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20210314 – This View of Life



The main idea of this book is to demonstrate that Darwin’s evolutionary theory fully applies to development of society and its culture and that without evolutionary approach it would not be possibly to understand how we get to this point in human development and how to move forward. Author is also trying to explain incorrect application of evolution ideas in form of social Darwinism, explain ideas of multilevel selection theory, and provide demonstration of correct application of evolutionary ideas based on work of Elinor Ostrom.


Introduction: This View of Life
Author begins with brief note about meaning of science. He rejects often used sequence “observation -> theory –> experiment” because undirected, random observations are infinite, therefore theorizing should come first so scientist could know what to look for. After that author moves to Darwin and his theory of evolution:

Author briefly tells the story of his personal development and story of mass acceptance of evolution combined with mass lack of understanding that it applies to just about everything related to biology and products of biological objects such as culture.  He  further specifies:” It is one thing for a species to be well adapted to its environment and another for it to be adaptable to environmental change. The same goes for human cultures, and almost no existing culture is adaptable enough to keep pace with our ever-changing world. Conscious evolution requires the construction of a new system of cultural inheritance capable of operating at an unprecedented spatial and temporal scale. This will be a formidable task, but evolutionary theory does provide the tools to get the job done.”

Chapter 1: Dispelling the Myth of Social Darwinism
In this chapter author discusses ideas of social Darwinism, noting that it is pejorative term that nobody really applies to self. Moreover, people accused of Social Darwinism seldom if ever use Darwin’s theory to defend their ideas. Then author reviews stories of such people: Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spenser, Francis Galton, Thomas Huxley, Peter Kropotkin, and, obviously Darwin himself. They all discussed competition and survival, but it was from variety of ideological positions not necessarily related to evolution. Author also shows lack of any connection between Darwin’s ideas and Hitler who was philosophically adherent of Chamberlain and his racist views. Finally, author refer to American philosophy of Pragmatism, which promoters: Dewey, Holmes, Peirce, and James indeed were influenced by Darwin.  Author concludes the chapter referring to damage caused by stigmatization of evolution theory via bogeyman of “Social Darwinism”:

Chapter 2: Darwin’s Toolkit
Author starts this chapter with reference to fragility of truth as demonstrated by contemporary American politics and then moves to present 4 questions of Niko Tinbergen that author considers the most important tools for evolutionary understanding:

  • First, what is the function of a given trait (if any)? Why does it exist compared to many other traits that could exist?
  • Second, what is the history of the trait as it evolved over multiple generations?
  • Third, what is its physical mechanism? All traits, even behavioral traits, have a physical basis that must be understood in addition to their functions.
  • Fourth, how does the trait develop during the lifetime of the organism?

After that author provides some examples and discusses in detail Lenski’s experiment of parallel evolution of 12 populations E-coli over 70,000 generations, with periodically frozen samples. This experiment demonstrated conceptual ability to identify direction of development, while confirming non-deterministic mechanics of this development.

Chapter 3: Policy as a Branch of Biology
Here author defines his objective this way:” The challenge of this book is to show that policy is a branch of biology. A standard definition of policy is “a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by a government, group, or individual.” Liberal and conservative politicians propose different policies to improve the economy. Many religions encourage the policy of “do unto others,” at least in some situations. A “tiger mom” might adopt a policy of strict discipline toward her children. To view policy as a branch of biology means that our proposed actions must be deeply informed by evolution. Around the world, we should be consulting evolutionary theory at least as much as we consult our constitutions, political ideologies, sacred texts, and personal philosophies.”

After that author compares two products of evolution with different design and similar functionality: octopus and human eyes. He specifically points out that in addition to being product of evolution, it is also product of organism’s individual development, for example nearsightedness of Jewish orthodox boys who spent 16 hours a day in school. Then author demonstrates complexity of such development and risks of interference in such development by referring to well researched example of immune systems compromised due to excessively clean environment and negative impact of educational overload on development of intellectual ability in children.

Chapter 4: The Problem of Goodness
In this chapter author discusses goodness, which often considered a problem for evolution because doing good for others often inflict costs on organism. Author demonstrates that it is not problem with evolution, but rather with poor understanding of evolution when people fail to see that selection occurs at multiple levels so a feature benefiting group over individual will be propagated, providing it leads to improvement in evolutionary fitness of individuals with this feature. Here is how author and E.O Wilson formulated this rule:

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

Author provides three examples:

  • selfish cancer cells kill host and stops their own propagation
  • chickens’ selection for top performance resulting in crash of group performance due to exceeding competition, while selection for average performance leads to superior performance of the group.
  • Finally applied to the humans:” We are evolution’s most recent major transition. Almost everything that sets us apart from other primate species can be explained as forms of cooperation that evolved by between-group selection, thanks largely to our ability to suppress disruptive within-group selection. In most primate societies, group members are cooperative to a degree but are also riven by within-group conflict. Even the cooperation that exists often takes the form of coalitions warring with other coalitions within the same groups. To the best of our current knowledge, our distant ancestors evolved the ability to suppress bullying and other disruptive self-serving behaviors within groups, like multicellular organisms evolved ways to suppress cancer cells, so that the primary way to survive and reproduce was through teamwork.”

Chapter 5: Evolution in Warp Drive
This chapter is about evolutions beyond genetic code. Author discusses here these examples: functioning of immune system, individual learning, and cultural development of groups.

Chapter 6: What All Groups Need
In this chapter author moves to discuss group selection: “Multilevel selection theory tells us that something similar to team-level selection took place in our species for thousands of generations, resulting in adaptations for teamwork that are baked into the genetic architecture of our minds. Absorbing this fact leads to the conclusion that small groups are a fundamental unit of human social organization. Individuals cannot be understood except in the context of small groups, and large-scale societies need to be seen as a kind of multicellular organism comprising small groups.”

It starts with Elinor Ostrom’s work on practical evolutionary solution for theoretical tragedy of commons. It includes 8 Core Design Principles (CDP):









After this author reviews some specific types of groups: Schools, Neighborhoods, Religious Groups, and Business Groups.  At the end of chapter author call for application of these principle from individual level up and provides reference to www. Prosocial.com, which provides support for such activity.

Chapter 7: From Groups to Individuals
In this chapter author’s focus is on “the concept of individuals as products of social interactions”. Author discusses here “Behavioral Ecology”, “Positive Parenting Program”, and “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)”, all of which seemingly achieve success by understanding and applying approach based on “primacy of the small group as a unit of selection in human evolution.”

Chapter 8: From Groups to Multicellular Society
Here author is scaling up this understanding from small groups to huge societies and discusses usual political dichotomy: market vs. regulation and how reconcile best of both. He also provides a couple of pictures linking well-being and political stress to inequality across countries for the world and across time for America:


I often puzzled by inability of seemingly educated and smart people to understand simple ideas and create unnecessary complexity where there is none. It is especially plentifully demonstrated in everything related to Darwin’s theory of Evolution. It is hard to find anything as clear, easily demonstratable, and comparable with common sense as Evolution, maybe with exception of Euclid’s geometry. For example, why one needs such complex explanations for altruism between humans and other animals as kin selection or reciprocity, when full account for what helps and what hinders to survival would demonstrate that helping others is good for survival as long as the cost is low, even if one has no idea whether the favor will be returned in the future or not or is it provided to kin or not.

Such full account would demonstrate cost and individual’s perception of group interest dependency of altruism, as in case of German citizen helping old Jewish lady to cross street in 1920 with:

“cost/benefit balance = feeling good about self for being strong representative of superior humanitarian culture – extra 30 seconds spent on intersection”

versus the same German citizen in 1935 kicking old Jewish lady on the same crossing with:

“cost/benefit balance = feeling good about self for being strong representative of superior race – extra 30 seconds spent on intersection.”

In both cases this 30 seconds could be saved and directed to something beneficial for individual but were spent to support the group of German nation by demonstrating one’s belonging to the group and promoting its values. Whether the group defined as German people of superior humanitarian culture or German people of superior race is pretty much irrelevant. In both cases it is demonstration of individual expense in perceived interest of the group, driven by internal motivation.

There are infinite numbers of such examples, but they all come down to two factors: how individuals define hierarchy of groups they belong to and what are values of these groups. Therefore, the tragedy of commons in its classical theoretical representation: common pasture overgrazed because everybody maximizes own returns even if result is destroyed pasture, could occur only if some individuals perceive themselves as superior to others, which is evolutionary would be very detrimental if one does not really have demonstratable superior power. Since in real live it is seldom happening that somebody in community has such power, the accommodation between members of community about rules of use of common resource will always occur and CDPs will be operational. In short, in my opinion, multilevel selection is one and only proper understanding of Darwin’s Evolution, but one should always remember that it is not just two levels – individual and group, but rather multiple levels with various hierarchies of groups in minds of different people, which are changing all the time, creating super complex and fluid environment when actions of individuals coordinated or counteracted in unpredictable ways.

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