In The Evolution of Everything: How Selection Shapes Culture, Commerce, and Nature, Mark Sumner prefaces his exploration of Darwin’s theory of evolution – and of the power of selection to explain phenomena as diverse as the economic downturn, the “success” of patent medicines that don’t do much to cure what ails you, and the shape of the new TV season – with the reminder that what you think you know could well be wrong. Sumner argues that the set of erroneous beliefs to which most of us cling includes our sense of what Darwin’s own Darwinism actually asserts.
The first order of business in The Evolution of Everything, then, is a clear retracing of the central ideas of Darwin’s theory of the evolution of life forms over generations driven by the force of natural selection, as well as a lively examination of the path of Charles Darwin’s life and work as he formulated his theory, and of the historical context in which he was living and working. Indeed, Sumner pulls back and gives us glimpses of other figures – naturalists, geologists, economists – whose theories and findings figured in Darwin’s thinking. More importantly, Sumner challenges what we think we know about how resistant the public of Darwin’s day was to the idea of evolution, or how attached to Biblical literalism and Creationism.
Here, I should note that, far from being ponderous, Sumner’s exploration of the relevant history (including a great deal of significant work in biology that came after Darwin and that influences our modern understanding of evolutionary processes) reads like a beach book. I’m halfway tempted to assign The Evolution of Everything to my undergraduates to persuade them that what they think they know about assigned reading is wrong.
How have we come to have such a false impression of the reception of Darwin’s work in his own age, and of the concerns that actually drove resistance to it? How, for that matter, have we come to have such a false impression of what Darwin actually claimed, and of the broader implications of his theory? As Sumner describes, it didn’t help that writers like Herbert Spencer appropriated Darwinian clothing for preexisting commitments to a social order in which the intelligent and the rich assumed their natural place at the top, or that Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton used Darwin’s idea of the mechanism of selection (and his own mathematical brilliance) to advocate for eugenics. But the muddled public understanding of Darwinian evolution runs deeper than what we can lay at the feet of a handful of major figures who appropriated Darwin’s name and theory to advance their own ideas. Rather, Sumner identifies our basic human resistance to ideas that don’t fit comfortably with our sense of how things ought to be. On the other hand, ideas that do fit our worldview stick easily and end up being very difficult to dislodge from our heads even in the face of evidence that undermines them.
In other words, as the physical environment exerts selection pressure on organism that influences which will survive long enough to pass on heritable traits to progeny, there are forces of selection that act upon the ideas in our heads. Such forces of selection played a role in how Darwin’s theory was received by his contemporaries, and they play a role in current reactions to Darwin.
Sumner mounts a compelling excavation of Darwin’s startlingly simple mechanism for evolution from all the extraneous ideas that have become attached to it. He explores the power of this mechanism to make sense of extinctions of big dinosaurs and big financial institutions, of the adaptive value of an impressive appearance in peacock and patent medicines, of the success in environments with limited resources of island dwarfs and Mad Men. Darwinism, as Sumner describes it, is not a philosophy of life but an explanatory pattern that can serve as a valuable tool in domains some remove from the finches, barnacles, and pigeons Darwin studied.
In the undercurrent of this discussion, we are faced with some important questions. What should we make of our tendency to confuse adaptive success with merit (rather than recognizing that such success usually depends on getting lucky with one’s environment)? Where do we draw the line between nature and culture (and does it even make sense to separate ourselves and our activities from nature in this way)? How do we reconcile our commitment to the idea that the natural order favors the “right” winners with our anxiety that the “wrong” winners will get the upper hand? And what’s adaptive advantage of having our preexisting (and unconscious) biases select for some clearly wrong beliefs while selecting against some well-supported and frankly useful ideas?
In other words, in unpacking Darwin’s ideas and offering ideas for how we can use them, Sumner is also opening up a larger discussion about the forces, external and internal, that may drive our ability to succeed as our physical, economic, social, and political environments change.