E. O. Wilson vs. Jerry Coyne: The Group Selection Wars Continue

A few days ago E. O. Wilson published a bit in The New York Times entitled The Riddle of the Human Species.  Wilson, of course, is a fine writer and a great thinker who’s books include, among others, the seminal Sociobiology.  He has been referred to as the “Father of Evolutionary Psychology,” or was, at least, until he challenged some academic orthodoxies in his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth.  Among the most egregious of these was his defense of group selection, a subject with a fascinating history which I have often discussed in this blog.  Basically, the group selection hypothesis is that natural selection of certain traits occurred because it favored the survival of groups, even though those traits were either neutral or detrimental to the survival of individuals.  This drew a chorus of boos from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, who have more or less staked their reputations on the assertion that group selection never happened or, if it did, it wasn’t important.  There’s really nothing new in Wilson’s latest bit.  He basically reiterates the themes of his latest book, including group selection.  This again drew the predictable catcalls from the Dawkins/Pinker camp.  One of them was penned by Jerry Coyne, proprieter of the blog, Why Evolution is True.  I certainly agree with his take on evolution, but I found some of the arguments in his response to Wilson’s latest risable.

Coyne writes,

So it’s sad to see him, at the end of his career, repeatedly flogging a discredited theory (“group selection”: evolution via the differential propagation and extinction of groups rather than genes or individuals) as the most important process of evolutionary change in humans and other social species. Let me back up: group selection is not “discredited,” exactly; rather, it’s not thought to be an important force in evolution.  There’s very little evidence that any trait (in fact, I can’t think of one, including cooperation) has evolved via the differential proliferation of groups.

Here Coyne does a complete 180 in a single paragraph, making the bombastic claim that group selection is discredited and then doing a quick rowback to the more prosaic, “Well, maybe not quite.”  There may be very little evidence that any trait evolved via group selection, as Coyne suggests, but there’s very little evidence that those that might have evolved via group selection didn’t, either.  Coyne continues,

I’ve covered this issue many times (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), so I won’t go over the arguments again. Wilson’s “theory” that group selection is more important than kin selection in the evolution of social behavior (published in Nature with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita) was criticized strongly by 156 scientists—including virtually every luminary in social evolution—in five letters to the editor, and sentiment about the importance of group selection has, if anything, decreased since Wilson’s been pushing it.

This is the classic “50 billion flies can’t be wrong” argument, or, in more polite parlance, the argument from authority.  Coyne knows that it is just as flimsy as the claim that group selection is a “discredited theory,” but this time he takes a bit longer to do a 180, writing near the very end of his bit,

His theories have not gained traction in the scientific community. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, for, in the end, scientific truth is decided by experiment and observation, not by the numbers of people initially on each side of an issue.

If that’s the case, why bring up the “156 scientists” argument to begin with?  If memory serves, there were very few “experts” in the behavioral sciences who didn’t at least pay lip service to the Blank Slate orthodoxy until a very few decades ago.  Did that make it right?  Coyne next takes Wilson to task for his “inaccurate” use of the term “eusociality”:

“Eusociality” as defined by Wilson and every other evolutionist is the condition in which a species has a reproductive and social division of labor: eusocial species have “castes” that do different tasks, with a special reproductive caste (“queens”) that do all the progeny producing, and “worker castes” that are genetically sterile and do the tending of the colony. Such species include Hymenoptera (ants, wasps and bees, though not all species are eusocial), termites, naked mole rats, and some other insects.

But humans don’t have reproductive castes, nor genetically determined worker castes.  Wilson is going against biological terminology, lumping humans with ants as “eusocial,” so he can apply his own theories of “altruism” in social insects (i.e., workers “unselfishly” help their mothers produce offspring while refraining themselves from reproducing), to humans.

Here, one can but smile and wonder if Coyne is actually serious.  Is he really unaware that, while he may not have actually coined the term “eusociality,” Wilson supplied the first scientific definition for it?  Is he no longer allowed to use a term that he essentially invented as he sees fit?  The presence of “castes” is by no means universally accepted as a requirement for eusociality in any case.

As it happens, Wilson is co-author with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita of a paper presenting a mathematical theory of group selection entitled, The Evolution of Eusociality. Alluding to this, Coyne writes,

The mathematical “proof” given by Nowak et al. does not show that group selection is a better explanation than kin selection for social behavior in insects, for their “proof” does not vary the level of kinship, as it must if it could allow that conclusion.

This begs the question of whether alternative mathematical “proofs” of kin selection are any better.  To this, as one who has spent a good part of his career as a computational physicist, I can only laugh.  Consider the case of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), built to demonstrate inertial confinement fusion.  The finest three-dimensional full physics codes, amply benchmarked with the results of previous experiments on earlier giant laser facilities such as Nova at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and OMEGA at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester, confidently predicted that the NIF would succeed in achieving its ignition goal.  It did not.  It is currently short of that goal by more than an order of magnitude.  Trust me, the mathematical models that are supposed to “prove” group selection or kin selection are hopelessly crude by comparison.  They can all be taken with a grain of salt.  Coyne continues,

The second egregious and false claim in this paragraph (a paragraph that’s the highlight of the piece) is that “multilevel selection is gaining in favor among evolutionary biologists” because of the Nowak et al. paper. That’s simply not true.  The form of multilevel selection adumbrated in that paper is, to my knowledge, embraced by exactly four people: the three authors of the paper and David Sloan Wilson.

Here, I can but suggest that Coyne try Google, using the search term “group selection.”  It would seem based on a cursory search that there are rather more embracers of group selection than he imagined.  Coyne concludes,

Why does Wilson keep writing article and article, and book after book, promoting group selection? I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know the answer. What I do know, though, is that his seeming monomaniacal concentration on a weakly-supported form of evolution can serve only to erode his reputation… Wilson’s reputation is secure. It’s sad to see it tarnished by ill-founded arguments for an unsubstantiated evolutionary process.

What, exactly, is this supposed to be?  A thinly veiled threat?  If not, how else is one to construe it?  Is Coyne suggesting that Wilson either repeat orthodoxies about group selection that he clearly believes to be false, or, alternatively, shut up and surrender his freedom of speech because he’s worried about his precious reputation?  It brings to mind my own furious denunciation of Aristotle in my 9th grade biology class for promoting wrong theories of cosmology.  My teacher, Mr. Haag, who was much wiser than I deserved, observed, “Well, at least he thought.”  I’ve thought a great deal about that reply since the 9th grade.  To this day I have no idea whether group selection was really important or not, and don’t believe that anyone else has adequate evidence to decide the question one way or the other, either.  However, regardless, I will always honor and admire E. O. Wilson.  At least he thought.

The “Worry” that we don’t have Free Will

In the last couple of posts I’ve been looking at some of the more interesting responses to the “annual question” at Edge.org.  This year’s question was, “What *Should” we be Worried About,” and answers were submitted by a select group of 155 public intellectuals, scientists, philosophers, etc.  An answer that is interesting if only because it is counterintuitive was submitted by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological science and neurology at Stanford.  In his response, entitled, “The Danger Of Inadvertently Praising Zygomatic Arches,” we find that Sapolsky is worried that we will make wrong choices because we don’t have free will.  In his words,

I don’t think that there is Free will. The conclusion first hit me in some sort of primordial ooze of insight when I was about 13-years old, and that conclusion has only become stronger since then. What worries me is that despite the fact that I think this without hesitation, there are times that it is simply too hard to feel as if there is no free will, to believe that, to act accordingly. What really worries me is that it is so hard for virtually anyone to truly act as if there is no free will. And that this can have some pretty bad consequences.


But it is so difficult to really believe that there is no free will, when so many of the threads of causality are not yet known, or are as intellectually inaccessible as having to automatically think about the behavioral consequences of everything from the selective pressures of hominid evolution to what someone had for breakfast. This difficulty is something that we should all worry about.

To this, I can only answer, “Why?”  Why be worried about things you can do absolutely nothing about?  Why be worried that people won’t “truly act as if there is no free will” when it is perfectly obvious that, lacking free will, they can have no choice in the matter?  Why be worried about how difficult it is to “really believe that there is no free will” if we have not the faintest control over what we believe?  This is supposed to be a difficulty we all “should” worry about?  Surely it must be obvious that “should” is a completely meaningless term in a world without free will.  “Should” implies the freedom to choose between alternatives.  Remove free will, and that freedom is removed with it.  Remove free will and worry becomes absurd.  Why worry about something you can do nothing about?  It makes no more sense than poisoning your whole life by constantly worrying about the inevitability of death.

I by no means mean to imply that I am taking sides one way or the other on the question of whether we have free will.  I am simply pointing out that the very suggestion that we worry about it implies that we do.  If we have no free will then the question of whether we will worry about it or not is completely out of our control.  In that case it turns out I am in that happy category of people who are not worried about it.  If we do have free will, then the rationale for worrying about the lack of it is removed.  In either case, I am happy to report, I have no worries.

Neither do I imply any disrespect of Prof. Sapolsky, a brilliant man whose work I admire regardless of whether I have any choice in the matter or not.  See, for example, his work on the Toxo parasite, which strongly suggests that we must throw manipulation by other species into the mix along with genes and culture if we are ever to gain a complete understanding of human behavior.  Work of this kind, by the way, is so critical to the human condition that it cries out for replication.  There are only a few groups in the world doing similar work, and one must hope that they are not so intent on charging ahead with their own research that they neglect the scientific imperative of checking the work of their peers.

On the lighter side, readers of Prof. Sapolsky’s response will note that he throws in the disclaimer, “… lack of free will doesn’t remotely equal anything about genetic determinism.”  The Blank Slaters must have gotten to him!  In fact, to the best of my knowledge, there is not nor has there ever been such a beast as a “genetic determinist.”  They are as rare as unicorns.  The term was invented by cultural determinists to use in ad hominem attacks on anyone who dared to suggest that our behavior might actually be influenced by something other than environment and learning.  Their ideology requires them to blindly insist that “there is no evidence whatsoever” that anything but culture influences our behavior, just as the fundamentalist Christian must blindly insist that “there is not one iota of evidence for Darwinian evolution,” and the right wing ideologue must blindly insist that “there is not the faintest scrap of evidence for global warming.”  Of course, Prof. Sapolsky has just supplied even more compelling evidence that they are wrong.

In closing, I will include a poetic statement of Prof. Sapolsky’s philosophy by Edward Fitzgerald, who cloaked his own world view in his whimsical “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:

With earth’s first clay they did the last man knead,

And there of the last harvest sow’s the seed,

And the first morning of creation wrote,

what the last dawn of reckoning shall read.

The “Worry” of Chinese Eugenics

Click on the “About” link at the Edge.org website, and you’ll  find that,

Edge.org was launched in 1996 as the online version of “The Reality Club,” an informal gathering of intellectuals that held met from 1981-1996 in Chinese restaurants, artist lofts, the Board Rooms of Rockefeller University, the New York Academy of Sciences, and investment banking firms, ballrooms, museums, living rooms, and elsewhere.  Though the venue is now in cyberspace, the spirit of the Reality Club lives on in the lively back-and-forth discussions on the hot-button ideas driving the discussion today.

To prime the discussion, Edge comes up with an Annual Question for a select group of 150 intellectuals.  This year’s was, “What *should* we be worried about?”  One of the most intriguing answers was that of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller; Chinese Eugenics.  In his words,

When I learned about Chinese eugenics this summer, I was astonished that its population policies had received so little attention.  China makes no secret of its eugenic ambitions, in either its cultural history or its government policies.

He adds some perceptive remarks about the likely reaction to all this in the West:

The most likely response, given Euro-American ideological biases, would be a bioethical panic that leads to criticism of Chinese population policy with the same self-righteous hypocrisy that we have shown in criticizing various Chinese socio-cultural policies. But the global stakes are too high for us to act that stupidly and short-sightedly. A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?

Google “Chinese eugenics” and you’ll find abundant instances of “bioethical panic” complete with the usual pontification about “playing God” and references to the movie Gattaca.  However, the old “Eugenics = Nazis” arguments seem to be losing their sting, and there are approving remarks as well.  Oxford Professor Julian Savulescu goes so far as to claim that the artificial selection of genes that promote “nice” behavior is actually a “moral obligation.”  On all sides, one hears admonitions against plunging ahead into a brave new world of designer babies until the bioethical and moral issues have been fully aired.

As a good atheist, I can only reply, “Heaven forefend!”  All we need to really muddle this issue is to attempt to decide it based on which side’s experts in ethics and morality can strike the most convincing self-righteous poses.  That’s why I keep harping about morality on this blog.  It’s important to understand what it is, lest it become a mere prop for pious poseurs.  It exists because it promoted our survival in the past.  Would it not at least be esthetically pleasing if it continued to promote our survival in the future?  Suppose the worst fears of the Sinophobes are realized, and, after gaining a sufficiently large genetic advantage, the Chinese decide to clear the rest of us off the board like so many Neanderthals?  How much will all these moral niceties matter then?  There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  There can be nothing more evil than collaborating in one’s own extinction.  The number of “experts” on ethics and morality who have a clue about the nature of human morality and the reasons for its existence is vanishingly small.  In a word, they don’t know what they’re talking about.  Under the circumstances, I suspect that the value of their input on this matter is likely to be very limited.

My personal preference is that our species survive, and continue to evolve in such a way as to best promote its survival into the future.  I doubt that we are intelligent enough at our current stage of development to achieve those goals.  For that reason, I would prefer that we become more intelligent as quickly as possible.  There are various ways in which technology might be used to speed the process up.  For example, it might be applied via an involuntary, classical eugenics program run by the state, or by giving parents the right of voluntary choice.  I don’t presume to have any infallible knowledge as to the best approach.  However, it seems to me unlikely that the priorities of genes will ever be in harmony with those of a modern state.  States tend to serve their own interests.  Consider, for example, Professor Savulescu’s suggestion about the “moral obligation” to produce “nice” babies.  As far as the interests of the state are concerned, “nice” can be translated as “docile,” a behavioral trait parents might not be so interested in preserving.  Limiting these choices to parents will also have the advantage of being more “natural.”  It will simply be continuing the same type of “eugenics” we have been practicing since time immemorial via sexual selection.

In an earlier post I mentioned the fact that H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury is now available online.  In those halcyon days before eugenics became associated with the Nazis, and therefore taboo, it was still possible to discuss the topic rationally.  Interested readers might want to take a look at a “pro” article, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley that appeared in the February 1924 issue of the Mercury, and a “con” article, The Eugenics Cult, by Clarence Darrow that appeared in the June 1926 issue.  To those who suspect I’m slanting the debate towards the “con” by giving the pulpit to the great lawyer of Inherit the Wind fame, I point out that Mencken was no mean judge of intellectuals.  Apparently Simone de Beauvoir agreed, because she entrusted Parshley with the English translation of The Second Sex.


Piltdown Man and the Delusions of Grafton Elliot Smith

According to the frontispiece of his The Evolution of Man, published in 1924, Grafton Elliot Smith held the titles of M.A., M.D., Litt. D., D.Sc., F.R.C.P., F.R.S., and Professor of Anatomy at the University of London.  If titles and academic honors are any guide, he must have been a very intelligent man.  He was well aware of the limitations of human intelligence, and wary of the influence of the emotions on judgments of fact.  For example, in the book referred to above, from which all the following quotes are taken as well, he wrote,

The range of true judgment is in fact extremely limited in the vast majority of human beings.  Emotions and the unconscious influence of the environment in which an individual has grown up play an enormous part in all his decisions, even though he may give a rational explanation of the motives for many of his actions without realizing that they were inspired by causes utterly alien to those which he has given – and given without any intention of dishonesty – in explanation of them.  It is the exception rather than the rule for men to accept new theories on evidence that appeals to reason alone.  The emotional factor usually expresses itself in an egotistical form.  The ‘will to believe’ can often be induced by persuading a man that he discovered the new theory of his own initiative.

No one could have written a better post mortem for Smith’s career.  When it came to questions that really mattered about the evolution of man, he had a positive penchant for getting it wrong.  Regarding the issue of whether erect posture or a large brain came first in the transition from ape to man, he noted in passing,

The case for the erect attitude was ably put by Dr. Munro (Neil Gordon Munro, better known for his studies of the Japanese Ainu, ed.) in 1893.  He argued that the liberation of the hands and the cultivation of their skill lay at the root of Man’s mental supremacy.

Smith would have done well to listen to Munro, not to mention Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, both of whom proposed similar, “bipedalism before large brain” theories.  However, he would have none of it, writing,

It was not the adoption of the erect attitude that made Man from an Ape, but the gradual perfecting of the brain and the slow upbuilding of the mental structure, of which erectness of carriage is one of the incidental manifestations.

Noting that the above quote was included in the substance of an address to the British Association delivered in the autumn of 1912, he rejoiced in a latter chapter that his conjecture had been followed almost immediately by a “dramatic confirmation”:

Within the month after its delivery a dramatic confirmation was provided of the argument that in the evolution of Man the brain led the way.  For the late Mr. Charles Dawson (in association with Dr. – now Sir Arthur – Smith Woodward) brought to light in Sussex the remains of a hirtherto unknown type of Primate with a brain that, so far as size is concerned, came within the range of human variation, being more than 200 c.cm. larger than that of the more ancient and primitive member of the Human Family (Pithecanthropus), in association with a jaw so like that of a Chimpanzee that many of the leading palaeontologists believed it to be actually the remains of that Ape.

This, of course, was the famous Piltdown Man, probably the most damaging scientific forgery of all times, proved in 1953 to be a composite of a medieval human skull and the jaw of an orangutan.  It was probably fabricated by Dawson himself, who had a knack for making similar “sensational” finds, and whose antiquarian collection was found to include at least 38 specimens that were “clear fakes” after his death.  Ironically, its discovery induced just such a “will to believe” in Smith as he had warned his readers about earlier in the book.  He rationalized the “genuineness” of Piltdown Man with arguments that were formidably “scientific” and astoundingly intricate.  For example,

When the skull is restored in this way (according to an intricate reconstruction process described earlier, ed.) its conformation is quite distinctive, and differs profoundly from all other human skulls, recent or fossil.  The parietal bone exhibits a peculiar depression between the diverging temporal lines, and the lower margin of the bone, below the depression, is everted.  This creates a peculiarity in the form of the cranium that is found in the Gorilla and Chimpanzee.  But the simian resemblances are revealed most strikingly in a transverse section of the reconstructed Piltdown Skull, when compared with corresponding sections of those of a Chimpanzee, a Gorilla, and a modern European.  It will then be realized how much more nearly the Piltdown skull approaches the simian type.  The general form of the cranium in transverse section is greatly expanded like that of an Ape.  This applies particularly to the contour of the parietal bones.  But the construction of the temporal bone is even more strikingly Ape-like in character.

…and so on.  One can but feel a painful and vicarious sense of shame for the worthy professor, who had so thoroughly succeeded in hoodwinking himself.  Unfortunately, his weighty testimony hoodwinked many others as well, eventually including even Sir Arthur Keith, who had immediately smelled a rat and publicly cast doubt on the discovery, only to later accept the forgery as real against his better judgment with the help of Smith’s “coaching.”

Piltdown Man wasn’t the only sensational discovery of the day.  Raymond Dart had also discovered the first specimen of Australopithecus Africanus in the same year as Smith’s book was published.  Dart had immediately noticed evidence of the creature’s upright posture, but Smith would have none of it:

But there is no evidence to suggest that its posture differed from that of the Chimpanzee.  The peculiarity in the position of the foramen magnum – which Professor Dart assumed to afford further corroboration of its human affinity – is merely an infantile trait that is found equally in other young Anthropoids.

Poor old Dart.  He was always being “debunked” for being right.  He was similarly “set straight” by his peers for suggesting that early man engaged in anything so unsavory and politically incorrect as hunting live game.  Next it was the turn of Neanderthal Man.  To add insult to the injury of his recent extinction, Smith’s unflattering description spawned a myriad museum displays of a stooped, bestial creature, seemingly unattractive as a sex partner except to the most desperate:

His short, thick-set, and coarsely built body was carried in a half-stooping slouch upon short, powerful, and half-flexed legs of peculiarly ungraceful form.  His thick neck sloped forward from the broad shoulders to support the massive flattened head, which protruded forward, so as to form an unbroken curve of neck and back, in place of the alternation of curves which is one of the graces of the truly erect Homo sapiens.

In a word, Professor Smith left us with a wealth of disinformation that it took decades of careful research to correct.  His example should teach us humility.  His book and a few others like it should be required reading for nascent Ph.D.’s.  Many of them will find little time for such ephemera later on in their struggles to stay up to speed with all the latest in the collection of learned journals that pertain to their specialty.  Still, they might find it amusing and even informative to occasionally step back from the information maelstrom, dust off some of the old books and journals in forgotten stacks, and recall the foibles as well as the triumphs of their compatriots gone before.  In ambling through the old source material, they’re likely to find that the history they find on the Internet isn’t always served straight up.  As is regrettably the case with Prof. Smith, it often happens that some of the more egregious warts and blemishes have been charitably removed.  They are likely to find the unexpurgated versions more helpful, especially if they happen to specialize in fields that are long on unfalsifiable theories and short on repeatable experiments.

Grafton Elliot Smith