Helena Cronin is a noted Darwinian philosopher and rationalist. She is the co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the Darwin Centre at the London School of Economics. She achieved prominence with her book, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today (1991) and has published and broadcast widely since.
Life and work
Cronin is co-editor of Darwinism Today, a series of short books in evolutionary theory. She writes popular articles, such as in The Guardian as well as in technical journals. She is a 'Distinguished Supporter' of the British Humanist Association.
She ran a series of seminars, "effectively a salon at the London School of Economics specialising in the implications of Darwinian theory for humans" according to Times Higher Education, which adds "as an academic promoter Helena Cronin has few equals." The seminars featured Richard Dawkins, David Haig, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley among others.
Cronin is married to another academic, the dental epidemiologist Aubrey Sheiham, professor of dental public health at University College London. Her first cousin is Professor Sir Michael Marmot, an epidemiologist.
Cronin's strong rationalistic views brought her prominence in a number of areas, such as sexual selection, Darwinism, the relative abilities of males and females, and gay rights. These are discussed in turn below.
Altruism and sexual selection
The evolutionary zoologist Mark Ridley, reviewing The Ant and the Peacock in the New York Times, writes that it is a "fine book" in which Cronin uses our modern understanding of altruism (the ant) and "dangerously gaudy sexual ornamentation" (the peacock). Ridley notes that there are two reasons for sex differences like the peacock's train, and that Cronin explains them through the debate of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin proposed female choice: female aesthetics drive male displays. Wallace both "ignored Darwin's problem" (ornamentation) and "denied Darwin's solution" (female choice rather than natural selection). Instead, Ridley observes, Cronin explains that Wallace preferred the explanation that peacock's tails "crop up almost automatically"; he believed that female choice was both unnecessary and impossible. Ridley finds Cronin "quite amusing as she reviews the 'misogynistic opinion' of the critics of female choice", citing Cronin's example of the universally unpleasant 19th century anti-Darwinian St. George Mivart, "such is the instability of a vicious feminine caprice, that no constancy of coloration could be produced by its selective action." But curiously (notes Ridley), Darwin and Wallace swapped roles in Cronin's problem of the ant, where Darwin argued for natural selection, while Cronin quotes Wallace arguing that for human "intellectual and moral faculties", "we can only find an adequate cause in the unseen universe of Spirit." In Ridley's opinion, "The subtlest and most original insights in "The Ant and the Peacock" concern differences between Darwin's ideas and modern ideas." Ridley finds that Cronin "moves easily between the Victorians and ourselves", not entirely avoiding the danger of anachronism, "the historian's mortal sin", that this movement creates. He suspects that the book will therefore "appeal more to philosophically minded readers than to historians," but grants that "luckily" evolution is "one of the more philosophical of scientific ideas", and Wallace and Darwin can survive being treated as our contemporaries.
The review of The Ant and the Peacock in Biology and Philosophy comments that Cronin's book is "Beautifully written, [with] good strong examples, a nice sense of history, flashes of humour, plain forthright conclusions."
Nils K. Oeijord, in his book Why Gould was Wrong, notes that Steven Jay Gould "was really a strange thinker. Example: Many have wondered at Gould's verbally violent review of The Ant and the Peacock (1991) by Helena Cronin. He attacked Cronin for explaining human altruism as natural! He accused Cronin of errors, omissions, tricks, falsities, rhetorical flourishes, etc. But all these things are typically Gould's ways of writing books!" Oiejord notes that Cronin was just presenting "the new consensus in evolutionary biology—the gene-selectionist approach" to which Gould simply had to fight back; but "two scientific giants", John Maynard Smith and Daniel Dennett defended Cronin against Gould's charges.
The English evolutionary anthropologist Camilla Power, in A reply to Helena Cronin, described Cronin as "authoress of 'The Ant and the Peacock' [who] was pontificating .. on how Darwinian theory should inform Blairite social policy...this is a Darwinian's response". Power sets out to "nail a few myths". She attacks Cronin's claim that women are disposed to wanting a single mate, noting that monogamy is rarer than biologists thought: females resist male efforts to control them; human females too seek "extra-pair copulations (EPCs) in the jargon of evolutionary ecology", while among indigenous peoples in the Amazon, females seek "backup fathers for each offspring". Power observes that men do not necessarily run around, but guard existing mates to limit female choice, contrary to Cronin's view; and among the Aka in the Central African rainforest, men often share in childcare. "Human male strategies are quasi-female by primate standards." Power then attacks Cronin's view of the lone mother, showing that grandmothers assist their daughters' offspring. Power is critical of Cronin's "mysterious statement about women" that "'They are the species as it existed before sexual selection drove men apart'", observing that human nature evolved in "small-scale, face-to-face societies where no one was richer or poorer."
Edge, in its "Annual Question" in 2008, hosted Cronin in a piece entitled More dumbbells but more Nobels: Why men are at the top:
- "I used to think that these patterns of sex differences resulted mainly from average differences between men and women in innate talents, tastes and temperaments. After all, in talents men are on average more mathematical, more technically minded, women more verbal; in tastes, men are more interested in things, women in people; in temperaments, men are more competitive, risk-taking, single-minded, status-conscious, women far less so. But I have now changed my mind. It is not a matter of averages, but of extremes. Females are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But, among males, the variance—the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst—can be vast. So males are almost bound to be over-represented both at the bottom and at the top. I think of this as 'more dumbbells but more Nobels'."
- The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- The Battle of the Sexes Revisited, in Richard Dawkins: how a scientist changed the way we think. Oxford University Press, 2006.
- "Edge.org profile". Edge Org. Retrieved 8 October 2012.
- Cronin, Helena (12 March 2005). "The vital statistics". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
- "Dr Helena Cronin". British Humanist Association. 2013. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
- "The Darwin Impresario". Times Higher Education. 21 October 1996. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
- Ridley, Mark (13 September 1992). "Why It Pays to Dress Well". New York Times. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
- Wallace, Alfred Russel (1889). Darwinism. Chapter 15. p. 478
- "M. R." (1994). "Review: The Ant and the Peacock by Helena Cronin". Biology and philosophy 9 (2): 253–259.
- Oeijord, Nils K (2003). Why Gould was Wrong. iUniverse. p. 137.
- Power, Camilla. "A Reply to Helena Cronin" (PDF). Radical Anthropology Group. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
- Cronin, Helena. Edge: More dumbbells but more Nobels: Why men are at the top. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
- Aguilar, Marvin (11 April 2013). "El dólar traía bodas gais". La Pagina. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
- Official website
- "Getting Human Nature Right" A Talk With Helena Cronin, Edge org 29 August 2000
- Excerpts from The Ant and the Peacock