The evolution revolution: The Darwin impresario

Lucy Hodges
This article originally appeared in the Time Higher Education Supplement|, 18 October 1996

As an academic promoter Helena Cronin has few equals. For the past year she has been organising what is effectively a salon at the London School of Economics specialising in the implications of Darwinian theory for humans. Her sessions have attracted all the big names in this newly awakened field.

Academics from the United States, Denmark, Canada and Sweden have come to speak at her Darwin seminars and other meetings in LSE's old lecture theatre. This being England, the audiovisuals and microphones do not always work but scientists and philosophers flock to attend because of the quality of brains and ideas on display.

Oxford University's Richard Dawkins spoke in June on science as religious education; last year David Haig of Harvard talked about genetic conflicts in human pregnancy and Daniel Dennett of Tufts University held forth about his latest book on Darwin. Earlier Steven Pinker, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made an appearance, as did Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen.

The seminars are unusual in that they cut across academic boundaries and provoke wide-ranging debate, breaking the frontiers of knowledge. Each seminar contains two speakers, is interrupted by a tea break and is followed by a dinner where the new Darwinians can chat about the evolution of language, strategies of human mating, cultural evolution, the brain or whatever takes their fancy. Dr Cronin gives the speakers some choice in the dinner guests. Professor Dennett asked to meet Oxford University's Bill Hamilton who defined the notion of kin selection (why we behave more favourably towards relations than towards those we are not related to) and Hamilton chaired the seminar at which Dennett spoke. Dennett also asked to meet the opera director and polymath Jonathan Miller and the novelist Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Organised under the auspices of the LSE's centre for the philosophy of the natural and social sciences of which Cronin is a co-director, the seminars are her baby. She is a philosopher, but became interested in  Darwinian thought and in science generally. Her PhD on Darwinian theory won the LSE's Robert McKenzie prize for the best doctorate of the year. The author of The Ant and Peacock, published by Cambridge University Press, she is able to induce academics to come to speak because she has standing of her own.

Her book won a New York Times prize for being one of the best nine of the year. It. explored two problems in Darwinian theory: that of altruism, represented by the ant (why should species be self-sacrificing when Darwinian ideas suggest it is natural to be red in tooth and claw?) and that of the peacock (why do males often look gaudily ornamental and females so dowdy when you might expect the opposite?). 'These look like problems but both have been solved,' says Cronin. In her book she explains their modern solutions and re-examines Darwin's ideas and those of his colleagues in the last century, and updates them.

She has other, feminine, qualities. according to John Ashworth, the LSE's former director, now chairman of the British Library. 'In the 18th she would have run a good salon,' he says. The other reason the seminars have been successful, he says, is that the LSE, as an institution for the economic, political and social sciences, has provided neutral ground for scientists and others to meet in a spirit of genuine inquiry. There are no big egos crashing about in the sciences at the LSE. Or, as Dr Ashworth says: 'It helps that there is no professor of genetics saying pompously "I have to tell you this is not genetics".' The response has been outstanding. There have never been fewer than 100 people at any seminar and one had an audience of 350. It surprised Cronin that a subject which interested her so deeply also seemed to be striking a chord in others. Before the Darwin seminars she had held an international conference (sponsored by the THES) on evolution and the human sciences which was packed. All the speaker she invited accepted and the press was interested.

Behind her organisation of the seminars lay her belief that Darwinian science has not been taken seriously. 'Darwin has had an unfulfilled promise since 1859, when On the Origin of Species came out, that he could, in Darwin's words, throw light on man,' says Cronin. 'Yet Darwinian theory has never been seriously applied to humans. In fact not only has it not, but the social sciences and the humanities have tumed their backs on Darwinian theory for all sorts of extra-scientific reasons to do with political and ideological objections.'

Yet in recent years a trail of interesting and fruitful work has come out. So Cronin had new ideas to promote. Her conferences and seminars brought together people who knew one another's work but had never met. Some were Americans, who had never met one another in the US but came together at the LSE and began collaborative research.

Have the seminars brought her aggravation from tomato-throwing students? No. says Cronin. There has been heated discussion, notably at the talk by Devendra Singh, of the University of Texas at Austin, who spoke on the female waist-to-hip-ratio and how it turns men on. It sparked great row over the epidemiology and the clinical findings but that hardly amounted to tomato throwing.

It is, however, standard for the chattering classes to have misgivings about Darwinian thought. That is because people think that biological ideas ignore the environment They do not appreciate the sophistication of Darwinian thinkers who know genes do not develop in a vacuum and that brains are highly attuned to environmental factors and thus change behaviour. 'We are made with inbuilt behavioural dispositions, not rigid behaviour' says Cronin, 'and those dispositions are very, very environmentally sensitive.'

People also get stuck on eugenics and Hitler, racism and IQ when they talk about Darwin. The great man had a host of views about issues from altruism to beauty but nothing to tell us about IQ or race. Yet this is what the critics jump up and down about first, says Cronin, Sorting out what Darwin can tell us about humans is what the seminars are trying to do.

Reproduced by kind permission of the THES. The author has given her permission for use of her work free of charge.

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