New book shows that humans are genetically nice, ergo Jesus

A while back I mentioned the disagreement that I (and many others) had with a recent Nature paper by  Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and E. O. Wilson. I characterized their paper as a “misguided attack on kin selection,” for it claimed not only that kin selection was something different from natural selection (it’s not—it’s a subset of natural selection), but also that kin selection was both unproductive and incoherent.  I argued that kin selection was certainly coherent, and, more important, had made many contributions to our understanding of nature.  A published exchange on this issue, in which I am participating, will appear in Nature on March 24.

In the meantime, there’s a report at the Daily Telegraph about not only that paper, but a new book by Nowak (coauthored by New Scientist editor Roger Highfield), SuperCooperators.  (A review by Manfred Milinski has just appeared in Nature.) The Telegraph report is dicey on the scientific issues.  For example, it says this about the concept of inclusive fitness (the idea that the “fitness” attached to a gene involves not only its direct reproductive effects on its carrier, but its ancillary effects on other individuals carrying the gene):

This concept is considered central to biology, since it provides the best explanation for why existence is not simply a dog-eat-dog, Darwinian struggle. But Prof Nowak is doubtful. “Inclusive fitness is somewhat like an epicycle,” he says, referring to the Ptolemaic model of the solar system with the Earth at its centre, which required the planets to move in complicated flower patterns to explain their movement in the sky. “Somehow you have the impression that there is some reality attached to it, but the actual mathematical description of any evolutionary process shows that evolutionary fitness is an unnecessary concept.”

To equate a well-established evolutionary concept like inclusive fitness with a bogus model of planetary motion is simply invidious.  And to say that inclusive fitness has no “reality” is just ignorant.  Even though Nowak denies that inclusive fitness is a useful biological concept (and here he’s dead wrong, as the published responses will show), he can’t say it’s not real, for it’s simply a combination of fitnesses of a gene’s carrier with those of like-gened individuals with which it interacts.  Finally, to say that “evolutionary fitness is an unnecessary concept” is bizarre, for even if Nowak rejects the whole idea of inclusive fitness, there is still the valid and very important idea of individual fitness: the relative reproductive contribution of carriers of a gene. Every evolutionist knows how valuable that concept has been in making evolutionary models of nature and, more important, in understanding nature.  Rejecting that idea is like claiming that the whole gene-centered approach to evolution is wrong.

Indeed, in the next paragraph Nowak brings up the importance of a gene-centered approach:

Instead, Nowak stresses that co-operation and altruism are just as important. “The two pillars of evolution are mutation and natural selection: mutation generates diversity, and natural selection chooses the winner. What I want to argue in this book is that, in order to get complexity, there is a third principle, co-operation. It’s not just a small phenomenon, it is something that is really needed to explain the world as we see it.” Without it, he says, we would have a world without multi-cellular creatures – or even without cells, just monomolecular replicators in an organic soup.

If there’s a way for cooperation and altruism to evolve without conferring genetic benefits on their carriers, or on groups of related individuals, I’d like to know how!  “Cooperation” is not a third principle on top of mutation and natural selection, it is a behavior that evolves by either natural selection (as it must have done in the many species that do cooperate without culture, like social insects) or is socially mandated by complex creatures like humans.  It’s clear in the article, though, that Nowak is talking about evolved cooperation, and that takes genes and therefore differential fitness of cooperators versus noncooperators.

I’ve tried to fob off Nowak’s strange statements as the misunderstandings of a lay reporter, but since they’re verbatim quotes that’s hard to do.  This seems more to me like a publicity grab, especially because Nowak does a lot of name-dropping to tout his expertise:

His speciality is using mathematical equations to model and predict biological behaviour. “I talked to Bill Hamilton a lot, when I was at Oxford. And I talked an awful lot with Richard Dawkins as well. But I’ve never written a paper with them,” he says. “I have written a paper with John Maynard Smith, and one with Ed Wilson,” he adds, casually dropping two giants into conversation. And who are the ones who have most influenced you, I ask. “Robert May [the former chief scientific adviser to the government], influenced me very, very much.”

Well, so be it.  The final judgment of science does not depend on big names, but on truth, and the field will ultimately judge whether Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson’s attempt to overturn a dominant paradigm of evolution will bear any fruit.  I predict that it won’t.  And I’ll reserve judgment on Nowak and Highfield’s book until I read it.

But I must deplore Nowak’s use of biology to sell Jesus, and to push accommodationism.  Here he is on science versus faith:

Nowak, however, sees no conflict. “I think that science and religion are components of what people need and what people want in terms of the search for truth. I don’t see science as constructing or providing an argument against well-formulated and thoughtful religious philosophy.” He is a Catholic, but in his book he quotes with approval Einstein’s line about God as a sort of abstraction, seen in the beauty of nature’s laws. I ask him to expand, but he shies away. “I am very open-minded, very curious, very keen to learn from other different traditions, different approaches.” He does, however, believe in the divinity of Christ.

The great irony of his work, which heartens and amuses his religious side, is that he is, in essence, making a scientific argument that the virtues preached by Jesus – compassion, concern, love for your neighbour – are encoded into the laws of biology. “The mathematical analysis shows that winning strategies in the game of co-operation have to be hopeful, generous and forgiving.”

As Church Lady would say, “Well, isn’t that special!” What Nowak fails to consider is that yes, maybe altruism and compassion are in our genes, but so perhaps are aggression, spite, xenophobia, and hatred.  There is precisely as much evidence for genetically evolved compassion and love among nonrelatives as there is for genetically evolved traits that we consider “bad”—that is, very little.  What we know is that altruism and compassion are near-universal among human societies, but so are aggression, spite, Schadenfreude, and the like.  We think that we may have evolved morality, altruism, and the like, for, as Frans de Waal points out repeatedly, building blocks of those traits are seen in other primates.  But so too do we see aggression, hostility, and even murder in our primate relatives.  I agree with Steve Pinker that our genome probably contains information prompting for both “good” and “bad” behaviors.  For there are reproductive benefits to be gained by being, at times, either an angel or a devil.

Why does Nowak concentrate on just the wonderful behaviors we’ve evolved?  Could it be . . . . Templeton?

The Telegraph article says this about Nowak:

What riles some scientists is that he is not just the holder of prestigious prizes, but also a committed Christian. In particular, he is on the board of advisers of the Templeton Foundation. . .

I can’t confirm that he’s currently on the main advisory board of Templeton (the “N” page doesn’t list him), but he used to be.  My data show him serving in that capacity from at least 2005 to 2009, and I can’t get earlier records.  But he is currently on another Templeton board: the 12-member board of the Templeton Advanced Research Program of the Metanexus Institute. The purpose of this board, according to Templeton, is twofold:

The primary goal of this new research program is to foster innovation in research design as well as the scientific scope and impact of religion and spirituality.
A second goal is to encourage the development of creative insights into the forces that shape and expand world religions and the human conceptualization of God.

During or after this time—that is, after Nowak had taken a position on Templeton’s advisory boards—he got this kind of dosh:

Since I’m not sure when Nowak started on the Templeton board, I can’t confirm that he got the following monies when he was already advising them:

  • A grant from Templeton to the Royal Society of London in affiliation with Nowak, George F. R. Ellis, John Polkinghorne, and Ziauddin Sardar for two lecture series: “The Nature of Human Knowledge and Understanding.”  Total amount:  $281,885; dates 2004-2007.

I suspect, but don’t know, that one also gets money for being on the two advisory boards that I mentioned above. Nowak also contributed to the Templeton essay collection “Does evolution explain human nature?”, which was published in the New York Times and for which contributors received a fee.

Has Templeton been happy with Nowak’s work? I suppose so, since they keep giving him money, and the Nature paper he wrote with Tarnita and Wilson, attacking the idea of kin selection, is prominently highlighted at the Templeton website.  And it can’t hurt that he’s a Catholic who believes that Jesus was divine. His message, that evolution produces results exactly consistent with the teachings of Jesus, certainly buttresses Templeton’s mission of uniting (or conflating) science and faith.  Look for Nowak to nab a Templeton Prize in the coming years.

Let me close by saying two things.  First, I consider it ethically marginal for Templeton to put people on their advisory boards and then fill those people’s pockets with stupendous amounts of cash.  That’s tantamount to the organization existing to enrich itself.  And it gives people the idea that if you want to get a lot of money for yourself or your research, then simply agree to help the Templeton Foundation.  As Sunny Bains pointed out in her recent report on the organization, it’s not that Templeton always takes its high-performing grantees and makes them members of its advisory board; rather, it often gives grants to members of the board after they’re already on it.  That is not a good practice.

Second, this attack on kin selection, and Nowak’s book, seem to me to involve more than just finding out the truth about nature and imparting that truth to the public.  They appear to involve the darker side of human nature—the side that Nowak seems to ignore in his warm-and-fuzzy book.  It’s the side that involves greed, money, ambition, dubious ethics, and an overriding concern for one’s legacy and place in the pantheon of science.

56 Comments

  1. Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I have read the book by Nowak and Highfield. Parts of it are quite good, but the quality abruptly, and embarrassingly, plummets in the chapter on kin selection, possibly under the influence of E O Wilson (who has been consistently misunderstanding kin selection ever since Sociobiology, mistakenly regarding it as a subset of group selection). Nowak misses the whole point of kin selection theory, which is that it is not something additional, not something over-and-above ‘classical individual selection’ theory. Kin selection is not something EXTRA, not something to be resorted to only if ‘classical individual selection’ theory fails. Rather, it is an inevitable consequence of neo-Darwinism, which follows from it deductively. To talk about Darwinian selection MINUS kin selection is like talking about Euclidean geometry minus Pythagoras’ theorem. It is just that this logical consequence of neo-Darwinism was historically overlooked, which gave people a false impression that it was something additional and extra. Nowak’s otherwise good book is tragically marred by this elementary blunder. As a mathematician he really should have known better. It seems doubtful that he has ever read Hamilton’s classic papers on inclusive fitness, or he couldn’t have misunderstood the idea so comprehensively. The chapter on kin selection will discredit the book and stop it being taken seriously by those qualified to judge it, which is a pity.

    Richard

    • KP
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      See my comment below – Kin selection is not my area of behavioral ecology (I’m more in the foraging behavior/effects of predation risk realm), but as soon as I refreshed myself on Hamilton’s rule and reviewed the two chapters of that book dealing with kin selection, it became clear that Nowak was missing the point.

    • Thanny
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      The kind of fuzzy thinking on display here is an example of why, after reading The Selfish Gene, I thought you were too conciliatory in presenting gene-centered selection as merely and alternative view to organism-centered selection, both equally valid.

      I think the correct way to look at it is that genes are always the units of selection (being the only things capable of actually replicating), and that the organism sometimes serves as a convenient shorthand – one which must be discarded when the questions focus on facts that don’t respect the boundaries of the organism.

      So in that respect, the concept of kin selection is really stretching the organism-centered view to accommodate a principle that couldn’t be clearer using a gene-centered view.

      • Tort
        Posted March 16, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

        One of the main points in the selfish gene was that we should think of gene-centred selection not organism centred selection. Dawkins says that explicitly in the text and the entire book is based around the concept. I’m not really sure how you managed to miss that.

        • Thanny
          Posted March 17, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

          Dawkins went out of his way to not say that gene-centered selection was correct, while organism-centered selection was incorrect.

          Your characterization of the “entire book” is also incorrect. Perhaps you should revisit it.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Richard Dawkins. Your explanation, as usual, is clear as can be.

    • Cooperator
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      You can’t imagine how nervous I am disagreeing with Richard and Jerry on points of evolutionary theory! But I must say that many of the mathematical points Nowak, et.al. made in their Nature article are correct. It’s not that inclusive fitness theory is wrong. It is obviously correct as a matter of logic as Richard and Jerry and many others say. The problem is that the mathematical models used to formalize the theory are a mess and (probably) can’t be fixed. This was the point of the Nowak et.al. article.

      The epicycle metaphor was aimed at Hamilton’s rule, rb>c. In very simple models of cooperators and defectors the term “r” is the average relatedness in the population, but in more realistic models with structured populations, r gets harder and harder to derive, and harder and harder to interpret as relatedness. The kin selection partisans insist that r is relatedness under any possible scenario, and this leads to redefining relatedness until it loses all meaning. It’s like believing planetary orbits must be based on circles, and making the theory more and more complicated instead of rethinking from ground zero.

      So, I don’t think anybody is seriously saying that there is no kin selection. The point is that kin selection is often sufficient for (say) the evolution of cooperation, but it is not necessary. When something else is going on (like multi-level selection), the kin selection models produce nonsense.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 18, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

        When something else is going on (like multi-level selection), the kin selection models produce nonsense.

        you have that backwards, though, which IS the problem with the multi-level selection models to begin with!

        they’re based on the assumption that there IS multi-level selection to begin with, which they have never independently shown in the field.

        OTOH, Kin selection has conclusively been demonstrated in the field, even by Hamilton himself.

        • cooperator
          Posted March 18, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

          I think you are confusing two separate issues on multi-level selection:

          The first is whether or not multi-level selection exists (or has ever existed) in nature.

          The second is whether or not multi-level selection exists as a proper mathematical model.

          There are compeling models now of multi-level selection that seem to mirror real biological processes very well. But in any case, the models show conclusively that (in theory) there are effects due to multi-level selection that cannot be correctly handled by a kin selection model, i.e., by simply calculating inclusive fitness measures. Kin selection partisans are very reluctant to admit this.

          IMHO, recent multi-level selection models should convince anybody that understands them that the kinds of processes they describe are probably very common in nature, and that they are often (but not always) a crucial factor in the evolution of cooperation.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted March 19, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        I’m sorry, cooperator, but you’re wrong–DEAD wrong. There are no known multi-level selection models that can’t be handled by inclusive fitness measures. This has all been sorted out long ago; are you not aware of that?

        • cooperator
          Posted March 19, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

          Nobody is more aware of the common wisdom than I am! I’ve recently been through the peer review process with my work, and it was very tough to get reviewers to read past my abstract for exactly the reason you allude to.

          I’m not sure this is the appropriate place to discuss these things. I feel funny talking about my own work on your blog. Can we take this off-line?

          Briefly, my work on multi-level selection was (finally) published in Evolutionary Ecology Research in Fall 2010, after being rejected by reviewers and editors at more mathematically inclined journals that should have known better, but didn’t feel it was even necessary to look at my mathematics. I now have found some supporters in the field (and not from the group-selection partisans as you’re probably thinking!) and a paper with coauthors should be appearing soon in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (sweet revenge!)

          I’d love to have the opportunity to explain why the common wisdom isn’t quite right. Basically, the mathematical models that people feel have conclusively settled the issue do not properly take time (dynamics) into account, and (more importantly) they do not properly take group-level events (group level games, fissioning, extinction) into account.

  2. Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Nowak is quoted as saying that “science and religion are components of what people need and what people want in terms of the search for truth.”

    For some perspective on this claim, look at the cover of the March 4 issue of Science. Read the caption on page 1103.

    Artistic rendering of dynein motor proteins moving along microtubules, based on a crystal structure reported by Carter et al. on p. 1159. This study reveals the architecture of the molecular machine that powers the beating of cilia and intercellular transport and provides insight into the mechanism by which energy from adenosine triphosphate hydrolysis is converted into motion.

    Does religion offer us comparable insight into the workings of nature? Note that without the beating of cilia, life as we know it could not exist. What information has religion given us about cilia?

    • Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, religion-a is pretty cilia.

      • Dominic
        Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        Very good!

    • Dominic
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Your paper looks interesting! Other readers of these pages will be interested I am sure.

      • Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        Dominic, do you mean my paper on “The Myth of Christian Charity” (previewed in this blog post)? Don’t worry, I will alert all interested parties as soon as it’s available.

        • Dominic
          Posted March 16, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          Yes. Had a quick read.

  3. Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    The comparison of inclusive fitness to epicycles just baffles me. To my mind, attempts to explain altruism without relying on inclusive fitness seem rather like epicycles. The idea of inclusive fitness has a certain elegance, a certain mathematical purity that “feels right” in the way that the Copernican model’s doing away with epicycles “feels right.”

    In fact, from a definitional perspective, the idea of inclusive fitness seems manifestly true. To argue otherwise would be to say that at least some factors which cause an allele to propagate do not actually count when we try to tally up all the ways that allele propagates! I suppose one could attempt to argue that inclusive fitness was only just barely a superset of individual fitness, and so therefore it’s just fine to talk about individual fitness as if it were the be-all/end-all. But strictly as a matter of definition, inclusive fitness has to be a superset of individual fitness. Right?!

  4. satan augustine
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    From the Telegraph article which you quoted, Jerry:

    “The great irony of his work, which heartens and amuses his religious side, is that he is, in essence, making a scientific argument that the virtues preached by Jesus – compassion, concern, love for your neighbour – are encoded into the laws of biology. “The mathematical analysis shows that winning strategies in the game of co-operation have to be hopeful, generous and forgiving.””

    If compassion, concern, and love for your neighbor are all genetic, why would we need Jesus. Ergo, no Jesus.

    ; )

    • Dominic
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      Damn right. So Jesus – if he existed – shared the characteristics of a human – shock horror!

  5. Ray Thaw
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    So is this Templeton group all about turning scientists into puppets…? “Go out and find something in the scientific fields that lines up with what we want and we’ll give out $$$”…how can anyone then take this sort of “intervention” seriously?

  6. Dominic
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Roger Highfield is of course editor of New Scientist.

    Here is his page about the book –

    http://www.rogerhighfield.com/books.php

    Curious to see who made what contribution. No doubt this book will now make a big splash in the media…

    When I see the word Templeton, my hackles rise.

  7. Jack van Beverningk
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    “.. humans are genetically nice”

    Then I know an alarmingly large amount of genetically flawed people.

    • Marella
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, just in my own family ;-)

  8. Mike from Ottawa
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    ” “I talked to Bill Hamilton a lot, when I was at Oxford. And I talked an awful lot with Richard Dawkins as well. But I’ve never written a paper with them,” he says. “I have written a paper with John Maynard Smith, and one with Ed Wilson,” he adds, casually dropping two giants into conversation.”

    That should have ended ‘ … dropping names like grass seed.’

    Even someone like that anti-science boob Dobzhansky – what a maroon! I’m sure he got a good pasting in that recent post here – would know what Nowak is forgetting: for science you’ve got to have a mechanism and waving your hands while saying “co-operation” in a loud whisper is not a mechanism.

    BTW, how does knowledge about cilia inform things like whether it’s OK to bog off work ‘sick’ to watch the first two rounds of March Madness? I’m sure it must or YASHWATA’s comment would have been greeted with hoots of derision here.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Apparently talked with them, but did not listen.

    • Badger3k
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

      Ahhh – but where did he go to high school?

  9. KP
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    “A while back I mentioned the disagreement that I (and many others) had with a recent Nature paper by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and E. O. Wilson. I characterized their paper as a “misguided attack on kin selection,””

    You’ll (all) be happy to know that I took a swipe at Nowak/Wilson for just that in my review of the book Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology (eds. DF Westneat an CW Fox) that appeared in BioScience in the February issue. The book has two rigorous chapters on altruism, cooperation, and social evolution that deflate Nowak et al.’s claims. Just passing through on lunch break and haven’t read all of this latest post, but thanks for the update.

  10. Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    It’s nice to see Richard chiming in on Jerry’s blog!

  11. madamX
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Dr Nowak is a good example of why religious scientists make me uncomfortable. Many can do good work, but when they decide to go all Jesus the illusion of credibility can leave major damage in its wake.

  12. Posted March 16, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m in university right now, and I have tremendous respect for most of my professors. I don’t ask them about their religion, but I know some of them profess to go to Church.

    This isn’t even the problem. I can accept that you don’t apply your skeptical side to your religious beliefs. But when your religious beliefs start to influence your skepticism, you are no longer a credible scientist.

  13. Diane G.
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  14. Ichthyic
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Second, this attack on kin selection, and Nowak’s book, seem to me to involve more than just finding out the truth about nature and imparting that truth to the public.

    coincidentally, I saw Sloan-Wilson speak about his latest application of group-selection “theory”.

    guess what area it’s in?

    If you guessed: RELIGION

    you get a prize!

    it was rather pathetic; he actually had the never to use the ORGANIZATION of an encyclopedia of religious sects as evidence for group selection!

    it was bloody bizarre.

    at the end, all I could say to him was:

    “Confirmation Bias much?”

    and walk out.

    everybody else walked out too. No questions.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      never = nerve

      • Dominic
        Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:25 am | Permalink

        Religious groups as units of selection? Is that what he was getting at or do I misunderstand? Surely they are only evidence of memes?

        • Ichthyic
          Posted March 17, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

          Religious groups as units of selection?

          yes, that IS what he was pushing.

          • Ichthyic
            Posted March 17, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

            … seriously, he thinks religion is THE area where his ideas and models of group selection will be borne out best!

            I actually expected him to, you know, actually provide some data.

            instead, he basically grabs an encyclopedia of religion, and says, “See? It all fits so perfectly!”

            O.o

            I was greatly disappointed. There was nothing even to debate; nothing to argue about. There was simply nothing there, and a lot of post-hoc force-fitting of imaginary patterns.

            • Posted March 17, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

              If you are interested, I have posted a rebuttal of D.S. Wilson’s argument (as presented in Darwin’s Cathedral [2002]) here.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted March 18, 2011 at 12:24 am | Permalink

                I’ll take a gander now, thanks.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:14 am | Permalink

      Gah! Next Templeton toady, I suppose…?

      Everyone walked out? Wow.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 18, 2011 at 12:36 am | Permalink

        Next Templeton toady

        he already is.

        In fact, I do believe it was the Templeton Foundation that PAID for the lecture series he was giving in the Austal-Asia region, that I attended in Wellington!

        yes, this whole group selection argument is well paid for by Templeton money.

        In fact, I’m reasonably sure Templeton has been funding Sloan Wilson to speak since the late 90’s, at least.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted March 18, 2011 at 12:47 am | Permalink

          huh.

          I just realized Templeton funding for this nonsense goes way back to the mid 90’s at least.

          It sounds obvious now, but seriously… there is NOTHING TO THIS BUT TEMPLETON MONEY AND MUCH HANDWAVING!

          it explains volumes about why this group is getting publications out of this crap published in major journals, with essentially NOTHING to back them up but “post hoc, ergo propter hoc”.

          sad.

  15. MadScientist
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    ‘Genetically nice’? What’s that even supposed to mean? Anyway, I can outdo Nowak: Gout therefore God.

    • Dominic
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      Or you have been drinking too much port!

  16. Posted March 17, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    The editor of the New Scientist is involved? That’s almost as damning as Templeton money…

  17. Alec
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Another Templeton project, from Simon Conway Morris: http://www.mapoflife.org. I’d be interested to hear Jerry’s thoughts on this.

  18. Margaret
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    … in his book he quotes with approval Einstein’s line about God as a sort of abstraction, seen in the beauty of nature’s laws. … He does, however, believe in the divinity of Christ.

    So he thinks ‘God’ is merely an abstraction, but Christ is a god? Is that a fancy way of saying that he thinks Christ is merely an abstraction, not actually real? Well, that does fit in with the “it’s all a metaphor” crowd.

    • Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      This show us yet again that in a religious context “he believes” really just means “he says.”

      If someone says, “I believe there’s a gas station two blocks from here,” they are taking a position on a proposition about the world. In this case “I believe” means “I take the following to be true.” But if they say, “I believe in the divinity of Christ,” they are not taking a position on anything. They are merely repeating a string of words they heard somewhere. They don’t know the meaning of those words. (No one does, because the words have no meaning.) I don’t think this should be called a belief. It doesn’t represent any kind of thought or consideration. It is the mere parroting of a popular slogan.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      In that confusing passage, Nowak was probably signaling his ability to use the “All Things to All People” strategy of religious apologetic. If you think you disagree with him, then please reinterpret whatever he said till you agree with him … for that is what he meant. It works well in harmonizing religion not just with science, but with pretty much anything at all.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 18, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

        If you think you disagree with him, then please reinterpret whatever he said till you agree with him …

        Well said, and if anyone doesn’t agree…

        *jazz hands*

  19. Troy
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Rumor has it that Nowak refuses to peer-review papers. So either he believes he has no peers or he’s not much of a SuperCooperator.

  20. Leigh Jackson
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    “Inclusive fitness is somewhat like an epicycle,” he says, referring to the Ptolemaic model of the solar system with the Earth at its centre, which required the planets to move in complicated flower patterns to explain their movement in the sky. “Somehow you have the impression that there is some reality attached to it, but the actual mathematical description of any evolutionary process shows that evolutionary fitness is an unnecessary concept.”

    Wikpedia’s entry for “Prokaryote”:

    “Most explanations of co-operation and the evolution of [prokaryote] multicellularity have focused on high relatedness between members of a group (or colony, or whole organism). If a copy of a gene is present in all members of a group, behaviors that promote cooperation between members may permit those members to have (on average) greater fitness than a similar group of selfish individuals (see inclusive fitness and Hamilton’s rule).”

    So who’s right, Nowak or Wiki?

    • Cooperator
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      I think the two statements are only marginally related.

      It’s certainly true that “most explanations of cooperation … have focused on high relatedness…”, but this does not imply that these are the only explanations, or that they are always right.

      The statement about fitness being unnecessary is interesting (and correct). Fitness is a measure of reproductive success over time, but in a (non-trivial) dynamical model of evolutionary dynamics, one must solve the model to see how successful the various organisms were. So where did “fitness” come in? It didn’t!

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

        Gene Expression commented on a recent generalisation of Hamilton’s rule which provides a non-linear mathematical model of observations of inclusive fitness in Myxococcus xanthus bacteria.


        Peter D. Steinberg et al
        contra Nowak, suggested that “cheater” cells – not co-operators – might be enablers of greater evolutionary fitness amongst competing genets of bacteria in heterogeneous environments.

        I’ve not read Nowak’s book; perhaps he addresses this extension of Hamilton’s rule.

  21. Rich
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I purchased an advanced copy of the ‘SuperCooperators’ which will be available in a few days. A member of my prelim committee had asked me which of the ecological interactions explained most of the community dynamics in the majority of ecological systems. My immediate reaction was that it was cooperation, though that was not the ‘correct’ answer according to the inquisitor who championed competition. Though I agree that this was a subjective line of questioning, my personal preference tends to align towards cooperation, depending on the system and level. Like most people I tend to search for data that supports my prejudices and found this book. Unfortunately, based on the comments here it seems I threw away a few dollars to see a detailed and alternative analysis of cooperation as a driving force in evolution. Perhaps, I can still find some useful kernels of thought despite the difficulties of the authors’ underlying assumptions.

  22. Posted March 22, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Perhaps using the term “biologist” rather than “evolutionist” would be more accurate (and avoid needless confusion and misinterpretation.)


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] New book shows that humans are genetically nice, ergo Jesus « Why … [...]

  2. [...] New book shows that humans are genetically nice, ergo Jesus « Why … Sphere: Related Content [...]

  3. [...] Jerry Coyne’s take is worth reading, as it focuses more on the science. Potential conflicts of interest in Nowak’s research [...]

  4. [...] Thanks to John Hawks, I got a link to this post, the last two paragraphs of which is a must read: If the Nowak et al. paper is so bad, why was it published? That’s obvious, and is an object lesson in the sociology of science.  If Joe Schmo et al. from Buggerall State University had submitted such a misguided paper to Nature, it would have been rejected within an hour (yes, Nature sometimes does that with online submissions!).  The only reason this paper was published is because it has two big-name authors, Nowak and Wilson, hailing from Mother Harvard.  That, and the fact that such a contrarian paper, flying in the face of accepted evolutionary theory, was bound to cause controversy.  Well, Nature got its controversy but lost its intellectual integrity, becoming something of a scientific National Enquirer. Oh, and boo to the Templeton Foundation, who funded the whole Nowak et al. mess and highlighted the paper on their website. [...]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27,608 other followers

%d bloggers like this: