E. O. Wilson’s Group Selection Bombshell: The Social Conquest of Earth

The Grand Old Man of evolutionary psychology won’t be going out with a whimper.  He just threw down the gauntlet to the “selfish gene” orthodoxy in no uncertain terms.  Here are a couple of excerpts from his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth:

For almost half a century, it has been popular among serious scientists seeking a naturalistic explanation for the origin of humanity, I among them, to invoke kin selection as a key dynamical force of human evolution… Unfortunately for this perception, the foundations of the general theory of inclusive fitness based on the assumptions of kin selection have crumbled, while evidence for it has grown equivocal at best.  The beautiful theory never worked well anyway, and now it has collapsed.

The selfish-gene approach may seem to be entirely reasonable.  In fact, most evolutionary biologists had accepted it as a virtual dogma – at least until 2010.  In that year Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and I demonstrated that inclusive-fitness theory, often called kin selection theory, is both mathematically and biologically incorrect.

Great shades of V. C. Wynne-Edwards!  Group selection has risen from the grave!  Whatever flavor of selection you happen to favor, this is a fascinating story.  First, Richard Dawkins “debunked” Robert Ardrey in The Selfish Gene because he had favorable things to say about group selection in The Social Contract, one of his lesser known books.  For example, quoting from the first chapter of Dawkins’ book,

These are the 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).


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.

It would seem Dawkins burnt his bridges at little too soon.  Fast forward to 2002, and Steven Pinker publishes a thick tome about the Blank Slate, the prevailing orthodoxy of the mid-20th century in the behavioral sciences according to which what is referred to as “human nature” in common parlance had, at best, an insignificant effect on human behavior.  In the process he manages the remarkable intellectual feat of avoiding all mention of the most significant opponent of the Blank Slate, Robert Ardrey.  Well, not quite all mention.  He does refer to him once, and then only to dismiss him with a wave of the hand.  And the reason?  Why, he just took Dawkins word for it that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection, even though group selection was hardly the main theme of his work.  Those of you too young to have heard of Ardrey don’t need to take my word for it regarding his significance to the Blank Slate controversy.  It’s all nicely documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in an invaluable little work entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968.  The last time I looked, you could still pick up a used copy at Amazon for less than a buck.  For example, quoting Geoffrey Gorer, one of the contributors and a famous psychologist at the time,

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 of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.

The entire book is a polemic directed mainly at Ardrey.  Unfortunately, Ardrey subsequently became an unperson for being right about the actual theme of all his work, the important role of innate human behavioral traits, at a time when virtually the entire community of academic and professional “experts” in anthropology, sociology and psychology had been wrong.  He had “risen above his station,” because, you see, he was a mere playwright.

Ardrey had committed the unforgivable sin of insulting the gravitas of the academic community.  It was, therefore, necessary to drop him and his works, as Orwell might have put it, down the memory hole.  A new, properly credentialed hero was required to serve as the dragon slayer of the Blank Slate.  The choice by acclamation was none other than E. O. Wilson!  And now, Wilson has come full circle, throwing down the gauntlet to the entire expert community in his turn, over group selection, no less, the sham reason that served as the main pretext for “debunking” Ardrey!  It’s delicious!  This has to be one of the best practical jokes history has ever played on the self-anointed experts of science.

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.

8 thoughts on “E. O. Wilson’s Group Selection Bombshell: The Social Conquest of Earth”

  1. Maybe it would be a joke on the scientific community if E.O. Wilson was right, something about which your gloating post says nothing at all.

  2. I suggest that you trouble yourself to read the post before striking pious poses in the comment section. As far as its point is concerned, it is a matter of complete indifference whether Wilson is right or wrong.

  3. The problem is that your conspiracy theory that Ardrey’s ideas were repressed by Wilson, on behalf of the scientific orthodoxy, flys in the face of the facts and the chronology. It may be that today Dawkins et al represent the scientific orthodoxy in evolutionary biology, but that was hardly the case when Dawkins & Wilson published their early works in the 70s. So, it’s somewhat fanciful to suggest that Ardrey’s ideas were suppressed by some unified cabal of academic orthodoxy represented by Dawkins and Wilson.

    It’s equally absurd to characterise Wilson as “the dragon slayer of the Blank Slate”, since it was Wilsons book Sociobiology that mostly attracted the ire of Blank Slate proponents, more so, in the long run, than anything Ardrey ever wrote; and, you may not be aware that Ardrey’s book “The Social Contract” (1970) was, in part, a response to Wilson’s chapter in Man and Beast, which Ardrey had read in preprint (Segerstrale 2000); so if Wilson did contest Ardrey’s ideas, it was Ardrey who threw the first stone.

    As to the value of Ardrey’s merit as an originator of ideas about innate nature: Were there not several such popularisations as Ardrey’s floating around at the time? I remember Desmond Morris’s “The Naked Aped” for instance (not to mention Lorenz’s more academic “On Aggression”). My recollection, in retrospect, about both Ardrey & Morris is that they somewhat over egged the cake on the genetic determination side – the phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” springs to mind. And in actuality the nature/nurture question was never a simple one, with the nurture side stemming back through Mead and Boaz, and the nature side implicit in the work of J.B.S. Haldane and Ronald Fisher; of course, a modern view recognizes the importance of both environmental and genetic factors. No doubt, Ardrey would have also been aware of the work of Hamilton and Maynard Smith, which preceded his publications; and surely that’s where the true birth of Sociobiology lies.

  4. Once again, you haven’t bothered to read what I actually wrote. I have never even remotely suggested that Wilson ever attempted to repress Ardrey’s ideas. I have the highest opinion of Wilson. He’s a fine writer, an independent thinker, and a great scientist. He also had the courage to publish what he considered the truth regardless of his reputation, tossing aside the gaudy tin crown Pinker and his hangers on fashioned for him. Where you ever came up with the idea that I suggested Dawkins and Wilson conspired against Ardrey back in the 70’s is beyond me.

    The claim that Ardrey “egged the cake” on the side of genetic determinism was a familiar red herring of his opponents. It is also obvious that it is complete nonsense to anyone who has actually bothered to read his books. He constantly insisted on the significance of experience and culture in shaping human behavior.

    Conspiracy? I wouldn’t dignify Pinker’s taudry revision of history in “The Blank Slate” with such a term. There’s no question regarding Ardrey’s significance as far as the history of the Blank Slate is concerned. You don’t have to take my word for it. It’s all nicely documented in an invaluable little collection of essays by the Blank Slaters themselves entitled “Man and Aggression.” For example, from anthropologist 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 of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.” The fact that Pinker could declare such a man “totally and utterly wrong” based on the comments he made on, of all things, group selection, is an utter travesty. As even a Blank Slater like Gorer could see, the theme of all Ardrey’s work was not group selection, but “the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature.” If he was “totally and utterly wrong” about that, then so are all the scribblers of evolutionary psychology textbooks, who have unfortunately been bamboozling young students with Pinker’s contrived version of “history” lo now these many years, ignoring or bowdlerizing the contribution, not only of Ardrey, but of other significant thinkers unfortunate enough to publish before the appearance of “Sociobiology.”

  5. Dawkins’s comment (as quoted by Pinker) in the first chapter of The Selfish Gene is hardly a blanket condemnation of Ardrey’s work, as you seem to think. He is referring particularly to “The Social Contract” and in the same breath mentions Lorenz’s “On Aggression” and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s “Love and Hate”, because: “My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism” and these were previous treatments that touch on this subject. And surely in the context of altruism (in the technical sense of the word) and if Hamilton’s approach *is* the correct one, then Dawkins is correct that: “The trouble with *these books* [my emphasis] is that their authors got it [i.e. the basis of Altruism and Selfishness] totally and utterly wrong”. Although perhaps, the more mature Dawkins wouldn’t have needed the dramatic emphasis “and utterly”.

    Dawkins considers that “The Social Contract” is largely a popularisation of Wynne-Edwards’s views on group selection – what one might call strong group selection. Dawkins also mentions (with some approbation) that unlike many of his contemporaries Ardrey was aware of Hamilton’s work, but unconvinced (stotting gazelles etc) – And he certainly should have been aware since G.C. Williams’s “Adaptation and Natural Selection” had been published four years previously in 1966. You say that group selection is not central to Ardrey’s other work; perhaps, but although I haven’t read it, the title: “The Territorial Imperative” is suggestive of a basis in strong group selection (Wynne-Edwards adopts a group selective approach to territorial competition).

    And Pinker’s own paragraph in the “The Blank Slate” is hardly a condemnation of Ardrey’s whole oevre either any more than it is of Lorenz’s. Rather he directly refers to the reviews in Ashley Montagu’s “Man And Aggression”. Pinker’s tone in that paragraph along with the parenthes around the word “studies” indicate that he isn’t impressed with them, not to mention his dismissal of Montagu’s own criticism of Lorenz. The point Pinker is really making here is surely similar to one of the points you appear to touch on (I think) i.e. that ideas based on an incorrect fundamental theory, will be buried, even if some of the conclusions arrived at happen to be correct.

    In the light of all this, I can’t see how Wilson fishing in the murky waters of group selection is a joke on “the self-anointed experts of science” (or anyone else for that matter), and it’s not exactly clear who you imagine falls into this category anyway. Perhaps it’s somewhat ironic (sad?) that Wilson is now flirting with similar ideas to those that detracted from Ardrey & Lorenz’s works, but science has moved on since 1975.

  6. I don’t think that most readers of a popular science book like The Selfish Gene would be as adept at parsing the delicate nuances of comments such as, “The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong,” as you. It would certainly appear that Pinker interpreted it as a “blanket condemnation” in “The Blank Slate,” relying on it as an excuse for otherwise ignoring Ardrey, the most significant opponent of the Blank Slate, as confirmed by the Blank Slaters themselves, in a book that was apparently intended to inform the reader all about the Blank Slate. Your claim that he was only referring to “Man and Aggression” is false. Here’s what he actually wrote:

    “The against-sociobiologists declared that this (tribal warfare) had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.” I looked up these “studies,” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. In fact they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, ‘The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.’)”

    Period! As you can see, Pinker was not referring to Man and Aggression at all when he claimed that Ardrey and Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong.” That claim is based solely on the quote from Dawkins. There is none of your delicate nuance in Pinker’s remark about “specific books,” nor did it even mention the fact that it had something to do with group selection. As for the “archaic theories” that Lorenz and Ardrey supposedly believed in, Pinker is simply lying when he claims Ardrey believed in the “hydraulic theory.” He never mentioned it, and Lorenz only suggested it as a hypothesis in an otherwise unremarkable paper written long after his most significant books had been published.

  7. I read Pinker’s paragraph about Lorenz & Ardrey as having as having a very different meaning to the way that you are interpreting it:

    Firstly, look at the sentence, in Blank Slate, before the beginning of your quotation: Pinker is arguing against a modern version of Rousseau’s noble savage doctrine and says: “In Sociobiology, Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human history”. That’s something that Pinker also strongly believes (chap 17). And that sentence sets the context for the rest of the paragraph, which in my opinion, is saying that Lorenz & Ardrey had already come to similar conclusions about tribal warfare, but that the against-sociobiologists were claiming they had rebutted Lorenz & Ardrey (in “Man and Agression” for instance) and it didn’t help that their theories were underscored by group selection, as was pointed out by the sociobiologists themselves (Dawkins).

    Secondly, as you surely must appreciate, Pinker didn’t himself claim that Ardrey and Lorenz “were totally and utterly wrong”, he’s just quoting Dawkins as saying that, in the the context to which I have already referred. In fact Pinker *clearly* believes that Lorenz and Ardrey were largely right about innate aggression, he says: “some of the criticisms [but not all or most of them!] were deserved”. And that’s underscored by the last sentence in the paragraph, where Pinker supports Lorenz’s point about tribal warfare in the Ute Indians and questions Montagu’s “refutation”.

    Now, the “hydraulic pressure” sentence is potentially misleading; but note!, Pinker doesn’t directly ascribe the view that “aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure” to Ardrey, rather he says that: “Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories *such as* [my emphasis] that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure [in the case of Lorenz] and that evolution acted for the good of the species [in both cases]”. I’m not nit-picking language here, but making the point that Pinker was not intentionally lieing about Ardrey (assuming you are right about his belief). All Pinker is actually guilty of is lumping Lorenz & Ardrey together in a misleading concision of language that appears to imply that Ardrey believed in something he may not have done. An easy mistake to make.

    If you are trying to make the point that Dawkins & Pinker despise Ardrey and are attempting to make him into a non-person, then since they both conflated Ardrey & Lorenz’s work in these passages, they would also both have to despise Lorenz equally, from the evidence you have presented. That’s far from the case, of course. Most notably Dawkins studied under Tinbergen who was a collaborator and friend of Lorenz, and he has referred to Lorenz as the grand old man of ethology (or something like that).

    Finally, it’s not an argument to say that some readers wouldn’t have understood what Pinker & Dawkins are getting at, because your criticisms have been about their intentions not the clarity of their writing, which is, in any case a lot better than most.

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