David Sloan Wilson: There is a god, and it’s the “superorganism” of insect colonies and group-selected humans

David Sloan Wilson is known as an ardent promoter of group selection, the evolutionary idea that the unit of selection is not the gene or individual, but groups of individuals whose differential extinction and reproduction (group “splitting”) can give rise to traits that are maladaptive within groups, like purely altruistic behavior. (E. O. Wilson, not a relative of D. S., shares this view). But Wilson’s many attempts to push this view haven’t won over most evolutionists, for we have very little evidence that this kind of selection has occurred in nature. I won’t dwell on the group selection debate today; if you want to see a good critique of the idea, read Steve Pinker’s excellent Edge Essay, “The false allure of group selection.

D. S. Wilson is also engaged in other enterprises promoting his view of evolution, particularly his website The Evolution Insittute, which, along with his other projects, has been generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation. And, as with so many Templeton fundees, Wilson shows the expected weakness for religion. After all, that’s what Templeton loves, since Sir John T. started the Foundation as a vehicle for showing that science gives evidence for God. And although Wilson himself is an atheist, he osculates faith on a regular basis.

Case in point, his new essay on  “Does a God exist? Actually, yes.” Now that’s weird for an atheist, right? Well, not for a Templeton-funded atheist. But what is the kind of God that Wilson envisions if not the theistic one?

Before getting to his god, Wilson disposes of several others, including a theistic God that intervenes in the universe. (Wilson does say that it’s possible that a nonfunctional and vestigial deistic God could exist.) He then looks for other kinds of gods using these definitions (his emphasis):

God (or Goddess): A superhuman being worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes.

Worship: An act of devotion, usually directed toward a deity. The word “worship” is derived from the Old English weorþscipe, meaning honor shown to an object, which has been etymologised as “worthiness or worth-ship”—to give, at its simplest, worth to something.

Well what could qualify as a god that can be worshiped if not a theistic one? Wilson brings up the Gaia Hypothesis of Lovelock, the idea that the Earth is a self-regulating “superorganism” in which both living creatures and their physical environment are coadapted—and self-regulating—in a way to keep life safely and happily on our planet. Wilson properly dismisses this idea, which I’ve never found to have any merit, as it’s quasi-teleological, lacks a mechanism for the self-regulation, and is susceptible to evolutionary changes in organisms that are detrimental to other organisms or to their environment.

So Gaia is not a god.  But Wilson manages to find one! And, mirabile dictu, it turns out to be the “superorganisms” that comprise social insects and humans, and Wilson’s own line of work. Here’s what he says:

Superorganisms do exist, even if the whole earth does not qualify as one. Scientists agree that social insect colonies such as bees, ants, wasps and termites qualify as superorganisms because they are products of between-colony selection. The general rule is that any biological unit acquires the properties that we associate with “organism” when it is a unit of selection. Organisms and social insect colonies qualify and the whole earth does not.

Is it accurate to say that honeybees worship their hive? If by worship we mean subordinating ones [sic] own interest to the interest of a larger whole, then honeybees do worship their hives and the cells in our bodies worship us. If we wish to define worship in a way that requires conscious intent, then it would be a more distinctively human phenomenon. It is fascinating to note that religious believers themselves often compare their communities to bodies and beehives, as in this quote from the Hutterites, a Christian sect that leads a highly communal lifestyle:

“True love means growth for the whole organism, whose members are all interdependent and serve each other. That is the outward form of the inner working of the Spirit, the organism of the Body governed by Christ. We see the same thing among the bees, who all work with equal zeal gathering honey.”

Well, the notion that social insects are products of between-colony selection is controversial at best. To most evolutionists eusociality—insect societies that have castes, some of which are usually sterile—are explained more easily by kin selection: the relatedness of ancestral social insects to their offspring, who may have stayed in the same nest (with that relatedness enforced by the haplodiploid genetic condition of Hymenoptera). And kin selection is not “group selection”—at least not in a way that makes individuals “subordinate their own interest to the interest of the larger whole (the nest or hive).” In fact, what happens is that genes in individuals that reduce their own reproduction but still enhance their propagation through queens or other individuals leave more copies than “selfish” genes that allow workers to reproduce. There is no “worshiping”, even in this sense. To even use the term “worship” in this way is invidious—an unconscionable nod to religion. And if bees worship their hive by subordinating their own genetic interests to the whole (they don’t), then soldiers worship their army and volunteer firemen, who often die in the line of duty, worship the fire station.

But wait! It gets worse. For Wilson believes, without the slightest evidence, that humans are also “superorganisms,” with many of our behaviors (especially altruistic ones) shaped by group selection. (E. O. Wilson proffered the same thesis in his book The Social Conquest of Earth, which I reviewed—not positively—in the Times Literary Supplement. You can see a copy of my review here.) When you read the bit below, remember that Wilson’s statement that “small groups [of humans] are thought to have been units of selection,” really means “I, D. S. Wilson, think that small groups of humans were the units of selection”:

Recently, the concept of superorganisms has been extended to human evolution. Small groups are thought to have been units of selection, in the same way as single organisms of solitary species and social insect colonies. Individuals work on behalf of others and their group as a whole, sometimes because they want to, and sometimes because they are morally obligated even if they don’t want to. Do such individuals worship their groups? This strikes me as a valid statement, based on the face value definition of “worship” and its etymological origin. Moreover, when people worship gods of their own construction, these gods are usually symbolic representations of their groups, as Durkheim proposed long ago and a great deal of scientific evidence has affirmed since. The gods don’t exist in a literal sense, but the groups that they stand for do exist.

Today, there are innumerable cultural entities that deserve the status of superorganisms, at least crudely, because they have been units of selection. Some are called religions, others are called nations, and others are called corporations. All of them call upon their members to work on their behalf. Those that are not called religions often have the same trappings as religions and use the same lexicon of words. Kings are worshipped and often regarded as divine. In a 1990 Atlantic Monthly article titled “The Market as God” the theologian Harvey Cox shows how Capitalism has all the trappings of a religion. The pantheon of superorganisms in modern life is like the pantheon of Hindu gods, some strong and others weak, some benign and others malevolent.

Well, I belong to a group of evolutionary biologists, but I don’t worship it. I belong to the University of Chicago faculty, but I don’t worship the University, either, though I like it. Do workers at Ford Motors worship their CEO? I doubt it. Yes, individuals do like belonging to groups (after all, we evolved in them), and sometimes make sacrifices for them, but more often then not we gain more than you lose by joining a group. Most human groups are not “superorganisms” in which members of a soccer club lose their well being for the greater glory of Manchester United, or workers at the Planters Peanut factory sacrifice their well being for the sake of Propagating Peanuts.  Just because one type of human group is religious, and believes in supernatural beings that must be propitiated (my definition of religion), doesn’t mean that all of them are religions or engage in the act of worship. And peanut companies aren’t supernatural.

In the end, Wilson jumps the rails by praising the work of the muddle-headed Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who had a teleological theory of human evolution. Humans, said Teilhard, were being propelled (by God) to some apex of perfection called “The Omega Point.” No such teleological forces have been identified, of course, and Teilhard is regarded by all thinking evolutionists as a crank.  (If you want to see a hilariously splenetic takedown of Teilhard’s views of human evolution, read Peter Medawar’s review of his book The Phenomenon of Man. Both Richard Dawkins and I think that this is the best review—in terms of dry humor and devastating criticism—ever written of a popular science book.)

By praising Teilhard’s book, and even the teleological idea of the Omega Point, Wilson completely jettisons his credibility:

Recent developments in evolutionary thinking called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis are overturning conventional wisdom that evolution is always undirected. The French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was prescient when he described humanity as just another species in some respects but a new process of evolution in other respects, which began as “tiny grains of thought” and then coalesced into larger and larger groups. Looking forward, Teilhard envisioned a single global consciousness called the Omega Point. The main updating required for Teilhard’s vision is to note that there is nothing inevitable about reaching the Omega Point. It is something that we must steer toward by mindfully selecting our practices with the welfare of the whole earth in mind. If this isn’t worshipping a Goddess that actually exists or can be brought into being, what would be?

Note to D. S. Wilson on the last sentence: no, it isn’t worshiping a Goddess. It’s just people trying to improve their lot.

Admittedly, here Wilson notes that the teleology might be not in the forces of evolution but in the hands of humans, who do act with purpose. But by noting that the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis says that evolution can be “directed” by something other than natural selection, Wilson is making a statement that is wrong. There is no such evidence, except perhaps perhaps the long-accepted view that evolution is restricted and channeled by developmental and genetic constraints. But what Wilson is talking about here are dubious ideas that evolution is “directed” by the organism evolving “evolvability”, producing mutations that are adaptive when needed, and creating a physiological system that, without being selected, can nevertheless respond adaptively to environmental change. Only a few outlier biologists have this view.

So we see in this piece Wilson acting deviously in two ways. First, he pretends that evolutionists agree that there are novel ways that evolution is directed—ways that severely violate modern evolutionary theory. More important, he gives people the idea that evolution itself has produced gods in the form of superorganisms that are “worshiped” by their constituent individuals. Both of these are misleading distortions: one of science and the other of society. What Wilson is doing, like so many of his Templeton-funded colleagues (viz. Martin Nowak at Harvard), is both promoting his own controversial biological agenda at the same time as he’s giving credibility to religion. This is a good case of natural theology: Wilson doesn’t believe in God, but he doesn’t mind using science to buttress those who do. Well played, Templeton!

JONATHAN COHEN/BINGHAMTON UNIVERSITY David Sloan Wilson, a professor in Biological Sciences at Binghamton University, photographed Thursday, November 9, 2006.

JAC note: I didn’t pick this photo of D. S. Wilson to make him look weird. It’s the one he chose for his website. Photo by Jonathan Cohen, Binghamton University

h/t: Kit P.

54 Comments

  1. Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    This thesis is not new, in a way. It seems to be a biologized version of the Feuerbach-Durkheim thesis that religious systems reflect a delayed “idealization” of some aspect of the social system that spawned them.

  2. busterggi
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Someone needs to be locked in a samll compartment with a few thousand bed bugs – tiny, demi-godlike ones of course.

  3. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Like “spirituality”, worship is a word with too many meanings. (Lawrence Krauss says it doesn’t mean anything- I think it means too many things.)

    It is a loose usage of the word “worship” to mean simply respect or deference to someone admired, such as playing “Hail to the chief” as President. Sometimes extreme dedication or devotion is described as worship, as in the love song “Fly me to the moon” with the line “You are all I long for and I worship and adore”. You could kinda say the Nazis worshipped Hitler. People talk of Buddhist worship of Buddha, but it’s not the same as Christian worship of Christ.

    (Perhaps Wilson could benefit from the Catholic distinction between adoration (God) and veneration (saints).)

    =-=-=

    Has any reviewer of Chardin ever employed the pun that his Omega point has a bit of Omega-3 about it??

    Chardin has influenced a lot of good creative artists- not just writers like Flannery O’Connor and Annie Dillard but also sculptors and painters as well. Well, the old ether theory of light underlies H.G. Wells’ “The Poison Belt” and astrology is all over the plays of Shakespeare.

  4. Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I do worship my microbiota.

    • barn owl
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Me too. The yogurt discussion from one of yesterday’s posts is also relevant.

    • Posted December 5, 2016 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      I do not. They are a billion-numbered bunch of little demons that keep probing the integrity of my soul and, as soon as they find a crack, they will cause a peritonitis that will destroy the soul together with the body.

      (You see, it just turned out that my soul resides in my intestinal epithelium. Generally, because humans are presumed to be unique among animals in having souls, I claim that the soul resides in the centromeric region of chromosome 2.)

  5. Kevin
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    D. S. Wilson – grab yourself a lump of coal. Smash it into pieces and spread around your house. Within the coal is energy and energy is God. And God will surround you. You will feel blessed. You can thank me later.

    ps Just don’t breath in the coal dust…ghastly stuff. 😊

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      He’s got a Templeton grant. Forget the coal – use diamond.
      >(I don’t know if diamond dust is a significant health hazard. I’ve never seen any warnings – over and above the general ones for rock dust, metal dust etc from whatever you’re doing with diamond tools. Probably not a significant hazard.)

  6. BobTerrace
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    D. S. Wilson has been derailed from the tracks for a long time, but now he seems to have gone so far away that he no longer knows where the tracks are.

  7. GBJames
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Jesus, what awful nonsense flows whenever scientists go into Templeton Mode.

    • Posted December 5, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      You have it in one.
      A new group name is born.
      When one or more religous apologists are gathered together they shall be known as a “Templeton” or something similar, I am sure there are plenty of suggestions available.😈

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted December 5, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        Templetonian?

    • Stephen
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      But which came first? The Templeton or the Egghead?

  8. Kiwi Dave
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I believe in one superorganism, the non-gender-specific parent almighty….

    Our superorganism, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name….

    O superorganism, our help in ages past, our hope in years to come….

    They lack a certain je ne sais quoi.

    Yesterday, Professor Gurel strained the language for our enlightenment. Today it’s Professor Wilson’s turn. Thank you Professor Ceiling Cat (E) for dealing with this stuff so we don’t have to.

  9. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Do workers at Ford Motors worship their CEO?

    Replace Ford Motors with Apple and you might be onto something.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      As a former Apple employee, I’m not so sure about that.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 5, 2016 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        Apple sweat shops have no shrines to Wossname with little (and very expensively well-designed) incense burners? I’m shocked!

    • Filippo
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

      Apple digital device enthusiasts/customers seem to so worship, from what brief video clips I’ve seen of their breathlessly, besottedly hanging on every word which proceedeth from the mouth of the high priest Tim Cook.

      I wonder if any of them ever think to visit China and interact with, thank, and bound around in the safety nets which putatively prevent or minimize the suicide of, the slaves of Fox-Conn.

  10. Zado
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Is Wilson a closet Marxist? Because he sounds like a closet Marxist, what with his emphasis on group competition (class struggle), belief in a natural teleology (historical materialism), and wish for a world-encompassing Omega Point (communist utopia).

  11. Posted December 5, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    The funny thing is that it was reading one of DSW’s books that got me interested in evolution. I’ve moved on.

    I read the beginning of Medawar’s review and will read the rest. Teilhard’s prose (?) sounds like he is in training to become a post-modernist before his time. But then, post-modernism is a french invention, isn’t it?

    • Mike Cracraft
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Maybe closer to….. Chopra 🙂

  12. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Well, once again D.S. Wilson is drawn like a moth to declare the existence of things that probably do not exist, like group selection. But now I wonder what E.O. Wilson will think about his colleague.

  13. eric
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Humans, said Teilhard, were being propelled (by God) to some apex of perfection called “The Omega Point.”

    Such claims are only useful as a Rorschach test. Ask Teilhard what an “omega point” human would be like, and you’ll get insight into what Teilhard himself believes. Ask a Westboro Baptist follower what a perfected “omega point” human would be like, and you’ll get a very different answer.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Ask a cat what a perfected “omega point” human would be like and get yet another different answer. That answer is sure to include food in some way.

      • eric
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:42 am | Permalink

        Well given the trend of people to be couch potatoes, I’d say the cats are winning. We are driving towards the omega point of warm unmoving lap.

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    If Wilson wants to get this hokum published in The New York Sun, he’s gonna have to change it to “… yes, Virginia.”

  15. J.Baldwin
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Shouldn’t we be looking for a content bias in the idea of god, some intrinsic characteristic of the concept that makes it so intoxicating to the human mind? I mean, it’s no mere fiction but a special type of fiction adept at reproducing itself in human brains–maybe Dennett’s new book will help me understand.

    • busterggi
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Simple – everyone starts as a baby cared for by immense powerful beings with the power to reward or punish us as their whims see fit.

      Some people grow up to realize those were their parents, some people believe in god.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      I mean, it’s no mere fiction but a special type of fiction adept at reproducing itself in human brains

      Dawkins (and of course, others) has discussed religions as “memes”, subject to evolution via both lateral meme transfer (Islam acknowledges lifting ideas from the BuyBull) and inheritance, as well as culling.
      I’m just watching Waldemar Januszczak’s recent “Dark Ages” series (on recording, not broadcast) where he’s discussing the lifting of iconography from the Graeco-Roman Pantheons and it’s re-use by the early Xtian church. Including decidedly hermaphroditic sculptures of Jeebus modelled on Apollo.

      • Filippo
        Posted December 5, 2016 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps possibly also modeled on Hermes and Aphrodite?

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          Hermetic statues would have “attributes” such as winged sandals, and/ or a tin hat and a caudeceus ; I can’t think if Aphrodite’s attributes off the top of my head. Apart from the, ahemm, obvious.
          But yes, when you’re looking for the lifting of some elements from one bit of religion into another, you’re almost necessarily stripping out some if the identifying (literally, “defining”) attributes from the sources. So everything becomes considerably woollier.

  16. Posted December 5, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    People on the schizophrenic spectrum embrace ‘ideas of reference’ (magical thinking) much more readily than those not on that spectrum. It is suspected that some of the greatest scientists were on both the autistic (superb logic) and schizophrenic (creativity galore) spectrums like Paul Dirac and Einstein. Ideas of reference can become pesky in the pursuit of science if they are not compartmentalised. Wilson’s compartment is leaking . . .

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      autistic (superb logic) and schizophrenic (creativity galore) spectrums

      While I’m not going to dispute that Dirac was a Very Peculiar Person, I’m not brave enough to pogo-stick into the minefield that is remote psychiatric diagnosis. I believe that the (forgotten acronym – USian Headcase-Diagnosis Union) has been doling out a round of feathery slaps-on-wrists for remote diagnoses delivered in the election campaign.
      More importantly, despite the “Rain Man” popular image, the media’s equation of “autism” with “idiot-savat” is another minefield into which I am not going to pogo-stick. From personal knowledge, the main creativity effect I can see in my schizophrenic (diagnosed) friend is the creation of utter chaos in his head, his life, and anyone’s life around him. The prospect of his paintings selling for millions in a century or two seems little recompense. (Though I do suggest that when he next has an attack of screwed-up brain chemistry, I take dictation from God through him, then twist/ suppress/ distort his Revelation into a nice, profitable religion. The laughter is rather hollow.)

  17. Bruce Lyon
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    As Bob Terrace points out above, Wilson went off the rails a long time ago. In fact he started out on the wrong track right off the bat. Some readers may enjoy seeing a review of one of his books by Robert Trivers, with an interesting anecdote of when the two overlapped at Harvard: http://www.metanexus.net/book-review/review-elliott-sober-and-david-sloan-wilsons-unto-others
    Sloan Wilson did do some very nice ecological work so his fixation on group selection is unfortunate.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Huh. What would Bob Trivers know about ecology?
      [Reads review]
      They prompt the thought that philosophy is much better at obscuring reality than it is at explicating it, at confusing rather than clarifying, however much philosophers may justify their activity on the opposite assumption.” Oh, Prof Trivers, put the boot in, why don’t you?
      Curiously enough, Sober and Wilson fail to discuss the one human behavior that conventional evolutionists imagine might easily be affected by group selection, namely genocidal warfare. Here we may see “unselfish” behavior at its best, groups of human beings cooperating to their delight in the complete obliteration of their neighbors. We have strong group effects and an undeniable record of their frequency in human history, from biblical times to the present. But focussed as they are on within-group altruism, Sober and Wilson seem not to see its ugly between-group twin.” Oh, Prof Trivers, put the BIG SPIKEY boot in, why don’t you?
      Nice review. Both boots on, and dancing gently on the author’s heads. DSWilson probably doesn’t refer to the review on his CV.

      • eric
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        I’m not sure how an adaptation to cooperate (better) is an argument for group selection. It seems to me its just normal selection, and in fact is very similar to domestication. Some humans don’t like being or working in groups; big groups stress them out or triggers their fight or flight reflex. Some humans don’t have this stress reaction, or have it less. If the humans in the second group have more kids etc. than the humans in the first group, the whole population will grow more cooperative over time, through normal evolutionary processes. No group selection is needed to explain this.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          Indeed, for many things, no group selection is needed.
          Trivers’ review includes an interesting rule of thumb that each “level of selection” has an order of magnitude less effect than the lower level. Thus for intragenomic selection, it’s a 50% influence on success. For competition within a species, a characteristic would then have a 5% influence on success. Group-selection, maybe 0.5% influence. Genus or family level, 0.05%.
          It’s an informally suggested rule of thumb from someone who knows how to define and test precise mathematical laws – so don’t take it too precisely. Again, Trivers suggests that non-kin selection analyses can make much more precise, quantitative predictions than the group-selection ideas that he was critiquing. Caveat emptor!

  18. Posted December 5, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I think that a nice novel could be written about a scientist who accepts money from Templeton and thinks he’ll fool them but eventually slips to the Dark Side. Degradation of personality often makes a good plot.

  19. Posted December 5, 2016 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Another scientist foolishly invoking the G-word. Does he crave attention?

  20. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Do bodies like Templeton have to list their donations in public somewhere? If so, then we should be able to predict the appearance of next year’s crop of accommodationist bullshit from last year’s donations list. Allowing about 18 months for writing and publication.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 5, 2016 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      Yeuchh.
      48 pages of the stuff. From $2k to $10500k. Quite scary.
      Has anyone done the effort of putting the lot into one database? Anyone know?

  21. Tom Walvik
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Hei,

    I think the levels of selection debate is very fascinating, and the legitimacy of higher levels of selection (group selection/multi-level selection) in particular is interesting. I started out reading R. Dawkins book The Selfish Gene, and was absolutely concivenced that the only real level that selection operates on is the level of the gene (as replicator), and at the level of vehicle/interactor individuals. And that there are little to none real world examples of group selection in nature.

    However, when I started to read some of the other great evolutionary biologists, and participants in the levels of selection debate, i started to doubt not whether or not my description above is accurate, but how common a group selection framework for understanding evolutionary theory is amongst scientists in the real world. After seeing interviews, and reading some articles from both sides of the isle, it seems like when you read proponents for the gene/individual selection view, it appears that most people who use evolutionary theory hold this view, and view the group selection view with a healthy dose of skepticism and reserve. Howeever, when you read E.O. Wilson, D.S. Wilson, Ernst Mayr, and Gould it seems like the gene/individual selection view is obsolete/incomplete/inaccurate, and what really is happening is higher levels of selection/multi-level selection. This really hit home after reading some of the recent books, and articles of E.O. Wilson.

    I wonder, is there some surveys out there that have actually attempted to figure out what the evolutionary theorists of the world think? A while back the philosopher of mind David Chalmers actually sent out a survey to some of the most prestiogus universitites in the (Western) World, to sample the opinions/views of the professors there on matters concerning the framework at which they based their views of the mind/body problem, and related issues. I remember they stated in the resulting report/paper that they got a fairly decent response, and that the results were actually surprising on some issues. Have anything like that been done about the levels of selection debate?

    • eric
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure what relevancy a survey has on the question. What matters is whether the group selection hypothesis has empirical support. AIUI, JAC’s contention is that there is basically no empirical observation so far that can’t be explained by normal selection. Some observations might be consistent with both explanations, but there are no observations that are better explained or could only be explained via group selection. Thus, there is no real scientific support for ‘adding’ it to the TOE as a mechanism, since it doesn’t explain anything that didn’t already have an adequate explanation.

      • Tom Walvik
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        I agree with what your saying that I don´t really see any (empirical) evidence or convincing arguments in favor of group selection. But I would argue that there could be evidence for group selection that we don´t know about.

        But my point about the survey is that it would be interesting to know how common the different views are among scientists who use evolutionary theory. I think it is interesting in itself that people who are convinced on either side, are very sure that the other side is compeletly wrong/misguided. I guess that for people who read a lot of Gouod, D.S. Wilson, and/or E.O. Wilson there´s a fair chance that those people are probably inclined to view group selection/multi-level selection favorably.

  22. Posted December 5, 2016 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    “More important, he gives people the idea that evolution itself has produced gods in the form of superorganisms that are worshiped by their constituent individuals.”

    This may explain the 2016 election cycle.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:38 am | Permalink

      Donald has been looking a bit physogastric for some time now…

  23. Posted December 5, 2016 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    It’s true. A festival can have a “spirit”, and communities, movements, teams, even decades can have one. The Hegelian “Zeitgeist” means literally “timespirit” (spirit of the times).

    Some of these spririts come about as a cognitive model, or category, that lost its concrete flesh and contains some abstract ideas. It’s not much different than other mental representations. The difference is that it contains elements that consitute it which are thought of each having their own intentions, like individuals that form masses for example. This doesn’t make it different, but messes with our conception that beings either have their own intentions individually, while the category does not contain their intentions. Dogs bark, bees sting, or humans breathe, but what they are up to momentarily or how this changes is not part of their conception. But masses of things with intentionality are at once a category like bees and dogs, yet they contain the sum of intentionality of its members. I believe this is the reason we conceive of such categories as having a spirit. A spirit is thus a cognitive artifact in the human mind where the conception is as something non-living yet has features of living things, because it’s composed of living things.

    Such spirits can be alive when we are momentarily part of it. Here visitors of a concert, say, absorb the spirit and act in ways that enhance it, or at least not go against it. Part of that is theory of mind, understanding what everyone else is wanting, and doing their own part in accordance, which makes it easier to conceive of a generic mass as something special — the spirit.

    This leaves no room for deities. Slapping a word (god or worship) on something might please Templeton, but doesn’t make it any more religious.

    • Posted December 5, 2016 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

      I kingdom for an edit button: by not different or special, I meant the categorization and how it arises. It’s ordinary mental machinery at work. What makes it different to other categories is that it contains something like the “sum of intentions” of a crowd, which we can easily imagine, but it then triggers the intentional stance, hence its “mind” and “what it wants” appear to us.

  24. Filippo
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    “Today, there are innumerable cultural entities that deserve the status of superorganisms . . . Some are called religions, others are called nations, and others are called corporations. All of them call upon their members to work on their behalf. Those that are not called religions often have the same trappings as religions and use the same lexicon of words . . . Capitalism has all the trappings of a religion.”

    Consider the word “mission,” used by religious denominations, the military, and corporations. The last have taken to formulating and fatuously announcing from on high the “mission statement.” (I have to wonder what psychological mindset came up with THAT.) As compared to the first two, what possibly is the altruistic “mission” of a corporation other than maximizing profit and “shareholder value”? The asseverations of NY Times business reporters notwithstanding, U.S. corporations don’t offshore U.S. jobs (mfr. or otherwise) in order to “lift millions out of poverty worldwide.”

    • eric
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      There are lots of different ‘flavors’ of corporations. Yeah I agree, a mission statement for a purely for-profit venture doesn’t make much sense, unless it states “make money by…” But a mission statement can make a lot of sense for a not-for-profit or non-profit corporation. In your “religious denominations, military, and corporations” grouping, the corporations group includes things like the Red Cross, not just things like Apple.

  25. somer
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    First step Templeton. Next step put out the shingle for crystal gazing, palm reading and astrological predictions. After all medieval Christians were right into astrology and magic.

    “Chardin was prescient when he described humanity as just another species in some respects but a new process of evolution in other respects, which began as “tiny grains of thought” and then coalesced into larger and larger groups. Looking forward, Teilhard envisioned a single global consciousness called the Omega Point …. If this isn’t worshipping a Goddess that actually exists or can be brought into being, what would be?”

  26. Dimitris Klaras
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    I have read E.O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth” a year ago. I liked the book. I don’t remember much details of it now and probably have to read it again to be able to discuss anything of it, but I do remember that a considerable part of the book (a whole chapter or more) was a description and refutation of “kin selection” theory. Probably this was equivalent to discussing objections “of his peers” that you say are missing in his book. But your review do not discuss all these Wilson’s arguments against “kin selection” theory. You put only a phrase that don’t say much. To my view you did, in your review, exactly what you accuses him.

    People better to read the book than reviews of it. I am not a biologist (and I don’t want to go to such arguments especially without preparation) but all this critic against Wilson looks to me that “his peers” read a different book than I.

    Really, Wilson says that selection is not at the gene level or describes it, in case of eusociality, from a higher level?

    I think we meet here a lot of confusion were, as Sean Caroll would say, people mix vocabularies of different level “emergent theories”.

  27. Ron DeBry
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Why raise the question of the photo making Wilson look ‘weird’? I knew him when he was on the faculty at MSU and that photo looks like he looks. It might be a fairly generic dust-jacket type publicity photo, but that has nothing to do with his ideas. Just caption it as ‘photo from web site xxx’ or some such.

  28. hazel rah
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I used to think DSW was dangerous. Now I just think he is hilarious. No filter, no foresight, and no evidence required. It’s like having evolution explained to you by the muppet show.

    I wish I could stop visiting the “evolution institute” website, but it’s just too damn entertaining. Recently, he started corresponding with a prison inmate, who has apparently been “saved by evolution”:

    https://evolution-institute.org/article/saved-by-evolution-how-a-prison-inmate-turned-science-into-a-meaning-system/?source=tvol

    Priceless : )


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