For years, biologist David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York at Binghamton has conducted a futile one-man crusade to convince the world of two things. First, that group selection (or “trait-group” selection, to use his term) has been hugely important in evolution, especially in the evolution of altruism—and of human religion. Wilson is also convinced that evolutionary biologists unfairly dismiss the tremendous importance of group selection. His second hobby-horse is his insistence that we can fix society only by incorporating evolutionary principles into social reform, especially (of course) Wilson’s own views on group selection (see my review in the New York Times of his new and bizarre book, The Neighborhood Project, which is about his use of evolution and group selection to fix his own dysfunctional city).
I’ve wavered between the view that Wilson is slightly off-kilter and self-promoting about this, and the view that he’s simply such an ardent believer in his own theories that he’s forcefully trying to argue for a neglected position. After reading and reviewing his book, I decided that he’s a bit off balance, for in reality there’s simply not much biological evidence for group selection, and none for the evolution of altruism or human religiosity—which I doubt is even coded in our genes—via that process. Still, Wilson persists.
His latest diatribe, “When Richard Dawkins is not an evolutionist,” has convinced me that Wilson is totally over the waterfall. It’s an attack on Richard Dawkins that appears on the website for which Wilson is the biology editor: “Evolution: This View of Life.” It’s a strong piece, but also a piece infused with silliness. Its thesis is simple: Dawkins fails as an evolutionist in some areas. First Wilson brings up, gratuitiously, Dawkins’s inability to recall the exact, full title of Darwin’s great book:
In a recent BBC radio interview, Richard Dawkins questioned the religiosity of Brits who consider themselves Christians but can’t name the first book of the New Testament. He was challenged to recall the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species and failed, even uttering “Oh, God!” as he ransacked his memory.
Does this mean that Dawkins fails to qualify as an evolutionist? Of course not. But Dawkins might fail to qualify for other reasons. . . A person can easily qualify as an evolutionist on topic X but not topic Y. On this basis, I will state the bold hypothesis that Dawkins fails to qualify as an evolutionist on two topics for which he is well known: religion and selfish genes in relation to group selection.
Here are Wilson’s two accusations:
1. In The God Delusion, Dawkins did not discuss the origins and nature of religion as a human construction. Wilson:
In my review of The God Delusion published in Skeptic magazine, I criticized him at length for misrepresenting the nature of religion and ignoring the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction from an evolutionary perspective. In his reply, Dawkins said that he didn’t need to base his critique on evolution any more than Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks, because he was only addressing question one and not question two. That’s bogus. Dawkins holds forth on question two all the time, and when he does he’s not functioning as an evolutionist–by his own account. Atheists can depart from factual reality in their own way, and so it is for Dawkins on the subject of religion as a human construction.
This is simply stupid. As you can see from Dawkins’s earlier reply to this criticism, he notes that he devoted an entire chapter of The God Delusion (chapter 5) to this question. The fact that Dawkins isn’t obsessed with that question, which Wilson is, reflects the different purpose of The God Delusion: to show people that there was no evidence for God or the tenets of faith, and hence that we should abandon religion as a baseless superstition. (Dan Dennett also dealt with the origins of religion in Breaking the Spell.)
Of course Dawkins realizes that religion is a human construction—what else could it be if it’s a delusion?—and he has indeed speculated about its origins. But why should Dawkins be faulted for concentrating on the pressing problem—the damage caused by faith—rather than on the more arcane and academic question of why faith came to be? (By the way, that’s a question I think will be almost impossible to solve, for the origin of religion is lost in the mists of time. We can, however, study the origin of certain faiths like Mormonism. And I don’t think that belief in God has a genetic basis, or that religion is a group-selected evolutionary adaptation.)
Chastising Dawkins for the failure to be interested in the same things that obsess Wilson is simply another manifestation of Wilson’s hubris—a hubris amply on display in The Neighborhood Project.
2. Dawkins’s argument against group selection, based on the concept of genes as “selfish replicators” as set forth in The Selfish Gene, is wrong.
Dawkins first achieved fame for his book The Selfish Gene (1976), which portrays genes as “replicators” that typically survive by forming individual-level “vehicles” but can also survive in other ways, such as at the expense of other genes within the same individual or by benefitting copies of themselves in other individuals. A major objective of The Selfish Gene was to argue against a theory known as group selection, whereby traits such as altruism evolve “for the good of the group”, despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups. Dawkins and others at the time regarded the replicator concept as a drop-dead argument against group selection, but it soon proved to be nothing of the sort. In a genetic group selection model, the altruistic trait has a genetic basis, just like any other trait; the genes merely require a process of between-group selection to evolve when they are selectively neutral or disadvantageous within groups. When this happens, the genes for the altruistic trait are more fit than the genes for the selfish trait, all things considered, and therefore quality as selfish at the genetic level, as Dawkins defines selfish genes. Put another way, an argument against group selection framed in terms of selfish gene theory doesn’t depend upon the status of genes as replicators (which is always the case) but upon whether groups can qualify as vehicles of selection.
This is ancient history for just about everyone except Dawkins. He’s still claiming that the replicator concept counts as an argument against group selection, as if he can do so merely by decree. See these three posts on my Evolution for Everyone blog (I,II,III) for more.
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.
That’s the classical argument against group selection (plus the observation that the reproduction of individuals far outstrips that of groups), and it has nothing to do with Wilson’s claim that “Dawkins and others. . .regarded the replicator concept as a drop-dead argument against group selection.”
Does Wilson even understand Dawkins’s argument here? It doesn’t seem so. Replicators are replicators, and if they are to succeed then they have to increase the fitness of their “vehicle,” because that vehicle carries all the replicators. It’s much easier to envision an individual as a successful vehicle than a group as a successful vehicle, although even in individuals replicators can subvert the “group” of genes within, too (segregation distortion, in which one form of a gene kills off the other one during the formation of sperm, is one way this can happen).
The concept of genes as selfish replicators, which has held up perfectly well since The Selfish Gene was published in 1976, says nothing about the efficacy of group selection. Dawkins’s (and my) beef with group selection as a way to evolve traits that are bad for individuals but good for groups is that this form of selection is inefficient, subject to subversion within groups, and, especially, that there’s virtually no evidence that this form of selection has been important in nature.
I’m not sure why Wilson has produced such a misguided tirade, but I suppose it’s because he sees himself as someone crying in the wilderness—that his views have been neglected in favor of those of Dawkins. And that’s indeed true: Wilson is pretty much seen by evolutionists as a scientific outlier, someone who’s forcefully and unreasonably pushing a theory that lacks evidence. When he comes up with hard biological evidence that group selection has been important in the evolution of altruism, religion, or other traits, then people will start listening to him. In the meantime, his constant harping on group selection, and his persecution complex, are growing tiresome. When he claims that his second criticism of Dawkins “is ancient history for just about everyone except Dawkins,” he’s claiming support from others for his position, but that is support he doesn’t have. Who are all the others (presumably everyone but Dawkins) who agree with Wilson? I’m not among them.
Wilson’s efforts, of course, are heavily funded by the Templeton Foundation, where he’s on the Board of Advisors. It is, of course, typical of the Templeton Foundation that their advisors have received some form of Templeton funding; it’s the way they herd scientists into their posh stable. In fact, I recognize several scientists on the advisory board, and all of them that I know have received either a Templeton Prize or Templeton funding for their work.
As a side note, I recently did a podcast interview for the Evolution: This View of Life site. Had I known that the biology part of the site was run by Wilson, and is used largely to promote his own views about religion and group selection, I would not have done it.