More criticism of Nowak et al.’s attack on kin selection

For those of you keeping up with the flap on kin selection, there’s a new paper online in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology by F. Rousset and S. Lion.  It’s a critique of the Nature paper by Nowak et al. that attacked both the coherence and importance of inclusive fitness theory (“kin selection”), a theory that has been immensely productive for evolutionary biology in the last five decades.

Rousset and Leon maintain the following:

  • Nowak et al. misrepresent kin selection (inclusive fitness theory) as something different from natural selection
  • Nowak et al.’s critique of Hamilton’s “rule” (“br > c”) is misleading; many of the “criticisms” are either wrong or (as with assumptions of genetic additivity or peculiarities of population structure) became part of kin-selection theory ages ago. Nowak et al.’s assertions that these are fatal flaws in the theory are therefore wrong.
  • Nowak et al.’s own model for the origin of eusociality in insects (the presence of a queen and a sterile worker caste) is far less robust than inclusive-fitness theory, and in fact does not deal with the crucial problem of whether genetic relatedness explains eusociality since their model does not vary relatedness.
  • Nature was severely remiss in publishing such a flawed paper in the first place.

Rousset and Leon are quite critical about Nature‘s handling of the Nowak et al. manuscript.  Here are a few quotes:

We think the publication of this article in a high-profile journal, along with the large media coverage it received, is an illustration of some serious shortcomings in current scientific practice. Arguably, the impact of NTW’s paper reflects to a large extent the rhetorical ability of the authors, rather than the scientific value and novelty of the paper. . .

Stylistically, the paper often departs from the neutrality of scientific prose, using a variety of rhetorical tricks typically found in the discourses of politicians or the writings of polemists, rather than in academic articles. When they ask falsely evident rhetorical questions,1 liken inclusive fitness theory to geocentrism, or claim without justification that their approach is ‘common sense’ (their Appendix, p. 20), NTW are a long way away from what is generally expected of scientific discourse. In particular, it is troubling to see the authors turn to the argument of geocentrism and its unfalsifiable epicycles to discredit inclusive fitness (their Appendix).

The allusion to ‘Darwinian epicycles’ is indeed a typical rhetorical trick used to attack evolutionary biology. . .

. . . We think the wide impact of an article that rests on such fragile foundations calls into question the efficiency of the editorial process in the most famous scientific journals. Nature’s extravagant editorial characterization of the paper as ‘the first mathematical analysis of inclusive fitness theory’ recklessly tramples on nearly 50 years of accumulated knowledge. It is often said that science is self-correcting, but this can be so only if authors are engaged by the validity of what they are writing, if reviewers are engaged in the same way, and if science, rather than only media buzz, impact, and citations, matters to editors.

Agreed. Nature, of course, will never admit that it was remiss in handling the article.


Rousset, F. and S. Lion (2011). Much ado about nothing: Nowak et al.’s charge against inclusive fitness theory. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, online, doi: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2011.02251.x


  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted April 6, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    151 to 1, 152 to 1, 153 to 1, 154 to 1…

  2. Posted April 6, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    This seems a good “fight” for all involved. It raises the awareness of evo devo overall and helps the community mobilize — always useful to have a “bad guy.”

    If it helps put a stake thru the heart of zombie evo theories (like group selection) all the better.

  3. Posted April 6, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    This paper also has a marvelous set of authors’ names: Lion, and Rousett (a type of of fruit bat).

    • Dominic
      Posted April 6, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Aw – fruitbats are so pretty!
      This is very interesting & I will dig out their riposte tomorrow, but I think ‘sleeprunning’ above is wrong to think we have seen the last of group selection. It will, I suspect, keep coming back as it has for a long time.

  4. North of 49
    Posted April 6, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    For me, this is another one of those “Goddamit!” moments, as in: “Goddamit, now I can’t trust (insert name of authority here (in this case, Nature magazine)) ever again.”

    Because of this egregious misstep, now I am going to have to treat Nature Mag as warily as I treat any other publication that has ever been revealed as having betrayed its own principles.

    By now, of course, such publications are legion, and far outnumber the ones who still stick to their mission statements, but… GODDAMIT! — I am getting heartily sick of this trend.

    Look. I’m a layman. When it comes to matters scientific I must needs find sources I can rely on, sources I can trust, else I can never hope to make sense of the wonders of the real world. Nature magazine was one of those sources, but now, with this incident, they’re off the list. I can’t trust them any more, and more importantly, I can’t cite them as a reliable source — for anything! — any more.

    Thank Cosmos for bloggers like you, Jerry, without which folks like me would have no reliable authority to which to turn.

    • Alex Ling
      Posted April 6, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Two points:

      1) Nature is a journal, not a magazine. There’s a difference in connotation, at least within academic circles.

      2) Except for the odd flashy article that Nature makes free, I don’t understand how a self-admitted layman has access to Nature outside of institutional academic access. Granted, one could get a very expensive personal subscription, but my puzzlement is more about why you would worry about the integrity of the journal!

      • North of 49
        Posted April 6, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        “Journal, not a magazine.” OK, my error, but as far as I’m concerned a publication is a publication is a publication, no matter what what the conventions call it.

        How do I access it? Nothing could be simpler, my local Library has a subscription.

        Why do I care about the integrity of the journal? Because I assumed, due to its reputation, that it was a trustworthy source. With the publication of the article under discussion, I find I have to change that assumption. That makes me sad.

        • J.J.E.
          Posted April 6, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

          Don’t worry, I’m a professional academic and I think it is totally fair to call it a magazine. However, I would discourage you from using this singular event to distrust Nature. If you’re going to complain about Nature, you need not have waited until this paper. Nature (among other top tier journals) has a long history of publishing flashy results that don’t always withstand scrutiny. But I think the important point is to evaluate the papers on their own merits (or, if you’re a layman, it means waiting on the consensus of the community). One major reason to criticize Nature isn’t necessarily its sensationalism (which is bad enough), but rather its policy on copyright and access and its excessively short format, all of which hinder clear communication of findings published in its pages.

          • MadScientist
            Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:31 am | Permalink

            ‘Nature’ is one of those publications with an unwarranted reputation and audience. People only subscribe because they’ve grown up with the schlock that Nature is scholarly. You should see me curse and scream each time a colleague suggests we should try to publish something in that rag.

            • Alex Ling
              Posted April 7, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

              From a quick Pubmed search, I see Dr. Coyne has published in both Nature and Science, both publications probably with “an unwarranted reputation and audience”. Presumably then, Dr. Coyne has grown up with the schlock that Nature is scholarly 😛

          • Troy
            Posted April 7, 2011 at 3:14 am | Permalink

            I don’t think copyright and short format are such a big problem.

            I think that most authors put a copy of their Nature paper on their own and/or their employer’s website, to be downloaded for free, even if this is a breach of their contract with Nature. If not, you can always contact the authors by email and request a pdf copy.

            As for the shortness, most papers nowadays have lengthy “electronic appendices” that contain the details of the data/methods/models/analyses.

            • J.J.E.
              Posted April 7, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

              I’m well aware, as I’ve written my fare share of those supplements. A few points: those supplemens aren’t reviewed to the same standard, so they are a poor substitute. Additionally, breaking up a manuscript into two artificially distinct pieces does violence to the paper. Finally, regarding access, the biggest point isn’t that final step when you want to download a paper. It comes far earlier when universities have to pay to access the journals. Consider this: research is funded by governments and foundations and conducted by institute and university scientists. If submitted to Nature, it is reviewed free of charge by other scientists. If accepted, the copyright is owned by Nature, who then charges for access to work funded almost exclusively by sources other than Nature.

  5. Posted April 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I just read the commentary by Rousset and Lion. It is terrific, very accessible, and devastating, but in a scholarly way. Their contribution, along with the more mathematically-oriented contribution by Gardner et al. (also in JEB ‘early view’), make for good reading, and helps shine a much-needed light on what appears to be a rope of sand spun by Nowak et al.

  6. Helen Wise
    Posted April 6, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Crummybuttons. Paywall.

  7. MadScientist
    Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    I lost all interest in Nature almost 20 years ago; it’s turned into a peddler of woo-woo through-and-through. It started out with the absurd ‘letters’ which were not reviewed and would make obviously ridiculous claims such as: “Scientist X in India can produce diesel fuel by boiling a few leaves in water. The mass of diesel oil produced exceeds the dry weight of the leaves and exceeds the amount of hydrocarbon which can theoretically be produced from a dry leaf mass consisting of pure carbon.” Well of course I’m paraphrasing the claim, but no student of mine would get a passing mark in Chem 101 if they didn’t realize the obvious, such as the claimed amount of fuel produced exceeding the total possible carbon content of the starting materials. The excuse back then (which simply infuriated me because of its rank dishonesty) was that it was OK to print such bullshit because it wasn’t peer reviewed. Unfortunately people who don’t know better may lap up such bullshit because they mistakenly believe that Nature is a respectable journal.

    • Troy
      Posted April 7, 2011 at 3:17 am | Permalink

      Although I agree it’s silly to call the short papers “letters”, the “letters” to Nature *are* in fact peer-reviewed.

  8. miko
    Posted April 7, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    As an eminent Harvard (another institution with, like Nature, a flashiness problem) professor once told me, “Not everything published in Cell is wrong.”

    That is, the higher profile the journal, the more likely something spectacularly off base will be published. It is part of the positive correlation between IF and retractions. There is an old-boy network (it includes girls) between hot shot PIs and editors which, for all their good intentions, is like Louisiana politics, there is an inherently higher likelihood that something surprising and novel–attributes top journal actively seek out–will be wrong, the attention that comes with controversy, etc…

    Nowak et al. is spectacular becaue it really, really, should never have seen the light of day. Barring total incompetence at every step–reviewer selection, editorial evaluation, the authors’ understanding of evolutionary theory–it seems like there really was collusion between the authors and Nature to stir up some old nontroversies leveraged with some obscurantist new math and the 02138 zip code.

    In Harvard’s defense, the PED is not a real department and is heavily involved with the Templeton Foundation. They’re above a shitty yuppie burrito joint in the square. Harvard needs get over its celebrity-worship and prune this embarrassment.

    On the other hand, they’ve invited David Brooks to speak on “human nature.” So…

  9. Posted April 7, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    We think the publication of this article in a high-profile journal, along with the large media coverage it received, is an illustration of some serious shortcomings in current scientific practice.

    The criticism paper is behind a paywall! It is a serious shortcoming that someone wants to charge money for a web article that criticizes the editorial practices of another journal.

    • Alex Ling
      Posted April 7, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      I laughed out loud when I read your comment because it seems to suggest that capitalism is a serious shortcoming of current scientific practice. I agree wholeheartedly– viva la revolucion! bring on Chairman Meow! 😛

      • Posted April 7, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        No, it is not a criticism of capitalism. It is a criticism of Rousset and Lion. They are not making any money off of the web site fees. They could have chosen to make their remarks more public, but they chose not to.

        • J.J.E.
          Posted April 7, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

          Easier bitched about than done. Maybe they could have gotten published in PLoS or a BMC journal, but open access peer reviewed scientific journals with good reputations and quality review are in the minority, though they are growing.

        • lemon curry
          Posted April 7, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

          Open access in JEB cost $3000. It is not a mere matter of choice. Or the choice could be to save this kind of money for something else.

  10. Patrick
    Posted April 7, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    One presumes Rousset and Lion were not previously familiar with the journal Nature, then?

    Although I don’t agree on the particular criticisms of the NTW paper, suggesting that its publication is uncharacteristic or surprising for the journal is silly. Nature (and Science, and to a slightly lesser extent PNAS) exists precisely to publish high profile research. Steady, thorough, detailed research that extends but does not undermine previous knowledge and theory is not high profile (unless, possibly, it involves dinosaurs; people love dinosaurs, don’t ask me why). Research that goes against mainstream opinion, presents novel and/or contentious ideas, etc., is high-profile. If it’s -also- solid science, well, that’s a good bonus.

    Now, I’m sure Rousset and Lion, and the rest of us in biology, know perfectly well that getting papers in Nature is more about selling a sexy idea than doing solid science. Rather than castigating Nature, maybe we should step back a second and ask ourselves: Why are we held in thrall by these publications?

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