University of Vermont

The Honors College

David Sloan Wilson - HCOL 095 Plenary Lecture

Evolution, anyone?

It's a big year for Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution: Darwin was born 200 years ago; he wrote the Origin of Species 150 years ago. In acknowledgement of those anniversaries, but also because evolution is a powerful form of knowledge that finds its way into our first-year course, The Pursuit of Knowledge, we assigned David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone as this year's summer reading for our incoming class. Following established practice, the students read the book and wrote an assigned short essay on it for the first day of class. And then early this semester, they had the opportunity to hear the author speak in person at one of our Thursday plenary sessions for the course.

Wilson is a renowned evolutionary biologist, a distinguished professor of biology and anthropology at SUNY Binghamton, but these days he goes more by the title, simply, of evolutionist. His point in Evolution for Everyone, as the book's blurb tells us, is that "Evolution is not just about dinosaurs and human origins, but about why all species behave as they do . . . . In example after example, Wilson sheds new light on Darwin's grand theory and how it can be applied to daily life." Those examples, from burying beetle infanticide, to pregnancy sickness, to homicide, to religion, certainly caught the students' interest and stimulated many rich conversations in our classes. But it wasn't only the book that had students talking, it was Wilson's voice in the book, which is as breezy and autobiographical as it is convincing in its evolutionary expertise. It's fair to say that they were looking forward to Wilson's lecture; they wanted to see what he was like in person.

"Interesting"; "passionate"; "evangelical" - these were some of the words students used to describe Wilson and the lecture he delivered to a full house on September 10 in Billings Lecture Hall (formerly CC Theater). Calling it the "e-word" and acknowledging that evolution is taught mainly just as a biological subject in universities, Wilson says it is high time evolutionary theory made its way into the human-related subjects like sociology, economics, religious studies, and public policy research. His talk focused on the latter as he described the Binghamton Neighborhood Project. The BNP is a network of community partners dedicated to improving the quality of life in Binghamton, NY by addressing social problems with the help of an empirical infrastructure that allows them to understand how and where the problems of the city originate. Evolutionary theory, which, Wilson reminded us, is fundamentally about the relationships between organisms and their environment, is at the heart of that empirical method. Using sophisticated tools like GIS technology, Wilson and his partners are researching the way the city’s built environment influences cooperative behaviors in and between neighborhoods.

As advanced as their technologies are, however, the most powerful tool in the Wilson team's toolbox is the theory of evolution itself. And that's where the evangelism comes in. Wilson's passion for evolutionary theory comes across in his insistence that evolutionary theory can transform the complicated mess right in front of our noses into common sense. The most complex social problem is rendered fully comprehensible by the "right theory," claimed Wilson. And evolution is, according to him, that right theory. Supremely powerful and, above all, useful for the public good, Wilson believes that evolutionary theory will be fully embraced when enough research is done to convince the general public of its usefulness. The passionate, indefatigable Wilson occupies the front lines of that research both in the lab and at the lectern; it was a privilege for our students to witness some of his energy.

Last modified September 23 2009 03:36 PM