Consilience conference afterthoughts


Jason Collins


April 30, 2012

The Consilience Conference on evolution in biology, the social sciences and the humanities wrapped up on Saturday, and it was generally a high quality conference. It’s strength was that most of the presenters were doing work across multiple fields, usually with an evolutionary twist. Conferences such as these often involve people trying to frame existing work around the topic, even if it is a weak fit, but here the presenters’ work generally fitted the subject nicely.

Some stray thoughts from the conference and presentations are below.

Until this conference, I had not realized the scope of the field of literary Darwinism. While I am slightly skeptical as to how far the idea can go, it was good to see some high quality thought being put into it. This article from Science provides some interesting background on the field, including comments from the conference organiser Joseph Carroll and one of the more impressive conference presenters, Jonathan Gottschall.

Barb Oakley presented on the idea of pathological altruism. The basic idea is that too much altruism is not necessarily a good thing. In some ways, it is an obvious point as altruism is costly to the altruist by definition and can be exploited by cheaters. However, that point is often forgotten in descriptions of the virtue of altruism, and when taken to extremes, can impose significant costs on both oneself and others. Some of the left-right divide might be explained by debate about what is considered to be the optimal level of altruism before the costs and potential for exploitation become too large.

Peter Turchin explored the quantification of history. Turchin argued that there is a need to move on from the tendency to accumulate theories without ever rejecting them. It sounds familiar to an economist.

Henry Harpending presented some ideas around measures of kinship. He was surprised that his research to date showed that, within most populations, there appeared to be little benefit in determining the degree of kinship of someone who may be a beneficiary of your actions. The variation in kinship is simply too small to matter. However, there is some value to considering kinship in mixed populations.

Massimo Pigliucci’s summaries of each day (days one, two and three) are worth reading, although Massimo played the role of the token skeptic about the integration of evolution into social sciences and the humanities, and his comments reflect this.