The Ultimate Reservoir of Wonder: Questions of science and philosophy

© Jeff Schloss
© Jeff Schloss

What happens when scientists team up with full-time philosophers? This is something that Professor Jeff Schloss has been doing for the last twenty years, exploring questions about altruism, morality and human uniqueness. In this podcast (transcript below), recoded at this month’s BioLogos conference, Schloss briefly explains his work both in the field and on more theoretical projects, and his passion for sharing the wonder with his students.

What is your role here at this conference?

I have a senior scholar appointment at Biologos, and my role here is one of a range of speakers. Ard Louis from Oxford and I are two of the scientists giving plenaries exploring the scientific evidence for evolution.

What else does your role as a senior scholar involve?

I speak on behalf of the organisation now and then and I pursue my own work – it just so happens that what I have been interested in for the last 20 years corresponds with the focus of Biologos.

What is it that you work on?

I’m interested in evolutionary conceptions of human nature and then the philosophical and theological entailments of those ideas.

You’ve presented some of those last night and I gather that that talk will be going online so people can catch up with that.* I was most interested in the idea that cooperation is important in the evolutionary process, can you tell us about that?

Cooperation is important in two ways. First of all, cooperation is an outcome of evolution. We don’t want to sanitise this too much, because one of the reasons why cooperation can be important is because it aids individuals in groups in competitive outcomes. But in some sense, cooperation can even be seen as a driving force in evolution: to the extent that cooperation between genes, between cells, between individuals – out of that emerges new properties with adaptive salience. You could even view it as a driving force, not just an outcome.

Is the idea of cooperation at all controversial or is it something that is well accepted?

It is both controversial and widely accepted. The idea that cooperation has adaptive significance is, both theoretically and empirically, widely accepted and undeniable. The scale of cooperation, and what the actual selective dynamics are, is still debated. And by the way, the constraints on cooperation – the extent to which organisms could invest in one another’s welfare in ways that don’t maximise their own reproductive fitness – that is still a matter of debate as well.

Do you think that what you’ve been studying about cooperation is one of the wonders of the living world?

I think it is absolutely a magisterial wonder of the living world. But I should also say that wonder means a couple of things. One thing that wonder could mean is that it is just jaw-droppingly beautiful and awesome. Darwin closes the Origin with ‘there is a grandeur in this view of life’. The other thing wonder can mean is that it is a mystery and an intrinsically unsolvable mystery, perhaps even requiring supernatural explanation. No, I don’t think cooperation is that kind of wonder. It is not the kind of wonder that defies naturalistic inquiry. In fact, part of the wonder is that nature is itself so constituted as to give rise to cooperation.

You teach a lot of students in your role as a Professor at Westmont College. Do you manage to get them excited about this topic? How do they react when they hear this kind of stuff?

I have to say many get really excited, in two ways. First of all I teach field courses where we go out and actually look at cooperation. We look at the behaviour of leaf-cutter ants in the Costa Rican rainforest, for example. I think, unfortunately, some of the science and religion dialogue has lost touch with actual immersion in the wonder of the natural world. I then also co-teach some courses with philosophers in which we ask what the philosophical entailments of these questions are. That’s really cool too, students love that.

Is there any closing word you would like to leave our listeners with, about the wonders of the living world?

I would say that one of the thrills of doing science – actually rolling up your sleeves and looking at the world (but also in some of the collaborative work that I have done with philosophers) – one of the thrills is seeing where the questions play out. That’s the ultimate reservoir of wonder: not doing your work in a way that, in advance, trims what you want the results to be – trimming the results to fit what you’ve decided in advance has to be the case.

* Check, where talks will appear in the coming weeks.

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