because the theory of glaciation had not yet been proposed. With the theory in mind, the confirming evidence became so obvious that the glaciers might as well have still been present.

Darwin’s theory of evolution represents another transformation of the obvious, which caused the disparate facts of the living world to fit together like the pieces of a massive jigsaw puzzle.
The concept of “obvious” is anything but obvious, because it depends so much upon one’s background assumptions. A new theory, such as the theory of glaciation, can therefore result in the transformation of the obvious. Darwin’s theory of evolution represents another transformation of the obvious, which caused the disparate facts of the living world to fit together like the pieces of a massive jigsaw puzzle. We are now in the process of filling in the part of the puzzle that represents our own species. Against this background, it is not surprising that when we gather the pieces and snap them into place for a particular focal topic relevant to public policy, new solutions can emerge that were not obvious before.

Avoiding the Errors of the Past

Given the history of Social Darwinism, it is important to address the question of whether evolutionary theory inherently lends itself to policies that favor social inequality. Social policies are most likely to become problematic when they involve some people imposing their will on others without their consent. Social policies are most likely to remain benign when they are agreed upon by consensus. These statements are true regardless of the theoretical perspective that informs social policy.

It is common for political ideologies to claim the support of any authoritative idea, religious, scientific or otherwise. The solution to this problem is to challenge the association between the ideology and the idea, not to accept the association and distance oneself from the idea. Moreover, it’s not as if the world was a nice place before Darwin and then became mean on the basis of his theory. Before Darwin, tphe religious concept of divine right was used to commit genocide, dispossess people of their land, enslave them, and so on.

The nature of ideological thinking, exploitation and cooperation within groups, and exploitation and cooperation among groups are all subjects that urgently need to be understood from a genetic and cultural evolutionary perspective, leading to knowledge that can be used to formulate humane social policies agreed upon by consensus. In this sense, knowledge derived from evolutionary theory is no different than knowledge derived from any other source. All knowledge is a form of power that can be used for good or ill. It is up to us to use it responsibly.

Fortunately, we don’t need to speculate about the insights that are forthcoming from evolutionary theory or the danger of them leading to objectionable social policies. Every focal topic that we choose becomes a demonstration. In the case of childhood education, our first focal topic and the one that is furthest developed, the insights have the same quality that the theory of glaciation had for Darwin and the recommendations are so sensible and benign that most people find themselves nodding in agreement, regardless of what they might think about the E-word. Some policy recommendations that emerge from an evolutionary perspective will be controversial, no doubt, but no more so than recommendations that emerge from other perspectives. For better or worse, we live in a world of our own making and must use our knowledge to manage our affairs. It is time to make use of the knowledge provided by evolutionary theory.