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ON THE SCENE: Evolution and the body politic

June 22, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

David Hochschartner, "Hock" to most, is glad that he paid attention to Meredith Prime when she advised him several years ago to attend an Adirondack Roundtable presented by the Lake Placid Institute.

Hock is the executive director of North Country School/Camp Treetops. The Roundtables are held over three Saturday mornings during the summer, a time when Treetops, a summer camp for boys and girls aged 814, is in full gear and Hock has a lot on his plate. Still, he went.

As has been proven over time to many leaders of nonprofit arts, education and environmental agencies, ignoring Prime's advice is not a wise move as her recommendations are well thought out and usually beneficial. So, too, was following her advice to attend the Adirondack Roundtable.

The speaker was David Sloan Wilson, a professor of evolutionary biology at SUNY Binghamton. What caught Hock's attention was Wilson citing attending North Country School as laying the foundation for his career path and success.

"The person introducing him said David can claim to being an Adirondacker because quite a while ago he was educated at North Country School," Hock said. "I bolted upright. He had my full attention."

Hock went on to say that Wilson remembered all the things that more recent graduates remember: chicken harvesting, barn chores, being up in the sugarbush and going out on hikes.

Wilson returned to North Country School the weekend of June 8-10 to lead a series of workshops on how to make their exceptional educational program even better. His residency opened on Friday evening at their new Round House campus with a presentation open to the general public on evolutionary biology.

Evolution on its face isn't altruistic. In the mid-19th century, Charles Darwin noted that life forms generally produce more offspring than can possibly survive and that those that do survive are more successful at obtaining necessary resources for their survival. These observations led to his theory of evolution articulated in his book, "On the Origin of Species" (1859). The popular understanding of his theory is survival of the fittest, that in successive generations, members of a species are replaced by those that are better adapted to survive and reproduce in the biophysical environment within which it exists.

In his presentation, Wilson pointed out that evolutionary theory is not so straightforward.

"Birds have tradeoffs they have to make," said Wilson, providing an example. "They need to lay eggs, incubate them and then feed them. They have many complicated decisions to make. All species are like this."

Even so, humans take a different approach as their survival requires a level of cooperation to create safe environments for raising their offspring until they are capable of becoming self-sufficient. That need to work cooperatively is set in contrast to the built-in desire to do what's best for oneself, resulting in a tension that challenges how people function within a society and differing societies with each other.

The consequences of that tension are writ large in the social politics of our age that has resulted in the growing economic gap between the very wealthy and everyone else, a failure to address climate change in a timely, cooperative manner and changing social norms toward our responsibilities for the poor and disadvantaged.

How is it that the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, is dead last in caring for its poor compared to the top 35 developed nations behind such countries as Greece and Chile (World Economic Forum)? Leading countries for carrying for the disadvantaged include other members of the G7 such as France, Germany, Japan and Canada. In the U.S., nearly 20 percent live in poverty while in Japan it's 1.4 percent.

Wilson believes that this lack of caring for the other, this growing unwillingness to make society work for all has the potential of fostering increased violence and social unrest, and has reduced our ability to tackle the very real threat posed by climate change. He believes the solution lies in educating our youth to become more caring and willing to work and play cooperatively, restructuring our business models and method of governing ourselves, and fostering a more caring society. He also believes that we here in the Adirondacks can develop models that can be replicated, and one successful educational model is North Country School.

"I learned more outside the classroom at North Country," said Wilson, a statement that is reflected in the school's slogan, "Where most classrooms end, ours begins."

"The problem for an evolutionist is explaining goodness, as it's much easier to explain selfishness than altruism," said Wilson. "If I'm selfish, then I survive and get to reproduce better than you. Isn't that what evolution is all about? How can evolution develop to cause behaviors that benefit others at the expense of themselves?"

Wilson said that everything depends on one's world view because one's world view tells one how to act.

"Every decision you make as a team player will be different than the decision you make when you seek to benefit just yourself working against other individuals. What's good for me can be bad for my family. What's good for my family can be bad for my clan. What's good for my clan can be bad for my nation. What's good for my nation can be bad for society as a whole, for the planet.

"When evolution takes place in a disruptive environment, then it favors things that are good for me not you, us not them, now and not later. Almost everything that we recognize as a problem in modern life is, in fact, adaptive in the evolutionary sense of the word. Corruption, for instance, is cooperation taking place on a small scale. Bullying is advantageous for the bully. Unless we manage the evolutionary process at the individual, group and cultural level, then it will take us where we don't want to go."

He said our lineage found ways to suppress self-serving disruptive behaviors within groups and that the only way to succeed is through teamwork. He believes that there is no thing as a completely harmonious organism, but that a small group can keep a pretty good lid on it when it's constructed in the right way.

"If there is one thing you can do to make life better, it's to increase nutrients in small group settings, which is one of the things that North Country School does so well," said Wilson. "So many people who espouse freedom overlook responsibility, which is the essential corollary. We need to be wise managers of evolutionary processes and align it with our narrative goals."

"How can you disagree when someone tells you that your school and camp program helps rectify some evolutionary mismatches as well as conforms to one of the most important evolutionary principles which is nurturing?" said Hock. "His point about innovation and creativity comes out in places where there's great diversity and a culture of cooperation. I'd say that's the hallmark of our place. However, we haven't cornered the market on any aspect of our program, which is why we allocated this time to launch our work with Wilson."

The Lake Placid Institute's Adirondack Roundtables for this summer feature John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group, on July 7; Peter Kiernan, author of "The Crush of the Middle Class," on July 14; and Paul Smith's College climate scientist and professor Curt Stager on Aug. 4. They are held in the Mountain View Room of the Lake Placid Conference Center.

Learn more at Hock would say, "Listen to Meredith, and attend."



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