Distinguished New York biologist and anthropologist, Professor David Sloan Wilson, has founded the world's first evolutionary think tank, the Evolution Institute. It uses evolutionary theory to address policy issues such as childhood education, risky adolescent behaviour, and the regulation of large-scale human social interactions.
"The most distressing fact about public awareness of evolution," Professor Wilson says, "is not that roughly 50 percent of Americans don't believe the theory but that nearly 100 percent of people worldwide don't appreciate its tremendous relevance to human affairs."
He wants to show how evolutionary theory can help to solve the problems of everyday life, from the quality of life in our cities to rethinking the fundamentals of economic theory and policy. This can be done by incorporating the most accurate conception of human nature possible based on current scientific knowledge.
And, unlike many American evolutionists, Wilson doesn't see evolution and religion at loggerheads. He suggests religion is itself a product of evolution acting at group-level. It's part of his "multi-level selection theory", which argues that natural selection can act on groups as well as individuals.
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson uses evolutionary theory to explain all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, as he recounts for a general audience in Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives (Bantam 2007). He is a distinguished professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York.
He publishes in anthropology, psychology, and philosophy journals in addition to his mainstream biological research. His academic books include Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (with Elliott Sober, Harvard 1998), Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago, 2002), and The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (co-edited with Jonathan Gottschall, Northwestern 2005). Wilson also directs EvoS, a campus-wide program that uses evolutionary theory as a common language for the unification of knowledge.
David Sloan Wilson, professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University, discusses the importance of studying religion within a larger cultural environment. Wilson highlights the example of Jain ascetics in India, who at first glimpse may appear to be handicapped by religion, but in fact serve a secular function.
Professor David Sloan Wilson says that while gossip may have served a greater purpose in small-scale societies, in large-scale societies our innate hunger for social information has been exploited commercially by celebrity tabloids.
"It's the cultural equivalent of immune system dysfunction," says Wilson. "It's a form of friendly fire."
Development of culture and society from simple to complex forms. Europeans had sought to explain the existence of various primitive societies, some believing that such societies represented the lost tribes of Israel, others speculating that primitive peoples had degenerated since the time of Adam from an originally barbarous to an even lowlier savage state. European society was taken to epitomize the highest state of existence, civilization. In the late 19th century, Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan elaborated the theory of unilinear evolution, specifying criteria for categorizing cultures according to their standing within a fixed system of growth of humanity as a whole and examining the modes and mechanisms of this growth. A widespread reaction followed; Franz Boas introduced the culture history approach, which concentrated on fieldwork among native peoples to identify actual cultural and historical processes rather than speculative stages of growth. Leslie White, Julian Steward, and others sought to revive aspects of sociocultural evolutionism, positing a progression ranging from bands and tribes at one end to chiefdoms and states at the other. More recently some anthropologists have adopted a general systems approach, examining cultures as emergent systems. Others continue to reject evolutionary thinking and look instead at historical contingencies, contacts with other cultures, and the operation of cultural symbol systems. See also social Darwinism.