Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Evolution and social constructivism

I attended a talk last night by David Sloan Wilson on "Evolutionary Social Constructivism."

His thesis is that evolutionary theory provides a "unique" theoretical framework for understanding not just the diversity of life and patterns of anatomy, behavior, etc. in living things, but also for understanding human behavior and human experience. The humanities and social sciences, he argued, are only just beginning to recognize the power of evolutionary thinking. He argues for increasing access of students and academics to training in evolutionary theory and for recognition of the value that evolutionary frameworks will have for fields as diverse as economics, psychology, politcal science, social work, literature, and religion. He also believes that there are schools of thinking in the humanities (he mentioned "potmodernists," whoever they are) which are "anti-evolution" (whatever that is), which I suppose (this was not clear) means that they treat humans as disembodied thinkers without situated biological bodies and ancestral histories.

I think he meant two things by "evolutionary theory." For one, he meant the history of human evolution, including how the story of human evolution explains our range of behaviors and psychology. For instance, in their book Unto Others D.S.Wilson and Eliot Sober examine how altruism, or prosociality, can be explained by group selection. Second, by evolutionary theory he also seem to mean any process that involves replication and selection. He included recent and short-lived phenomena in cultural evolution among the things that we humanists could better understand if we embraced evolutionary theory more whole-heartedly.

I'm in favor of promoting education in evolutionary theory--for undergraduates, for academics, and in grade schools. And I think that Wilson is right that "thinking through evolution" will be a fertile method with as-yet-undiscovered applications in the humanities and social sciences. But I fail to see the connection with social constructivism or how the term "evolutionary social constructivism" adds something useful to discourse.

"Social constructivism" already means too many different things to too many different people. In education, it indicates the philosophy that learning is collaborative. In social theory, it is a way of conceiving of social reality as created by interactive social processes--social constructivists investigate the actions and texts that support institutions and norms. In philosophy, it is both an anti-realist ontological thesis (that categories of things are not given but are human inventions) and an epistemological thesis (that knowledge bears some mark of the social context of its production).

What would "evolutionary social constructivism" mean? According to Wilson, it is a program of studying the effect of human evolutionary history on the objects of study of the social sciences--on rationality, on social behaviors, and so on. But this seems to be in opposition to social constructivism, not a revision, modification, or refinement of it. Social constructivism emphasizes the contingency and open-endedness of what we know (and of social institutions, learning, etc.). Although there is an element of historical contingency in how our evolutionary past happened to play out, evolutionary explanations tend to emphasize a way in which behavior or abilities or knowledge is determined. It also seems to be a thesis at a different level than a social constructivist thesis--it does not make a claim about what there is (ontology) or what we know (epistemology). It is a program of study.

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