E. O. Wilson and his Critics; The Group Selection Brawl Continues

For the sake of his own legacy, E. O. Wilson would have done better not to write his last book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  It was certainly an entertaining read, as all of his books have been, full of the speculations of a mind unfettered by ideological dogmas.  However, as much as I admire Wilson for his bold defense of group selection, and his defiance and indifference to his own reputation in proclaiming what he believes to be the truth, this time he’s gone too far.  That may not be such a bad thing as far as science is concerned.  Wilson’s latest has certainly shaken up any number of complacent minds and set them to thinking.  For Wilson himself, however, the consequences will not be good.  There is simply no sufficient basis for the sweeping claim that “An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.”  The simplistic mathematical models that he claims demonstrate the failure of inclusive fitness theory do nothing of the sort.

The response of the high mightinesses of evolutionary biology to all this has not been particularly helpful.  That of Richard Dawkins is typically self-righteous.  Dawkins is the most Puritanical of atheists, a fact reflected in his review of Wilson’s book in The Prospect.  He could not limit himself to a mere sober appraisal of the evidence for and against group selection.  Wilson, if we are to believe Dawkins, is not only wrong, but evil.  He is guilty of “an act of wanton arrogance” for “going over the heads of experts and appealing directly to a popular audience, as if the professional controversy didn’t exist – as if acceptance of his (tiny) minority view were a done deal.”  An interesting notion, that.  Let’s see, how might we formulate it into a law?  How about, “No scientist shall presume to write for the rabble until his work has been approved by the self-appointed gatekeepers in his field. To avoid confusing their simple minds, nothing controversial shall be set before them.”  That would certainly have silenced upstarts like Darwin, and Blank Slate orthodoxy would still be alive and well.

Of course, Steven Pinker had to put in his two cents worth as well.  After all, his excuse for writing a fanciful “history” of the Blank Slate that ignored the work and legacy of that pseudo-religion’s most effective and brilliant opponents was Dawkins’ assertion that they were “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection, a theory that was in no way central to the thought of any of them.  His essay at Edge.org, The False Allure of Group Selection, though not explicitly a review of Wilson’s book, was almost certainly inspired by it.  He makes it clear quite early that he really doesn’t understand what advocates of group selection are talking about, writing, for example, “In this essay I’ll concentrate on the sense of “group selection” as a version of natural selection which acts on groups in the same way that it acts on individual organisms, namely, to maximize their inclusive fitness (alternatively, which acts on groups in the same way it acts on genes, namely to increase the number of copies that appear in the next generation; I will treat these formulations as equivalent).”  Unfortunately, no group selectionist I am aware of supports or defends either one of these alternatives.  Pinker’s essay abounds in such straw men.  He continues, “I’ll examine the idea that group selection is a viable explanation of the traits of human groups such as tribes, religions, cultures, and nations.”  Why?  Who, exactly has even proposed such an idea, other than as group selection applies to the individuals in those groups?

Another of Pinker’s more familiar straw men is genetic determinism.  In his words,

If humans were selected to benefit their groups at the expense of themselves, then self-sacrificial acts should be deliberate, spontaneous, and uncompensated, just like other adaptations such as libido, a sweet tooth, or parental love.

Of course, such traits could only exist if group selection were the exclusive mechanism of evolution.  No proponent of group selection that I know of has proposed any such thing.  Wilson is closer to the genuine position of most group selectionists when he writes, “Each of us is inherently complicated.  We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners.”   Pinker’s essay is full of similar digressions about the idiosyncrasies of nation states and the behavior of soldiers in battle, a subject upon which we may safely assume he has no firsthand knowledge.  He would have done better to dispense with all the philosophical flatulence and concentrate on taking issue with what modern group selectionists are actually saying.  I suggest he ask Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, or one of the Wilson’s to help him out with a pithy one or two sentence definition, and take it from there.

There actually are some good reviews out there.  For example, Michael Gazzaniga, author of books such as The Ethical Mind, writes,

At a certain point in their careers, great jazz musicians are almost bound to disappoint their fans. Think of John Coltrane venturing into free jazz in the late 1960s or Miles Davis going electric a few years later. The vision that made them great the first time pushes them into new territory, and the magnitude of their early accomplishments—and the number of admirers they have attracted—makes their public’s sense of betrayal all the more bitter. All they can do is keep playing, undaunted by the dissent.  This reality comes to mind when reading Edward O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth,” a sweeping argument about the biological origins of complex human culture.

Count me in as one of the disappointed fans.  Gazzaniga’s review demonstrates that it’s actually possible to take issue with someone without being abusive or striking self-righteous poses.  Andrew Bourke published an excellent critique of the mathematical models Wilson cites in support of group selection in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.  Click on the link to the right to get the full text.

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.

2 thoughts on “E. O. Wilson and his Critics; The Group Selection Brawl Continues”

  1. This is sheer madness—an almost incoherent rant that completely misrepresents Dawkins’s views. 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. That is, “cheating” replicators that are “good” for individuals but bad for the group as a whole will tend to propagate themselves. Yes, altruism may help groups propagate, but altruistic groups are susceptible to invasion by cheaters unless the “altruism” is based on kin selection or individual selection via reciprocity.

  2. How I’ve “misrepresented” Dawkins’ views on group selection in this post is beyond me, since I had nothing to say about it one way or the other. Whatever. Lord have mercy on me, a ranter. Similar anathemas have been raining down in the debate over group selection, literally, for decades. I wouldn’t recommend jumping in, but if you can’t resist, it’s best to learn what all the fuss is about beforehand. There are good articles in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, which is open source, and many of the latest polemics on both sides may be found on the This View of Life website.

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