“Social order is the vessel that keeps us afloat in a sea of chaos and entropy,” states David Sloan Wilson, professor of evolutionary biology and author of Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society and Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. In this interview with WIE editor Ross Robertson, Wilson discusses why social order, altruism, and even religion fit squarely within existing evolutionary models of natural selection.
Wilson, a major proponent of a theory called multilevel selection, believes that the traditional Darwinian notion of natural selection works not only at the level of individuals and their genes but also functions as effectively between groups of people, collections of organisms, and even whole ecosystems. The theory argues that just as genes serve as vehicles for transmitting an organism’s design, individuals and groups can also serve that purpose. “Indeed, genes themselves can be affected by selection, not just because of their effects on the design of their vehicle (the organism) but also because of their effect on the functioning of the DNA on which they reside. Hence, the notion of multilevel selection.” The implications of this theory are profound, establishing cooperation between individuals (and therefore between species and entire ecosystems) as an integral part of natural selection, and injecting the most basic—and potentially revolutionary—principles and rigorous tools of evolutionary theory squarely into the fields of sociology, psychology, social sciences, and the humanities. Wilson’s pioneering work is helping the scientific community as well as the general public embrace a broader and more nuanced understanding of the evolutionary process.