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Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives [Paperback]

David Sloan Wilson
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

26 Dec 2007
What is the biological reason for gossip?
For laughter? For the creation of art?
Why do dogs have curly tails?
What can microbes tell us about morality?

These and many other questions are tackled by renowned evolutionist David Sloan Wilson in this witty and groundbreaking new book. With stories that entertain as much as they inform, Wilson outlines the basic principles of evolution and shows how, properly understood, they can illuminate the length and breadth of creation, from the origin of life to the nature of religion. Now everyone can move beyond the sterile debates about creationism and intelligent design to share Darwin’s panoramic view of animal and human life, seamlessly connected to each other.

Evolution, as Wilson explains, is not just about dinosaurs and human origins, but about why all species behave as they do—from beetles that devour their own young, to bees that function as a collective brain, to dogs that are smarter in some respects than our closest ape relatives. And basic evolutionary principles are also the foundation for humanity’s capacity for symbolic thought, culture, and morality.

In example after example, Wilson sheds new light on Darwin’s grand theory and how it can be applied to daily life. By turns thoughtful, provocative, and daringly funny, Evolution for Everyone addresses some of the deepest philosophical and social issues of this or any age. In helping us come to a deeper understanding of human beings and our place in the world, it might also help us to improve that world.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 390 pages
  • Publisher: Delta; Reprint edition (26 Dec 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385340923
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385340922
  • Product Dimensions: 20.7 x 14 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 277,435 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolutionary theory as a guide to life 4 Feb 2009
By Dennis Littrell TOP 500 REVIEWER
"The most extraordinary fact about public awareness of evolution is not that 50 percent don't believe the theory but that nearly 100 percent haven't connected it to anything of importance in their lives." (p. 315)

This is a bit curious, but when you consider that Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology was published only 34 years ago, and further that evolutionary psychology has only recently made its way into the curriculum of our university psychology departments, it is understandable. For my part, like David Sloan Wilson (son of Sloan Wilson who wrote a couple of fiction bestsellers in the 1950s, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and A Summer Place), I took to the application of evolutionary ideas to my life the way a duck takes to water. But the overall public awareness and acceptance has lagged, in part due, as Wilson explains, to the failure of the larger academic community to incorporate evolutionary ideas and findings into their fields of study.

That is changing fast with evolutionary medicine, evolutionary psychology and other scientific approaches now established fields of study. What David Wilson hopes follows is an awareness of evolutionary ideas and principles in the social sciences and the humanities, which is one of the reasons he wrote this book which grew out a class he taught to undergraduates.

The essence of evolutionary thought as applied to our daily lives is to ask the question, how does such and such a behavior or such and such an idea relate to the way evolution works? For example, not so long ago we were urged to drink lots of water every day (probably from studies funded by bottled water companies!).
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent 1 Mar 2009
Evolution for Everyone is excellent. The content is excellent and the writing style is excellent and the book is a joy to read.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's not only the bugs that are buried 12 Dec 2007
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
One has to give David Sloan Wilson full marks for perserverence. He has spent a good part of his career in a struggle to bolster an untenable idea. Evolution, he says, works on "groups". Not on "species" as once was thought, or down a lineage of individuals as Charles Darwin long ago contended, but on something in between. Having failed to convince the scientific community, in this most recent of his books he turns to a new ally, the general public. In this work, he wants people, in particular his fellow countrymen, to understand that anything to do with life has evolutionary roots. While that's an admirable quest, and offered in a style more scientists should emulate, his reason for that ambition remains fixed on his long-standing crusade.

Wilson starts humbly with a study of a simple creature - the burying beetle. He uses the beetle's reproductive habits to demonstrate the vagaries of nature's selection process. The beetle is a form of scavenger - hunting small mammal corpses which it returns to its burrow. Instead of laying eggs on the remains, however, the female - who remains in residence, unlike most insects - deposits them on the burrow walls. As they hatch, the parents assess the amount of food available and do a head count of the hatchlings. If there are more young than food to sustain them, the parents simply pare down the population. Wilson's purpose in relating this bizarre behaviour is to demonstrate that anyone can find how Darwin's idea works in their own back yard. It's not necessary to be a specialist nor even have a university degree to study the evolutionary process. Just be prepared to be observant and perhaps get your knees soiled.

As a scientist of wide interests, Wilson bemoans the lack of knowledge of evolution in the US population.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book 24 July 2013
By Maggie
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a book everyone should read. It is so interesting and educational. Sheds light on so many things in life.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  48 reviews
109 of 119 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Useful and Refreshing View of a Vital Subject 27 April 2007
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
There are religious objections to the theory of evolution, but not scientific ones. There may be a few rogue scientists, seldom biologists, who object to evolution, but they are not the cause for 54% of Americans (latest Harris poll) rejecting the idea that humans developed from earlier species. The theory of evolution (and it is perhaps essential to re-state that "theory" in science does not mean "hypothesis" or "guess") is as soundly based as any scientific theory, and the odds that it will be overturned by future evidence are about the same as the odds that, say, atomic theory will be. Scientists have tried to make headway against fundamentalists who believe in a literal Bible (or Koran), in creationism, or in the Intelligent Design which is creationism in new clothes. Scientists have the bulk of the evidence, and fundamentalists have the faith. The two world views won't come to an agreement, but David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University, does not involve himself in the religion versus science debate. He is, admittedly, an academic biologist, which just about guarantees that he is an evolutionist, and furthermore, he is not a religious man, at least in the way ordinary believers would like to define religion. The approach he describes in his book, -Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives- (Delacorte Press) is not a salvo into the argument between science and religion. It is instead a highly original and refreshing approach which grew out of a course Wilson teaches, with the same name as the book, and the course is indeed for everyone, not just science majors and not just undergraduates. The course, and the book, is not a denunciation of the detractors of evolution, nor a in-depth study of evolutionary details. Rather, it is an invitation to look at how evolutionary biologists do their work and an invitation to feel free to "try this at home" to see how evolution itself operates on many levels. Readers who take Wilson up on the invitation are in for a new way of looking at evolution, and a charming and amusing narrative that presents the subject in many novel ways.

Wilson shows that evolution's basics are easy to grasp, and they are certainly not counterintuitive like the principles in "hard" science like relativity or quantum mechanics. There are three ingredients that are essential, but anyone can understand them. There is variation among individuals in a species; there are consequences from this variation that make some individuals better at surviving and reproducing; and there is heredity that makes children resemble their parents. It isn't hard to understand any of these three ingredients, but when they are combined, they allow for successive generations to change, to increase fitness, and to become better adapted. Wilson's review demonstrates the principles working at all levels, not only for animals that are familiar to us as species, but within genes, cells, organs, bodies, social groups, nations, and religions. Time and again he shows what he calls "roll-up-your-sleeves" science, careful, non-esoteric work that produces one more brick, one more fact, in the evolutionary edifice. "The idea that science is hard to do and facts can never become reliable is incorrect at the brick level," he writes.

Evolutionary principles can be shown in higher social levels. Wilson decries the "social Darwinism" of the nineteenth century which justified levels of inequality. Human groups and nations can aspire to higher understanding of evolution. "We are not fated by our genes to engage in violent conflict," he writes, and shows that like everything else in the evolutionary realm, violence is a strategy that works sometimes but loses to less bloody strategies under other conditions. Not only nations but religions can be understood as social forces that whatever their devotion is to the supernatural, they are products of social selection, like bodies and beehives seen at other levels in this book. Wilson's previous book _Darwin's Cathedral_ was about his research in this realm, and shows that religions can be understood from an evolutionary perspective if examined for what they cause people to do. There are social studies about us, and about other primates, and about "lower" species, and even about tumors that show that there is a strong evolutionary urge to discourage cheaters and extract punishment in the constant battle between good and bad at all levels. Altruism can be encouraged. Wilson's optimism, both about the improvement of our futures and about the ongoing importance of scientific endeavor, is a delight. He writes, "The most extraordinary thing about public awareness of evolution is not that 50 per cent don't believe the theory but that nearly 100 percent haven't connected it to anything of importance in their lives." Here is a fine invitation to start making those vital connections.
47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This Book Really Is for Everyone 22 April 2007
By E. K. LeGrand - Published on Amazon.com
As an avid reader of evolutionary biology books, I almost didn't get past the basic-sounding title. But then I saw that it was written by David Sloan Wilson, an eminent evolutionary theorist, and I found a real gem. In this very readable book, Wilson opens with a discussion of how simple and productive evolutionary thinking can be. He shows how he leads undergraduates from all disciplines to use an evolutionary viewpoint (asking "why" questions) to get a new perspective on life. Much of the book consists of examples taken from his career of asking and answering the right questions in various areas of biology as well as in the social sciences. The book really does have something (a lot) for everyone. For the lay reader, it opens up new perspectives on the world. For students, he provides a role model for a successful academic career. For teachers, he shows how evolutionary thinking can make biology exciting and add new dimensions to the humanities. For those already knowledgeable, he provides new leads, interpretations, and inspiration. While the overwhelming majority of biologists are comfortable with the basics of evolution through natural selection, most still are unfamiliar with the power of asking "why?" questions. Too many biologists dismiss it as "just-so stories" or hand waving. Let Wilson show you why evolutionary thinking is for everyone.
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Evolution of Everything 17 Oct 2007
By Dr. Richard G. Petty - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It is distressing to see yet more unnecessary arguments revolving around evolution: misunderstandings on the one hand and dogmatic insistence on the other. And it may surprise you to discover where we find the scientists and the people of religious faith.

A key point, and one that it developed exceptionally well in this terrific book, is that evolution is not just about human origins, dinosaurs and fossils. The model can be usefully applied to almost every facet of existence. Living systems have a natural tendency to evolve toward ever-greater order and complexity, while "inorganic" matter tends toward increasing entropy.

David Sloan Wilson has written some excellent scholarly works on evolution and this is his first book for a general audience. He is a man on a mission. Five years ago he attracted considerable praise, but also some controversy for his book Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society in which he attempted to bridge the gap between evolutionary theory and religion.

Wilson is distinguished professor of biological sciences with a joint appointment in anthropology at Binghamton University. He has become convinced that evolution can be more widely accepted once people understand its consequences for human welfare and he now directs a campus-wide evolutionary studies program called EvoS that is being adopted by other universities.

He is on record as saying that, "When evolution is presented as unthreatening, explanatory, and useful, it can be easily grasped and appreciated by most people, regardless of their religious or political beliefs."

Wilson must be a natural teacher: his language is straightforward and evocative and he knows when and how to insert the compelling anecdotes. He outlines the basic principles of evolution in a way that should be easily accessible for non-experts. He then uses these evolutionary principles to explain a range of phenomena: Why do wild dogs have curly tails? Why do some beetles commit infanticide? Why do people engage in behaviors that do not seem to be adaptive, like laughing and creating art?

He uses published research to try and answer many other questions. For example, is there a biological advantage to being a highly sensitive person? One answer is that under very stressful conditions, they are able to find meaning where other cannot. This brings to mind the work of Viktor Frankl who found that people who could find meaning in the face of terrible adversity were more likely to survive the concentration camps of the Holocaust.

Wilson also believes that religion is a social glue that enables groups of people to interact, function and survive as coherent units.

Nobody will agree with every one of his hypotheses, but they are fun and interesting reading, and his writing always stimulates and challenges. Even if you disagree with some of his conclusions, or feel that they undervalue human spiritual experience, they are well worth reading.

Highly recommended.

Richard G. Petty, MD, author of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolutionary Biology Brought to Life 28 Jun 2007
By Herbert Gintis - Published on Amazon.com
David Sloan Wilson is an eminent evolutionary biologist whose major claim to fame is his steadfast and highly creative support for group selection theory and the importance of altruism in a period, roughly the years 1965 to 2000, when the notion was considered beyond the pale by most biologists. While there is still a sizeable minority who reject these notions, both theory and evidence have quite strongly supported DS Wilson's position.

There are many books upholding evolutionary theory, but Wilson's contribution is distinctive in its thorough-going humanity. Rather than tediously dissect the absurd arguments of Intelligent Design critics, he showers the reader with page after page of delightful science stories. Like Einstein and many other scientists, Wilson does not believe in a personal God, but rather that God is revealed in the wonder of the natural world and the capacity of humans to love and care for one another.

Many opponents of evolutionary biology have never actually met a working scientist and do not know how science operates. They believe a scientific discipline is like a religious cult, deeply protective of its dogmas and viciously ostracizing dissenters and innovators. While this is somewhat true, especially in the short run, for the social sciences, it is not at all true for the natural sciences, including biology. Biology journals frequently publish critiques of natural selection (e.g., the great Stephen J. Gould's) and frankly, I am a bit bored with their openness. There is not a single cogent critique in the whole literature. Wilson gives the flavor of openness and delight in discovery that characterizes many, perhaps most, evolutionary biologists.

Wilson asserts the simplicity of the basic mechanism of evolution: hereditary reproduction, non-directed variation (mutation), and selection based on fitness. He addresses nicely the major conceptual difficulty in understanding this process, which is how such undirected processes can product complexity and beauty. The great work on evolutionary transmission by Szathmary and Maynard Smith certainly helps make this process concretely comprehensible, and validates the notion of emergence in complex dynamical systems, which operates in many spheres of natural science.

Wilson stresses that cultural evolution is subject to the same dynamic as genetic evolution: heredity, non-directed mutation, and selection. He applies this to the evolutionary interpretation of human religion, summarizing very nicely his book, Darwin's Cathedral. I quite agree with his theory of religion (which, by the way, is not atheistic), and came to the same opinion, independently, several years ago. He contrasts his position, which is basically that religions survive to the extent that they foster prosocial behaviors and attitudes among adherents, with the cognitive theories of Boyer and Atran. I think the latter theories are in fact complementary to Wilson's account of religion. And, as Wilson makes clear, having a scientific theory of religion is not necessarily an atheistic enterprise. There are, after all, scientific theories of science itself.

This book is a defense of evolutionary theory, but Wilson smuggles in enough of his own personal life to make this an autobiography as well. Indeed, I believe the autobiographical side of the book is among its most attractive features. Wilson is never self-aggrandizing, and he never misses a chance to say how much scientific curiosity enriches his life. By his own account, he has had a rich and fulfilling life. His description of his family relationships is deeply moving, enough so that I was impelled to reread two of the novels written by his father, Sloan Wilson (The Man in the Gray Flanner Suit and A Summer Place).
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyman's an evolutionist 21 May 2007
By Stephen Balbach - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful book that will change lives. Just about any
phenomenon can be viewed from an evolutionary perspective - from the big
questions of religion and war, to the curious such as why we smile. The
book is only 350 pages, but has 36 chapters, each one packed with
information easily accessible to a general reader (I could only digest
50 pages a day). Abundant references to further reading. A central
thread is that seeing the world as an evolutionist is not hard and many
age-old mysteries can and have been recently solved by so-called
amateurs relying on the power of the idea of evolution, it is a wide
open field that you don't have to be a "scientist" to understand or even
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