As evolutionary theory expands beyond the biological sciences to include all aspects of humanity, it must inevitably encounter the humanities, which are variously defined as “studies about human culture” (Wikipedia) or “the study of how people process and document the human experience” (Stanford Humanities).
The partitioning of academic knowledge is worth reflecting upon, before we focus on the encounter between evolution and the humanities. This table shows how my university (Binghamton) cuts the cake on its website, which is typical of most institutions of higher education worldwide.
Right away, we can see that this partitioning makes sense only as an accretion of academic cultural history. Even the Interdisciplinary and Cross-Disciplinary programs are higgledy-piggledy, with no conceptual rhyme or reason.
Properly understood, what makes the expansion of evolutionary theory so radical is that it’s not just another cross-disciplinary program. Instead, it uniquely provides a common language for all of the divisions, departments, and programs listed in the table, with the exception of the purely physical sciences; i.e., the study of non-living processes. This idea was foreign and sometimes even anathema to all of the human-related disciplines during most of the 20th century. Now, as we near the 1/5th mark of the 21st century, it is becoming embraced within psychology and the social sciences but not nearly as much in the humanities. In this sense, the humanities can be called the last frontier of evolutionary science.
One reason for this time lag concerns science in general rather than evolutionary science in particular. In fact, the three basic divisions can be regarded as a gradient from “hard” science (Division of Science and Mathematics) to no science (Division of Fine Arts and the Humanities) with a collection of “soft” sciences (Division of Social Sciences) in between. The reason that a human-oriented subject such as Psychology is listed in the Division of the Science and Mathematics is because it is regarded as somehow “harder”, scientifically, than the other human-oriented subjects. This entire conceptualization is also an accretion of academic cultural history that makes little sense against the background of modern human-oriented science. The study of human culture can be just as scientific as the study of other living processes. In addition, if by “soft” or “no” science we mean “thick descriptions” (to use a term employed within the humanities) of the human experience, then these are essential and should not be regarded as inferior or replaceable by something that is regarded as somehow “more” scientific. The entire sexualized distinction between “hard” and “soft” is cringeworthy against the background of modern sensibilities. In any case, one reason that people in fields associated with the humanities remain uncomfortable about evolution in particular is because they remain uncomfortable about science as a whole—with some justification.
Joseph Carroll has been pioneering the study of the humanities from an evolutionary perspective for many years. He is a literary scholar by training and author/editor of Evolution and Literary Theory (1994), Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (2004), Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader (with Brian Boyd and Jonathan Gottschall, 2010); Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice (2011), and Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning (with Jonathan Gottschall, John A. Johnson, and Daniel J. Kruger; 2012). He has also published a contextualized edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Oxford University Press has just published Carroll’s most recent book, Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and the Sciences, which is co-edited with Dan P. McAdams and Edward O. Wilson. It is based on a conference that was held at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, where Carroll is Curator’s Professor of English, which I was fortunate to attend. The publication of Darwin’s Bridge affords an opportunity to discuss the past, present, and future of evolution theory’s encounter with the humanities.
DSW: Welcome, Joe, to TVOL. We go back a long way together.
JC: Yes, you go back further than I do in evolutionary studies, but when we first met some twenty years ago, at a conference of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, evolutionary studies in the social sciences still had something of a raw frontier quality to them. That exploratory and buccaneering spirit of early research has been succeeded by the tamer, more regularized phase of an established research program. And yet, so much that is really basic to an evolutionary understanding of human nature remains unsettled. The nature of human sociality is finally being deciphered, but an evolutionary understanding of institutions and the organization of specific historical cultures remains fairly rudimentary. The chief subject matter of the humanities—products of the human imagination—remains at an even more rudimentary stage of understanding. Most humanists do not acknowledge the relevance of evolutionary social science to research in the humanities, and many evolutionists in the social sciences do not recognize that imaginative culture is a crucial part of human nature.
DSW: I agree that there is often incomprehension on both sides and also mutual benefits to be gained, which I’m sure we will elaborate upon in this interview. Let’s begin at the beginning. Tell us the story of how you became one of the first Literary Darwinists.
JC: The eighteenth-century British philosopher David Hume spoke about how reading Kant had awakened him from his dogmatic slumber. I was not slumbering when I first read Darwin, back in the early nineties. I was instead eagerly and restlessly seeking to formulate basic principles of literary theory. The kinds of theory that were available in the humanities at that time—mostly deconstructive epistemology, Freudian psychology, Marxist social theory, and feminist gender theory—were for various reasons deeply unsatisfactory. When I first read Darwin, I had an epiphany. He gave me a distinct impression of deep time, and I was instantly convinced that all things human had to be understood in light of the evolved and adapted character of the human organism. I started reading voraciously in evolutionary epistemology and the evolutionary social sciences, trying to abstract core principles that could be used to understand literature.
In any professional discipline, if one’s own thinking does not harmonize with established ideas, one cannot simply ignore the established ideas and go one’s own way. One has to confront the established ideas, examine them critically, weigh them against one’s own ideas, and give good reasons for preferring one’s own ideas. Darwin did that in The Origin of Species when he took “special creation” as his foil for the idea of “descent with modification by means of natural selection.” In my first evolutionary book, Evolution and Literary Theory, I took the established forms of literary theory as my foil. From that point on, I had a mission and a program: to develop evolutionary literary theory and to devise ways of using it for practical literary criticism. Along the way, recognizing that the evolutionary human sciences were themselves still in the process of forming a paradigm, with basic problems unsolved and basic issues still suspended in controversy, that original mission required also engaging critically with evolutionary research. While speaking to literary scholars and other humanists, seeking to persuade them that all human activity, including literary activity, must be situated within an evolutionary conceptual framework, I have also been speaking to evolutionary social scientists, seeking to persuade them that imaginative culture is a core feature of human nature.
DSW: I feel that I have been engaged in the same dialectic. Perhaps this is a good moment to describe to our readers how I entered the field of Darwinian Literary Theory. As you know, I direct EvoS, which teaches evolution across the curriculum at Binghamton University. A graduate student in our English Department named Jonathan Gottschall wanted to write his thesis on Homer from an evolutionary perspective and was getting little support from his thesis committee. Actually, that is an understatement. He was being actively discouraged and eventually his entire committee consisted of members that were outside his department. I became Jon’s mentor and joined him in an edited book project that resulted in The Literary Animal, published in 2005. I had a special reason for joining Jon on this project. I felt that the nascent field of Darwinian Literary Theory was unduly influenced by Evolutionary Psychology (EP), which at that time had set itself apart from the so called Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), including the social constructivist tradition so common in the humanities, as represented for example by Clifford Geertz (go here for TVOL’s Special Edition titled “What’s Wrong (and Right) with Evolutionary Psychology). My own view of evolutionary psychology was much less polarized and I wanted our edited volume to acknowledge the open-ended nature of human behavioral and cultural change. The title of my chapter was “Evolutionary Social Constructivism” and its main message was that if you’re a social constructivist, you’re not wrong, but you can get even more mileage by adopting an evolutionary perspective. Thus, like you, I have tried to recognize the value of both sides—but do you agree with me that Evolutionary Literary Theory was perhaps a bit too wedded to narrow-school evolutionary psychology at its inception?
JC: Evolutionary literary study and evolutionary aesthetics got going at just about the time that the Santa Barbara school was rising fast to a dominating position in the evolutionary human sciences—the early 1990s. However, most of the early contributors to the evolutionary humanities did not adhere specifically to narrow-school evolutionary psychology. The most active influences included sociobiology, human ethology, and evolutionary epistemology. For me, too, behavioral genetics and personality psychology were important.
But your larger point, perhaps, is that early evolutionary literary theory joined a general evolutionary reaction against the Standard Social Science Model, and that as a result early literary Darwinists tended to emphasize innate and universal features of human nature, thus deprecating or minimizing the significance of variations in cultural norms and individual behavior. I suppose some emphasis on human nature was inevitable in the intellectual climate of the humanities in the early 1990s. In that climate, the idea that biology had any influence on human behavior was startling, shocking, exhilarating, delightful, and of course, it was also true. An idea with that piquant a set of characteristics would naturally tend to get favored and foregrounded. Still, in my own first evolutionary book, Evolution and Literary Theory, I worked out a model of biocultural interpretation that required analyzing the interactions among three main levels of organization: a universal and elemental human nature, specific cultural contexts, and individual human identities. Most evolutionary literary scholars early on adopted the rubric “biocultural analysis,” and most have tried to make it effective in their interpretive essays and books.
I recall the HBES conference at Santa Barbara in 1995. Tooby and Cosmides had just founded their institute there, and they distributed a flyer which propounded their conception of the modular mind as a kind of dogma that would guide the work of the institute. I objected to that then, and I was delighted with a plenary lecture given by Steven Mithen, who presented the ideas that would be foregrounded in his 1996 book The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. Mithen had spent a year working at Santa Barbara and was criticizing the idea of massive modularity advocated by the Santa Barbara school. For a while, massive modularity was all the rage, but the evolutionary human sciences are fed by many separate springs, and premature reductions like massive modularity have little opportunity to stagnate in still waters. The kind of dogma encoded in that 1995 manifesto have long been superseded by research on general intelligence, human life history theory, behavioral ecology, behavioral genetics, personality psychology, and (most of all) gene-culture coevolution.
In preparing to write a chapter for a handbook of literary theory, I recently went back through most of the work done in evolutionary literary study. My impression is that the single strongest influence on early evolutionary thinking in the humanities was the work of Edward O. Wilson, first through the final chapter of Sociobiology and the 1978 book On Human Nature, and then through his 1998 book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge. Wilson was an originator of the general idea of gene-culture coevolution. Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process was published in 1981, and Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind (both with Charles Lumsden) in 1983. The conception of gene-culture coevolution promulgated by Lumsden and Wilson languished for a couple of decades, but clearly now this line of thinking is a central current in evolutionary research.
Lumsden and Wilson are barely referenced in Joseph Henrich’s 2015 The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Henrich identifies Pete Richerson (Not by Genes Alone, with Robert Boyd) as his main inspiration, and he switches the reciprocating terms around so that it is culture gene coevolution, rather than gene-culture coevolution. Whatever the source and the precedence of terms, the core ideas are those of a spiraling causal process in which genes produce cultural changes and culture produces genetic changes, which lead to more cultural changes, which lead to more genetic changes, and so on. Research across many disciplines are converging on that one central idea. It is clearly a true idea, and a foundational idea. One consequence of that idea is that we can now relegate to the archives of intellectual history the most distinctive tenets of the Santa Barbara school: massive modularity and the Pleistocene Mind, with their corollary of a “mismatch” between human nature and all post-agricultural society, with their weird and anti-evolutionary denial that there are significant adaptive differences among individuals and groups, and also with their implication that most human imaginative and artistic activity are non-functional byproducts of a mind that evolved solely to solve practical problems in a hunter-gatherer ecology.
DSW: Thanks for this detailed overview—very helpful. I might quibble with you on some details, but primarily we’re on the same page. Let’s fast-forward to the present with the publication of Darwin’s Bridge. Tell us about the conference upon which it is based and how the book represents the current frontier of evolution in relation to the humanities.
JC: The Dean of Arts and Sciences at my university knew I was interested in integrating biology and the humanities. He proposed and offered funding for a conference. In company with a couple of colleagues, one from biology and one from economics, I proposed a conference based on Edward O. Wilson’s idea of consilience—the idea that nature forms a unified whole and that human knowledge, also, should be a seamless web of causal hypotheses. Wilson’s conception includes physics and chemistry, but for purely practical reasons we limited this conference to the cluster of sciences stretching from evolutionary biology through the evolutionary human sciences to the evolutionary humanities. We arranged for six speakers from each of these three fields, asked Edward O. Wilson to give a keynote, and sent out a call for posters in interdisciplinary work in that whole range. The invitation for posters was designed to bring in graduate students. All the invited speakers gave hour-long plenary presentations. We had a big auditorium, which was packed for the keynote, and respectably populated for the rest of the conference. It seemed a high-energy conference, with a fair number of people declaring it the most interesting and satisfying conference they had ever attended.
DSW: I was there and it was indeed a high-end experience. I even taped some of the interviews for TVOL, which are available here.
JC: Frankly, at the outset, I did not have much hope that the book would ever be published. When I was working on a collaborative empirical book project in literary study—collaborating with Jon Gottschall and two psychologists, John Johnson and Dan Kruger—an editor at Harvard UP told me that interdisciplinary work tended not to have an audience. If audiences were stools, interdisciplinary studies would fall between them. But I felt an obligation to the people who had attended the conference, and we got a break. Barb Oakley and Dan McAdams had both published successful books with a psychology editor at Oxford UP. They wrote letters recommending the volume. Even so, Oxford was evidently nervous about the project. We went through round after round of external reviews. After getting one set of positive reviews, and responding to all the suggestions for revision, I’d think we were home free, and sit waiting for copyedited proofs. Then, a few months later, we’d get another round of evaluations. But finally we got through the process. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that a book in possession of a good subject must be in want of editorial interventions.
I wish I could say that the book satisfied my own ambitions for consilient research in the human sciences more fully than it does. There are many good things in the book, clever and earnest people doing serious research at the forefront of their own fields. What ideally I could envision would have been all the chapters striving more intentionally for connections with the others. At one point, I envisioned the possibility of round-table commentaries on each chapter, with various contributors weighing in and the authors responding—the kind of format that appears in journal like Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Instead, to draw out the implicit connections among the chapters, we made use of meta-commentary by four writers: Alice Dreger in a foreword, you and Jon Gottschall in afterwords, and me in the introduction. Edward O. Wilson’s short first chapter is also something like a foreword, a synoptic overview of human evolutionary and cultural history, sweeping across the disciplines.
Two main themes emerged from the various chapters: human nature is ultra-social, and it is imaginative. All the chapters engaged with one or both of those themes. We had sections on the evolution of human sociality, ancient rock markings, interdisciplinary psychology, and evolutionary studies in literature and pop culture. (Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher and geneticist, had a section to himself in which he expressed skepticism about the whole project of consilience as it was represented in E. O. Wilson’s book of that title, and implicitly, in the volume to which he was contributing.)
There are real linkages throughout the chapters. The literary and pop culture chapters fed off the kind of work being done by the theorists of human sociality. Chris Boehm’s work on egalitarianism and dominance in hunter-gatherer societies has watershed significance for evolved sociality. Dan McAdams work on narrative psychology uses the same sources in personality and social psychology as much evolutionary literary theory does. My co-authored chapter on dominance and egalitarianism in Victorian novels converged in clear and distinct ways with work done by Boehm and McAdams. (I have you to thank, by the way, for pointing me toward Boehm’s seminal work. Your Evolution for Everyone gave me many valuable prompts for reading, and Boehm most importantly of all.) Henry Harpending has done major research in gene-culture coevolution, and gene-culture coevolution is a main theme in Herb Gintis’s chapter on game theory and human moral norms.
If the book as a whole is not as much of a whole as I would like, the very existence of the book is a provocation and should work as a stimulus. Pigliucci’s chapter, which explicitly champions a traditional division of the disciplines, suggests the kind of provocation offered by the book. A good many readers might well be stimulated by the tantalizing juxtaposition of chapters in which the implications join in a space above the local disciplinary idioms with which the chapters are occupied. The introduction makes strong claims for consilience, and the spaces between chapters lay out vast areas of research in which consilience can be realized.
DSW: The book deserves to be widely read, even if it doesn’t make as much progress toward consilience as you might like. What do you see for the future?
JC: For the evolutionary human sciences, I envision different kinds of progress in different subfields. In fields in which we already have a firm general understanding—for instance, mating and parenting behavior—I anticipate ever finer resolution of detail, more nuanced understanding of variations dependent on variables in personal character and contingent circumstance. Other subfields are as yet imperfectly integrated into basic evolutionary concepts. Personality psychology and social psychology began outside of evolutionary thinking and typically use classificatory schemes that were produced empirically and descriptively, in an ad hoc way—I’m thinking of Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations and Dan McAdams’s uses of personality and social psychology. I think cognitive and affective neuroscience will help dissolve those imperfect classificatory schemas, reshaping them and absorbing them within a more coherent and fully rationalized set of evolutionary concepts. Something like that needs to happen also with the classificatory system in the manual of psychiatric disorders, the DSM-5.
I can see three main subfields in the evolutionary human sciences that are open to developments of broader scope: gene-culture coevolution, biocultural history, and the evolutionary humanities.
Gene-culture coevolution has the broadest scope of all. It begins with the first tool use among hominids and continues into the present, with obvious watersheds in the emergence of culturally modern behaviors sometime between a hundred thousand and thirty thousand years ago, sedentism and the agricultural revolution, and the industrial revolution. Gene-culture coevolution holds the key to understanding modern human behavior in its relation to our ancestral past. Early evolutionary psychologists drew a sharp line at the advent of agriculture and announced that no adaptively significant human evolution had or could have taken place after that. That dogma was theoretically rationalized but also ideologically motivated. The theoretical rationalizations have already been decisively discredited in Cochran’s and Harpending’s 2009 book The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution and in Nicholas Wade’s 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Ideology still presents strong barriers to pursuing this line of research. I can only hope that evolutionary human scientists will be more strongly motivated by the need for intellectually satisfying explanations than by anxiety about ideological taboos. Most evolutionary human scientists are decent people, humane and generous. They are, for the most part, candid, honest; they have intellectual integrity. I think there’s a good chance that those two sets of characteristics—moral and intellectual—will find a way through to dispassionately and responsibly evaluating the processes of gene-culture coevolution since the dispersal from Africa some 50,000 years ago.
Gene-culture coevolution forms the immediate explanatory context for biocultural history: research on the socioeconomic, political, institutional, religious, and ideological formations of specific historical cultures. Historical writing, like personality and social psychology, has developed independently of evolutionary thinking. If nothing else, historians always have a story to tell. But without an explanatory underpinning from gene-culture coevolution, historical explanation is trapped on a level of causal explanation in which historians can only shuffle around reciprocally interactive factors in a descriptive and inconclusive way. While thanking Evolution for Everyone for sending me to the work of Christopher Boehm, I can thank that book also for sending me to the work of Peter Turchin, whose 2007 book War and Peace and War offered a major pioneering effort at integrating evolutionary and historical levels of causal analysis. Since then, perhaps the most significant such effort was Francis Fukuyama’s two-volume world history, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (2012), and Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (2015). Fukuyama has immense scope and analytic power, but his understanding of the evolution of human sociality stops short at old-fashioned sociobiological thinking. He limits evolved social dispositions to nepotism and reciprocation. The mathematical biologist Martin Nowak has extended that list of evolutionary social principles to include group selection and, most importantly, “network reciprocity,” the selective interaction of cooperators with other cooperators. That same basic idea of selective cooperation appears in Christopher Boehm’s term “social selection” and in Chudek and Henrich’s term “phenotypic assortment.”
So, we have a sweeping history of socioeconomic and political institutions, and we have new and more adequate explanatory concepts about human sociality, but no one has put them all together yet. That is an obvious main gap or opening for the development of a total paradigmatic understanding of human social behavior. The integration of these two areas—gene-culture coevolution and biocultural history—would form the appropriate context in which to merge social and personality psychology more coherently into evolutionary psychology.
Gene-culture coevolution and biocultural history form the necessary explanatory framework for the evolutionary humanities. The humanities occupy themselves with the world of imagination—with myths, religions, ideologies, and with stories, music, and the visual and plastic arts. Along with several other evolutionary theorists in literature and aesthetics, I think these products of the imagination have a major adaptive role to play in human behavior. They create an imaginative virtual world that in humans partially takes the place of animal instinct. The animal instincts—evolved dispositions for survival, mating, parenting, and social life—are still there, still feed and constrain culture and the arts, but human behavior is more complex and variable than the behavior of any other species. How people behave in any given culture depends crucially on the way shared cultural imagination enables them to envision their behavior and to regulate their behavior by appeal to variable social norms.
It is in works of imagination that people articulate the quality of their experience, make sense of it, and feel its significance and value. Even if we leave aside the causal significance of the argument for the adaptive function of imaginative works, the subjective function of imagination makes the subjects of the humanities intrinsically important. In his 2012 book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jon Gottschall makes a persuasive case that humans spend extraordinary amounts of time and effort engaged in imaginative play of one sort or another—from dreams and childhood fantasy to conspiracy theories, stories, movies, songs, and operas. Any form of human behavior that salient merits serious scientific study. It also merits the kind of appreciative and responsive work that goes into good interpretive criticism.
To sum up, gene-culture coevolution is now developing rapidly and robustly but faces the kind of uphill battle exemplified in the public reception of Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance. That subfield forms an explanatory context for biocultural history, which is in its infancy. Evolutionary studies in the humanities have produced more publications than biocultural history—a few dozen books and a few hundred articles and book chapters. But much evolutionary study in the humanities has been tentative, exploratory, or rudimentary. More robust development will depend heavily on expansions and refinements in the explanatory contexts surrounding it. It will depend also on much more active collaborative work between humanists and empirical researchers, integrating the knowledge and expertise of the humanities with the rigorous statistical and experimental methods of the social sciences.
There is much work to be done. Will it be done? People seem to have a powerful need to fill up explanatory space. So, yes, I have a reasonable confidence that the work will continue, productively.
DSW: Let me push back on Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance and what it represents. In my estimation, the reaction to it was not just an outpouring of political correctness. One of the most authoritative reviews of that book was published in TVOL. The reviewer was Joseph L. Graves, who was the first African American to get a PhD in evolutionary biology and has written widely on the concept of race. He’s fully comfortable with the idea of intraspecific genetic variation in our species and some of it being geographically based, but this is a far cry from socially constructed concepts of race and great care must be taken to distinguish the two. Ideally, there should be a detailed theory of race as a social construction to complement a detailed theory of human intraspecific genetic variation. Given the history of evolutionary thinking about race, the current generation of evolutionists can’t be expected to have it right, especially because they are extremely WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic) as a group. Culturally homogenous groups can’t see their own biases very well. This is why the study of cultural evolution started off so badly—nobody, including Darwin, could see past the assumptions of the Victorian Age.
The solution, to the extent that one exists, is to increase the diversity of the people studying evolution. On that note, I’d like to mention the new Cultural Evolution Society that the Evolution Institute is helping to create. Its founding members already represent over 50 nations and its bylaws are designed to promote diversity of all sorts in its elected officers. Political correctness can run amok, but science’s path to factual knowledge can also be highly circuitous!
JC: As I read Wade, he does a good job of analyzing the interactions between genetically grounded and socially constructed concepts of race. Of course, it would not be possible to reconcile a theory that race has a biological component with a theory that it consists exclusively of socially constructed categories devoid of biological significance.
I myself don’t believe that demographic and ethnic biases necessarily disenable clear and objective scientific thinking. I certainly don’t believe that pooling such biases offers a high road to impersonal knowledge. As I see it, science consists in an institutionalized set of procedures designed to counteract bias and to test all propositions for relative cogency, subordinating judgment to logic and to the weight of evidence. Individuals from different genders, ideologies, ethnicities, and even religions can all be scientific, but in becoming scientific, they must leave their genders, ideologies, ethnicities, and religions behind them. Science, as I understand it, is universalist, pan-human, and rational. The validity of a scientific hypothesis cannot rest on the demographic identity of the person proposing the hypothesis, nor can it be discredited by any such identity.
Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve, which appeared in 1994, was an enormous book with only one chapter on race, but that one chapter created a firestorm of controversy. Unfortunately, the hysteria over race obscured and all but buried the larger subject of the book as a whole, the subject registered in the subtitle: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Intelligence is always a hot-button issue, but if Herrnstein and Murray had not pressed the hottest of all buttons, in that one chapter on race, the discussion on intelligence and class, despite controversy, would almost certainly have been more civilized and quite possibly more productive. Not that I’m blaming Herrnstein and Murray. They were brave and honest. I mention their case only because I see a parallel between it and Wade’s case. Race is an important subject, but Wade has a larger subject that for evolutionary thinkers should be even more important: gene-culture coevolution. He is brave and honest, but the reception given his book indicates how much difficulty further research on gene-culture coevolution is likely to encounter.
It is not possible ultimately to formulate sound basic concepts about gene-culture coevolution, and to follow out their implications, without running eventually into the diversification of human populations. Most researchers interested in these subjects are sharp enough to see that, and many will no doubt continue to back away from this whole theoretical arena because they do not wish to encounter the kind of grief that inundated Herrnstein, Murray, and Wade.
Gene-culture coevolution is the single most important feature in all specifically human evolution, going back to the earliest hominids who fashioned rough edges to stones, to those later hominids who learned to control fire and cook food, to those still later who fashioned tailored clothing, complex multi-part tools, and paintings on cave walls, and not long ago, to those who learned to plant crops, breed domestic animals, live in cities, and construct complex hierarchical societies with specialized social roles and interdependent networks of specialized skills. Without understanding gene-culture coevolution, we cannot understand human nature, and gene-culture coevolution leads researchers inevitably toward areas that will involve them, one way or another, in painful and emotionally violent areas of controversy.
It’s a fascinating situation for the understanding of ourselves as a species. We need one main line of thinking more than any other—gene-culture coevolution—and that one main line of thinking leads directly into the heart of a conflict that most researchers dread. I suppose if one were constructing an intellectual drama to maximize interest, one could hardly find a more promising scenario. Unfortunately, we aren’t all sitting comfortably in a theater, munching popcorn, and enjoying a harrowing spectacle. We are on the stage, in the midst of the danger, the acrimony, the fear, and the confusion. That’s where we are.
DSW: As you know, my father was Sloan Wilson, author of the blockbusters The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and A Summer Place. I often feel like a novelist trapped inside the body of a scientist, so studying the humanities from an evolutionary perspective is like going back home for me. Thanks for a great interview and I look forward to covering the humanities on TVOL with your help.
JC: Thanks, David. I’m glad to have this opportunity for reaching out to the whole consilient community, even to those who don’t yet quite recognize that there is any such community.
Read Joseph Carrol’s recent commentary on David Sloan Wilson’s Social Evolution Focus Article “The One Culture: Four new books indicate that the barrier between science and the humanities is at last breaking down“.