David Sloan Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Group Selection

An interesting skirmish has been going on recently between noted proponent of the theory of group selection David Sloan Wilson and Jerry Coyne, bête noir of the Intelligent Designers.  It started when Wilson posted an article on his website entitled When Richard Dawkins is not an Evolutionist.  It appears that, in Wilson’s opinion, Dawkins wanders from the straight and narrow path of a true evolutionist 1) In his discussion of religion in The God Delusion, and 2) In his opinion of the role of selfish genes in relation to group theory.

Jerry Coyne immediately fired back with a somewhat overwrought rebuttal on his blog.  I won’t go into the details of the controversy here, and, for the record, I agree with Coyne in most of his reply, except for his tendency to “soften” Dawkins’ comments about group selection in The Selfish Gene.  Here’s what Coyne wrote:

Yes, genes are replicators, but no, Dawkins never claimed that their status as selfish replicators somehow rules out group selection. What he claimed, in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, was that successful replicators must share the same vehicle if they are to be successful in the future. Usually that vehicle is the body of an individual organism, which is used by the replicators to propagate themselves. Dawkins’s argument against the efficacy of group selection was that this form of selection is usually unsuccessful because groups are vulnerable to subversion from within by those selfish replicators.

Evidently Coyne didn’t read The Selfish Gene very closely, or he’s been unduly influenced by Dawkins’ recent rowback in the matter of group selection.  Here, Wilson is right.  In fact, Dawkins rejected group selection root and branch.  For example, quoting from the book in the context of a discussion of the importance of selfishness and altruism,

“These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s “On Aggression,” Ardrey’s “The Social Contract,” and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s “Love and Hate.”  The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong.  They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works.  They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).”

It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that the bald statement that the theory of group selection is “totally and utterly wrong” is somehow compatible with forthright acceptance of group selection, albeit in limited circumstances.  If that’s what Dawkins meant to say, he certainly had a roundabout way of doing it.  This particular quote has an interesting history, by the way.  It was used by Steven Pinker in his book, The Blank Slate, to dismiss the entire intellectual legacy of Robert Ardrey root and branch, in a single sentence, even though group selection was never more than a sidelight in his work.  In other words, Pinker was capable of writing a thick tome purporting to be about the Blank Slate while managing to ignore the role of the most significant opponent of Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday in all but a single sentence.  Certainly a virtuoso performance.

And how do I know that Ardrey was the Blank Slate’s most significant opponent?  As readers of my earlier posts are aware, you certainly don’t have to take my word for it.  It’s all nicely documented in an invaluable little book published in 1968 by the Blank Slaters themselves, entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, and still available at Amazon for about a buck.  For example, from an essay in the book by Geoffrey Gorer,

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser or the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.

Of course, today Ardrey, is an unperson, thanks in part, as noted above, to Dawkins’ hard over position on group selection.  After all, Ardrey was a mere playwright, and to admit the crucial role he played would be to offend the academic gravitas of any number of worthy professors emeritus who really had been “totally and utterly wrong” about human nature when Ardrey was right.

But I digress.  Allow me to quote a couple of other passages from “The Selfish Gene” to clear up any remaining doubt about Dawkins’ unequivocal rejection of group selection in that book:

To put it in a slightly more respectable way, a group, such as a species or a population within a species, whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first.  Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals.  This is the theory of ‘group selection’, long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open in a famous book by V. C. Wynne-Edwards, and popularized by Robert Ardrey in the Social Contract.

Not much wiggle room there, either, is there, unless Dawkins meant to inform his readers that he is not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory?  Here’s another remarkable example:

Robert Ardrey, in ‘The Social Contract,’ used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general.  He clearly sees man as a species that has strayed from the path of animal righteousness.  Ardrey at least did his homework.  His decision to disagree with orthodox theory was a conscious one, and for this he deserves credit.

Here I really don’t know what on earth Dawkins was talking about.  He was either deliberately lying, or he never actually read “The Social Contract.”  The idea that Ardrey used that book, “to account for the whole of social order in general” is the purest fantasy.

In a word, anyone who takes the trouble to read The Selfish Gene can see that Coyne is on very thin ice in his attempts to dumb down Dawkins’ position on group selection when he wrote the book.  By all means, check all the references to group selection in the index if you like, but you’ll find it’s not really necessary to read past the first chapter to see that Wilson is entirely justified in claiming that, “A major objective of The Selfish Gene was to argue against a theory known as group selection.”

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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