By Emma Marris

Endlessly energetic scholar David Sloan Wilson is best known for his work on group selection--the idea that natural selection can operate on traits that improve the success of groups rather than individuals.

As well as running a cross-disciplinary evolutionary studies program from his home institution of Binghamton University in New York and opening the Evolution Institute think tank to inform public policy, he recently began studying altruism in Binghamton neighborhoods and is promoting the field of evolutionary religious studies. He took time to talk to Nature at a philosophy of biology conference last week in Madison, Wisc., where he spoke about using evolutionary thinking as a tool for good.

You wrote a book called Evolution for Everyone. Why is it important to you that the public understand evolution?

Because it is useful. The way most people understand evolution, it is not consequential, and so they don't need to believe it. The 50 percent figure--how many people in the U.S. don't accept evolution--doesn't impress me. Close to 100 percent of people don't connect it to matters of consequence in their own lives.

And that includes scientists?

The long view of the history of evolutionary theory is that, although in some sense it is obvious that it has profound implications for the way we think about ourselves, it became confined to the biological sciences for most of the 20th century. Now what is taking place at the level of research and scholarship is the rethinking of entire disciplines. But this is not yet reflected in higher education. At virtually every college and university, if you are not a biology major, you are not going to hear about evolution.

But can thinking about evolution really improve policy?

Every policy has a surface logic, but like wishes in folktales they have unforeseen consequences that we don't keep track of. And so we continue the same polices. At the Evolution Institute we take subjects that have been combed over from other perspectives, but when you take an evolutionary perspective, you see things differently and a new common sense emerges.

Take childhood education. If you look at hunter-gatherer societies, there is very little that resembles formal education. Education takes the form of play, and adults provide explicit instructions more or less when asked. And yet this spontaneous education system is not only not exploited by formal education, it is subverted.

But we in the modern West aren't raising our children to be hunter-gatherers. Why should we educate our children like them?

This question is an empirical issue. We need to do experiments. It could be that the skills we need today are so different that you need different educational methods, that you can't make it fun, that you can't make it like hunting. Or maybe there really isn't such a big difference between an American kid learning his times tables and an Australian kid learning his songlines [songs that function as maps and must be memorized each generation].

Studying evolution can tell us something about how human behaviors came to be, but can we really harness it to improve our behavior?

You have to think about the environment. If you want to change a practice or implement something, you need to create the environment which will cause that thing to win the Darwinian contest. When you start thinking like this, evolution becomes an indispensable tool.

Take risky adolescent behaviors, for example. Instead of regarding them as pathological, which is the typical model, they are better regarded as adaptive responses to harsh environments that enhance immediate fitness, however damaging to others or even the individual over the long term.

You also study religion from an evolutionary perspective. Why would religion be adaptive for humans?

The empirical evidence points to substantial group-level benefits for most enduring religions.

Benefits include defining the group, coordinating action to achieve shared goals and developing elaborate mechanisms to prevent cheating. The same evolutionary processes that cause individual organisms and social insect colonies to function as adaptive units also cause religious groups to function as adaptive units. Religious believers frequently compare their communities to a single body or a beehive. This is not just a poetic metaphor but turns out to be correct from an evolutionary perspective.

As we speak, we are establishing our first consulting relationship with a religious congregation in Binghamton to explore their religion and spirituality and to help them be more effective as an organization [by using evolutionary tools]. I think the benefits we provide will be so great that we will be sought after by other congregations.

Does your approach annoy atheists?

I piss off atheists more than any other category, and I am an atheist. One of the things that infuriates me about the newest crop of angry atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, is their denial of the beneficial aspects of religion. Their beef is not just that there is no evidence for God. They also insist that religion "poisons everything," as Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book. They are ignoring the scientific theory and evidence for the "secular utility" of religion, as Émile Durkheim put it, even though they wrap themselves in the mantle of science and rationality. Someone needs to call them out on that, and that person is me.