You know, for all the ways that Sullivan has made back a little ground from his fifth column BS and giving Betsy McCaughey a platform to lie about health care reform*, it seems like the guy just cannot manage so much as one reasonable post about science. Somehow it always comes back to this romantic idea of a lone crusader challenging the so-called ‘establishment’ with their so-called ‘credentials’ and ‘relevant knowledge’ and asking uncomfortable questions that no one else will. Sullivan cannot get enough of these guys and it leads him wrong every. single. time.
Take this recent forinstance. Edward O. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who helped create the modern science of social animals. What to think about his latest book? Why not ask a columnist who knocks global warming for a living. Lacking knowledge about climate climate change must give the guy some trenchant insights about evolution. Let’s find out what Darwin got wrong!
It is our ability to escape from the rigid frame of instinct which explains almost everything that distinguishes human beings from any other form of life. But one looks in vain to Wilson to recognise this, let alone to explain how it could have come about in terms of Darwinian evolutionary theory. No attribute of Darwinians is more marked than their inability to grasp just how much their theory cannot account for, from all those evolutionary leaps which require a host of interdependent things to develop more or less simultaneously to be workable, that peculiarity of human consciousness which has allowed us to step outside the instinctive frame and to ‘conquer the Earth’ far more comprehensively than ants.
So there you have it! Evolutionary biologists are full of it because Thomas Hobbes.
You know, my dog Max goes nuts for Greenie chew treats. He loves those things like nothing else. Yet a few years ago he left one on the kitchen floor for eight hours because I forgot to tell him ‘okay’ on the way out the door. Dolphins are maniacs for sex. They will sex just about anything that moves. Yet most (not all) dolphins resist molesting a skin diver. And so on.
I also have a newborn baby. She is a creature of pure id. The idea that Dr. Mrs. Dr. F. Jr. (DMDF II) would override her instantaneous urge to poop or suck on things when hungry strikes my sleep deprived self as comical.
The difference? Max, like a lot of animals, has a frontal lobe. This part of the brain integrates past experience and lets him override his instincts when that seems like a good idea. DMDF II has an even bigger frontal lobe but zero experience, so when her hindbrain says poop she poops. As with our other parts the forebrain evolved by incrementally elaborating on simpler structures.
For the curious, E.O. Wilson wrote a book about social animals. There are two kinds: eusocial critters like ants which organize stereotyped cultures through instinct rather than flexible social intelligence, and creative social animals like us. Wilson argues that these two wildly different types of culture have a common theme that suggests one explanation every kind of very social animal: they maintain and defend large durable home sites that hold multiple distinct families and generations. It is an original and important idea, not that you would know if you only went by the snide comments of a guy known mostly for misunderstanding an entirely different field.
(*) Mostly torture, but that ain’t nothing. Sullivan’s work on prisoner abuse deserves real credit for being some of the strongest and most influential out there.