Excellent overview of Evolutionary theory's undermining of traditional and religious viewpoints. Thorough trouncing of religions attempts to explain how the universe and life came into being; how scientific revolutions have undermined our egocentric notions of our place in the universe and animal world; and the lack of objective foundations for morality.
It has a very good overview of the book in the introduction, and working chapter section and internal links (not always found on kindle books!)
Great book for those looking at aetheism (for or against), science and philosophy.
Stewart-Williams approaches his subject with logic, grace and good humour. Readers who can't quite put their finger on why religion makes no sense to them, or why justifications for religion don't convince them, will be glad they read this book. And animal-lovers will love it too.
In 1995 Daniel Dennett wrote 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life'. This book does not illuminate the mechanisms of culture . It tries to be scientific in tone but is narrative driven and ultimately the subject matter is too big for Dennett. The same can be said about Steve Stewart-Williams.
I found a lot of work here that was very familiar from books written over the last 2-3 decades and the alarming thing here is that through all the narrative in this book we've had 10+ schools of thought since 1859 that have tried to Darwinise culture (and evolutionary psychology is one of them, borne out of another failed attempt: sociobiology)and they have all failed to generate an accepted theory of culture. That is a lasting, and inconvenient fact for evolutionary perspectives.
Stewart-Williams is dogmatically bound to the idea that humans are not exceptional and can be explained by the laws (tendencies?) of evolutionary theory just like all other life. Again, evolutionary theory hasn't managed to generate an accepted theory of culture in over 150 years, a period of time that has saw more science than in the rest of recorded history.
Culture is not nature. Any student/scholar of humans that doesn't grasp that or is dogmatically chained to the view that human exceptionalism cannot be accepted because that opens to the door to religion is only going to struggle in this area and we can add Stewart-Williams to an expanding list, Dennett, Dawkins, Pinker, Shermer, the list goes on. The central question in mid-19thC natural science (natural theology) was one of design. Evolution (with natural selection one of several rhythms) opened the door to a more sophisticated understanding of the process. It is a completely different challenge for students/scholars on humans. Humans design. In fact human can't stop designing and the human social world is made of trillions of artificial products, processes and policies that nature didn't make, culture did. The central question for students of human behaviour is 'drive' and authors like Stewart-Williams are not only reluctant to seriously acknowledge cultural drives they have a seemingly flexible evolutionary theology that can account for human activity through narrative alone. On page 521, the very last page of Dennett's 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea' he writes:
'I urge caution alongside the enthusiasm I hope I have kindled in you. I have learned from my own embarrassing experience how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection. Second-rate versions of the fundamental ideas continue to bedevil us, so we must keep a close watch, correcting each other as we go. The only way of avoiding the mistakes is to learn from the mistakes we have already made.'
*Seriously, read that again. 'remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection'
With no general theory of culture, like the one evolutionary theory provides for the biological and botanical sciences then no-one can really say with confidence how much is evolution and how much is culture. Any books that try and overcompensate that by going all in with the big terms 'God'....'Evolution'.....'Meaning of Life' are only going to look foolish. Unless that is you are looking to read something that supports what you'd like to be the case. Science, evidence and experiment however, demand something more.
I've mentioned Shermer and in his recent book 'The Believing Brain' he says this, 'Historical experiment after experiment reveals the same answer: we are a fluke of nature, a quirk of evolution, a glorious contingency.' Stewart-Williams is yet another author in a long tradition of people paying lipservice to culture with little in the way of critically thinking through the mechanisms that underpin this dimension of behaviour: the artificial and expressive world of humankind. With regards to Shermer's quote there, we can't be both a quirk of evolution and a fluke of nature and yet still behave by the pulls and levers of evolution.
Culture is something more, different but not detached from the natural world and all this over-extended metaphor from the last 3 decades is wearing a bit thin. Stewart-Williams is now working on 'memetic selection' which is another failed attempt to generate a theory of culture from the Darwinian perspective but that desire to want it to be true burns on. It is a powerful veneer.
So search Amazon in ten years time for words like 'god' 'Darwin' 'evolution' 'meaning of life' and if you want to read an evolutionary based approach to understanding these areas you'll soon discover, after shelling out around £10 that nothing much has moved on, but the title of the book will try to convince you that it has. I would still recommend you buy the book not because it is a shining light of empirical and theoretical brilliance but more because it's another book in this area destined for the historical footnote in overextended metaphor from neo-Darwinism that borders on evolutionary theology and faith. In that dynamic, their dogma in thinking that a perspective of Darwin's work 'natural selection' has near universal explanatory power (despite no accepted evolutionary based theory of culture) remains a position of faith in the lack of evidence. That's something Dennett's, Stewart-Williams, indeed anyone's narrative can't undermine.