Human Nature, by James Trefil: Review

Subtitle: A blueprint for managing the earth--by people, for people.

I am using Trefil’s book to make a point: whether or not you believe in natural selection does matter, if you’re James Trefil.

Trefil equates evolution with the action of natural selection. By removing ourselves from the operation of natural selection, he says, we’ve removed ourselves from nature. We are now something different from nature, that we can dispose of it as we see fit. Well, of course we can, but to achieve what and on what grounds? Trefil lists the various positions he’s heard people come up with, but sticks with the one he started with—we should manage nature intelligently for the benefit of us humans.

Suppose, though, you start out with a different assumption. Suppose you equate evolution with whatever’s responsible for how all living creatures are. That includes us. Then any grounds on which we argue are also products of evolution—after all, what other sources of agency are there to draw on? Suppose those grounds are deficient. Where could we look for better ones? Where else but where the ones we’ve already got came from—-evolution.

The point I’m making may be hard to grasp. A millennium of Christianity drilled into us that we humans are not part of nature--God made us special, different from the other animals; he gave us a soul, with the power to reason. When we allocate to evolution a mechanism, such as natural selection, that we admit is incapable of carrying us into and through the process of becoming civilized and developing reason, we perpetuate that old belief. Evolution is OK for creating plants and animals, but not us. We’re somehow “beyond” evolution.

Let’s turn this around. Suppose we say it was through processes of evolution that we acquired our capacities for civilization and reason. If we continue to suppose that natural selection alone could not be responsible for them, we’re faced with having to conclude that natural selection is not the sole primary mechanism of evolution. Then, since evolution is not limited to such processes as genetic mutation and natural selection, it must be able to transact somehow in terms of the capabilities we manifested in the course of civilization. If we can be genuinely creative--by coming up with bright ideas for how to manage the planet for example--then evolution can be genuinely creative too, since it crafted us. Where else could we get our ingenuity from? According to this way of thinking, we can’t display any gifts except those that evolution has already built into us. There’s nowhere else for us to get them from.

To me this suggests, if we want to understand human nature more fully, to find capabilities in ourselves we haven’t yet realized, we should look for them in the work of nature. Assuming that, with our present capabilities, we can fittingly dispose of nature seems to me short-sighted.

Why it matters what James Trefil believes is, he’s a fellow of the World Economic Forum. David Sloan Wilson is another ardent supporter of natural selection, and frequent speaker at economics conferences. In an article in his Huffington Post blog he writes of a growing academic movement including a conference titled Evolutionary Thinking and Its Policy Implications for Modern Capitalism. “As president of the Evolution Institute, I am privileged to function as a coordinator in addition to my own contribution, including a collaboration with NSF's National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) on integrating economics and evolution.” He headlined the article “Evolution Begins to Occupy Center Stage in Economic Debates.” Oh, dear! I hope not. Do they really know what they’re doing?

Some chapter and verse:

About nature and natural selection: “One of the greatest scientific discoveries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that life is, at bottom, a matter of chemistry… A system is natural if the living things in it develop according to the rules of evolution by natural selection, whether or not the environment in which those living things exist is altered by human beings.

About humans and natural selection: “From a scientific point of view, what differentiates the lives of those ancestors [other hominids] from our own is easy to state—they lived their lives in a world completely governed by the iron laws of natural selection… But then, about ten thousand years ago… we gradually removed ourselves from the natural system, based on survival of the fittest, and began to construct our own world… The human race stepped out of natural selection and into a world where science and technology increasingly dominated our choices and our future… In the future, natural selection will be replaced by human manipulation of genomes.”

About our relationship to nature: “given that we have the ability to manage our planet, what will we manage it for? When I go through the exercise of asking how the planet should be managed, I come up with a very simple rule: The global ecosystem should be managed for the benefit, broadly conceived, of human beings. I call this the benefit-to-humans principle.”

The rest of the book is a handy guide to technological fixes through which we could manage the planet for our benefit.

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Human Nature human evolution