Saturday, August 20, 2011

Darwin just never goes out of style.  It seems that with the unique and daunting challenges of the 21st century, his work is even more important.  These three books are evidence for that impression.

Genetics of Original Sin: The Impact of Natural Selection on the Future of Humanity by Christian de Duve (with Neil Patterson) (Yale University Press) is forthrightly dedicated to this theme.  De Duve, Nobel Laureate in Medicine, contends that natural selection, the means of human survival as a species so far, is now becoming its fatal flaw.  Those qualities that got us here are leading us to our ruin.  The basic reason is that natural selection works for the present and the immediate future, while our survival now depends on working to secure the long-term future.  With our short-term adaptations, we've made a sustainable future impossible otherwise. The book's first three sections tour the science of evolution.  In the last section, de Duve lists and evaluates various options for overcoming this flaw and getting to the future.

This paradox of natural selection for humanity was stated more than a century ago by Thomas H. Huxley, whose name does not appear in this book.  Huxley and his student H.G. Wells worried about the short-sightedness and self-destruction that natural selection encouraged, just as humans were developing destructive technologies that could end civilization.  Part of their answer--only obliquely touched upon in this book--was that humans inject a moral imperative in the natural selection equation, as well as using their big brains to anticipate the consequences of their actions in the future.

Stanley A. Rice comes closer to this answer in his book, Life of Earth: Portrait of A Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World (Prometheus Books.)  Rice covers some of the same preliminary and expository ground on natural selection, but in a blunt, declarative, authoritative and occasionally authoritarian style.  But in terms of where evolutionary science is at the moment, he makes a very interesting move.  He includes long chapters on symbiosis and altruism, two areas that at least until recently were pretty controversial in the field.  I'm no expert, but this is the first time I've come across a combination of the theories of Richard Dawkins and Lynn Margulis--whose work seemed incompatible for awhile-- stated with such certainty.

Altruism especially has been a conundrum for selfish gene theorists, and Rice goes to the heart of it with his opening sentence on the subject: "It feels good to be good."  The altruism chapter alone is reason to obtain and read this book.  Rice goes on to religion (which de Duve also considers), science and the environment--again, making pretty blunt statements like "Welcome to the Republican Climate"--which is itself bracing and entertaining.  In  a sense, Rice answers de Duve's conundrum by correcting the view that natural selection doesn't include altruism, empathy and reciprocity.   Something like a moral imperative is part of us, too.

Elliott Sober is a respected voice in the philosophy of science, and his book Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?  (Prometheus Books)  is a collection of essays on Darwin and natural selection, group selection, sex and "naturalism" (the religious question.)  The "Group Selection" chapter also deals with altruism in evolution theory.  Sober quickly reviews the literature and makes closely argued observations, laced with appropriate math.  His book will likely be of most interest to academics, while Rice's book is the most accessible to all intelligent readers, with de Duve somewhere in between but leaning away from an academic style.                   

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