I’m a bit shell-shocked today — man, that was a long drive yesterday — and I stumbled into work today thinking this might be a really good day to bag it early and take a nap. And then I found something in my mailbox that perked me right up.
As a little background, I’ll summarize my talk in St Louis. I pointed out that there was more to evolution than natural selection. Natural selection answers the question of adaptedness — how do organisms get so good at what they do — but there’s another important question, about diversity and variation — why do organisms do so many things in so many different ways? And I made the point with stories about people like Spencer and Galton, who so emphasized optimality and how Nature, red in tooth and claw, ruthlessly culls the weak allowing the survival of only the fittest. Spencerian evolution is a very narrow and limited kind of biology, but unfortunately, it often seems to be the only kind of evolution the general public has in mind.
And then I contrasted it with Kropotkin’s ideas about Mutual Aid (pdf), and the greater importance of cooperation in survival.
Thus by an unprejudiced observation of the animal kingdom, we reach the conclusion that wherever society exists at all, this principle may be found: Treat others as you would like them to treat you under similar circumstances. And when we study closely the evolution of the animal world, we discover that the aforesaid principle, translated by the one word Solidarity, has played an infinitely larger part in the development of the animal kingdom than all the adaptations that have resulted from a struggle between individuals to acquire personal advantages.
Kropotkin is the anti-Spencer. His is a position that we need to acknowledge more. I’ve spoken about the importance of cooperative exuberance, as opposed to selective pruning, several times now, including at the IHEU a few years ago.
So what got me enthused this morning? My review copy of Greg Graffin’s new book, Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence, was waiting for me in my mailbox. I think we might be on the same wavelength here, at least from the cover blurb.
From the very beginning, life on Earth has been defined by war. Today, those first wars continue to be fought around and literally inside us, influencing our individual behavior and that of civilization as a whole. War between populations-whether between different species or between rival groups of humans-is seen as an inevitable part of the evolutionary process. The popular concept of “the survival of the fittest” explains and often excuses these actions.
In Population Wars, Greg Graffin points to where the mainstream view of evolutionary theory has led us astray. That misunderstanding has allowed us to justify wars on every level, whether against bacterial colonies or human societies, even when other, less violent solutions may be available. Through tales of mass extinctions, developing immune systems, human warfare, the American industrial heartland, and our degrading modern environment, Graffin demonstrates how an oversimplified idea of war, with its victorious winners and vanquished losers, prevents us from responding to the real problems we face. Along the way, Graffin reveals a paradox: When we challenge conventional definitions of war, we are left with a new problem, how to define ourselves.
Population Wars is a paradigm-shifting book about why humans behave the way they do and the ancient history that explains that behavior. In reading it, you’ll see why we need to rethink the reasons for war, not only the human military kind but also Darwin’s “war of nature,” and find hope for a less violent future for mankind.
I don’t think a nap is imminent, but maybe a quiet afternoon curled up with a book would be a good restorative.
Also, when I talked to the publicist about getting a copy of this book a few weeks ago, she mentioned that Graffin was looking for Q&A/interview opportunities, that sort of thing. I suggested that maybe he could make an appearance on Pharyngula and answer questions. Would anyone else be interested in that? If nothing else, I could do an interview and post it here.
The book will be available to the general public on 15 September, so I might try to arrange for something around that time. One chapter is available for a free preview right now.