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.