This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution

Book cover
David Sloan Wilson
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Dec 10, 2022

We generally think of evolution as a purely physical process, happening only at the level of genetics and DNA. Yet that is not the way Charles Darwin conceived it nor how evolutionary biologist Wilson understands it. In fact, genes and DNA were not yet discovered during Darwin’s time, and he saw heredity happening through many varied mechanisms—particularly in humans. From his Descent of Man, for instance:

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.

In this book, Wilson advocates an “evolutionary worldview,” applying principles from biology to all areas of knowledge. He is intentionally wide-ranging and multidisciplinary, finding examples from not only biology, but also psychology, sociology, education, economics, business, and more—examples of evolution in action—and synthesizes them into one overarching perspective. To paraphrase, evolution is groups working together to improve and grow through trial-and-error learning. From the level of genes and cells, bacteria and simple organisms, scaling up through plants and animals to humans and cultures, the lesson of evolution is “that the primary way to survive and reproduce [is] through teamwork.”

Individual bees take part in the economy of the hive in the same way that individual neurons take place in the economy of the brain. . . .

The same story can be told for the genes, cells, and organs of multicellular organisms, which are the gold standard for a well-functioning society. To call a multicellular organism a society of lower-level elements is no longer metaphorical. It is literally the case that we are groups of groups of groups and that we qualify as organisms only because of our degree of functional organization, which evolved by between-organism selection.

Early in the book, Wilson describes the functioning of our immune systems. Our bodies are constantly producing a wide variety of cells meant to combat foreign and harmful invaders. Because not all invaders are the same, different versions of the cells produced will be more successful than others. The body produces more of the successful ones, fewer of the ones that aren’t. Trial-and-error; try a lot of things, keep what works, learn from what doesn’t to make improvements in what is tried next. As a group working together. That is evolution constantly happening within our bodies every day, our immune systems continuously adapting and evolving to changing circumstances.

Some adaptive attempts are successful, but in the wrong ways for long-term evolutionary success. “Evolution frequently results in behaviors that are good for me but not you, us but not them, or all of us today without regard for future generations.” Cancer, for instance. Cancer cells are highly successful at their main goal, reproducing and growing. Yet, ultimately, they kill the organism they are a part of, leading to their own demise. They are successful in a selfish, short-term way, but over the long-range, evolutionary perspective, they are unsuccessful and don't last. Ultimately, what matters, what lasts, is not selfish success but group success. It is the adaptations that benefit the group as a whole that eventually win out.

Wilson describes an experiment with egg-laying hens divided into groups. The scientists wanted to learn how to most effectively increase egg production. At first, they took the offspring of the most productive hen from each group and grouped them. Each succeeding generation produced less, and by the fifth generation the hens were killing their groupmates. That happened because the traits that made the first generation most productive in their groups were bullying and social dominance, and as those traits passed on they magnified. The scientists also tried keeping the offspring of the most productive group as a unit. By the fifth generation, they were conclusively outproducing any of the initial groups—and getting along well, because it was the cohesive, peaceful, group traits that dominated. It is the adaptations that benefit the group as a whole that eventually win out.

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

That lesson scales up to humans, and heredity occurs not only at the genetic level, but at the learned, cultural level as well. Cultural evolution is just as important and influential as genetic evolution. “Individuals are products of social interactions,” and . . .

Small groups are a fundamental unit of human social organization. Individuals cannot be understood except in the context of small groups, and large-scale societies need to be seen as a kind of multicellular organism comprising small groups.

We need to change our perspective, the lenses through which we see and understand ourselves, to an “evolutionary worldview” that defines humans not as individuals, but, first and foremost, as small group members, shaped by evolution as social organisms who are successful for our cooperation and teamwork more than any other traits.

The challenge of this book is to show that policy is a branch of biology. . . . To view policy as a branch of biology means that our proposed actions must be deeply informed by evolution. Around the world, we should be consulting evolutionary theory at least as much as we consult our constitutions, political ideologies, sacred texts, and personal philosophies.

That’s a long summary, but it’s the most concise I can come up with to properly represent Wilson’s thinking. It’s a complex argument that requires a good deal of detail to move from point A to point B, since B is such a shift in orientation from the A we’re used to, so much that it is, to borrow a word from the book’s subtitle, a bit of a revolution.

Wilson’s journey from A to B in the book is, of course, even more detailed and gradual. I found it almost too slow at the beginning, as he starts with historical context and background information to correct our assumptions about evolution before digging into his proper thesis. Nevertheless, I also found it thrilling. His argument is persuasive and, to me, highly appealing. Most importantly, but the time he reaches point B he has moved on from biology as we normally think of it to applications in more relevant domains. The “policy” section.

I’ll end with this longer excerpt from the book near the end, a great example of what it means to have an “evolutionary worldview” outside of the traditional bounds of biology:

From an evolutionary perspective, failures are the current frontier of adaptation. Every failure provides an opportunity for a variation-and-selection process to go to work to improve the efficiency of the whole operation.

In the past, Toyota assembly plants had cords called “andons” hanging down from the ceiling that operators were instructed to pull whenever an inefficiency occurred at their station. These cords, which have been replaced by more sophisticated monitoring equipment in modern Toyota plants, functioned like the pain receptors of a multicellular organism or the alarm signaling systems of social insect colonies. Just as poking a hole in a termite mound results in a swarm of activity to repair the damage, pulling the andon resulted in a swarm of activity to solve the problem. Plant managers had their offices located on the shop floor, rather than in a separate location, so that they could be directly involved in working with the lower-level employees who encountered the problem. Since the assembly line workers are closest to the problem, their knowledge is often essential for coming up with a solution, so that decision-making becomes both a bottom-up and a top-down process focused on solving problems at a very fine level of detail, rather than managers issuing directives on the basis of aggregated data such as quarterly reports.

When a tiny change is made in a complex system, the consequences can be magnified by the interactions among elements of the system. This is why the weather is so unpredictable, which gave rise to the term “butterfly effect”—a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can result in a hurricane in Honduras. In an automobile assembly plant, a small improvement in one part of the system can easily disrupt other parts of the system. No one is smart enough to anticipate all of the indirect effects, so it is necessary to experiment. Toyota has learned from experience to implement only one change at a time and to monitor the effect on the whole system before adopting the change. Even making a few changes at the same time would result in interactions that are too difficult to track.

With a monitoring and improvement system in place, Toyota sets its production quotas so that failures will occur. . . . This decreases productivity in the short term but increases it over the long term by revealing and eliminating inefficiencies in the whole system.

Reviewed by Chris K.
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