The dirty Darwinian secret is now out of the closet: If evolution is true, then it must be true about everything. Most Darwinians used to be very restrained about the relevance of their theory for cultural and moral issues, for obvious reasons. If evolution is true about everything, then randomness and competition are the foundations for the highest human ideals as well as the lowest organic life forms. Scientists have trouble enough restricting Darwinism to biology. What if that restriction is unscientific? What parents would want their children being taught that Darwinism explains not only speciation but also altruism?
Some Darwinians take inordinate glee at the prospects for a thoroughly Darwinized curriculum and the wreckage it would cause for traditional moral and religious beliefs. Others are eager to persuade us that Darwinian imperialism would be good for us. David Sloan Wilson, distinguished professor of biology at Binghamton University, falls into the second camp. In Evolution for Everyone (2007), he laments the specializations in higher education that keep Darwin's theory from being applied to every field of knowledge. He is, he says, an "evolutionist without any qualifiers." This might sound threatening, but he reassures his readers that "the basic principles are easy to learn," and indeed they are. You pick an object or agent, whether individual, social, or culture, and you ask how it is has changed in a given situation. Then you try to figure out what advantage it gained by changing. "Just about anyone," he enthuses, "can become an evolutionist by learning to think like Darwin."
In fact, the Darwinists he praises are not even scholars of any kind, let alone biologists. Wilson tells the story of Margie Profet, a woman who never studied biology, dropped out of school to give herself time to think, and ended up winning a MacArthur foundation "genius" award for her evolutionary theory of pregnancy sickness (morning sickness as it is usually called). When she started thinking about pregnancy sickness, she realized that nobody had applied Darwinism to it. She gathered some statistics and discovered that women who experience pregnancy sickness are less likely to miscarry than women who do not. So she naturally theorized that pregnancy sickness is the body's way of telling women to be careful about what they eat. Pregnancy sickness, in Darwinian words, is a biological adaptation aimed at helping women and their babies survive pregnancy! And she did all of this by "stitching her argument together from past studies that were conducted largely for other purposes." It was that easy.
Wilson's other favorite example is the story of one of his students, named Matt, who was bored with college until he discovered how easy and exciting it was to be a Darwinist. Matt took Wilson's advanced course on evolution that was for both undergraduates and graduate students when he was only a first-year student. He was a jock in high school but was so self-assured that he thought he could master anything. Many first-year students are like this, but, rather than finding out that he had more to learn than he could ever have imagined, Matt thrived in Wilson's course. He focused on the biological origin of laughter and, like Profet, discovered that little had been written about it from an evolutionary perspective. His conclusion about laughter was as predictable and banal as Profet's theory of morning sickness: "Laughter is an especially effective mechanism for causing members of a group to feel the same way at the same time." During his junior year, Matt wrote with Wilson an article outlining this theory that was acceptedno joke!in the Quarterly Review of Biology.
If evolution really is for everyone, then it should be applied to Wilson himself, of course. His enthusiasm for evolution can be explained by the fact that his environmentteaching awards, journal publicationshas been so encouraging. At what point, however, does this mania become maladaptive? "One of my tall claims," he writes, with a touch of modesty, "is that an evolutionist such as myself can waltz into a new subject (such as religion) and teach something to the experts whose factual knowledge is far greater than I can ever hope to achieve." So what is religion? "My main hypothesis was that religious groups are products of cultural group selection and are indeed like bodies and beehives." Wilson tests his hypothesis by examining Calvin's leadership of Geneva and finds full confirmation. "I discovered that Calvinism was essential for the viability of the city." His theory led him to "discover" that Geneva under Calvin was a well-organized society, and he turns his discovery into a threat: "When religious believers describe their groups as like bodies or beehives, they have nothing to fear from science." Christians do describe the church as the mystical body of Jesus Christ, but I do not think this is what Wilson has in mind.
Wilson also thinks evolution can explain beauty. He "solves" the age-old question of the nature of beauty by the breathtakingly simplistic maxim that everything "that is regarded as valuable is also regarded as beautiful." He offers two examples of this maxim. First, he thinks that we value landscape paintings because we "love to surround ourselves with water, lush vegetation, and open spaces dotted with trees." Second, Abraham Lincoln, who during his lifetime "was regarded as hideously ugly," has been "made beautiful by his nonphysical qualities." According to his first example, people who live in the country would feel no need for art. According to his second, John Merrick, who was known as the Elephant Man, a disability that he handled with inimitable courage and dignity, should be considered one of the most handsome men of his time. As for Wilson's maxim, it might be true that we value everything we regard as beautiful, but a moment's pause will convince anyone that we do not think that everything we value is beautiful. I can make a list of the things I value right now as I write this: my computer, the table it sits on, the coffee cup that holds my pens and pencils, even the book that Wilson has written, which is prompting these thoughts. None of these things would I call beautiful.
These confusions do not stop Wilson from being an evangelist for the good news of evolution. "Creationism," he writes, "fails as a theory in part because it is so unhelpful. Does anyone know God's will for burying beetles?" Since the beetles he refers to routinely commit infanticide, it takes little theological reflection to determine that they do not follow God's will. That is, infanticide is an example of what theologians call "natural evil." Contrary to Wilson's jibe, natural evil is a subject of much debate and analysis by theologians and philosophers, and I will be developing my own position on it throughout an upcoming book. Wilson thinks it is obvious that the Darwinian interpretation of beetle infanticide carries greater explanatory weight. It comes down to this: "At the same time that they are nurturing some of their offspring, they are munching on others until they have reduced their brood to a size appropriate for the carcass" that they are consuming. Eating their young helps beetles deal with scarce food resources. This seems like a plausible explanation, but notice how far it comes from being a scientific law. It has no predictive value, since scientists cannot tell which species will develop this trait or why it is not more common given the widespread scarceness of resources, so it works only in hindsight, as an explanation of a trait that has already been observed.
The statement "The environment selects some beetles to eat their young" serves a function in biology similar to the function the statement "Nature is fallen" serves in theology. Both have explanatory power, but the biological statement tries to be descriptive, whereas the theological statement is clearly normative. Christianity teaches that nature is not what it God intended it to be, and thus nature alone cannot be a guide to moral behavior. Without that normative claim, however, Darwinian philosophers are left with an environment that selects any kind of behavior as long as it gives a species a competitive advantage. If we do not eat our young when resources are scarce, it is only because nature has selected other strategies for our survival. It follows that morality must be either a heroic but ultimately fruitless struggle against our nature or a rationalization and mystification of self-interested behavior.
Wilson tries his hardest to avoid these dire conclusions, although it is not clear if he thinks evolution is for everyone in the sense that evolution intends to be a benefit for every single human individual, or if evolution is capable of being used by everyone in the sense that people can learn to make the best of the struggle for existence. The former is plainly untrue (presumably, natural selection sacrifices human individuals, like the beetle babies, to their species), while the latter implies that evolution has no force in human society (since we can make of it what we want). Wilson's optimism leads him to miss these subtle points. One of his chapters is entitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Genetic Determinism." Though we are hardwired, he says, to distinguish between friends and foes, biologists now know enough about natural selection to offer advice about how to achieve world peace. "In principle, it is possible to completely eliminate violent conflict by eliminating its preferred 'habitat,' regardless of how rare or common it has been in the past." He admits that a shared value system is a prerequisite for world harmony, but he thinks that "pluralism can be enshrined as a virtue and its suppression punished," since "virtually any value system can be stabilized by rewards and punishments, as long as it is agreed upon by consensus." If this leaves the reader thinking that Wilson embraces fascism as a way of enforcing pluralism in order to ensure world peace, he corrects this impression by arguing for the power of art to take the place of religious values. He is especially taken with the power of dance. "Could we establish world peace if everyone at the United Nations showed up in leotards?" He thinks the answer is obviously yes.
A thoughtful response to Wilson might be that he has strayed from his intellectual niche, but there is another way of looking at his discussion of religion. Perhaps Wilson's ambition, which lies at the heart of Darwinism, has inadvertently demonstrated how empty evolution is. If it is this trivial when applied outside biology, why would we non-biologists imagine that it is deeper when it is restricted to biology? One cannot help but suspect that if evolutionary theory looks absurd, simplistic, and circular when applied to something as complex as religion, then it might look the same way when applied to biological organisms.
We can put this point in a syllogistic form for the sake of convenience and handy usage. If evolution is true about everything, then we are doomed to live in a world without truth, beauty, and goodness. If we are not doomed, then evolution is not true about everything. And if evolution is not true about everything, then there is good reason to think that it is not true about anything.
Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence: A Nation with a Mission, The Divine Voice, and Dylan Redeemed: From Highway 61 to Saved.