I’ve repeatedly posted on the concept of “group selection.” One of the biggest proponents of group selection,” David Sloan Wilson, doesn’t believe the concept has had a fair hearing by biologists. He’s got a point. Many of the discussions of group selection theory have been marked by name-calling rather than calm scientific discussion. D.S. Wilson has now taken the unusual step of publishing his defense of group selection in a series of posts at Huffington Post. In the first installment (published December 27, 2008), D.S. Wilson advocates for a “truth and reconciliation” process.
It is precisely because I am such an idealist about science that I am calling for a truth and reconciliation process for group selection. Something has to change. The controversy didn’t need to drag on for decades and it will continue for decades more unless something deliberate is done. The goal is to be constructive–to heal rather than aggravate old wounds. Yet, even healing can be painful, for scientific conflict no less than political conflict. Another reason to initiate a truth and reconciliation process is because group selection is arguably the single most important concept for understanding the nature of politics from an evolutionary perspective.
I learned of D.S.Wilson’s Huffpo series today while attending a lecture by Mark Borello, a historian of science who was giving a talk at Washington University. The title to his talk says it all: “Evolutionary Restraints: The Contentious History of Group Selection from Darwin to E.O. Wilson.” In the post-talk
discussion, a general consensus was reached that the pro- and anti- group selection contingents have been talking past each other for decades, yet it is difficult to sort out why they argue so passionately. Don’t both groups have access to the same facts? The philosophers at today’s talk suspect that the problem is that the different camps come to the debate armed with different conceptions of causation. That seems correct to me too, but . . . still . . . why can’t we see eye to eye? Or, at least, why can’t we agree on what it is we disagree about?
What is the main difficulty with group selection? D.S.Wilson presents it in his second installment at Huffpo:
[C]onsider some standard examples of social adaptations: the good Samaritan, the soldier who heroically dies in battle, the honest person who cannot tell a lie. We admire these virtues and call them social adaptations because they are good for others and for society as a whole–but they are not locally advantageous. Charitable, heroic, and honest individuals do not necessarily survive and reproduce better than their immediate neighbors who are stingy, cowardly, and deceptive.
Do you see the problem? The individuals who exhibit altruism often don’t pass on their genes to the next generation. Their good works, which undoubtedly improve the prospects of the others in their group, often fail to benefit the altruistic individual, evolutionarily speaking.
Most behaviors that we call prosocial require time, energy, and risk on the part of the prosocial individual. Most behaviors that we call antisocial deliver an immediate benefit to the antisocial individual. If most antisocial behaviors are locally advantageous and most prosocial behaviors are locally disadvantageous, then we have an enormous problem explaining the nature of prosociality, including the nature of human morality, from an evolutionary perspective.
The above paragraphs are the background of group selection in a nutshell. The contentiousness of the issue suggests why D.S.Wilson is suggesting a “truth and reconciliation process” rather than a calm review of scientific facts. He has already published 14 installments at Huffpo (you can see the list of links here). Or, if you want to get a big dose all at once, consider reading “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology,” by D.S. Wilson and E.O.Wilson (no relation). It was published in December 2007 by the Quarterly Review of Biology and it can be found online here. BTW, D.S. Wilson’s co-author, eminent entomologist E.O.Wilson, now 80-years old, has made a recent dramatic conversion to group selection, after being a group selection skeptic most of his life. Here is what E.O. Wilson said in an interview published by Discover Magazine:
EOW: I’m taking the idea of kin selection, and I’ve critiqued it. Kin selection is the idea that cooperation arises, especially in the eusocial insects—bees, wasps, ants, termites—because of individuals favoring collateral kin: not just Mom and Dad or your offspring but, just as important, brother, sister, cousin, and so on.
D: So you cooperate with close kin because it helps get some of your shared genetic heritage into future generations.
EOW: I found myself moving away from the position I’d taken 30 years ago, which has become the standard theory. What I’ve done is to say that maybe collateral kin selection is not so important. These ants and termites in the early stages of evolution—they can’t recognize kin like that. There’s very little evidence that they’re determining who’s a brother, a sister, a cousin, and so on. They’re not acting to favor collateral kin. The new view that I’m proposing is that it was group selection all along, an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin.
D: The notion of group selection is heresy, is it not, in the current thinking about evolution?
EOW: Yes. I’m being provocative again, because this is a radical departure.
To jump ahead, the general solution (according to D.S.Wilson and E.O.Wilson) was anticipated by Darwin, and it consists of a
return to the simplicity of the original problem and Darwin’s solution. As Ed Wilson and I put it in our recent review article titled “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology”: Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.
This battle over the viability of group selection theory is heating up, just as it has been heating up for decades. This is a fascinating topic for the reasons D.S.Wilson suggests: group selection theory is potentially a powerful tool for understanding those two perenially hot topics: religion and politics.
I’ll be working my way through D.S.Wilson’s Huffpo articles and posting on them from time to time. From my reading of D.S. Wilson’s prior works (including Darwin’s Cathedral), he is a terrific writer and thinker. Even if he can’t hit the grand slam, I’m hoping that he can put his finger on exactly why the opposing camps disagree. That would be a good start, indeed.