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Ep148 - David Sloan Wilson

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Mixed Mental Arts

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Darwin had a problem with bees. Understanding how evolution might work at the level of individuals was easy. Have an individual whose genes give them an advantage in resisting disease or avoiding predators and on average they will breed more and pass on more of their genes to the next generation. But bees and other social insects weren’t so easy. Kamikaze-like, bees will dive in and sting you, their barbs getting stuck in you and die to save the hive. Of course, when a human being sacrifices their life to save their child, that’s easy enough for evolution to explain. By sacrificing your life for your child, you are helping to ensure that your genes are passed on. But the bee that stings you at a picnic, can’t have children because those bees are sterile. In the Origin of Species, Darwin referred to sterile subgroups as the "one special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my theory.” Nowadays, evolutionary biologists have no problem providing an explanation for this behavior. In fact, the problem is that they have two competing explanations with explanations not just for bees but for how evolution makes sense of religion. Biologists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne argue that the bee gives its life because by defending the hive it is helping to pass on the genes of its closely related hive mates. They deny that natural selection can operate at the level of groups and so large human social organizations (like religion) have no function. Biologists like EO Wilson and today’s guest David Sloan Wilson argue that selection can happen not only at the level of individuals but also at the level of groups. If that’s the case, then our groupishness (including religion) are useful. As you can imagine, the idea that religion could be on balance or even sometimes useful is something that people like Dawkins take issue with. The consequences of this rift are beautifully summed up in Jon Haidt’s Righteous Mind: "To Dennett and Dawkins, r

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