The group-selection dustup continues: E. O. Wilson calls Richard Dawkins a “journalist”

I’ve been an admirer of Ed Wilson for a long time (after all, he helped me get into Harvard). He founded the discipline of evolutionary psychology, which is a branch of sociobiology, has been an ardent conservationist, and his work on ants is unparalleled, though he’s not really incorporated the latest statistical methodologies into his phylogenetic work. And he’s an excellent popular writer who has produced two Pulitzer-Prize winning books. I was a teaching assistant for Wilson when I was a grad student, and found him kind and amiable.

But as he gets older, Wilson seems to me to be getting more concerned with securing his place in scientific history—a place that is already secured—by attacking one of the most fruitful and innovative theories in modern evolutionary biology: inclusive fitness (sometimes called “kin selection”). I’ve written about Wilson and his colleagues’ scientific errors on this site (some of the links are here), and about Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson’s paper in Nature that argues against kin selection’s importance in the evolution of “eusociality” (the division of labor among castes and the presence of queens and sterile workers seen in ants, bees, and other hymenopterans). Wilson et. al broach instead the importance of “group selection” in the evolution of these phenomena. I saw, and still see, that paper as misguided, its theoretical basis flawed, and I find little evidence for their preferred mechanism of group selection as a promoter of adaptations in nature.

There is, however, one recent paper in Nature by Jonathan Pruitt and Charles Goodnight that claims to provide evidence for group selection in colonial spiders. I haven’t yet had time to read it, but note that the University of Vermont’s announcement of their faculty’s research characterizes it this way: “Nature paper provides first-ever field evidence of controversial ‘group selection'”.  But if group selection is so important, why do we lack evidence for it? I’m willing to believe that there are cases of selection among groups in the wild (it is hard to demonstrate), but I’m not about to say they are pervasive until I have some evidence for their ubiquity. (That’s the same way I feel about God: theoretically possible but not demonstrated.) There are, after all, good theoretical reasons why group selection should be less common, and less efficacious, than the form of individual selection characterized in Dawkins’s metaphor as “the selfish gene.”

But now Wilson, who always struck me as a courtly man, a gentleman of the Southern stripe, has now overstepped his bounds and insulted a distinguished colleague, as reported in a new Guardian piece,”Biological warfare flares up again between E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins“. Of course, as the Guardian notes, Dawkins had some strong scientific criticisms of Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth, a book I also criticized  heavily in The Times Literary Supplement (no free link available). And Dawkins was also a critic, as was I, of the Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson Nature paper, which simply failed to show that the relatedness between social insects was irrelevant to the evolution of their eusociality. There is in fact, evidence for the opposite conclusion. But scientific criticism is no reason to denigrate someone’s abilities or mischaracterize their career. From the Guardian:

The war of words between the biologists EO Wilson and Richard Dawkins has reignited after the Harvard professor described his Oxford counterpart as a “journalist”.

In an interview with Evan Davis on BBC2’s Newsnight to promote his latest book, Wilson was asked about his differing view of natural selection compared with that of Dawkins.

Wilson answered: “There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research.”

No dispute? Of course there’s a dispute. What Wilson means is this: “Dawkins’s criticisms don’t count because he’s only a journalist and not a scientist.”

Shortly after the programme was broadcast, Dawkins tweeted: “I greatly admire EO Wilson & his huge contributions to entomology, ecology, biogeography, conservation, etc. He’s just wrong on kin selection.”

A second tweet said: “Anybody who thinks I’m a journalist who reports what other scientists think is invited to read The Extended Phenotype.”

Wilson’s remarks are simply unfair, inaccurate, and uncharitable. While Dawkins doesn’t do actual experiments, he does expand the boundaries of science in two ways: by explaining its results to laypeople, but importantly, as in The Extended Phenotype, offering new theories and new ways to think about old observations. That is science, and it’s far more than just “journalism.” Few journalists work out the details and implications of natural selection in the way Dawkins has.  And Dawkins’s criticisms of Wilson are scientific ones; how often do you see journalists do that? In fact, journalists like Jonah Lehrer who reported on the “kin selection” dustup didn’t offer any of their own analyses of the issues, because they’re didn’t have the training or understanding to do so (see my take on Lehrer’s flawed reportage here; I believe that Carl Zimmer, who does know a lot about science, did proffer some accurate criticisms).

The Guardian goes on:

. . . Wilson was asked about his current views on the concept of a selfish gene, to which he replied: “I have abandoned it and I think most serious scientists working on it have abandoned it. Some defenders may be out there, but they have been relatively or almost totally silenced since our major paper came out.”

Abandoning “the selfish gene” is the same as abandoning natural selection on genes and individuals! Does Wilson really want to do that? Does he not think that Darwin’s characterization of how species evolve is completely wrong? If he does, then he’s flirting with being a crank. The “selfish gene” is simply a way at looking at how selection operates among different forms of genes and on the carriers of those genes.

The Guardian continues:

The paper [Wilson] referred to was a 2010 study published in Nature entitled The evolution of eusociality.

Dawkins later posted a third tweet with a link to his devastating Prospect magazine review of Wilson’s 2012 book The Social Conquest of Earth, which he described as “a brief account of EO Wilson’s misunderstanding of kin selection theory”.

The final paragraphs read: “Edward Wilson has made important discoveries of his own. His place in history is assured, and so is Hamilton’s. Please do read Wilson’s earlier books, including the monumental The Ants, written jointly with Bert Hölldobler (yet another world expert who will have no truck with group selection).

“As for the book under review, the theoretical errors I have explained are important, pervasive and integral to its thesis in a way that renders it impossible to recommend. To borrow from Dorothy Parker, this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.”

In other words, Dawkin’s criticisms of Wilson are purely scientific, though forceful, but Dawkins, as usual, takes care to praise Wilson’s genuine (and multifarious) accomplishments. Wilson does no such thing; he just dismisses Dawkins as a journalist. (Journalism, of course, can be an honorable profession in its own right.)

I wish Wilson would think harder about his dismissal of conventional natural selection and kin selection (which is just a subset of natural selection, though Wilson denies that). I’m not sure why Ed is going this route after a lifetime of accomplishment and honors (he’s the only scientist I know who has two Pulitzer Prizes). But I do know that some of his colleagues, including both Bert Hölldobler (Wilson’s closest collaborator) and Bob Trivers, have tried without luck to correct Wilson’s thinking. If Wilson can’t stop touting a misguided theory of natural selection, at least he can stop calling Dawkins a “journalist,” for crying out loud. There is no need to be personal—and rude.

h/t: Anne M.

 

142 Comments

  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    …he’s flirting with being a crank

    Since he has been on this kick for several years, that ship has long ago sailed. He is getting as bad as D.S. Wilson.

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    sub 🐜

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      Okay Diana, how did you do that? 🙂

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        It’s an emoji. There is an emoji add on to the chrome browser that I use. You can also add the keyboard to iOS devices (and probably Android as well).

        • Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

          Thanks, I’ll have to look that up when I have a moment.

          • Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

            🐜

            (Natively supported in Safari on OS X Mavericks and Yosemite! [ctrl][cmd][space])

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

              Oh yes, and I think I set that up before as a special character. I’m the worst for remember keyboard short cuts but I do use cmd-shift-4 a lot for screen captures.

            • Marella
              Posted November 7, 2014 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

              😻 Yay! Thank-you!

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

          Testing emoji 🐝

  3. Daniel Engblom
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    I remember reading The second edition of the Selfish Gene and noting in the footnotes how many times Dawkins corrected fundamental errors E.O. Wilson had made with regards to kin selection.
    If E.O. Wilson was confused about kin selection back in 1975, he seems to have just kept on going with the same flawed (mis)understanding, so perhaps not much has changed, only a solidifying of Wilson’s commitments to old ideas that die hard.

    • Richard Bond
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Actually, the 2nd edition of The Selfish Gene was published in 1989; I doubt that the disagreement goes all the way back to 1976.

      • GBJames
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        I don’t see how the 1989 publication date negates Daniel’s observation. I just cracked open my 1st edition of Sociobiology. Chapter 5 is titled “Group Selection and Altruism”. While I didn’t reread the chapter, it would seem that the disagreement clearly goes back to the mid 70’s.

        • Richard Bond
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the correction. I have not read Sociobiology

        • Daniel Engblom
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

          I opened up my 2.nd ed. Selfish Gene, looked Wilson up in the index, found that on page 94 of the book (meaning it appeared in the first edition) Dawkins observes how Wilson confuses Kin selection with group selection.
          Granted, this second glance of mine did not produce any other mention of misunderstanding on Wilson’s part (other than a minor referral to the initial point on p.94 later on p.107), so that bit of my observation seems wrong now, implying that there would have been repeated mistakes on Wilson’s part.

      • Posted November 7, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        I doubt that the disagreement goes all the way back to 1976.

        your doubts are unfounded.

        1) read ulica segerstrale’s *defenders of the truth* and you see ed wilson was always had mixed attitudes toward inclusive fitness though that is not how it was represented by some

        2) read david sloan wilson’s intellectual autobiography, and it is clear that ed wilson was encouraging david sloan wilson to expand multi-level selection theory a long time ago

        it’s got acrimonious recently. but wilson’s skepticism of the dawkins-hamilton-williams-maynard smith line on inclusive fitness goes back to the 70s indeed.

  4. Daniel Wilcox
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Of course, if determinism is true, Wilson
    didn’t have a choice but to be rude.

    :-)Kidding you Jerry

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Yeah, but I can give him some environmental input to modify his brain so he doesn’t continue to be rude!

      • AJ
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

        You must give him that input, to be precise.

        • Scientifik
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

          No. Jerry may give him that input, or not. But whatever the end decision (to write a post or not) it’s still a decision determined by deterministic factors, rather than freedom.

          • Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

            No, Jerry *must*, because it is determined!

            /@

            • Scientifik
              Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

              He *must* do something.

              He either *must* write a post or *must* decide otherwise.

              • Posted November 7, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

                Just as you must continue to miss the joke. Hey ho.

                /@

      • Rhaeyga
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        yes, the brain can respond to exhortative inputs

        • Daniel Wilcox
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

          But the “exhortative inputs” are also determined are they not?

          And whether the determined “imput” works
          on the rude person is also determined, it would seem.

          I don’t see how one can get out of the determitative loop.

          • Daniel Wilcox
            Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

            Oops, “inputs.” It was determined that I would put an ‘m’ where I needed an ‘n’.

          • Scientifik
            Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

            “I don’t see how one can get out of the determitative loop.”

            You can’t. And that’s the point.

            • Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

              Oh, we get out of the loop – it’s the last thing we do!

              • winewithcats
                Posted November 9, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

                Nonsense, that’s just more input for the continuation of the loop.

          • reasonshark
            Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

            Why would you want to?

      • Posted November 7, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        I was attending Harvard about the same time you were, Jerry, but I was over at the Grad School of Education. I managed to finagle my advisor to allow me to take the majority of my course work over at the MCB and OEB depts. I would often request and be granted time to sit down with Ed Wilson in his astonishing ant room in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. As you have said, he was always unfailingly courtly and considerate, even with me, a lowly grad student from the benighted Ed School. It distresses me to now watch him become so spiky and seemingly unreasonable in the twilight of his illustrious career, but I will always be grateful for his kindness nearly 30 years ago.

  5. Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    I’m very sad to see as eminent a scientist as Wilson going down this path. My main reason for liking him is that I’m fascinated by social insects (and have little interest in others.)

    I don’t see how group selection can have any truth in it at all, except in humans where culture might encourage true altruism towards non-relatives.

  6. aljoc
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    “While Dawkins doesn’t do actual experiments,…”

    In fact Dawkins DID once do biological experiments, which he describes in “An Appetite For Wonder”.

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Yes, I said “do”, implying now. I’m perfectly aware of the experiments on chickens that he describes in that book.

  7. Posted November 7, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I spotted this on Twitter – Matt Ridley supporting RD.

    Are the criticisms from Wilson that RD is not mathematical enough?

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      “this” Missing link? (So to speak.)

      /@

      • Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        I meant the discussion – Naseem Nicholas Taleb said something like that – it was Wilson with mathematics where RD was ‘verbalist’…

  8. Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    We have a saying for Wilson.
    Destruyendo con los pies lo que hizo con las manos.
    Destroying with his feet what he built with his hands

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      Oh, I like that! Well said!

      Very nice sounding in Spanish as well.

    • Marella
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      That is a very good saying. I will try to remember it.

  9. Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    I hope that all those who have branded Dawkins as abrasive and ‘shrill’, note his very measured reply to Wilson’s insult. A perfect gentleman, it seems.

    • marvol19
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      They won’t.

      There is so much evidence already for Dawkins being civil and polite, everybody that still ignores it is doing this on purpose or at least through wilful ignorance. <(-︿-)>

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      They don;t need too. They’ve already defined him as shrill.

      Just as they’ve defined their god as existent.

  10. Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t see a link to the interview itself here, so here it is if anyone wants to view it: http://tinyurl.com/ov8ksya

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Oh, he starts off very badly, besmirching “atheism”.

      /@

      • Scientifik
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        Given that 8 million children die every year, it’s enough of evidence to conclude that the loving God people believe in DOES NOT exist.

        Is the evidence still not sufficient for the agnostics?

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      … and claiming no serious scientists supports the idea of the selfish gene any more!

      (The interview wasn’t just being soft on Ed, he was feeding him these ideas!!!)

      /@

    • Scientifik
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      It was really lame how he dodged the question about religion, softening his view with ‘Oh, I’m harsh on faith, not on religion’ BS.

      “The great religions are sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering. They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.” – E.O. Wilson

      http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/10/books/edward-o-wilsons-the-meaning-of-human-existence.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw&_r=1

  11. Catherine
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    You have done so much writing today. Just dropping a note of appreciation for your uninterrupted dedication to your most excellent and thought-provoking website. You have writing in your heart!
    From an admiring (and typically lurking) fan..
    Catherine

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      + many times over.

    • Si
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      ditto

  12. darrelle
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    “There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research.”

    Damn. That is very disappointing to read. That is some serious ass baring there. I never would have guessed Wilson would say something like that, or even think something like that. There are at least three fairly nasty attitudes on display in that statement.

    • reasonshark
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      I wonder which scientists doing research he’s been having arguments with. Last I remember, almost all of the biologists who heard about it gave the Nowak et al paper a good drubbing.

  13. GBJames
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Dawkins and Wilson both caused me to view the world differently, and more clearly, back in the 70’s when The Selfish Gene and Sociobiology were published. It saddens me to see Wilson diminishing his own reputation like this.

  14. Jacques Hausser
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I never understood why gene, individual or kin selection should be incompatible with group selection.
    If a selfish gene confers an increased fitness to its carriers in a group, and the fitness of the group (what I define as the inverse of its probability of extinction) decreases with the proportion of such individuals, then you have group selection. It’s a kind of density-dependant selection. And the paper of Pruitt and Goodnight in Nature mentionned by Jerry (doi:10.1038/nature13811) shows exactly that, in two sets of ecological circumstances where the optimal density of agressive individuals was different.
    … And I never understood either why (some)scientists are so aggressively dogmatizing ( = fossilizing) their opinions. It’s just unscientific.

    • reasonshark
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      I never understood why gene, individual or kin selection should be incompatible with group selection.

      If a selfish gene confers an increased fitness to its carriers in a group, and the fitness of the group (what I define as the inverse of its probability of extinction) decreases with the proportion of such individuals, then you have group selection.

      Do you actually know what group selection is?

      The idea behind group selection is that a piece of behaviour or similar arises and then stays in a population for a group benefit. The problem is that any gene that’s unselfish quickly becomes a suicidal gene, as competition among alleles is zero-sum.

      It’s chiefly invoked to explain behaviours performed by individuals for the benefit of others, but usually at a cost to the individual itself. The problem is how to get a gene to code for such behaviours without eliminating itself from the gene pool. The answer? For those special circumstances to arise from selfish genes, the genetic rationale has to be selfish.

      Kin selection is made possible because the beneficiaries are other carriers of the gene, so it is in effect helping itself, a bit like a white playing piece in chess being sacrificed to make a stronger move possible. The alternative is usually a form of reciprocity, in which mutually beneficial partnerships are struck between individuals. In these cases, proposing group selection is redundant because the selfish gene theory is already doing all the work.

      The word “selection” in “kin selection” is actually a bit unfortunate, since it has nothing else in common with group selection. Individual selection isn’t even true. It’s all strictly gene selection at heart, just via different means and methods that logically extend from it.

      Group selection doesn’t work because it can’t get past these premises. If the cooperating organisms have to have copies of the genes that code for their behaviour, then that’s kin selection, which makes group selection pointless. If they don’t, there’s no measure in place to prevent subversion from within the group (unless you have a reciprocal system which rewards cooperators and punishes cheaters, but reciprocal altruism already covers that). The idea of the superorganism – a team of organisms acting as one big one – already requires kin selection and/or reciprocal altruism in place to work to begin with.

      The other issue is inheritance. Groups don’t inherit their structures any more than your children would inherit your organs; they have to inherit the genetic code, which is why selfish gene theory is so crucial to understanding evolution in reproducing, living things. The only other alternative of inherited information is memes, but that’s another kettle of fish altogether, and in any case group selectionism is a biological theory.

      Lastly, just remember that your body is already a kind of bizarre superorganism: a collection of cloned cells so intimately interconnected that they can safely and with excellent coordination divide labour amongst themselves for mutual joint benefit, just as an ant colony divides labour among its castes. That was made possible by kin selection: its the genetic copies that enable a selfish gene to be altruistic to other organisms while still being “selfish”. No group selection is necessary.

      • Posted November 7, 2014 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        That was pretty good!
        A key bit was that even if individuals in a species are not close ‘kin’, they will exhibit cooperative behaviors toward each other because they still share many of the same genes controlling behaviors. So once again it boils down to selfish genes.
        Dawkins selfish gene metaphor has its issues with its reductionism, but it is still a solidly good idea.

        • Daniel Engblom
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

          Is reductionism an issue somehow?

      • Jacques Hausser
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        “The idea behind group selection is that a piece of behaviour or similar arises and then stays in a population for a group benefit. The problem is that any gene that’s unselfish quickly becomes a suicidal gene, as competition among alleles is zero-sum.”

        Why should group selection be considered only from the point of view of the (very hypothetical) positive selection of altruistic alleles inside one group ? You are reducing the definition to the cases where you can say it doesn’t exist – and simultaneously stretching kin selection to any group or population, since they consist by definition of conspecific organisms. Note that I have absolutely no opposition neither to kin selection nor to the selfish gene concept, on the contrary. Many thanks to Hamilton and Dawkins to have clarified so many things! I only think that it’s not contradictory to say that selection also acts at the group level, and that at this level, it can issue results different from those expected when considering only the gene level. That’s what I call group selection. I don’t follow these questions very closely now after 6 years of retirement, but I remember a paper of Reeve & Hölldobler (I looked for it: PNAS 104, 9736-9740, 2007) where they presented a rather convincing model.

        Group selection (in my sense) implies they are several groups, that these groups can reproduce themselves – by budding or by association of dispersing individuals from different parent groups, and of course, that these groups can become extinct. Group selection is the differential success in survival and reproduction of these groups relative to the frequence of the considered selfish allele – or more coarsely, trait. If a selfish allele is advantageous for its carriers, but detrimental for the survival of the group, groups where it is too frequent will disappear. Therefore group selection is chiefly a selection AGAINST alleles detrimental not for the individuals, but for the group. And, like in the case of the spiders of the Pruitt and Goodnight paper, the balance between individual advantage and collective disadvantage can vary depending of the environment of the groups.

        I think we mostly agree, except for the definitions. Ah, the definitions…

        • Daniel Engblom
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          “Why should group selection be considered only from the point of view of the (very hypothetical) positive selection of altruistic alleles inside one group ? ”

          You have your definition then, but you should really read at least the piece Pinker wrote to EDGE a while back, and the responses, as he talks about the problem of espousing a “theory” that changes definitions.

        • Thanny
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

          Your definition of group selection essentially reduces to groups = species (or supersets thereof).

          It’s trivially true that some lineages were more successful than others, and that success was due in large part to traits possessed by that lineage (e.g. segmentation with HOX genes allowing complex functionality through iterative change).

          So at best, you can say that group selection (as you define it) can explain why traits are still around. It has no power to actually evolve those traits in the first place, as that can only happen at the gene level (to claim otherwise is to support the creationist canard of a junkyard 747).

        • reasonshark
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

          Why should group selection be considered only from the point of view of the (very hypothetical) positive selection of altruistic alleles inside one group?

          What are you babbling about? The whole reason group selection was proposed in the first place was as an explanatory mechanism for how specific altruistic and cooperative behaviours could have evolved “for the good of the group”, or in some cases “for the good of the species”. It’s being (and has been) judged based on how effective it’s been in that explanatory role, and the result after decades of work is not in its favour. If there isn’t even an independent form of inheritance to explain how the traits of certain self-sacrificing social creatures arise that doesn’t conflict with selfish gene theory, then that multilevel selection hypothesis is either useless or nonsense, akin to proposing a special “ice selection” for creatures living in the Arctic.

          You are reducing the definition to the cases where you can say it doesn’t exist – and simultaneously stretching kin selection to any group or population, since they consist by definition of conspecific organisms.

          And this is good evidence that you don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Kin selection is a precise extension of selfish gene theory applicable only under certain circumstances that can be tested, with a precise mathematical definition, as laid out by Bill Hamilton and subsequently vindicated by research. It depends on the likelihood of a relative carrying the same copy of the allele as the original host – i.e. kinship – weighed against the scale of the benefit the host’s risky actions are likely to provide. It is not a cheap way of loosely saying the trait of being nice to other species members gets inherited, and only someone as confused as Wilson would make that mistake.

          I only think that it’s not contradictory to say that selection also acts at the group level, and that at this level, it can issue results different from those expected when considering only the gene level.

          And I would ask how it’s supposed to work as an independent mechanism in that case. You can’t even get self-sacrificing altruistic behaviours to emerge without either kin selection or reciprocal altruism – in other words, without selfish gene theory to begin with – which makes the whole thing redundant at best. However, if group selectionism is going to be part of a multilevel selection hypothesis instead, then you’re trading in one can of worms for another. As a starting point, it’s going to have to find some alternative form of inheritance, since you can’t have an evolutionary mechanism without generations for it to act upon.

          Group selection (in my sense) implies they are several groups, that these groups can reproduce themselves – by budding or by association of dispersing individuals from different parent groups, and of course, that these groups can become extinct.

          How are you not seeing the problems here? The entirety of the reproductive aspect comes from the genes themselves. When an ant colony throws off a few founding members to start a new colony, the colony is not doing anything more special than when two crabs mate and lay eggs; passing on genes. When an entire colony is wiped out, it’s no more remarkable than all the carriers of one gene dying. Your concept is cheating by stealing another concept, and then trying to sell the concept back as something more radical than it actually is.

          Group selection is the differential success in survival and reproduction of these groups relative to the frequence of the considered selfish allele – or more coarsely, trait.

          And here’s why it’s a completely useless concept: because the term “group” is a total cheat. If it means anything other than a mere subpopulation, then it must be referring to some kind of social organism or organisms whose reproductive fates are already intertwined, either because of mutual gain between individuals or because of genetic kinship ties. And if the organisms are already in a position where a mutual bond of some sort is already in place, and is already a superior adaptation, then saying selfish behaviours are self-defeating is no more profound than saying camel-like adaptations in Polar Bears in the Arctic is self-defeating. That doesn’t require a radical new form of selection. Treating it as a special, independent mechanism is completely redundant and practically an invitation for confusion at best.

          Group selection is either describing collections of organisms as if they were individuals carrying genes – in which case it is a redundant rip-off of theories that have actually passed muster in biology – or group selection is proposing some new form of evolution, in which case it has no candidates for independent inheritance. When you consider those traits that enable an amalgamation of organisms to survive and reproduce – specifically when you talk about selection against variants that sabotage the collective effort – the single multicellular organism and the ant colony are the examples to look at. In both cases, group selection is no more profound than trying to explain the adaptationally advantageous division of labour and reproductive inheritance of traits among people by invoking cancer.

          If a selfish allele is advantageous for its carriers, but detrimental for the survival of the group, groups where it is too frequent will disappear.

          In which case, how can it be advantageous for its carrier? Either the carrier dies along with the “group”, in which case it just shot itself, or it prospers independently of the group’s survival, in which case the whole idea would collapse as the allele for anti-social behaviour breeds more successfully than its pro-social rivals.

          Therefore group selection is chiefly a selection AGAINST alleles detrimental not for the individuals, but for the group.

          But it doesn’t explain anything that wasn’t already explained. If you want to know why ant colonies or human bodies don’t succumb to selfish subversion, you don’t need to invoke group selection. It’s enough to point out that it’s not in the genes’ (of the single ant or human cell) advantage to subvert the division of labour in place that benefits the genes. In cases where the cooperation is maintained in the absence of cheaters, there’s a whole book about that called The Selfish Gene, that alone provides more than enough concepts to get to grips with the logic and conflicts involved.

          And, like in the case of the spiders of the Pruitt and Goodnight paper, the balance between individual advantage and collective disadvantage can vary depending of the environment of the groups.

          I think you’re using advantage and disadvantage in a different sense to how I’m using them. If a spider’s survival and reproductive success depends on cooperating with others, it’s a disadvantage to endanger its own collective, not an advantage.

          I think we mostly agree, except for the definitions. Ah, the definitions…

          No thank you. I’ve seen enough confusion, misinformation, and error spilt over the concept of group selection to want to redefine it back into respectability. It’s just another way of refusing to be proven wrong when things don’t work in an idea’s favour, and I have no intention of letting it “redefine” itself into my good graces. And as you can see, I mostly disagree.

          • Posted November 9, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

            Hmmm…. if my understanding of Evolutionary Game Theory is at all correct(and I really do believe that it is) the key condition that drives all emergent “strategies” in any game, and for any game contestant, is that at the INDIVIDUAL level “self-promotion of reproductive success” (or “selfishness”) is the elemental driver. Strategies which develop under certain game conditions such a repeated prisoners dilemma lead to what can be classified as being altruistic, but in fact these behaviours do not negate individual self interest. There are however games which force co-operation even more than repeated dilemma situations do. These games exhibit characteristics where contestants are “all in the same boat” i.e. they are forced to collectively have their reproductive success linked. This is the exact situation which encourages group selection. This sort of selection has been modeled by Nowak, Grafen and a number of other theorists. And results of competitions can be characterised with respect to overall genetic makeup in the populations of competing groups. HOWEVER these models do not NEGATE the “selfish gene” basis, they actually RELY on it. Wilson does not seem to understand even the basis of the models that he says proves his own arguments.

            • Posted November 9, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

              ooops… I forgot to include any reference to such a group selection/adaption model. Link to “Capturing the superorganism: a formal theory of group adaptation”
              A. GARDNER* & A. GRAFEN
              http://users.ox.ac.uk/~grafen/cv/GardnerGrafen.pdf

              • Posted November 9, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

                Oh… and just one last thing to bring the whole discussion back to Wilsons incredible “insult” toward Dawkins. A reader of the Grafen paper should note that Dawkins is cited as a reference on p10. Dawkins is without question a noted scientist referred to in mainstream scientific work in theoretical biology

      • Cooperator
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        Actually, Jacques’ view of group selection is much closer. Group selection is what happens when there are births and deaths of groups, e.g. fission and extinction events. Sometimes it’s weak, but it can be strong. it depends on how the composition of the group effects the extinction rate, and on the statistical properties of fissioned pieces. In a group-structured population it typically occurs concurrently with a kin selection process, and the two evolutionary forces can feed off each other. It’s fascinating!

        • reasonshark
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

          Group selection is what happens when there are births and deaths of groups

          I’ve already explained why this is problematic: if you’ve gotten to the stage where a collection of organisms is acting like a single organism – surviving, reproducing, etc – then group selection adds nothing to the mix. And frankly, my reply to Jacques above means I’m not going round the roundabout again.

          You talk about group selection acting concurrently with a kin selection process, as two evolutionary forces. You also suggest Jacques is closer in his self-confessed “redefinition”. However, I have yet to see anything that suggests you aren’t any less muddled than Jacques on this issue.

          • Cooperator
            Posted November 7, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

            Are you familiar with the literature? Check recent articles in JTB, Evolution on group selection, and see what’s been going on. There are some very nice mathematical models that you need to understand before you call other people’s thinking “muddled”.

            • reasonshark
              Posted November 8, 2014 at 12:48 am | Permalink

              Is that before or after peer review? When the last group selection paper got a severe licking from over one hundred biologists in the field, I’m not holding out much expectation that it’ll stick.

              • Cooperator
                Posted November 8, 2014 at 6:55 am | Permalink

                That wasn’t really a GS paper, it was an anti IF paper. Big difference. And yes, I’m talking about peer reviewed mathematical models in top journals.

  15. Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    “Does he not think that Darwin’s characterization of how species evolve is completely wrong?”

    Perhaps “not” is supposed to be “now”?

  16. Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    (the Guardian, as quoted above) “Wilson was asked about his current views on the concept of a selfish gene, to which he replied: “I have abandoned it and I think most serious scientists working on it have abandoned it. Some defenders may be out there, but they have been relatively or almost totally silenced since our major paper came out.”

    Silenced? Silenced?? Is the man deaf? There has been an avalanche of criticism. But I guess those weren’t “serious” scientists, even though they included almost every evolutionary biologist.

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      I really hate the word ‘silenced’. It now means absolutely anything.

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I’m confused about what is being talked about in this exchange. What was abandoned and what was silenced.

      I read Wilson as saying he abandoned the concept of the selfish gene, and that defenders of the selfish gene have been silenced.

      I read Joe as saying there has been an avalanche of criticism of the selfish gene. But that would imply that defenders of the selfish gene have been silenced, or at least overwhelmed.

      Or is it that the avalanche of criticism is criticism of group selection?

      • AJ
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        I read Wilson as you do. But Joe is referring to the many evolutionary biologists (him and Jerry included) that were critical of Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson, the “major paper” that Jerry has linked to above. So the answer to the question in your last sentence is “yes”.

        • Posted November 7, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          I did mean an avalanche of criticism of Wilson’s criticism of kin selection. There was a major statement by about 128 evolutionary biologists rebutting it, published in Nature in 2011. Jerry was one of signatories. (I would have signed if asked; I did chime in here).

          Jerry has made multiple, major, and clear explanations here of why kin selection should not be discounted.

        • Posted November 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          It seems to depends on the meaning of “it” and of what “it” refers to.

          I’m pretty sure Wilson meant that selfish gene has been abandoned and that defenders have been silenced.

          I think I understood what everyone meant. I just had trouble following the pronoun references.

      • Kevin Anthoney
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        Wilson is claiming that his paper was so fantastic it completely silenced the few remaining defenders of the selfish gene theory. Joe is pointing out there was an avalanche of criticism of Wilson’s paper, and therefore no silencing occurred.

      • Posted November 7, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        The recent arguments by Wilson (and his co-authors) criticized kin selection as an explanation of the evolution of social behaviors, and advocated group selection instead. They were not specifically aimed at Richard Dawkins. The major proponent of kin selection was of course the late W. D. Hamilton. The 137-author reply to Nowak, Tarnito and Wilson’s paper in Nature was a defense of kin selection.

        Kin selection and group selection share common mathematical principles: Hamilton’s conditions for the effectiveness of kin selection can also be applied to models of group selection.

        • Cooperator
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

          The paper was much more of a rant against IF than a promotion of group selection. In fact the model they proposed for the evolution of eusociality (in the supplementary information) had nothing to do with group selection. (There are no variables in the model corresponding to group-level constructs.)

          And you are wrong that Hamilton’s rule applies to models of group selection. Hamilton’s rule does not work when there are group-level events like fission, fusion, extinction, etc.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted November 8, 2014 at 6:41 am | Permalink

            And, let me guess: since group selection hasn’t been observed, those “group-level events like fission, fusion, extinction” are of no evolutionary consequence as of yet.

            I’m not a biologist or well versed in evolution. [My interest is astrobiology.] But I don’t see how those presumed differing “group-level events” have been researched as of yet. From a 2011 paper, which is my go-to-source here:

            “Recent critiques of inclusive fitness theory have proved ineffective on multiple fronts. They do not demonstrate fatal or unrecognized difficulties with inclusive fitness theory. They do not provide a distinct replacement theory or offer a similarly unifying approach. They do not explain previously unexplained data or show that explanations from inclusive fitness theory are invalid. And they do not make new and unique predictions [5].

            [ http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/278/1723/3313.full.pdf ; my bold]

            Moreover, I thought that inclusive fitness predicted kin selection, and that kin selection and group selection was mathematically equivalent in multilevel selection math, thus bearing up the absence of “new and unique predictions”. From another 2011 paper (sadly, pay-walled):

            “Group selection and kin selection: formally equivalent approaches

            Inclusive fitness theory, summarised in Hamilton’s rule, is a dominant explanation for the evolution of social behaviour. A parallel thread of evolutionary theory holds that selection between groups is also a candidate explanation for social evolution. The mathematical equivalence of these two approaches has long been known. Several recent papers, however, have objected that inclusive fitness theory is unable to deal with strong selection or with non-additive fitness effects, and concluded that the group selection framework is more general, or even that the two are not equivalent after all. Yet, these same problems have already been identified and resolved in the literature.

            [ http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534711001169 ; my bold]

            Has any of that changed in the last few years? And how did it manage to do so without making a splash in biology that potentially even a layman should be able observe?

            • Cooperator
              Posted November 8, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

              There are two separate issues. There is the issue of the efficacy of IF as a general principle, and then there is the issue of whether kin selection and group selection are mathematically equivalent. The idea that KS=GS is provably wrong. If you think about it, it doesn’t even make sense. It’s a “deepity” based on a (false) belief that the Price equation is universally applicable. IMHO, that mistake is the root of most of these ongoing kerfuffles. As for the efficacy of IF, I think both extreme views are off base.

              I’ll stop there. My name is Burt Simon. Google knows me, so you can find my published work, or at least send me an email. I’d be interested in talking about astrobiology with you!

        • Cooperator
          Posted November 7, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

          I did not communicate very well about Nowak, et.al.’s model. The main points are
          1) It is not a group selection model.
          2) There are no variables in the model corresponding to inclusive fitness.
          It’s the second point that is probably more important.

        • reasonshark
          Posted November 8, 2014 at 12:52 am | Permalink

          Kin selection and group selection share common mathematical principles:

          Only because the group selectionists stole the kin selection equation and added another variable for “groups”. That symbolizes nearly everything wrong with the concept: it’s intellectual theft parading as radical new insight. In other words, a deepity.

          • Cooperator
            Posted November 8, 2014 at 7:03 am | Permalink

            Sorry, you don’t know what you’re talking about. What “kin selection equation”? You mean the Price equation? Or Hamilton’s equation? Neither of those equations are valid in populations that feature group-level events. So it would be pointless to “steal” them. Group selection is something different, so the mathematics has to be developed from scratch.

  17. Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Calling anyone a ‘journalist’ – particularly in The Guardian – is beyond the pale.

    As far as I know Dawkins has never tapped a dead girl’s voicemail or tried snapping photographs up Emma Watson’s skirt.

  18. Bill Morrison
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Insults publicly aimed at R.D. by E.O.W have occurred before. See charlierose.com It was on air date 4/2/2012 (Search e.o. wilson and look for that date.) Go to near the end of the interview. The show also has interviews with E. Kandel and S. Pinker.

  19. Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Very disappointing in Wilson.

    Is he going the way of Antony Flew?

    • mordacious1
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      It was a cheap shot, it doesn’t mean he’s totally bonkers.

  20. Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    The Selfish Gene reads like an explanation that grew out of an analysis of the data. Group selection seems like a hypothesis in search of confirming data. Maybe the silence Wilson is hearing is not what he thinks it is.

    I find the whole dustup very sad.

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Really well said. Thanks.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 10, 2014 at 1:18 am | Permalink

        What jblilie said.

  21. Jeff "jeffran" Rankin
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    …he does expand the boundaries of science in two ways: by explaining its results to laypeople…

    Thank you for mentioning the importance of communicating science. This reminds me of a little incident with one of my undergrad professors.

    One day I was in the lab talking with another research assistant about Cosmos and Carl Sagan. My professor walked in at some point and, hearing us mention Sagan, sniffed and said “he’s just an entertainer.”

    This statement surprised me but I didn’t say anything. It seems to be an attitude that some scientists hold for colleagues who become part of the popular culture. I don’t really get the attitude. It’s like they’re looked down upon for communicating complex topics to everyday people. Some of these laypeople go on to become scientists after all, and it’s, in part, due to the influence of science communicators like Sagan and Dawkins.

    • reasonshark
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      I guess part of it is disillusionment: you see too many howlers and uncomfortably inexact messages in popular accounts of science, and you start to get jaded feelings towards the whole business.

      I do wonder if a good chunk of it is just anti-populist snobbishness. It’s not an attitude unique to scientists: it’s more like a sort of general hipster smugness, or distaste for the “masses”.

      On the whole, though, I’m not sure. It strikes me as a necessary part of science to be publicly available and accountable, and surely popular science must feature into that.

      • Jeff "jeffran" Rankin
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        Absolutely.

        And in the case of the professor to whom my story refers – I think it was just snobbishness.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 10, 2014 at 1:21 am | Permalink

          I used to detect a bit of jealousy amongst some of the Sagan detractors as well.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      It is merely a common human behavior. You see precisely the same behavior from other “special” groups towards “outsiders” like nobility, wealthy, religion.

      The snobbery towards people that used to be part of the “special” group but have done something bad enough to get themselves booted out, like giving commoners the time of day, is typically an order of magnitude more intense than normal.

      Though science is legitimately one of the noblest of enterprises, on an individual basis the practioners of it are not all that much less prone to the baser human behaviors than anyone else.

      In Sagan’s case, scientist’s such as your professor were really full of shit. Sagan did more legitimate science in his career than most scientists could hope to do.

      • Jeff "jeffran" Rankin
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        Totally. I didn’t say anything at the time but I was thinking “he’s just clueless”.

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Grrrr! Bloody popularisers!

      It was bad enough when they translated all the geometry books from Greek!

      • Marella
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        We should never have taught the commoners to read in the first place!

  22. Gordon Hill
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    There is a book title, “What you think of me is none of my business” which, taken to heart, voids personal criticisms. Love the title, didn’t care for the content.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

      Reminds me of Feynmann’s “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”, which was a bit ironic. Of course he did.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

        True enough, up to the point of considering the source.

  23. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    This War from Wilson continues right on thru his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence a kind of odd end of career type book. He seems to mention a few kind words about Dawkins but then goes to the trouble of inserting an Appendix in the back to explain his work on Inclusive Fitness and Group Selection.

    If he truly thinks Dawkins is just a journalist why do all of this? Is this science or obsession.

    • reasonshark
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      I wonder if he’s going through Alfred Russell Wallace Syndrome. Wallace was a big supporter of evolution by natural selection (naturally, being a co-discoverer of it), but at some point human exceptionalism turned him towards creationism, at least when it came to the human mind. Maybe Wilson’s focus on altruism and eusociality is pushing him in a similar direction: that there’s something exceptional about humanity that needs a completely different explanation from the conventional one. I don’t know how that fits in with his studies of ants and termites, nor with this latest paper, though.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 8, 2014 at 1:12 am | Permalink

        I think that’s quite unfair to Wallace. Wallace never badmouthed Darwin, and was always perfectly gentlemanly, as witness this after Darwin’s death:
        ‘the friendship between Darwin and myself was sincere, and unbroken to the time of his death… my connection with Darwin and his great work has helped to secure for my own writings on the same questions a full recognition by the press and the public; while my share in the origination and establishment of the theory of Natural Selection has usually been exaggerated. The one great result which I claim for my paper of 1858 is that it compelled Darwin to write and publish his Origin of Species without further delay.’

        From http://darwin200.christs.cam.ac.uk/pages/index.php?page_id=d8

  24. Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Ratliff Reblogs.

  25. vHF
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    It’s a very cheap shot by Wilson, but I can’t see why we have to pretend that it misses the mark entirely. The Extended Phenotype is 32 years old and is arguably Dawkins’ last major, original contribution to evolutionary biology. The popularising he has been doing since (and before) is of the highest quality and trmendously valuable but is indeed closer to journalism than to science.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Did somebody here pretend? I didn’t notice. For clarity, please explain what the mark was. Wilson’s mark was clearly to denounce Dawkins as not being capable, as in lacking the expertise necessary, of talking about Wilson’s scientific work at a scientific level. That is clearly not true. The remark entirely misses the mark.

      Dawkins not doing research work for decades is of course true. So what? Do we judge his understanding of science by what he demonstrates it to be, or simply by how long he has been out of the lab?

      • vHF
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        Jerry in his post argues that Dawkins is a scientist, and the commentariat seems to be in full agreement. I found Jerry’s case so unconvincing that I used the word “pretend” – just as a rhetorical device though, without an intention to offend.

        You are correct in the rest of your comment. Wilson’s argument is purely ad-hominem and thus without merit by virtue of that alone. It is not at all necessary to, well, pretend that it is also factually incorrect to refute it.

        • Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

          Sorry, but your rhetorical device is offensive. It’s best that you stop this now. Dawkins has published science papers, critiques of science papers, explications of science that go beyond journalism, and was a member of Oxford’s biology department before he became Professor of Public Understanding of Science. You’ve stated your position, now stop before you use other rhetorical devices that are even more offensive.

          Do you not see at all how your comment comes off? I guess not.

        • Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          Not a scientist?

          * Professor Dawkins’s awards have included the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London (1989), the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday Award (1990), the Nakayama Prize for Achievement in Human Science (1990), The International Cosmos Prize (1997) and the Kistler Prize (2001). He has Honorary Doctorates in both literature and science, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. *

          Clearly not…

          /@

    • Posted November 8, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      “The Extended Phenotype is 32 years old and is arguably Dawkins’ last major, original contribution to evolutionary biology.”

      Newton’s last major contribution to science was over 300 years ago. Pfft. Some scientist.

  26. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Wilson’s latest book does not include any hint of going religious in any way. He hits it pretty hard.

    It just has to be a long standing thing between him and Dawkins. Very sad

  27. Posted November 7, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    When we are all as old as Wilson most of us will be as curmudgeonly as he. He has more than earned the right to be grumbly after a long lifetime of being one of the nicest, most articulate people in biology. Just grit your teeth. His “Sociobiology” changed my entire worldview and forever alienated me from mainstream anthropology. For that I am forever in his debt.

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      I beg to disagree, if only that Wilson is showing no signs of being a curmudgeon. Rather, he is still taken quite seriously as an important scientist (which he is), and so it’s not wise to ignore his many statement and books denigrating the “selfish gene” view of natural selection. Regardless of how old he is (I think it’s 85),let’s giving him the respect of taking his scientific views seriously. I do, and I oppose the ones about the inefficacy of individual and group selection.

      • GBJames
        Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        To be fair, Jerry, I think Michael was being respectful in much the same way I’m respectful of E.O. Wilson. I, too, was alienated forever from mainstream anthropology because I read Sociobiology in grad school. It had a profound affect on me and got me into innumerable arguments with my fellow grad students.

        I think the “curmudgeon” label applies here not because of Wilson’s adherence to group selection. Heck, we all can be over-attached to wrong ideas. What’s curmudgeonly is his unwarranted (and unprofessional, IMO) attacks on Dawkins (the other of the most profound mind-altering influences in my life).

  28. Art in Canada
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I have a question (as a non-evolutionary-biologist):

    If a group–either because of having a gene that promotes cooperation, or because of their culture–is always highly cooperative, and hence thrives in both production and defence, wouldn’t that group be more likely to survive and expand, perhaps out-competing every other group and eventually completely occupying their environmental niche?

    Sorry if this is a naive question.

    (I admire both Wilson and Dawkins, and hate to see great minds sinking to sarcasm and name calling… mutually destructive egoism. The anti-science crowd loves it.)

    • Cooperator
      Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

      The common wisdom is that the gene will die out in the group because “freeloaders” will exploit the cooperators and eventually dominate the group. And this is true…unless the group spawns new groups (e.g., by fissioning), which spawn new groups, etc. Then there’s a chance it can thrive. It’s all quite complicated, but there are models that can illuminate the process.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 8, 2014 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      As Jerry says in the article, group selection [as well as other levels of selection] is possible. It just isn’t observed.

      And as reasonshark points out in his longish subthread, it is either inferior to inclusive fitness by default [adds parameters; takes the focus away from genes as the vehicles of selection] or without an inheritance mechanism depending on how its defenders goalpost move to suit their argument. (And Jerry has more specific criticism in the article.)

  29. Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    E.O. Wilson is becoming EGO Wilson in his latter years…

  30. Posted November 7, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    It’s ironic that Wilson should be condemning Dawkins for opposing group selection, of all things. After all, that’s the only reason he now bears the title, “Father of Evolutionary Psychology” to begin with. Dawkins wrote in “The Selfish Gene” that Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, all of whom probably had a better claim to the title, were “totally and utterly wrong” because of their support for group selection. Pinker seized on this to dismiss them as “totally and utterly wrong,” period, in “The Blank Slate,” without mentioning that Dawkins remark applied only to their support of group selection. With those three swept safely under the rug, Wilson could be anointed “Father of Evolutionary Psychology” without so much as a blush. I suspect he won’t hold the title much longer, especially in view of his latest outbursts. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Buss has already rewritten the first chapter of his textbook and dug up someone else. I nominate Francis Hutcheson or, if he wants to be even safer, the Earl of Schaftesbury.

  31. Keith Cook
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    E.O. Wilson is human and is proving the taste of his pudding in a very silly power play of status mounting and reputation sinking.
    He should beg to differ with Richard Dawkins if he must and leave it at that.
    “Individual selection is responsible for what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue”
    The Social Conquest of Earth. E.O. Wilson
    What? my understanding limited as it may be, is individual selection can account for altruism in kin and in a group by way of a feedback loop, why go weird on us with the above?
    Sin is also an unfortunate way to put it, I can see religionist circling.

  32. Posted November 7, 2014 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I consulted this blog just the other day for information on the concept of “groups selection”. It was a fairly new topic to me and I feel my classmates were giving it more consideration because they like Wilson, rather than doing their research. I was able to then find quite a few resources that were helpful.

  33. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 8, 2014 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Oy!

    Seems like another crank is in development. At least we can see all the classical signs of “I alone (or almost alone) is correct, and the consensus is silent/mistaken/irrelevant”.

    Does Wilson realize that he is threatening ‘his’ “group selection” to be (rightly or wrongly) dismissed as pathological science?

    Some defenders may be out there, but they have been relatively or almost totally silenced since our major paper came out.

    I haven’t an active memory of this, but it seems vaguely familiar: wasn’t that the paper that made ~ 150 biologists to publish a joint letter denouncing it, an unprecedented move?

    A possible nitpick (also noticed by musical beef up thread):

    Abandoning “the selfish gene” is the same as abandoning natural selection on genes and individuals! Does Wilson really want to do that? Does he not think that Darwin’s characterization of how species evolve is completely wrong?

    Shouldn’t that be “Does he now think that Darwin’s characterization…”?

    Or does it refer to Darwin’s lack of knowledge of genes and their behavior? I can’t tell.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 10, 2014 at 1:30 am | Permalink

      Certainly it’s just a typo.

  34. Posted November 9, 2014 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    By some coincidence I was about to attend a talk by Wilson at the Emmanuel Centre here in London when this whole Dawkins story broke. I went to the conference then with the serious intent to call Wilson out on this outrageous charge. I am certainly not one who is shy of doing such a thing. Although Dawkins may have published fewer scientific papers than Wilson, it is preposterous to claim he does not practise science. And Dawkins is not just a “science writer” either… he held professorial positions at two world-class universities in their Biology department. Wilson’s gratuitous insult therefore then applies to thousands of other senior scientific educators in the university community. It is a global insult. But when it came to it, I couldn’t bring myself to state my case in the form of a question to Wilson at lecture’s end. He seemed so very frail and tottering. His talk was on the need to salvage our biodiversity, and suggested rational ways to deal with global warming. So much of his contribution to our broader knowledge is illuminating and humane. So I stayed quiet. But I left the session utterly discouraged and depressed, realising that even our heroes of science can themselves be as petulant and spiteful as any of the rest of us.

  35. Posted November 11, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    1. My understanding is that Wilson doesn’t so much dismiss kin selection as subsume it as a theoretical special case. Rather as Keynes subsumed classical economic models within his General Theory, and Einstein subsumed Newton.

    2. From the earliest arguments, this has always seemed to me to be an argument about statistical models, and am wondering (I don’t follow the literature regularly, just check in periodically) if anyone has finally addressee the Wilson/Nowak appendix on its own (statistical) terms. Would love to see that response (or summaries comprehensible by lay people).

    3. Wilson’s dis is very unfortunate. But I think it’s accurate to say that Dawkins is not competent to engage in #2, though he might be competent to evaluate such an engagement, if we ever see one.

    • Posted November 16, 2014 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      I’m surprised that nobody here has replied to this comment. (Professor Coyne?) Especially after seeing such a furious response to Bill Juncea.)

      As a very curious, interested, and fairly well-read layman with no professional axe to grind (including reading a decent dose of peer-reviewed papers, and many, many books), I check the evo blogosphere periodically for a Yes answer to #2. Nothing yet?

      Again: far before Wilson/Nowak, reading discussion of group selection, it struck me clearly that the question could only be addressed through statistical modeling. Why hasn’t anybody replied to the W&N appendix on its own level and terms? (Again, would love to hear if anyone has.)

      I’ve read a few things explaining why an answer to #2 is not necessary. Some okay arguments, but nothing I found even close to dispositive. They’re all arguments about why a particular argument isn’t needed. This “unneeded” argument being at the core (statistical) argument of the original proposition. W&N say “that appendix is the crux of our argument.” I say: answer (what they say is) the crux of their argument!

      I’m a Dawkins idolator. “We clapped our hands raw” also brings tears to my eyes. (A propos in this case…) But I can only pronounce myself dismayed at his superficial response to this subject. Likewise, absent a proper and substantive response to #2, the evolutionary science community in general.

      • Posted November 17, 2014 at 4:06 am | Permalink

        Wilson dismisses kin selection, period. He says it’s a useless concept and has held back the field. It’s not subsumed as any kind of general case; in fact, Wilson doesn’t even think it’s a subset of natural selection, which it it.

        And there have been discussions about Nowak et al.’s statistical model, which does NOT show that kin selection is unimportant. Read the papers of Stuart West et al. Finally, there is empirical evidence, which I have cited, that relatedness was important in the evolution of eusociality. I’m not going to go through the literature and list all the papers. Write to Stuart West at Oxford if you’re interested; he’ll give you plenty of references.

        And yes, there are plenty of mathematical analyses of whether group selection is something different from kin selection as well. (Queller et al.)

        I have written about this plenty, including citing the empirical evidence, and if readers can’t find the literature themselves, well, I’m sorry about that.

        • Posted November 17, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the pointer to Stuart West. I’m finding this especially interesting:

          http://www.zoo.ox.ac.uk/group/west/pdf/Lehmann_etal_07.pdf

        • Posted November 17, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

          Taking as given that Wilson’s inflammatory statement, “kin selection is wrong,” is wrong because of its imprecision at least, would this accurately characterize the situation?:

          Kin selection is sufficient but not theoretically necessary for widespread altruism to evolve.

          One can go many places from there. But I’m curious if that seems a reasonably accurate statement.

          I’m also curious if anybody has modeled this dust-up as an exemplar of the mutually interacting cooperation/competition phenotypes that are here under discussion. 😉

  36. Bill Juncea
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to be contrary, but before this latest interview was reported, I had read Dawkins’ Prospect review of Wilson’s Social Conquest (a.k.a. attack on Wilson) and found it to be rude, condescending and, worst of all, entirely uncompelling.

    I’m surprised by Wilson’s ‘journalist’ remark, because his rebuttal in Prospect to Dawkins’ review was measured, in my opinion. Nevertheless, Wilson is not entirely out of bounds to call Dawkins a journalist. How many peer reviewed original research papers has Dawkins authored? I used Web of Science back to 2000 and didn’t find any; didn’t have time to search further back. Even if he has some, they are not what people read. They read Dawkins’ popular books and articles in newspapers and magazines. As a defender of evolutionary principles in the media, Dawkins performs an important service and is generally excellent at it. Journalism is an honored profession after all. But I don’t think he is a scientist of Wilson’s rank or of that of most any evolutionary biologist, for that matter. Or ever has been.

    Frankly, it pains me that evolutionary biology has not mustered a more coherent, and less vitriolic, defense of what seems by consensus to be a core principle. In particular, I’m astonished at how weak the argument for kin selection is made by those who attack the Wilson et al. paper or lately, Wilson himself. Scientific consensus needs to be backed up by the facts and wherein this debate is concerned, I haven’t seen the case made for kin selection. The more bombastic rhetoric I read by those who should know better, the less I believe the case is there to be made.

    • Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      You’re not just contrary, but you’re ignorant, and by that I don’t mean stupid, but unaware of all the evidence for kin selection. Have you read the response to the Nowak et al. paper? Or the other published critiques of Wilson and Nowak’s “criticisms” of kin selection? If you “haven’t seen the case made for kin selection,” it’s because you’ve made no effort to find it. The case has, for instance, been made and referred to many times on this website. It’s not my job to educate you about this, but you’ve clearly made no effort to understand the arguments. There is a reason why there are very few evolutionary biologists who agree with Wilson, and it’s not because they don’t like him. It’s because there are tons of data supporting the existence of kin selection and its value as a guide for understanding behavior.. (Start with parental care, for instance.) And to say that there is only bombastic rhetoric and not facts supporting kin selection belies the fact that you seem to have a prejudice against it.

      Anyway, spend some time reading the literature. Surely you can find it, with references on this site and the internet.

  37. Jim Vaughan
    Posted November 17, 2014 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    I think Dawkins and Wilson are talking past each other: what if….
    1) Evolution is the differential selection of replicators encoding specific traits, but selection at the vehicle level can occur at many levels e.g. group and individual.

    So, a gene for altruism may proliferate in the gene pool, if the encoded individual altruism boosts team success sufficiently. This latter seems to be what Wilson is arguing for, not that groups are replicated.

    2) We inherit a genetic and cultural legacy. We are vehicles for both genes and cultural information (memes in the widest sense) in the form of values, knowledge and skills. Dual Inheritance Theory posits both as different kinds of replicator, differentially surviving through time, and mutually interacting. So, changes in lactase genes and the skills of dairy farming are co-dependant. Both are replicators (encoded information passed on via different vehicles, through time). Elephant matriarchs are vital to the herd, because of their local knowledge, which is passed on.

    I want replicators to remain the central driver of evolutionary theory, but also to explain our human willingness to die for an idea (e.g. Atheism). I want to extend “The Extended Phenotype” from genes shaping the environment to “The Extended Meme” which transforms the world.


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