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