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:
- A grant from Templeton to Nowak on “The Evolution and Theology of Cooperation: The Emergence of Altruistic Behavior, Forgiveness and Unselfish Love in the Context of Biological, Ethical and Theological Implications.” Amount: $2 million (work conducted at Harvard University).
- A grant from Templeton on “Foundational questions in Evolutionary Biology“, which runs from 2009-2013. Nowak is the leader of this project at Harvard, and the amount is $10,500,000 (!)
- A series of four Templeton-sponsored research lectures at Johns Hopkins University in March, 2010. I have no information about how much Nowak got paid to talk, but it’s surely not trifling.
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.