Science again corrupted by ideology: Slate distorts evolutionary biology to make it seem capitalistic and anti-socialistic

January 25, 2020 • 11:00 am

UPDATE: I left this comment after the Slate piece, but it appears to have been removed. I’m not sure why, as there are far more vitriolic comments in the thread.

Jerry Coyne

The claim that the idea of cooperation is novel and paradigm-shifting in evolutionary biology is palpably ridiculous. All of the examples given by the author are not only known, as well as many other examples of mutualism that long preceded Margulis (lichens, termites, cleaner fish and “cleanees”), but fit firmly within the neo-Darwinian paradigm. There’s nothing new here except the author’s claim that the idea of cooperation is novel. To anybody who’s studied evolutionary biology, this is nonsense.  Further, the author apparently hasn’t read Prum, who actually tried to RESURRECT Darwin’s idea of sexual selection.

I have written a long critique of this piece at my website It’s the latest piece, and since I may not be allowed to post links, just go to my site and read it.  The upshot: this piece evinces either ignorance or deliberate obfuscation, and is also misleading in that it tries to distort the history and nature of evolutionary biology in the service of an ideology (apparently socialism).


Once again we have a collision between ideology and science, but in this case the perceived conclusions of science are in fact wrong, so the called-for revision of evolutionary biology in light of woke ideology isn’t needed. In a new article in Slate (see below), John Favini argues that evolutionary biologists are completely wedded to the paradigm of competition between individuals and between species, and further argues that the idea of individuals or species being cooperative is both reviled, new, and non-Darwinian. If you’re at all familiar with the history of reciprocal altruism, kin selection, and mutualism between species, you’ll know that these ideas—which all involve the evolution of cooperation—are both over half a century old and well ingrained in modern evolutionary theory.

But Favini is either unfamiliar with this literature, which is inexcusable for a graduate student in anthropology who claims a knowledge of biology, or hides it, which is duplicitous. I won’t make a judgment except that this article, which seems more attuned to the Discovery Institute (or even Salon), doesn’t belong in Slate, which is supposed to be a decent site. (Hitchens used to write for it.)

Favini is identified at the site as “a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Virginia and a freelance writer. He is interested in climate change, environmental politics, and science as a cultural domain.”

From this you can derive one speculation and one conclusion. The speculation is that Favini is a cultural rather than a physical anthropologist; the former tend to be social justice warriors who often downplay scientific facts in favor of their ideology (they often, for example, completely dismiss the idea of “race”, though it has a qualified reality that’s meaningful). Second, the “science as a cultural domain” bit is worrying, and in fact is what gave rise to the Slate article (click on screenshot below to see it).

Favini situates Darwin at the outset as a white, elite, Englishman subject to the social forces of his time, and predisposed to think about competition because his theory of natural selection originated after reading Malthus on competition. From this, throughout the article, he concludes that all of Darwinism, then and now, is marinated in the idea of competition.

. . .  like all humans, Darwin brought culture with him wherever he traveled. His descriptions of the workings of nature bear resemblance to prevailing thinking on human society within elite, English circles at the time. This is not a mere coincidence, and tracing his influences is worthwhile. It was, after all, the heyday of classical liberalism, dominated by thinkers like Adam Smith, David Hume, and Thomas Malthus, who valorized an unregulated market. They were debating minor points within a consensus on the virtues of competition. In an especially humble (and revealing) moment, Darwin characterized the principles underlying his thinking as naught but “the doctrine of Malthus, applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.”

. . . More than just a cliché, though, the supposed naturalness of competition has played a central role in substantiating the laissez-faire variety of capitalism the majority of the American political spectrum has championed for the past four or so decades. Indeed, any non-market-based solution to social issues usually falls prey to claims of utopianism, of ignoring the fundamental selfishness of the human species. . . . To put it simply, we have let Darwinism set the horizon of possibility for human behavior. Competition has become a supposed basic feature of all life, something immutable, universal, natural.

Regardless of the idea of “social Darwinism” (which Darwin never held and which has been completely abandoned by intellectuals), the facts of competition between genes (i.e., natural selection), competition between individuals (which produces natural selection), and competition between members of different species (which also produces natural selection as well as interesting aspects of ecology) are real and important. In fact, without competition between the different forms of genes for representation in later generations, we wouldn’t have natural selection at all!

And to the extent that natural selection is responsible for most interesting features of life, including biodiversity itself, it is “natural and universal.” But “natural” doesn’t mean that we have to put up with it, for we derail natural selection all the time by using doctors, dentists, and optometrists, and by using contraception. Further, we’ve tamed competition between individuals with laws against aggression, rape, and so on. Finally, we’re beginning to tame the competition between species by removing invasive species from places they don’t belong and by giving up the foolish idea that we humans should dominate all of nature.

Why is Favini attacking competition at such great length? We get a clue early in the article, as well as later. Early on, he says this:

Yet new research from across various fields of study is throwing the putative scientific basis of this consensus into doubt. Mind you, there have always been people, scientists and otherwise, who conceived of life outside a Darwinian paradigm—the idea of evolutionary biology is and has been a conversation among a mostly white and male global elite. Yet, even within centers of institutional power, like universities in North America, competition’s position as the central force driving evolution has been seriously challenged recently. In fact, criticisms have been mounting at least since biologist Lynn Margulis began publishing in the late ’60s.

You guessed it. It’s those damn white males, again, Jake! They are the ones with the power to push an unwarranted consensus about competition in the “elite universities.” According to Favini, it took a female, Lynn Margulis, to dethrone competition as the centerpiece of evolutionary biology. Well, that’s not quite true, because Darwinian speculations about cooperation, and the recognition that evolution can promote it both within and between species, has been an accepted part of evolution well before Margulis found that a form of “cooperation” was responsible for the advent of the eukaryotic cell. Later on, we’ll hear Favini touting the “heterodox voices” of indigenous Americans as helping dethrone the idea of competition, a woke concept that, sadly, isn’t true, either.

Favini then bangs on at length about all the supposedly non-Darwinian instances of cooperation that he says, have “fractured Western biology’s consensus on Darwin”. This is, to be gauche, pure bullshit. Most of these phenomena have been known for decades, and none of those pose any kind of challenge for Darwinism. They include the merging of two prokaryotes into a cell containing mitochondria, and, in plants, a cell containing chloroplasts. This “endosymbiosis” idea was a wonderful and true hypothesis pushed (but not originated) by Lynn Margulis. And it can be seen as an example of cooperation, in which the “big” cell benefits from having energy-generating organelles, while the organelles (which, like the cell itself, underwent evolution to promote the interaction) gain protection and sustenance.

Margulis’s theory was initially met with some resistance, but was quickly accepted after microscopic and especially DNA evidence showed that she was right. But the important thing in our discussion is that this is just one example of the kind of symbiosis that was accepted long before Margulis. Well known symbioses include those between leafcutter ants and fungi, between the termites and the protists and bacteria that help them digest cellulose, between the algae and fungi that constitute lichens, between cleaner fish and the “cleanees,” between clownfish and the sea anemones they inhabit, and the many species that have symbiotic bacteria or algae, like the bacteria that inhabit light organs and produce light in deep-sea fish (see photo at bottom).

It’s important to recognize that these examples of interspecific symbiosis (“mutualisms,” in which both partners benefit), are perfectly consistent with neo-Darwinism, and have never been seen as a challenge to the theory. Each species benefits from associating with the other, and natural selection will act and has acted to tighten the mutualisms. More recent findings of a mutualistic “microbiome” in ourselves and other species are also something that slots perfectly into a Darwinian paradigm, just as does another form of symbiosis: parasitism.

I’ll add here that cooperation within groups, beginning with kin selection that forges bonds between relatives (and explaining the wonderfully cooperative castes within a social-insect colony), and extending to “reciprocal altruism”, in which small bands of animals undergo individual selection to treat their groupmates better, has also never been problematic for Darwinism. With the recognition by Hamilton, Trivers, and others that genes in you are also genes in your relatives, and that genes for scratching the backs of others who scratch yours can also be advantageous, the multifarious forms of cooperation in nature have developed into a wonderful story and a true story, but also, contra Favini, an old story.

Favini, however, pretends that all this work on cooperation has upended evolutionary biology, fracturing our consensus on Darwinism. Given that all the examples he adduces haven’t tarnished evolutionary theory one bit, he’s just reaching wildly to pretend that he’s found something new. He even cites the renegade “Third Way” group of evolutionists who, to my mind, don’t pose any serious alternative to Darwinism:

Put simply, life is beginning to look ever more complex and ever more collaborative. All this has fractured Western biology’s consensus on Darwin. In response to all these new insights, some biologists instinctively defend Darwin, an ingrained impulse from years of championing his work against creationists. Others, like Margulis herself, feel Darwin had something to offer, at least in understanding the animal world, but argue his theories were simplified and elevated to a doctrine in the generations after his passing. Others are chartering research projects that depart from established Darwinian thinking in fundamental ways—like ornithologist Richard Prum, who recently authored a book on the ways beauty, rather than any utilitarian measure of fitness, shapes evolution. Indeed, alongside the research I have explored here, works by scientists like Carl Woese on horizontal gene transfer and new insights from epigenetics have pushed some to advocate for an as-yet-unseen “Third Way,” a theory for life that is neither creationism nor Neo-Darwinian evolution.

Note that Favini gives Darwin only a bit of credit here, saying that “Margulis [felt] Darwin had something to offer.” DUHHH! And as far as Prum’s book on sexual selection for “beauty” goes, well, as you may recall, in that book Prum revives Darwin’s own theory of sexual selection!  Did Favini even read the book? While Prum grossly exaggerates the ubiquity of and evidence for the “runaway” model of sexual selection, make no mistake about it: Prum’s theory is thoroughly Darwinian, incorporating Favini’s despised “utilitarian measures of fitness.” (Just look at the theoretical models of runaway sexual selection.)

I’ll add, to complete the record on Darwin, that he did not ignore cooperation. In The Descent of Man, for instance, he speculates on the origin of human altruism, although he floats a theory of group selection to explain it. He also ponders the evolution of cooperation in social insects, and, in the chapter on “Instinct” in The Origin, suggests that sterile castes can be produced by “family selection,” which many have taken to be one of the first inklings of kin selection among relatives.

It’s at the end of the piece that Favini’s mask slips as he plunges into wokeness, touting the insights of indigenous Americans (which haven’t influenced evolutionary theory), and then dissing capitalism, which he sees as the outcome of Darwinism rather than of economic and social forces.

First, the indigenous people:

This lack of agreement isn’t such a bad thing. Leaving the Darwinian consensus behind means a more capacious, diverse, and ultimately more rigorous science. The recent dissensus has opened up more room for important, heterodox voices like Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer speaks of plants as highly intelligent beings and teachers, a sharp departure from the reductionist, utilitarian approach to plant and animal life that passed as scientific rigor within the Darwinian framework. Much of the recent research I have highlighted might count as what Kim TallBear, a scholar and enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, calls “settler epiphanies”—belated “discoveries” by settlers of Indigenous knowledge that was either ignored or outright suppressed by colonial land appropriation and attempted genocide.

Certainly ethnobotany and the knowledge of indigenous people included in that field, have been extremely valuable. A huge proportion of our drugs, for example, come from plants, some based on how they were used by locals. But indigenous peoples haven’t changed the scientific “way of knowing” with their “spiritual way of knowing” (something that Kimmerer seems to tout), nor have they made Darwinism swerve even a millimeter from its path. (Note Favini’s denigration of evolutionary biology as “reductionist and utilitarian”. It is of course neither.)

Finally, Favini lapses into socialism. But whatever its merits, socialism cannot and should not be justified by citing the evolution of cooperation, or by arguing that an unjustified view of evolutionary biology has severely impeded its acceptance by propping the notion that capitalism’s competitition is “natural”  Social Darwinism might have been mildly influential at the time of Herbert Spencer, but that view has long since fallen by the wayside.

Overall, then, what we get in Favini’s piece is pure politics, with some Darwinism thrown in to demonize and blame for competition:

Far too many environmentalists assume that people, driven by innate self-interest, are bound to harm ecology, that we will inevitably clear-cut, extract, consume, so long as it gives us an advantage over the next guy. This leaves us deeply disempowered, with few solutions to climate change outside limiting humanity’s impact through some kind of population control. When competitive self-interest is revealed to be a mutable behavior, the causes of climate change come into greater clarity: not human nature, but an economic system that demands competition, that distributes resources such that a tiny elite can live tremendously carbon-intensive lifestyles while the rest of us struggle for a pittance. Leaving competition behind, we can also imagine richer solutions: climate policies that problematize the tremendous wealth of the few, that build economies concerned with collective well-being and sustainability.

. . . Science can play a critical role in liberating our imagination from competition’s grip. It can show us all the symbioses that make life possible. Such a science can remind us that we can act and be otherwise—that the shortsighted self-interest that motivates, for instance, continued fossil fuel extraction is endemic to capitalism, not to our species, much less to life itself. We can find ways to live collaboratively with the bewildering array of life that roots and scurries across our planet, but only if we reckon with competition’s hold on our thinking—for if we see life as merely a competitive struggle to survive, we will make it one.

I’ve pondered why Favini has so badly misrepresented the history and content of evolutionary biology, and the only conclusion I can reach is that he’s a woke cultural anthropologist who is willing to distort the nature and history of science in the interest of promoting a socialist program. But he’s dead wrong in claiming that evolution is completely obsessed with competition (except between genes when you talk about natural selection), and equally wrong about the evolution of cooperation having been completely neglected until Lynn Margulis came along.

Since Favini is young, I won’t be too hard on him, except to advise him to drop this particular hobbyhorse, as it will only hurt what reputation he has. Or, rather, what reputation he has among evolutionists, as cultural anthropology is largely a miasma of nescience.

A mutualism: a female anglerfish, Linophryne polypogon, with her light organ fueled by bacteria. Photo by Peter David in Wired. See this source for more information about the mutualism.


Competition: come up with a book title!

June 29, 2018 • 10:26 am

by Matthew Cobb

For the last three years I have been writing a popular science book, and I’m now getting to the final stretch, but I don’t have a satisfactory title. So, I’m looking to readers for inspiration. Please pitch in with your suggestions in the comments, and if myself and the publishers choose your title, you get a free, signed book, your name mentioned in the Acknowledgements and my eternal gratitude.

Here’s the difficult part – what the book is about.

It is a history of our ideas about how the brain works. It starts in pre-history (when we thought everything was about the heart) and goes through the ideas that have been put forward, right up to the present day and even to tomorrow. There is lots of science in there, but also some philosophy from the 17th and 18th centuries.

It is NOT a history of brain anatomy, a history of the Hard Problem (how consciousness arises), a history of neuroscience or a history of psychology, but it does contain some of these things.

The book looks at how the metaphors we have used about how the brain works have changed with technology (to put it crudely: hydraulics -> electricity -> telephone exchange -> computer -> network), but also how they are all inherently unsatisfactory. That’s the challenge – getting over this idea in something snappy.

My original working title was: Thinking Matter – A History of How the Brain Works. This has the advantage of being clever and referring to the first debate about the material basis of thought, in the late 17th century, when Locke suggested there might be ‘thinking matter’. But it’s been used a couple of times before, and the sales team at my publishers (Profile Books in London) thought it was meh. So at the moment it’s informally called ‘The Brain Book’.

In case it inspires you, the chapter titles are currently taken from quotes used in that chapter, so have varying contemporary styles. Those I’ve written so far (takes us up to the post-war world) are:

1. We feel here

2. Where is fancy bred

3. Souls of wheels and springs

4. The electric fluid

5. The bump for theft

6. Most marvellous atoms of matter

7. The functions of the brain

8. An infinite series of switches

9. One way to understand a mechanism is to make that mechanism

10. The fundamental feature of neural machinery

11. A neurophysiological postulate

That’s it. Good luck!