Can evolution save the world?: my review of D. S. Wilson’s new book

September 9, 2011 • 10:54 am

David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, has written a new book, The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.  In it, Wilson describes how he uses principles of evolutionary biology—especially his ideas of group selection—to try to improve social conditions in his depressed hometown.

I reviewed this book for next Sunday’s New York Times Book Review section, but those reviews come out early, and you can read mine here.

As you’ll see, while I applaud Wilson’s desire to improve his city, I have some problems with how he’s using evolution to do it.

81 thoughts on “Can evolution save the world?: my review of D. S. Wilson’s new book

  1. You say he talks about making neighbourhoods compete. This just seems like a bad idea to me, does he anywhere address the possibility of this leading to insulated groups more wary of outsiders?

    1. The fallacy underlying the premises of this book and the behaviors is belief in foreknowledge of what will work and the, very naive, belief that what a human can comprehend makes any difference at all vs. what is unknowable and incomprehensible, like local ecosystem pressures.

  2. Yes, I read about this project a few weeks ago, and wondered then, because I didn’t really know how to answer the question, how group selection would work. Now, I get the point about why group selection is held by very few evolutionary biologists. There’s no (or little) evidence, and other things are more likely to account for the modifications attributed to group selection. And you don’t have any references to “group selection” in the index of WEIT, so when I looked it up, it wasn’t there!

    1. There’s no (or little) evidence

      I do recall reading exactly one convincing paper demonstrating that group selection models explained the evolution of a trait within a specific population better than individual selection models did.

      It applied to ONE population, under extenuating circumstances.

      so, yeah, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that multi-level selection models can still be applied, and the thinking behind them is indeed sound. Moreover, they do generate interesting and testable hypotheses.

      It’s just that the hypotheses generated have been tested, in the field, and come up short for the vast, vast, VAST majority of what we see out there.

      You can “make” them fit, and Wilson et al have attempted to do just that, but they just don’t fit as well as standard individual selection models do.

      It’s like saying you can make a 20-sided polygon fit into a round hole. Well, you can, but it still doesn’t fit as well as a round peg does, so why force it?

      1. I find the idea of group selection really interesting. To use an analogy, it’s like Newtonian and Einsteinian gravity. Both can account for some observations, but group selection, like Newtonian gravity, is less general. Inclusive fitness is more general and, unlike the analogy, is actually more simple mathematically.

        The group selection experiments I have read don’t seem to control for selection that could occur at the individual level. I am not even sure how you could impose group selection without imposing selection on individuals.

  3. I have not read the book, but I enjoyed your review of it. Also, according to the NY Times, “he [you] blogs at” Good question for a semanticist: can you blog on a website that is not a blog?

    1. I had no control over what they said: I just gave them my website URL!

      But it’s still not a blog. . .

      1. and of course you leave this bit:

        “Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog”

        on your nav bar just to tease us.

      2. To hold to a belief that this not a blog when there exists no scientifically verifiable reasoned evidence to confirm that it not a blog, brands one as relying merely on a faith in non-blogism. Will you allow any ablogists to comment, or will they be branded blogadationists? 🙂

        Wicked good site, none the less.

  4. David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist

    sorry, Jerry, but that’s being generous these days.

    I’ve talked with the man here in NZ when he came for a visit about a year ago.

    He’s no evolutionary biologist.

    Not any more.

    1. …my conclusion in seeing his “presentation” on religion as evolving via group selection was that he is so desperate to try and cram his group selection models into reality, he filters reality to fit his models now.

      It’s time we forgot about Sloan Wilson, and moved on.

      He is irrelevant.

      1. OK… one example:

        He actually used the organization of an encyclopedia of religion to argue for group selection.

        Yeah, that’s right… the fact that books are organized into chapters of related materials argues for group selection.

        I did raise more than an eyebrow at that.

  5. Evolution as magic. This kinda stuff gives evo a bad name.

    Here’s real evo at work — accept the current conditions as the best people can do.

    Guess this was obvious to others but there is a positivist happy-talk agenda driving the group selection campaign?

      1. Yeah, we are table pounders for moving on from “fitness” and “selection” and other antiquated positivist 19th Century rhetorical and ideological notions about evolution.

        Not from a technical POV, but from educated public discussions. These notions seem:
        – Factually misleading and wrong
        – Pollute the attempt to understand evo in light of modern evidence and extend the concept

        Selection for example implies a purpose and stops comprehension of the more subtle idea of simple descent and (slightly) greater reproductive output.

        Fitness and the idea of fit blocks thinking of the local ecology and constrained nature of backward looking characteristics and the deeply conservative nature of phenotypes.

        Our minds are so energetic and clever at spinning misleading abstractions and notions to cover emotional valences from simple words like these it’s worthwhile to unpack and rebuild using new data.

        Someone said — “Isn’t it a lot of work to speakmore precisely and accurately about evolution?” We say no, it’s much more work to try to fit the square pegs of the old terms into the new holes of our new social needs and the data.

  6. It’s good our Jerry is getting pop media exposure.

    We need to accept that hi IQ science folks can be really smart in their narrow specialty and crackpots, albeit hi IQ ones, when they move outside. When they start to spout about social and political, econ matters, sweet jesus! — it can get wacky real fast.

    A great example is Einstein holding for on social and political topics, etc. Ugh.

    1. I’m curious, what’s your problem with Einstein’s social and political positions? They seem generally admirable to me, especially later in his life.

      1. They are just dumb and uninformed. He comes across as Yoda. At that point he was a media darling so predictable. He apparently was, in real life, no more or less Nobel than anyone else. No pun intended.

      2. No comment on Einstein’s social or political positions, but he said some really stupid things about religion.

    2. I would still prefer to hear ‘hi IQ science folks’ ‘spout’ about matters outside their areas of expertise than to hear ‘lo IQ’ political folks spout nonsense about science. (Remark inspired by this week’s GOP presidential candidates’ debate).

      1. Actually, research suggests a variety of different IQ and types are more accurate. IQ hs little to do with accuracy in political or other judgments, apparently. We also fetishize it.

        1. “research suggests a variety of different IQ and types are more accurate”

          What does THAT mean?

          And yes, I’m aware of the shaky foundations of the notion of ‘IQ’. (IQ is that what is measured by an IQ test)

          What I meant to say was .. oh never mind.

          1. No, IQ, as speed of processing, seems well established using brain research tech. The notion that hi IQ individuals make better decisions that other across the distribution is being debunked.

            In fact, there is research that a diverse group of IQ folks make better decisions. Make sense. Good thinking is actually about more data not faster processing. More heads = more data collected.

    3. That is so wrong on so many levels.

      You don’t need to be “hi IQ” to do science, and you will find mostly down-to-earth and extremely happy, healthy individuals doing it. I would guess, but don’t know, that high IQ is more strongly correlated with psychopathology; they would really need that to get away with their behavior.

      As for high IQ correlating with crackpotism, I don’t think so. It is mostly a Dunning-Kruger effect, so more likely people who either haven’t learned to learn for some reason, or are unable to (in which case lower than normal IQ should naively be expected to be correlated with some deficiencies).

      One may indeed suspect as since high IQ should correlate with more of some resources in some sense, there could be more resources to be able to fool oneself. But that doesn’t necessarily result in crackpotism.

      As for Einstein, he is claimed to have been a great humanist.

      1. See earlier comments on Einstein. Being a humanist, or even great, is no more of an indicator of usefulness of accuracy.

        If you unpack the assumptions behind such emotional judgments they are just pop culture myths about a few things.

    4. Added after posting: I now see the other comments that looks like some beef & trolling combined. I’m sorry I responded to that.

      [Also, “pop” seems to be a pop terminology.]

      1. Ah, can’t respond to the ideas so attack the messenger. Standard stuff.

        No crackpotism actually seems to be related, of course, to brain impairments which increase in men starting age 50-55+. Women 70+. How unfair.

        Spiritual, happy-talk ideas and behaviors in older men seems to relate to disinhibition in frontal lobes also a relative rise in female hormones as testosterone drops. Standard stuff.

        1. Ah, can’t respond to the ideas so attack the messenger.

          what ideas?

          all you said was that you object to Einstein’s views on politics or social issues, while not elucidating which, specifically, you objected to.

          your “pithy” response was:

          “If you unpack the assumptions behind such emotional judgments they are just pop culture myths about a few things.”


  7. Excuse the run on but it’s Friday PM, here. This was our laff of the day — outloud in a *bucks “Wilson formerly worked on toads and mites, but has now adopted his own town as a study organism.”

    No problemo. Toads, mites and towns — all the same.

    Our critique of Jerry’s review is, seriously, that it plays too much to pop sensibilities.

    What a great opportunity for a champion of the scientific method to call out a crackpot set of ideas and set the record straight that science does not indulge later life weird ideas and behavior.

    If we wanted to be factual we could cite brain disinhibition as a cause of later life ideas and behaviors like this that are irrational and besmirch science, scientists and evolution. Examples of other later life scientists going off the deep end with social engineering that might have even be therapeutic.

    You can be certain the anti-evo/science folks will have a field day with this book. Jerry’s review could have been a firm reality check and disavowel of this silliness. Opportunity missed.

    1. In my Bible Belt town, a Frenchman owns a small bistro, Bouchon, that isn’t too bad at all. He prepares escargots in a manner that would probably make a devout francophile shudder (not in shell, without proper hardware, etc.). However, his product preserves authenticity while at the same time appeals to at least some proportion of his uninitiated consumers. This chef knows his audience, many of whom decide that escargots are palatable.

  8. I’ve read some of his other stuff (including a recent New Scientist article)and at first reading his ideas of multi-level selection sound plausible – but I’ve not seen any hypothesis about the mechanism for it.

    At the moment I see multi-level selection rather like the ideas of memes. Intriguing, possibly useful concepts, but no obvious foundation in the objective world.

    I note that David Sloan Wilson is around 62. I hope he is not going to be one of those old codgers with strange obsessions – I need positive examples from my cohort!

    1. “multi-level selection sound plausible ” How? What is the unit of “selection” — actually differential reproductive success and phenotypic variance?

      Memes are a silly idea.

      1. Memes (and memeplexes – memeplices?) are actually quite a useful idea. Sure, there can be a blurring of the boundary of what is a meme, but the same can be said for a word or a letter ( ` is a letter in Hawai`ian) – which are also kinds of meme.

        1. Jesus saving everyone at the end of the world is also a “useful” idea — where is the evidence? Has anyone shown proof that memes even exist, let alone have any impact, let alone transfer anything between generations?

          We are listening to a lecture on pre-dynastic Egypt and the continuity of visual image and styles across thousands of years. There do seems to be conventions that are conserved.

    2. you need to read some of Wilson’s earlier work to get an idea of how multi-level selection models work, and the assumptions they use.

      try this one:

      It’s certainly plausible, but just not… necessary.

      there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the models used, it’s just that they tend to ignore the bulk of what we already know goes on out there, and they tend to incorporate incorrect assumptions about things like how inclusive fitness works, for example.

      again, they are interesting models, in their own right. Which is likely how Sloan-Wilson et. al. keep getting them published in journals like Science and Nature.

      they are, however, apparently not terribly applicable in the field.

      I want to stress the value of models in helping us to generate new and interesting hypotheses, and the multilevel selection models that arose in the 80’s and 90’s certainly did that, but this has been tested, and IMO (and most others) simply doesn’t work as well as individual selection models do to explain what we see out there.

      This is why, I think, Sloan-Wilson has gone on to try and fit the models to cultural evolution instead; to see if social evolution in humans specifically can be better explained at the group level.

      I’ve seen the results of that too, and again, find it wanting.

      If David wants to be a sociologist, he should go back to uni and get a new degree in THAT field.

      1. Interesting, but predictable. So instead of changing from a bad idea, he casts about for “suckers” to buy into it in other areas. Well, people in a poor benighted area a pretty vulnerable.

        As are publishers and editors for happy-talk ideas.

  9. 1. In at least a few ways the evolution of cooperation and/or altruism isn’t particularly multi-nodal (i.e., “complex” or obscure). In all likelihood most environments constrain (stress) at least some proportion of a population’s pheyotypes to a degree that the costs of selfishness are outweighed by the benefits of cooperation/altruism. Further, since cooperation/altruism are likely to be favored some proportion of the time in any environment, all other things being =, it certainly is a good idea for populations to maintain a reservoir of cooperation/altruism alleles (language of gp selection comes in handy). There are several other straightforward scenarios that might be advanced to peel off the veil of group selectionist propositions about these topics (e.g., you might always come across another animal sharing a few of your genes).
    2. I disagree w/you that it doesn’t matter whether we know anything about the genetics of, to take 1 of yr examples, religion. In order to change behavior, learned or otherwise, it is very important to know what constraints are imposed upon said modification attempts. Skinner, in particular, among behaviorists, had lots to say about this one–scientific stuff & wise stuff. A shame for science that contemporary psychology has all but buried his, Pavlov’s, Watson’s, and Thorndike’s canons (except when speaking of, say, planaria)–and the rest of the world appears to have swallowed the cremations reflexively, no pun intended. In his 1990 keynote address to the APA, Skinner said that cognitive psychology was the field’s “creationism”. He died that same year. BTW, the whole speech is available on video from APA (cheap–as one might expect). Finally, note that these same (cognitive) psychologists are the Fathers of Evolutionary Psychology.

    1. Skinner was wrong, after decades of idol status. That’s why he’s buried.

      “Altruism” is an ideological misnomer to make evo more palatable to the media. By definition, if it benefits the individual how is it altruistic?

      1. re: yr 1st sentence; some big scientist (not speaking of skinner) said something like: yes, but what was he wrong about?
        re: yr 1st & 3rd sentences: it would take years of study, indeed, to unpack what you may be talking about.

        1. Well, basically that behavior is all parasympathetic response and the brain isn’t necessary. pretty dumb, but ideologically very appealing — apparently from pre-war Germany.

      2. “Altruism” is an ideological misnomer to make evo more palatable to the media. By definition, if it benefits the individual how is it altruistic?

        you’re both correct and incorrect.

        the use of the term is indeed probably a misuse, but it has a slightly different definition in behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology than it does in common practice.

        for example, sharing blood in vampire bats is clearly not an example of kin selection, but is still an evolved system of costs and benefits.

        It is labeled altruistic in order to differentiate it from kin selection, but you’re right that in the end, if there were no ways to punish cheaters, it probably would not exist, so is not “altruism” in the popular sense.

        1. Now wait, if there is no reproductive advantage to the individual doing the behavior, how does it get carried into future generations?

          This also seems the fatal flaw in group selection ideas.

  10. The underlying conflict seems to be, as always confusing marketing, ideology and pop(ular) culture, media friendly stuff with data-based and predictive stuff.

    The former is never predictive, except in the contrary. If the media loves DSW ideas you can be sure the reality is the opposite. There is media research supporting this as well.

  11. OK, we’ll make it simpler:
    – Scientists who make pronouncements on social and political issues usually have no expertise, training or expertise in those areas.
    – In fact, they have no more information or expertise than anyone else.
    – However, they do have celebrity, often, based on specialized scientific work.
    – In popular culture, celebrity is generalized across disparate domains allowing the statements of, typically older, scientists to be valued in the popular media as having presumed validity. Often the implict validity is based on the popular conception of being “smart.”
    – Einstein’s statements about social, political and spiritual matters are still widely cited as support for many ideologies and valid.
    – Yet there is no evidence basis for valuing his statements on these matters.
    – This parallels the book and authors claims for validity and consideration since the expertise of the author is in no way related to the projects undertaken and written about.

    Here are lots of ideas to challenge and pick apart. But it is a lot easier and less brain work to attack the messenger if any of these, or all, of them make you emotionally uncomfortable and fearful.

    Ultimately, however, this discussion (hopefully) is about ideas and not people. Ideas are interesting, people less so — in gathering useful knowledge.

    1. Einstein’s statements about social, political and spiritual matters are still widely cited as support for many ideologies and valid.

      I disagree about the validity of Einstein’s statements on spiritual matters. I have expounded on this at length several times in the last few years, so I’ll just quote from a previous discussion. For references, follow the link and find my comment:

      Einstein said some very stupid things on the topic of religion, and used some words in unfamiliar ways which caused other people to misunderstand what he did say.

      Einstein said, “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.”

      Sorry pal, you didn’t.

      Einstein is also often quoted as having said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

      But please read that in context. Here’s a full paragraph of it.

      Science and Religion

      This article appears in Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions, pp.41 – 49. The first section is taken from an address at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 19, 1939. It was published in Out of My Later Years, New York: Philosophical Library, 1950. The second section is from Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium, published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941.

      Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other (1), nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion (2). To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith (3). The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

      1) This is NOMA. And it is wrong. If science and religion are clearly demarcated, why do religious boobs so frequently stumble across the line?

      2) “Aspiration toward truth and understanding” comes from religion? This is either clearly wrong, or else he is using the word “religion” in some unfamiliar way.

      3) Belief that the world is comprehensible to reason does not require blind faith; it is a reasonable conclusion to draw from a half millenium of successful scientific exploration.

      1. “3) Belief that the world is comprehensible to reason does not require blind faith; it is a reasonable conclusion to draw from a half millenium of successful scientific exploration.”

        Nor are we wedded to the idea. We have found several areas that seemed at first incomprehensible to reason, such as matter-energy, wavicles or quantum uncertainty. So they built models that embodied such ambiguities and developed further predictions, and tested them. We have no reason to suppose that all regions of investigation will be forever susceptible to reason, but when we find one that seems not to be, we keep investigating.

        We are inclined to forget how bizarre and unreasonable some of our present-day science once seemed. Imagine trying to explain a smartphone to Faraday.

  12. – Scientists who make pronouncements on social and political issues usually have no expertise, training or expertise in those areas.

    they are not allowed to speak as individuals?

    However, they do have celebrity, often, based on specialized scientific work.

    implying they are misusing many societies’ existing tendencies towards authoritarianism?

    Einstein’s statements about social, political and spiritual matters are still widely cited as support for many ideologies and valid.

    and just as often not. I see no point here.

    FFS, Paris Hilton’s ideas on culture and society are listened to with vapid fascination by many circles too.

    celebrity is not dependent on perceived intelligence. Far from it these days, or had you not noticed who are the current front runners for the republican nomination for pres. in the US?

    OK, we’ll make it simpler:

    if anything, what point you are trying to make here is getting further and further masked.

    1. I think you’re getting down to a better defense of scientists who voice their opinions outside of their areas of expertise, if not Einstein in particular.

      Let’s take these points one at a time:

      Expertise: Politicians presumably have lots of “expertise” in political issues. Does anyone want to grant that politician’s political views are particularly valuable or especially valid?

      Celebrity: It is true that scientists are exploiting their celebrity when they speak out on social and political matters not related to science. On the other hand, as a group, they may be more likely to support their views with evidence than most other “celebrity groups”. They are at least, on average, more intelligent than other celebrity groups. Finally, at least as compared with political leaders, they less likely to be corrupted by self-interest.

      I don’t even like it when scientific arguments are made by appeals to authority and we certainly shouldn’t settle social or political issues by appeals to authority – scientific or otherwise. Does anyone seriously think that appeals to scientists’ celebrity in arguments over social or political issues is a serious problem in the US? I’m worried sick over it.

      1. Does anyone seriously think that appeals to scientists’ celebrity in arguments over social or political issues is a serious problem in the US? I’m worried sick over it.

        This brought to mind that old Far Side cartoon with the Ecologist walking down the street with Police escort and bodyguards shoving people out of his path.

        it’s not the appeal to science as authority that is a problem in the US< it's just the appeal to celebrity itself.

        the US appears very subject to authoritarian argumentation, and evidently just being a celebrity, for whatever reason now grants that authority.

        if you haven't read any of their work, I think you would enjoy reading some of Bloom and Weisberg's stuff on early childhood learning in the US:

        "Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science"

          1. Chimps, actually the research we saw said macaques, will forgo food to watch a more dominant individual do nothing.

            This makes sense. The more dominant individual apparently has more effective access to resources = celebrity. Brittany Spears, plausibly, signals more effective mating behaviors for young women.

            Celebrity scientists, plausibility, have better resources for making sense of experience. The fallacy in this cult of personality is that the resource the scientist has benefited from that can be (perhaps) adopted by others in other time periods and circumstances is the scientific method, nothing much, likely accruing to the individual. Individual results are highly local setting and circumstantially (random) bound.

            But our brains, and other animals, cannot really focus well on abstractions so we, falsely, attribute to individuals.

            This is fine when it doesn’t matter but when wider social policy and discussions and behavior have group implications they can be tragic.

            Whether a society uses Einstein’s or Hitler’s utterances as gospel matter, but the process of false attribution of authority of even knowledge is the same.

            Fetishization is the underlying fallacy. Look at the fear/hostility even questioning Einstein’s credentials here?

            These emotions and reflexes run deep.

    1. Like evolution in the natural world, why couldn’t there be some predictable factors in other systems that do evolve.

      there are.

      I’m sure there are a couple of linguists around here who could expound on that.

  13. I don’t know David Sloan Wilson’s book nor how crackpot he’s become in the meanwhile, but your description of ‘group selection’ as the thing he’s trying to vindicate is highly misleading.

    Your description fits the old and long reject idea of ‘group selection’ proposed by W.C. Wynne-Edwards, but not modern models of multilevel selection.

    Differential proliferation of groups, for example, is not at all required in these multilevel selection models. And cheats cannot undermine altruistic groups because the cyclic population dynamics prevent them from gaining much profit from their advantage within groups containing many altruists.

    While the other criticism of Wilson’s book may be right, you either stopped following the levels of selection debate some time early in the 1970s, or you are beating a strawman.

    I can recommend Okasha’s “Evolution and the Levels of Selection” and Borrello’s “Evolutionary Restraints” for a differentiating philosopher’s and historian’s eye view on the issue respectively.

    1. “philosopher’s and historian’s eye view”!? What will they know?

      Again, what is the mechanism for both creating phenotypic variation and transmission to future generations? We are not aware of any plausible model other than that of the reproducing individual.

      Now the cultural trope of “evolution” can be bastardized to all sorts of domains and perhaps even usefully so — sorta.

      But a results-oriented view of evolution misses the primary, and subtle, core of the model, which is the variation and transmission mechanisms.

      That is the core flaw in the term evolution as well — it implicitly focuses on the results of variation and differentiated reproduction obscuring the processes, which are the real power.

      1. If you understood group selection or followed the literature since the seventies you would know the individual can still be the reproductive unit and still have group selection. It is a matter of whether the group impacts your fitness. In other words, if you are a stud and surrounded by studs your fitness will be dramatically different than if you were surrounded by duds. Not the best example but the point is that the group matters in evolution. Hamilton saw this when he realized that a selfish sibling will outcompete his altruistic siblings within the family, it is only because different family groups exist is there a difference [group selection]. Kinship is one way to get variance between groups, but so is assortment and other mechanisms, this is why recent attacks on kin selection say it is limited. I would seriously recommend reading up a bit or getting hold of that 8 criticisms paper. Email the author, he probably wont mind passing on a copy.

        1. “you would know the individual can still be the reproductive unit and still have group selection.” Huh?

          Why add a level of the model is not needed? Then is there “group” “selection” on rearing of the kids and grand kids.

          This all seems:
          – Ideology driven
          – To make evolution more ideologically acceptable to (false) happy-talk American notions of morality.

          Ultimately, like the book, group selection is being used in a moral ideological sales campaign.

  14. I am not a fan of this review. The criticisms may be founded that this attempt at merging evolution to a city is ambitious but any evolutionary biologist should also praise applying our biological theory to the rest of the humanities. evolution is not just for biologists so this tone is basically working against that. the more the public sees the application of evolution, the more accepting they will be of it and we can stop having ridiculous defensive arguments to keep it taught in schools.
    Also, the shots at group selection are ridiculous. This isnt a group selection book by any means at all. Not to mention that the field of multilevel selection is MASSIVE. Has the author not heard of all those that use the Price equation, in addition to DSWs group selection approaches? This is hardly a objective viewpoint on a theory that one would expect from a scientist.

    1. Here’s the problem, when you take natural langue ideas and spread them around they immediately move outside of the realm of data and into ideology.

      A good example is Deepak Chopra and quantum ideas.

      The misrepresentation of biological evolution ideas by ideologies has had some very bad consequences — it appears.

      “the more the public sees the application of evolution, the more accepting they will be of it and we can stop having ridiculous defensive arguments to keep it taught in schools.”

      We strongly disagree. The more the public sees of evolution the more attacked it and science in general becomes. “Pop(ular)science” is an oxymoron.

      Since schools are all about ideology and power, evidence-based knowledge aill always be attacked and demonized — regardless of what anyone does or says. So in that sense they are pointless attempts to “educate” folks. Probably even kids.

  15. Jerry, as you know I love most of what you write. But I must say that I fully agree with David Sloan Wilson’s response to you.

    Jerry Coyne on Group Selection: What Does He Know?

    Please do take the time to read his and Omar Tonsi Eldakar’s paper in the journal EVOLUTION: “Eight Criticisms Not to Make About Group Selection”:

    An invitation: Everyone will expect you to respond to David (if you respond at all) with more fighting words. If, however, you were to respond generously, with humility and appreciation, it would be a beautiful example to the world of how science works (in contrast to religion and politics).

    If that’s not possible for you in this situation, however, that’s okay too. It’s just a suggestion. Take it for what it’s worth.


    ~ Michael

      1. Yeah, I am not a fan of the review, Jerry has his own opinions of the book which are fine as not everyone is going to like it. BUT his bashing of group selection was a bit shocking and left me wondering if I stumbled across an old review of Wynne Edwards book. It is a very very old and misplaced argument pigeonholing group selection to the non formalized proposal by Wynne Edwards. Considering so much has happened since then [including an almost complete reformulation of Hamilton’s r due to its well documented shortcomings] pointing out issues that were resolved long ago is just not the way to go and very misleading to those that have not followed the literature.

        As far as the 8 criticisms paper goes, summarizing is not so easy considering the paper is already a summary of 8 criticisms, unless Michael wants to take a stab at it. Feel free to email me and I will gladly pass it on.


        Thanks Michael and thanks sp for assuming I am nice.

        1. It’s not bashing:
          – There is no evidence
          – Lots of counter evidence
          – Inconsistent

          The model has had decades to get evidence, been supported by some of the best and brightest and most media savvy proponents. It’s been represented very competently and found grossly wanting.

          Let’s move on and leave it in the domain of self-help ideas.

          1. so I guess I should ignore my entire multilevel selection research program using empirical evidence? I would recommend searching the terms group selection and multilevel selection and go from there. There are plenty of good ones in the journal Evolution. To say there is no evidence is quite a sad statement and very misleading. Counter evidence? that what happens between groups doesnt matter in social evolution?? If this is the case, then spoiler alter, selfishness will always outcompete altruism as only local competition is considered [model altruism vs selfishness in a single group and see what wins]. Hamilton himself made this point, that there needs to be multiple groups to work [within vs between group variance]. His original formulation just averaged group effects in, instead of seeing it as a separate force which he needed the Price Equation to realize [read Hamilton 1975]. The only issue with evidence now is that one can fit data to either multilevel selection models or Inclusive fitness models, so when supporting one you support the other. AND this is only if you consider r to NOT mean relatedness, so now the only r that works is derived from the Price equation, which is Multilevel Selection. The current debate in the literature has none of the mention of things brought up in the review. Even the most staunch inclusive fitness biologists such as Andy Gardner says that group selection occurs, they just prefer the inclusive fitness framework. I hate to be so brash as I love Jerrys other work. This chanting on no evidence when there is tons of it is like the chanting of where is the missing link by creationists.

            1. No, yeast cooperate in times of scarcity — that’s multicellular so that’s pretty basic.

              So we have two problems:
              – Resource extraction to drive an individual brain and body
              – Passing on to offspring — tangoing takes 2 individuals.

              Is there a figure/ground problem? Because we can’t find individuals not in a group, it must drive selection.

              How would, what is called, group selection be any different from any other local ecological force, like the weather — acting on the individual — alone?

              “selfishness will always outcompete altruism” Now this sounds like an moralistic/ideological plea and not a falsifiable statement. Maybe it’s not.

              As for your research interests and social evolution, well how the heck would we ever know? What the heck is social evolution? Is that like winning sports teams or fashion trends.

              1. this will be the last of my back and forth. Social evolution is a field of research, i.e. sociobiology. How would you know my research? well you were the one saying there is no evidence, so apparently you arent looking hard enough because it is not exactly hidden, neither are the other papers supporting group selection. And your point about how individuals always occupy groups, well they dont always occupy groups so I have no clue where you are going there. A group is defined as those who influence the fitness of each others. For a simple way to think about group selection, think about how your own behavior or phenotype influences your fitness. You dont influence all of your fitness, other factors affect it, such as resources available and whatnot. One factor is your group. SP mentioned this earlier. The behavior of those around you impact your fitness, and not all groups are the same, therefore the group influences the fitness of the individuals within them. This is group selection. The group doesnt have to reproduce, thats just old school I dont know what group selection is, group selection. My research is basically on mating conflict, aggressive males acquire more females than less aggressive males, but aggressive males are also bad for females and drive them away [to low aggressive areas]. Thus while aggressive males get more matings within groups [the biggest slice of the pie], groups of less aggressive males have more females and more opportunities than high aggressive areas [size of the overall pie]. What evolves in the population is what strategy gets the largest slice on average not just within the group but compared to all others in the population. If I were to only consider what happens in a single group, aggressive males would dominate. What occurs between groups is a factor and a measurable factor. You certainly make points, but again these points have all been resolved long ago. The questions you ask simply speak to a lack of understand what we mean by the words group selection. Please see the 8 criticisms paper, I bet you will be surprised to find what you think group selection is and what it actually is. The book by Okasha is also fantastic.

  16. So we are talking about the evolution of social behavior? That’s just individual behavior in social settings. Yeast do this.

    Why create multilevel castles in the sky, when parsimony works better?

    What group? Let’s stick with yeast. We clump when resources are tight. So reproduction, budding in yeast, occurs more or less frequently in what? The clump overall? No, each individual yeast cell.

    But within the clump some are better buddres than others.

    Say my local clump buds more effectively than the other clump. OK, but which is more determinate. The collective clump phenotypes genes, passed on some way, or my original gene for more aggressive clumping in times of stress?

    How do my fellow yeast benefit from my aggro clumping gene, which made the difference, for me?

    If we add in multicellular organisms, it seems impossibly fantastic.

    1. you have apparently somehow ignored everything I wrote. Please read recommended material because there seems to be a wall here. Yes the individual is the reproductive unit. Consider and even easier example than yeast which you are flooding with extra nuances as conditional strategies. Take alarm calling in birds. Lets say there are two types of individual behavior, callers that take on the cost of vigilance and risk of being the noise maker, and non callers that benefit from the callers. So say you have two groups of ten. One group has 9 callers and only 1 non caller. Clearly the non caller will outcompete his calling counterparts [doesnt have to look for predators so can stay hidden and can stuff his face and make babies the whole time]. So say that because of so many on the look out the non caller has 100 percent chance of survival and the callers have only 80 percent. Now consider the opposite group, there are 9 non callers and only 1 caller. Clearly the non callers will win here too because they are not the sucker taking the costs to be on the look out BUT now also notice that there are so few looking out for predators so they all risk chances of getting snatched. Lets say the single caller has a survival chance of only 20 percent BUT the non callers still have a higher chance of survival say 60 percent since they benefit from the caller still but overall there are less eyes on the sky. Now non callers win easily within each group but take the average fitness of each strategy in the population [what you consider individual fitness]. Callers on average have a fitness of 74 percent while non callers are at 64. This has nothing to do with groups reproducing and I am only using individual fitness terms here. So according to individual fitness, callers win in the population BUT not because of within group effects. This is what we mean by group selection, i.e. the group matters. It by no means counters what you think of as individual selection or individual fitness, it simply just gives you a better understanding of how that individual fitness is achieved to better make predictions. Instead of just averaging group selection in and only looking at the average net fitness and saying, group selection? what group selection? This is precisely, what Hamilton realized, instead of just saying rb > c works on average in the population, he realized that this is only true because of group level effects, because within each family group it just does not work. Now I cant be doing this all day, so again please read the literature as this will become as obvious to you as it was Hamilton and virtually all evolutionary biologists worth their salt [yes even inclusive fitness proponents too]. None of us regardless of what side we are on say group selection does not occur, it is just whether you want to account for it directly or smush it in to [r] which is basically a term that relates within vs between group variance. That is what we are actually arguing about in the current literature, which accounting method is best. It is a pretty silly debate actually. I am not trying to be a group selection zealot, I am just saying this really really is a non issue. If you are good at math, dive in to the inclusive fitness and group selection models and you will see this, hence the term equivalence being tossed out so much now. This whole notion that group selection does not occur is not even a debate anymore except by those who have not followed the literature the last 40 years.

      1. What accounted for the response to the Nature article by the sociobiologists?

        Here is the latest we’ve come across:
        “MAY 09, 2011
        Is Kin Selection Dead and Is It Time to Move On in Understanding the Evolution of Cooperation?
        Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness broadly states that whether or not a trait increases in frequency is dependent on both the direct reproductive success of individuals having that trait and the help that such individuals can provide to other trait bearers for their reproduction. The latter portion of inclusive fitness is commonly known as kin selection and has become the dominant paradigm for the evolution of cooperation: I.e., helping genetic relatives reproduce can create a net increase in inclusive fitness even with a substantial loss in direct reproduction. Recently, however, Martin Nowak has argued that the mathematical foundations of inclusive fitness theory are inappropriate for predicting the evolution of cooperation (1). Edward O. Wilson has gone even further and claimed that, “Kin selection is wrong” and a “gimmick” (2). Instead, Wilson proposes cooperation evolves through group selection. Not surprisingly, their claims have drawn considerable criticism (3), with Richard Dawkins going so far as to pronounce that he has “never met anybody apart from Wilson and Nowak who takes it seriously (2).” I will look at both sides of this issue and attempt to separate the scientific concerns from the heated clashes of personalities. At issue appears to be the question of the evolutionary advantages of genetic diversity versus kinship. Both can be advantageous, but they are simultaneously incompatible. Their resolution requires a multi-level approach as nepotism favoring kin can be selected for within groups, but genetic diversity is selected for only across groups. ”

        1. There were many responses to that article, both in favor and against [in Nature both immediately after the Nowak article and then a while later]. There were actually many authors of the response article shooting back at Nowak that wanted their names removed because they disagreed with the final version of it. If you are only going to post anti quotes from Dawkins as opposed to quotes in favor than I can not to anything to change your mind to view both sides. You should also know that E.O.Wilson and Nowak were not originally group selection proponents [actually against] but figured it out on their own later on, and they are pretty good biologists last I recalled. There are many scientists out there, some in favor, some against and some that say they are the same thing. Read all viewpoints.

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