David Sloan Wilson: 2019 National Book Festival

David Sloan Wilson: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Shari Werb: Good morning and
welcome to the science stage at the Library of Congress
National Book Festival. I hope you have a great day
hearing your favorite authors discuss their latest work. I’m Shari Werb and I’m
the director of the Center for Learning, Literacy,
and Engagement at the Library of Congress. The division I lead
is responsible for leading the library-wide
effort that is necessary to produce this festival
and other initiatives to engage audiences like
you with the library, its vast resources,
collections, and expertise. Many of you love this festival
so much that you’ve asked us to have it be more than a
day-long event and I’m excited to tell you that we are
responding to your request with a new program,
as Sarah mentioned, called the National
Book Festival Presents. Starting in September, we’ll
have an appearance by the actor, author, and magician
Neil Patrick Harris. We’ll kick off a series
of extraordinary writers at the library discussing
their works. The series also includes
Malcom Gladwell and children’s author
Dav Pilkey. For more information about those
events, please visit loc.gov. We have a great lineup on
this stage devoted to science. We not only heard your request
for a longer book festival, but we also listened
to your wish that we bring back
the science stage, which we did not have
last year and now we do. The authors on this stage
are among the nation’s best science writers. I’m pleased to introduce
our first author, David Sloan Wilson, whose
new book is The View of Life: Completing the Darwinian
Revolution. David Sloan Wilson is
the state university of New York distinguished
professor of biology and anthropology at
Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory
to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of
life, both in his research and as president of the
Evolution Institute. His books include Darwin’s
Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and Nature of Society,
Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can
Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, The
Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve
My City One Block at a Time, and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and
the Welfare of Others. The National Review has called
his new book a forward-looking positive vision. Wilson aims to break evolution
out of its biological box, offering it as a universal
framework for understanding and shaping human phenomena. David will be interviewed
by Gal Beckerman. Gal is author and editor at
the New York Times Book Review where he handles nonfiction
books, including science titles. Before coming to the Times,
Gal was the opinion editor at the Forward Newspaper and
a staff editor and writer at the Columbia Journalism
Review. His writing has appeared in a
number of places over the years, including the Wall
Street Journal, the New Republic,
and Book Forum. His first book, when they came
for us– When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic
Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, won two major book awards and
was chosen as a book of the year by the New Yorker and
the Washington Post. His second book will
be published next year. Please welcome David Sloan
Wilson and Gal Beckerman. [ Applause ]>>Gal Beckerman: Thank you. Well, let’s just dive right in because we don’t
have that much time. OK. Well, I wanted to start
first at like just 30,000 feet up and then we’ll,
you know, dive down. Can you just give us a sense
of why Darwin’s theory was so powerfully revolutionary or
even elegant might be the word to use, such that, you know,
we can now think of it– or you want us to be
able to think of it as beyond just describing
biological processes? Just at the level of his
theory, what makes it– what made it so useful?>>David Sloan Wilson:
Well, it’s the– not only is it one of the most
important theories in the world, it’s also one of the
simplest ones in the world.>>Gal Beckerman: Right.>>David Sloan Wilson: It
runs on three ingredients– variation, individuals vary
in just about everything that can be measured; selection, those differences make a
difference in terms of survival and reproduction;
and heritability, offspring resemble
their parents. Put those three together and
then we get organisms change over time and they become
adapted to their environment. So, that’s Darwin’s
theory in a nutshell. And Darwin himself extended
it to the length and breadth of humanity, but something that happened during
the 20th century was that this great theory
got mostly for the most part constricted
to genetic evolution. So, around the world, for
experts and novices alike, if I say the word evolution,
you hear the word genes. As if the only way for offspring to resemble their parents
is by sharing genes. Once you state it that
way, it’s patently false. Of course we share cultures
and we share much else. And so, completing the
Darwinian revolution, basically it will be
complete when it makes sense of everything that we
associate with humans, culture, and policy because
we need to get to the practical applications
of this in addition to biology. That’s what I mean by completing
the Darwinian revolution.>>Gal Beckerman: I’m curious
what was Darwin’s own vision of how it could be
applied beyond biology, beyond explaining the evolution
of physical form of a species.>>David Sloan Wilson: Well,
he was such an amazing man that at the same time that
he was studying barnacles and orchids, he was also
studying his own children. He was studying, you know,
the expressions of emotions and he thought deeply
about morality and for the most part
correctly about morality. He called sympathy and empathy
the signature human adaptations, which made him basically not a
social Darwinist, part company with people or thought that we
should just practice eugenics and the like. And so– now he also
had his limitations. In many ways, he
was just a Victorian and could not see
past the assumptions of Victorian culture. So, he thought that
European culture was superior to other cultures. It went without saying
for him that women– men were superior to
women and time had to pass before we
could kind of separate out this Victorian element
from the real consequences of evolutionary theory.>>Gal Beckerman: I just want
to read a sentence from early in your book because for
me there was another kind of entry point into understanding
your bigger theory. You say that– and
this is something that we all know is fairly
obvious at this point, but human activities now
rival other living processes and nonliving physical processes in shaping the earth
and atmosphere. And, for me, when I
read that, it kind of– it struck me the degree
to which, you know, when we think about–
that we have to think about evolution beyond
a biological process because humans are kind
of undermining or shaping, you know, what was a
biological process. Human activity. So, I’m curious kind of how you
see– you know, that to me is– gets to the crux of what
you’re trying to say.>>David Sloan Wilson: Right. Well, I actually begin
my book by talking about Pierre Teilhard
de Chardin– which I’d be curious could
we have a quick show of hands who has heard of Pierre
Teilhard de Chardin–>>Gal Beckerman: Oh, wow.>>David Sloan Wilson:
Quite a few of you have. He was a scientist and a priest. He was a paleontologist
and a Jesuit priest. He found– this was in the
beginning of the 20th century– he found one of the missing
links, one of the fossil skulls that connected humans with apes, but he was also a
deeply spiritual thinker. And he talked about humans as in
some ways just another species, but in other ways, a new
evolutionary process, cultural evolution, which
made the origin of our species as important in its own
way as the origin of life. And he described life– first life as originating on a
barren planet and then spreading like a kind of a skin over
the surface of the world until life became so
important that it began to influence the planet itself. So, living processes began
to rival physical processes in the shaping of our planet
and that’s why our planet is so different from
all other planets. But then, on one twig of one
branch of this tree of life, humans formed and then cultural
evolution caused them to branch and in astonishingly short
period of time to spread over the globe themselves,
the kind of a second skin, which he called the noosphere. And the noosphere has a
mental component in addition to a physical component. And for him, he saw an endpoint
that he called the omega point, which was a kind of a
global consciousness. And so that’s a benign endpoint. That’s basically– if
that were to be true, then not only would we have
this worldwide influence, but it would be a
benign influence and we would manage our own
affairs and we would act as wise stewards for the planet. So, I call my book an update
of the phenomenon of man, but what we have to say
from a modern perspective is that benign outcome is
by no means certain.>>Gal Beckerman: Right.>>David Sloan Wilson:
That’s something we have to– we have to make as a target and
with luck we’ll hit that target. But if not, then we’re going
to get another outcome, which is much more of a
dystopia than a utopia.>>Gal Beckerman: Right.>>David Sloan Wilson: So, it’s
a little bit more of a fire and brimstone sermon
than you might think.>>Gal Beckerman: Right. And we’ve long since
passed the tipping point where it’s just the physical
processes that we can see kind of having an influence on
life on the planet itself. I mean– whether or not you
believe in climate change, I mean it’s obvious that
at some point the impact of human existence kind of
took off in a new direction.>>David Sloan Wilson: Well,
you know, it’s actually– one of the things we’re learning
is that this worldwide impact of human activity
extends further back in time than we thought.>>Gal Beckerman: Right. So, that tipping point
might be even earlier.>>David Sloan Wilson:
Yeah, but I–>>Gal Beckerman: You
wouldn’t call it that, yeah.>>David Sloan Wilson: I wouldn’t call it
a tipping point. It’s been said that if the Earth
warms up six degrees centigrade, that’s not going to
hurt life on Earth. Life can handle that. It’s just people that
can’t handle that. So, you know, so we’re not going
to exterminate life on Earth, but obviously– I
mean there is– my book is optimistic,
basically. I think that there is
a blueprint out there for steering towards
the omega point. That’s the good news. The bad news, of course,
it’s going to be a very, very daunting challenge. Nevertheless, it helps
to have a compass. It helps to have a blueprint.>>Gal Beckerman: Right.>>David Sloan Wilson: And I do
believe that blueprint exists.>>Gal Beckerman: So,
let’s get to that. I mean you say that
evolution is both the solution and the problem. Right? Can you kind
of unpack that for us?>>David Sloan Wilson: Totally. Evolution does not
make everything nice. Nature at large out there–
it’s not true that nature left to itself achieves some
kind of harmonious balance. Evolution results in
things that benefit me, not you, us, not them. Our short-term benefit,
not our long-term benefit. And so, if we want to have– if we want to achieve
our normative goals, which is basically behave in
a way that’s for the benefit of all at a large spatial and temporal scale,
this is possible. It is possible for those
prosocial behaviors to win the Darwinian contest, but only if you configure
things the right way. And if you don’t, then
evolution will still take place. Cultural evolution and our
personal evolution will still take place, but it will take
us where we don’t want to go. It will lead to dysfunctional
outcomes and so that’s why we need
to become wise managers of evolutionary processes.>>Gal Beckerman: Right. OK, so this is where
you begin to get into the provocative areas of– you know, and I need to address
the kind of elephant in the room which is, you know,
eugenics or social Darwinism. How do you– how do you answer– which I’m sure you have to all
the time– the question of, you know, the slippery slope or,
you know, once you start to– you said configure the
direction of evolution. You know, we’ve had
examples– crude ones– of people who have thought about
doing that, tried to do that, and it’s ended, you
know, disastrously. So– murderously. So, you know, where
do you– how do you– how do you deal with
that as a problematic?>>David Sloan Wilson: There is
a chapter in the book devoted to that and I think the
most important thing to say to this audience
is that this idea that Darwin’s theory is
exceptionally dangerous and more than other theories kind of
leads you towards this dark path of social inequality, actually
it’s just plain not true. It’s sort of a bogeyman
idea which is very, very widely prevalent. But do you know that back in
the day the very first people to seize upon not just
Darwin’s theory of evolution but previous theories of
evolution were the socialists. The people who thought
like socialists. Why was that? Because what evolution told
them was the social order is not fixed. The future need be– need
not be like the past.>>Gal Beckerman: Right.>>David Sloan Wilson: And so, we had a socialist
Darwinist view.>>Gal Beckerman: But that
didn’t turn out so great either.>>David Sloan Wilson:
That actually preceded– that actually preceded
the social Darwinist view.>>Gal Beckerman: Right.>>David Sloan Wilson: And
then we have such things as the philosophical tradition
of pragmatism represented by people like William
James and John Dewey, the beloved social
reformer, all inspired by evolution and by Darwin. And so the bottom line is– and then we have cases like was
Hitler influenced by Darwin, which it’s often said that
he was, but actually no. If you do your scholarship,
you find out not at all. And there’s all the
scholarship you need for that. So, the bottom line
is– you ready for this? Anything that can be used for a tool can also
be used as a weapon. That is true for a theory in
addition to a physical tool. And Darwin’s theory
is no different than any other powerful idea. Yes, it could be used
as a weapon and, yes, we want to prevent that,
but, yes, it can be used as an extraordinarily
useful tool. So, the idea that, oh,
we shouldn’t do anything with this theory because it can
be used as a weapon– please. I mean there’s really no
substance to that and we need to shed this bogeyman
version of evolution as somehow exceptionally prone
to lead down this dark path.>>Gal Beckerman: Right. OK. So, what’s the way
that we can use evolution to positively impact, in a
prosocial way, the species and our existence on the planet
and how do we– how do we– I only have examples
in my head of eugenics. Of people saying, you
know, we– let’s, you know, weed out these people
because we want these type of people and breed this way. And, you know, I don’t– I’m
curious to hear you talk more about kind of what’s the– what’s the vision of using
evolution in kind of a pro– or being proactive, I guess– maybe that’s not the word you
would use– about evolution, in terms of where we’re going.>>David Sloan Wilson: So, what
evolutionary theory reveals is that prosociality, anything that
is oriented towards the welfare of others and society
as a whole is something that does not automatically
evolve. Why is that? It’s because those
behaviors are vulnerable to everything we
call not prosocial. There’s something
vulnerable about goodness. And this was a crisis for
Darwin because Darwin thought that his theory could
explain all aspects of design that had been attributed
to a creator. And then he discovered,
no, everything we associate with virtue, actually. If you think of the virtuous
individual and pair them with the non-virtuous
individual, it’s the non-virtuous
individual who has the advantage by exploiting the
virtuous individual. So, as I put it with the other
Wilson, Edward O. Wilson, selfishness beats
altruism within groups. And so how can we get
altruism to evolve? Actually, there is an
answer to that question, but you have to go up in scale. What you have to observe is that
groups of virtuous individuals who are internally virtuous will
robustly outcompete groups whose members cannot cohere. Cannot cohere. And so, actually, there is
an evolutionary advantage to virtue. OK? But it exists at this group
level and it is undermined by selection among
individuals within groups. And so, as I put it
with the other Wilson, selfishness beats
altruism within groups, but altruistic groups
beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.>>Gal Beckerman: Right.>>David Sloan Wilson: So, now
in our effort to be prosocial and to establish basically the
good society and to establish it at the largest scale
as possible, we need to deeply understand
what I just discussed and to realize that it takes
place at all spatial scales. So, in human terms, what’s good
for me can be bad for my family. That’s the small scale. What’s good for my family
can be bad for my clan. What’s good for my clan
can be bad for my nation. What’s good for my nation
can be bad for the world. Every time a lower level entity
seeks to– seeks its advantage, then it becomes an
organism, a functional entity, but it is disruptive
higher up the scale and all of our global problems
are due exactly to that. Every nation is trying
to grow its economy and we’re having these
worldwide consequences. What’s good for my nation
is not good for the planet. And so, if we take this
seriously, then it follows that we must have– in order
to solve planetary problems– the planetary welfare in mind. We must organize our
behaviors with the welfare of the planet in mind. Those lower level entities
still exist, but they need to be coordinated so they lead
to the planetary common good. So, isn’t it interesting that
Darwin’s theory of evolution, which so many people think lead
to these dark consequences, actually leads to the
conclusion is that we need to explicitly work towards an
ethics for the whole world? It’s quite clear about that. So, that’s how benign a proper
rendering of Darwin’s theory is. It matches very much onto
his holiness the Dalai Lama, who I’m going to be visiting
with in just a few weeks, talking about Beyond
Religion: Towards an Ethics for the Whole World is
the title of his book. So, this global ethic is
something that we could all kind of reach towards and we now have
a very powerful theory speaking on its behalf.>>Gal Beckerman:
So, but it starts with creating altruistic groups. Is that–>>David Sloan Wilson: And it
starts at the small group level. That brings it down
to earth because–>>Gal Beckerman: Can you give
examples of kind of what– when you talk about
groups, what– how many– what are we talking about? Are we talking about,
you know, associations of people doing positive
things in their communities? I mean like what constitutes the
kind of, you know, central unit in what you’re talking about?>>David Sloan Wilson:
Right, so one of the– another of the big take home
messages is that we are a very, very highly cooperative species. Genetic evolution resulted
in a species which is capable of cooperating, typically
in small groups, which were the only groups
until the last 10,000 years. So, in some ways, we’re
built and designed to be highly cooperative
within small groups. And back in those days, then it’s what they called
a fission-fusion society. This is the– it’s true for
us, it was true for all time is that we participate
in many activities, very few of them are solitary. So, we do just about
everything in groups. And there are many groups
and so we all participate in many groups and in each
case those people have to work together in order to accomplish some
kind of joint task. And for that joint task, that
dilemma that I just described about being– benefitting
sometimes at the expense of the joint task as
opposed to contributing to the joint task is this
dilemma that’s taking place. And so if you were to imagine
all the groups in your life or any particular group
that you know well, then it could actually
benefit from an evaluation as to how well that group
is structured in order to prevent this kind of
disruptive self-serving kind of behaviors which
might be unconscious– you might be very
well-meaning, but still behaving in a disruptive way– and build
a group that actually suppresses that so that the group
functions well as a group. And one of the things
that I study as a scientist is the
prediction is and the data more or less confirms that these
core design principles for having a group work as a strong cooperative
unit is needed by all groups because they’re essential for
cooperation in all of its forms. So– and that includes
business groups, which there’s a whole
piece of this on economics, but maybe I’ll just stop
here and we can go on.>>Gal Beckerman: I’m
curious about something else. You talk in the book about
providing people with a toolkit for viewing humans through the
lens of evolutionary theory and you talk about, you know,
once you have this toolkit, you can see a lot of different,
you know, elements and kind of what we do day to day through
that lens and you even mention, you know, raising children. You can kind of understand it
through this evolution of– can you talk about
what’s in that toolkit and maybe even touch
a little bit on the raising children part? For self-interested reasons, I’m curious what you’d
have to say about that.>>David Sloan Wilson: So, a
major message of the book is that evolution is kind of
functioning in two capacities. In one capacity, it’s this grand
theory that offers a cosmology which I think can
be as motivating as a religious cosmology because
we’re all excited by something which can explain everything. I mean there’s something
that we thirst for.>>Gal Beckerman: Right.>>David Sloan Wilson:
Man’s search for meaning. I mean evolution kind of
satisfies that, I think, in the same way that a
religious worldview does. But at the same time,
it functions as a very, very practical toolkit– and
I love the toolkit metaphor because that’s what the plumber
and the carpenter carries around and they arrive at the job and
they size it up and they pull out the right tools for the job. And this toolkit– takes more
than a minute to describe it, but– to get– now,
another major theme is that, as Einstein said, the
theory decides what can– what we can observe. Nothing is obvious
all by itself. Something is obvious or obscure
only against the background of your worldview, basically, your meaning system,
your theory at large. And so that means that if you
don’t have evolutionary theory, you’ll have some way of seeing
the world and it will make sense of things and so you’ll
do things that make sense in terms of that worldview. That doesn’t mean that it
actually does make sense. And so, you might be doing
very dysfunctional things, but you don’t know that because
they’re what is motivated by your worldview. And so, by adopting this view of
life, an evolutionary worldview, then all of the sudden,
that which made sense all of the sudden becomes
wrongheaded. And that which you never thought
about makes perfect sense. Now we can get to something
like child development. Because if you look at
cultures around the world, what you find is that there
is so much information that is transmitted across
generations, so much of what– I mean so much of what we
do is based on our cultures, not directly by our
genes, and all of that has to be transmitted
across generations. And do you know that
happens in a way that does not resemble
formal education? There’s very little that
resembles formal education in most traditional and certainly hunter-gatherer
cultures. So, how does it happen? It happens more or less
through self-motivated play. What happens is kids
go around in groups, they’re typically
mixed age groups. The young kids want to
be like the older kids. The older kids want
to be like adults. It’s the only game in town. And then the whole
thing takes place by self-motivated
practice and play. And play in particular is–
much more happens through play than we– we think of
play as superfluous and trivial, but not at all. So much social regulation and intellectual development
takes place through play. And so now what we have in modern life is we have a
childhood in which that kind of play is becoming
very short supply. It’s in very short
supply in school and it’s in very short supply
outside of school. Gone are the days when your mom
told you to go outside and play and don’t come back
until dinner. And so this is turning out
to be extremely harmful to our children. And here’s another thing. Touch. There’s a whole– one of my favorite
stories from the book, which I don’t think we have
time to recount in detail, has to do with the
importance of basically living in a cooperative group. So, if you’re isolated and not
in a well-functioning group– and this is going to be
very stressful for you– and a lot of that is
communicated by touch. Nonsexual touching is the– is
how your body knows that you are in a cooperative group. And so, from one
perspective, it makes sense. Let’s implement no touch rules so we won’t have
sexual harassment. Makes sense against
that background. Against another background,
we say, no, please, we have to really be able
to communicate our love for each other, basically, by
touching each other is something which we don’t want to prohibit. So, there’s– this is just two
of many, many examples where, by adopting the right worldview, then these things make perfect
sense when they were obscured or made invisible
form other worldviews.>>Gal Beckerman: So,
we might be removing like important cultural traits
that have allowed us to survive, you know, to some extent.>>David Sloan Wilson: Totally. And implementing these, once
you see their importance, is not that difficult. There’s a foundation called
the Let Grow Foundation based in New York City– so,
please look it up– and it fosters this kind
of appropriate play inside of school and outside of school. It used to come so naturally that we didn’t even know it
was there until it was gone.>>Gal Beckerman: Yeah.>>David Sloan Wilson: And
it could be brought back. But an effort is
required to bring it back and so you could multiply
these things again and again and again. They’re not difficult to
implement, but first you have to see them and that’s why
the theory decides what can be observed is one of the most
important messages of my book.>>Gal Beckerman: Great. I want to open it
up to questions. So, why don’t we just–
people who have questions, you can raise your hand
and we will call on you. Yes, sir.>>David Sloan Wilson: I
think we line up at the–>>Gal Beckerman: Oh. Oh, I’m sorry. There is a methodology here. OK. There’s microphones
and you can line up.>>Have you done any research–>>Gal Beckerman: Why don’t
you move a little closer to the microphone?>>Have you done any
research on why so much of the U.S. population
rejects the idea of evolution and how we might
break through that?>>David Sloan Wilson:
So, why does so much of the population
reject evolution? Of course, there is the
typical religious reasons. There’s also the
social Darwinism idea, which is so prevalent. And as to what to do
about it, I think that– I think the best thing to do about it is once you understand
the utility of evolution, then your stance towards
it changes completely. Basically, anything which
is explanatory and useful– if you see it that way,
then you want to pick it up. It becomes alluring. If it’s threatening, of course
you want to push it away. So, once you– once evolution
is explained in a way which is first highly
explanatory and also highly useful,
it’s at that point that your stance changes. And I work with many, many
religiously-oriented folks who have no problem whatsoever–
in fact, evolution enables you to think more deeply about the
topics associated with religion, spirituality, such things as contemplative
practices and so on. And so, it can be turned around
and is, there’s many examples. So, I’m actually quite
optimistic about that.>>Gal Beckerman:
Let’s go over here.>>Hello. Thank you very much
for being here, by the way. Human beings seem to have
an incredible capacity to influence their environment and we’ve seen those
effects magnified over time, become very apparent,
specifically recently to a broad number of people. But, in a more fundamental way,
as human beings start to contend with the ability to alter
themselves more fully– I’m thinking of things
like transhumanism or even leaving the planet and forming other reproducing
populations elsewhere– will evolutionary theory need to be reevaluated
in those contexts? If you, say, upload your
consciousness into a computer and start replicating
yourself in that environment, do those same tenets still apply
or will they need to be changed to suit those different mediums?>>David Sloan Wilson: Yeah,
these are big questions that can not be answered
in short answers, but I think the most interesting
thing to say there is that any process that includes
those three ingredients– variation, selection,
and replication– counts as an evolutionary
process and that so includes many cultural
processes, personal processes, and computational processes. And so now we get
into some, you know, some of this more futuristic
sorts of things with robots and artificial intelligence
and–>>What about also–>>David Sloan Wilson: Yeah?>>What about also the ability to actively edit your own
genetic code as an individual?>>David Sloan Wilson:
Yes, this too, possibly. And in each of these
cases we have to do this in a way that’s responsible. But anything is threatening
when it’s more or less done on some people without
the consent of others. And anything is more
benign– not totally benign, but as benign as
it’s going to get– when we do it by consensus. So, there’s nothing
off the table there. If we’re able to gene
edit, that’s a tool, and let’s just make sure we use
it as a tool and not a weapon and let’s make sure we do
it in a way that is prudent about avoiding unforeseen
consequences. But one thing that’s for
sure is that if we’re going to have a planetary
organism, it’s going to have to have a nervous system and that nervous system
is going to be electronic. And so we’re going to have
to use technology, basically, in order to wire human
society at a global scale. And so, yes, we’re
going to have to turn– we’re going to have to make
the most of technology, but we have to do it in
a way that’s by consensus and is prudent with respect
to unforeseen consequence and that requires humility. Humility.>>Thank you.>>Yeah, since there
are so many planets out there potentially
fostering civilizations, I’ve heard some people posit that the reason why
we don’t have a lot of other civilizations
that are talking to us is because that civilizations
eventually self-destruct. And I mean I can think of two
reasons now that they could. One is global warming, but the
other is nuclear Armageddon. And I’m just wondering
whether you have any comments about that, whether we become
so smart and so powerful that we kill ourselves and so we’re not going
to last very long.>>Gal Beckerman:
These aren’t, you know, just short easy questions.>>David Sloan Wilson:
Yeah, I know. Another softball a question. I think that– let me introduce
another possibility which is that there might be life on many
planets, but if you’re just– if you took humans
away from this planet, then there would be no
species communicating or anything like that. So, we’re not just asking
about life on other planets, we’re asking about human
life on other planets. And here’s where Teilhard
de Chardin really kind of got it right. I mean the idea that
we’re not just a species, we’re an evolutionary process and that evolutionary process
became conscious in some sense– we have to explore
what that means– and then began reflecting upon
itself and that actually built up into some kind of
superorganism that was capable of communicating
to other planets. That might be the things
that almost never evolves. So, you might have planets
that have– are full of life, but not the kind of life that
attempts to communicate even with other species, not to speak of with other– with
other planets. So– and as for driving
itself extinct, one reason why I kind of– not
just shy away, but I would kind of disparage this great interest
in colonizing other planets. It’s such a remote
possibility that we should be– we should be spending all of our attention doing
well by our planet. Please, let’s do that. Thank you. [ Applause ] It’s a waste of attention to ask how can we
colonize other planets when we should be looking for
sustainability on our own. That needs our undivided
attention.>>As you talked about
social behavior and altruism, you pointed out that
what is good for the individual may
be bad for the family, what is bad for the individual
family may be bad for the clan– good for the individual family
may be bad for the clan, et cetera as you go up
the social structures. And I– as I understand,
you’re suggesting that we maybe should be
thinking from the top down, what’s good for the
world, as our guide. That seems to imply, though,
to recognize that what’s good for the world may be bad
for the individual nation. What’s good for the nation
may be bad for the clan. Is what you’re suggesting
therefore a recognition that altruism and positive
social behavior implies some level of self-sacrifice? Should we become more
comfortable with the idea of self-sacrifice as a– as a guide for positive
social behavior?>>David Sloan Wilson:
That’s a great question and my short answer
is yes and no, so let me unpack
that just a bit. It is– based on just the nature
of tradeoffs, it is the case that if we’re going to do
something that’s for the benefit of others and all of us, that
does require time, energy, and risk on the part
of individuals. That’s just how it’s got to be. OK? So, that’s a–
just a fact of life. On the other hand, how we distribute those costs
is something we can do a lot about and, if we fairly
distribute the cost, then we share the benefits
and we share the costs and there’s a net benefit
and so we all gain. So, with appropriate
coordination, then this can be
accomplished without something that looks like self-sacrifice. Yes, we’re all working,
we’re all spending effort, but it’s not in a way which
is causing an unfair advantage for some more than others. And so it’s a matter
of coordination that– yes, work will be involved, but
if it’s fairly distributed then and we also share the benefits,
then there’s a net benefit for us all and so we
can see this as all in our self-interest
in order to do this.>>So, my question is, if
one spends some time thinking about various behaviors
that people engage in which don’t make sense from
the individual’s point of view but one can come
up with an idea, a theory for why they would
benefit the larger group. How does one go from that
point, from that insight– well, here’s something that
could really benefit a group, hurts the individual– how does
one go from that step to trying to determine in some scientific
way whether what one has thought about can– one can
find evidence that this actually reflects
either cultural evolution or perhaps some type
of genetic evolution? How does one make that step?>>David Sloan Wilson:
Again, another big question. And I want to say this– I hope it partially addresses
your question, but it also gets to something you said,
Gal, about socialism. And this gets into the kind
of the economic applications. What we can say is that
there’s two things– we can say this quite
fundamentally– there’s two things
that don’t work and only one thing
that can work. One thing that does not work
is centralized planning. Why? Because the world is too
complex for any group of experts to formulate a grand
plan and implement it. And so experiments in
socialism don’t work in part for that reason. The other thing that
doesn’t work is laissez-faire because it’s simply not
the case that the pursuit of lower level self-interest
robustly benefits the common good. The invisible hand metaphor
is profoundly not the case. And so, if laissez-faire
doesn’t work, centralized planning
doesn’t work, what works? What works is a deliberative
process in which we target
what we want to do– which has to be a global good– and we’re experimental
in how we try to do it, which is just another way of
saying cultural evolution. We have to vary different
things. We have to monitor
unforeseen consequences. We have to replicate
best practices and so the whole process
of cultural evolution has to be orchestrated in order
to achieve the common good and the fact that
it’s experimental is– once again requires
a certain humility because we say we don’t know
if this is going to work, therefore we have to try it
out in a cautious, humble way, and in this fashion we
will evolve our futures and we have wrapped it up.>>Gal Beckerman: I’m afraid
that that is it for us. Thank you so much,
Professor Wilson, and thank you all for coming. [ Applause ]

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