Another Episode in the Adventures of Group Selection

In this episode, Martin Nowak pokes yet another stick into the inclusive fitness hornet’s nest with his answer to the question of the year over at Edge.org.  The question is, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement,” and Nowak, an evolutionary mathematician at Harvard, doesn’t mince words in throwing down the gauntlet.  His answer:  “Inclusive Fitness.”

Nowak, it may be recalled, is a proponent of group selection.  That doesn’t sit well with many of his peers, who have staked their reputations on their support for IF, and stand to lose some serious face if Nowak succeeds in debunking it.  The definition of the term “group selection” can be tricky.  Johan van der Dennen has a good section on it (Section 1.2.5) in his online book, The Origin of War.  However one defines it, it has a fascinating history.

The group selection hypothesis can be traced back to Darwin, and enjoyed a brief vogue when it was popularized by V. C. Wynne-Edwards in his book, Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior, published in 1962.  As recounted by Mark Borello in his excellent, Evolutionary Restraints: The Contentious History of Group Selection, Wynne-Edwards’ theories quickly came under attack, and were largely rejected after the appearance of seminal papers by David Lack (Population Studies of Birds, 1966, and The Natural Regulation of Animal Numbers, 1966) and George Williams (Adaptation and Natural Selection, 1966).  Both took the gene-centric view favored by William Hamilton, who had proposed his theory of kin selection in 1964.  Their ideas were popularized in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which appeared in 1976, and evolved into today’s neo-Darwinian synthesis, which favors inclusive fitness theory.

As it happened, one very prominent writer who had been impressed by Wynne-Edwards’ ideas was Robert Ardrey, who wrote a series of books in the 60’s and 70’s defending the existence of innate human behavioral traits, or what one might call human nature. He did so in defiance of the Blank Slate orthodoxy of the time, which denied the existence of innate behavior in humans, which prevailed in anthropology, psychology, sociology,  and the rest of the behavioral sciences in the United States at the time.  There is no question that Ardrey was the most effective and influential opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday.  The Blank Slaters themselves admitted as much, for example, in Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by Ashley Montagu that appeared in 1968.

And this is where the history gets really interesting.  In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins claimed in the first chapter that Ardrey, along with Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz and the famous ethologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, had been “totally and utterly wrong” because of their support for group selection.  Enter Steven Pinker, who dismissed Ardrey in his book, The Blank Slate, with a single paragraph because, on Dawkins’ authority, he had been “totally and utterly wrong!”  Now this is certainly absurd, because the theme of all Ardrey’s work was human nature, not group selection.  In other words, Pinker actually managed to write a book running to 528 pages in paperback, supposedly all about the Blank Slate, that dismissed the man who was, by the Blank Slater’s own account, their most successful and influential opponent, with a brief mention to the effect that he had been “totally and utterly wrong!”  In looking around at the intellectual landscape in the behavioral sciences as well as the popular media today, anyone with a passing familiarity with Ardrey’s work cannot help but conclude that he was not only not “totally and utterly wrong,” but has been triumphantly vindicated.  The problem isn’t that he was “totally and utterly wrong,” but that didn’t belong to the academic tribe.  In fact, Ardrey came to anthropology late in life after being a very successful playwright.  It would seem that, of all professions, playwrights could be expected to have some passing knowledge of human nature.  No matter, he shamed the scientists, so Pinker dismissed him and ginned up what amounted to a thorough revision of history to “set things straight.”

One of the ways in which the record was “set straight” was by exaggerating the role of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, published in 1975.  Now, I’m very fond of Wilson’s books, and consider him a great man, but the idea that Sociobiology was the first serious challenge to the Blank Slaters, as claimed by Pinker beginning on page 108 of the paperback version of his book, is patent nonsense.  There is nothing of real relevance to the Blank Slate controversy that appeared in either Sociobiology or On Human Nature, which appeared a few years later, that hadn’t been familiar to Ardrey’s readers more than a decade earlier.

Fast forward to 2012.  E. O. Wilson, never one to avoid rocking the boat or pass quietly from the scene in the odor of sanctity, tossed a bombshell into the behavioral sciences with the publication of his The Social Conquest of Earth.  I came in the form of Wilson’s wholehearted embrace of (you guessed it) group selection!  This evoked some sour responses from Pinker, whose specious rationalization for his dismissal of Ardrey wouldn’t stand for such practical jokes, not to mention Dawkins, and a host of others.  Wilson had never really completely distanced himself from group selection, and his fulsome endorsement of it in his latest book was based on mathematical models he had worked on in collaboration with none other than Martin Nowak.

Now we find Nowak, not only doubling down on group selection, but actively seeking to slip a knife between the ribs of the inclusive fitness aficionados!  I must say that I have no strong opinion one way or the other about group selection.  In the language of physics, you might say the problem has a huge number of degrees of freedom that are often addressed crudely, if at all in the mathematical models on both sides.  However, I must admit that I find the controversy and its convoluted history hugely entertaining.  And I do wonder when Pinker is going to publish a revised edition of The Blank Slate, dropping all those nice things he said about Wilson down the memory hole, perhaps replacing them with a brief paragraph to the effect that he was “totally and utterly wrong.”

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