It is kind of amazing how much evolution has found its way into the news of late. National Public Radio usually has pretty good science coverage via Talk of the Nation Science Friday, but lately they have been providing some excellent coverage of important evolutionary concepts that do not always get good press.
First, there is the series called the “How Evolution Gave Us the Human Edge”, which has presented some really lucid commentary covering a vast swath of human evolutionary biology.
One of these stories, aired today, was called “Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?”. The piece described the hypothesis that our belief in supernatural beings is an evolved behavioral trait designed to promote cooperation. This idea has been floating around for a long time (check out David Sloan Wilson’s book Darwin’s Cathedral for a very thorough treatment), but this is the first instance I have seen the “religion as adaptation” hypothesis poke its head out so prominently in mainstream media. The piece does a great job of explaining in lay terms why cooperation is an evolutionary paradox, and gives the listener an insight into the kind of research that propels understanding in this field.
And on the same day, there was an interesting piece on memes entitled “Do Youz Knowz What I Meme?”. The piece started out as an informative description of how the term “meme” has caught on with internet watchers, who delight in observing web-based content go viral. This is interesting to me, and the web expert interviewed (Ben Huh) had some interesting things to say about what is and is not a meme. Just when I thought that this was going to be another case of appropriated science, the piece abruptly and appropriately shifted over to a brief interview with Richard Dawkins, who was properly given credit for being the inventor of the term “meme”. Although the internet has allowed us to see “viral spread” of content, meme theory as portrayed in this piece still suffers from the same problem it has for the past thirty-plus years, which is that no one seems to be able to pin down a workable definition of what constitutes a meme. Still, I am happy to know that NPR listeners will at least get a taste of how evolutionary biologists view cultural evolution.