A NYT profile of E. O. Wilson and his new book

April 9, 2012 • 7:18 am

Today’s New York Times contains a nice profile by Jenny Schuessler of E. O. Wilson, “Lessons from ants to grasp humanity,” that concentrates on his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth (#38 on Amazon already!). I haven’t read the book, and don’t think I’ll be able to in the near future, so if you’ve read it do weigh in below.

Apparently the book deals with the evolution of our own species and the peculiar evolutionary conditions that allowed us to dominate the planet.  I was afraid—and this was confirmed by a rather unsatisfying review of the book by Michael Gazzaniga in the Wall Street Journal—that the book would be heavily larded with Wilson’s new views about the importance of group versus kin selection.  As I’ve posted on this site many times (e.g. here), Wilson and his colleagues Tarnita and Nowak now see “inclusive fitness”—natural selection that includes as its target the fitness of related individuals who share one’s genes—as an unimportant force in the social evolution, and see “group selection” (the differential proliferation of groups regardless of relatedness) as the main driver of the evolution of social behavior in species from insects to humans.

Thus, although Wilson’s book will undoubtedly be readable and instructive (Wilson is a very good writer, though not as good as Dawkins or Gould in his prime), I think his new book has potential to mislead the public, for he’s a widely read and influential scientist.  (As far as I know, he’s the only scientist who has won two Pulitzer Prizes.). And although he has almost no allies among evolutionary biologists in his emphasis on group selection, the book has the potential to convince the public that inclusive fitness is unimportant. That would be unfortunate.

In fact, in his desire to push his new group-selection ideas, Wilson has largely abandoned the ideas about social evolution that made him famous. In a piece by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker, for instance, Wilson expresses these views:

“I’ve always been an ambitious synthesizer,” he told me [Lehrer]. “But I’m now wise enough to know the limitations of that approach.” These days, he regards the books that made him famous—”Sociobiology” and “On Human Nature” (1979)—as flawed accounts of evolution, marred by their uncritical embrace of inclusive fitness. He’s prouder of an eight-hundred-page textbook that he wrote on Pheidole, the most abundant genus of ants.

This is tragic, and not just because some ant systematists think that his monograph on Pheidole is not up to snuff. When I said this about Wilson in Schuessler’s piece, I meant it:

“ ‘Sociobiology’ is still a very great book, and now he’s trashing it all,” said Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. “It’s crazy.” Dr. Coyne was one of more than 150 scientists who signed four letters published last spring in the journal Nature criticizing a 2010 paper by Dr. Wilson, written with the mathematicians Martin A. Nowak and Corina E. Tarnita, outlining his group-selection arguments.

This morning I looked again at my well-worn copy of Sociobiology, which I bought in the year of publication, and I still think it’s a magnificent and influential achievement.  While Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, used some of the same arguments, Dawkins’s purpose was to show that a gene-centered view of evolution helps bring great clarity to the process of natural selection, while Wilson’s purpose in Sociobiology was to show how the principles of evolutionary genetics (including but not limited to inclusive fitness) bring great clarity to understanding the evolution of social behavior in animals. In that he succeeded magnificently, influencing the entire study of animal behavior and founding a new field whose name has morphed to “evolutionary psychology.”

Although Wilson got a lot of flak for his last chapter of Sociobiology, in which he extended the evolutionary principles of social behavior to humans, I don’t think the last chapter was too bad, and didn’t seriously mar a wonderful book.  Despite its occasional overreaching, the evolutionary study of human behavior has brought deep insights.  We are, after all, evolved mammals—it’s just that the fact we have culture, and that we can’t be experimentally manipulated, makes us hard to study. I didn’t like On Human Nature as much, as I think it was too overreaching and not as well written.

At any rate, Wilson’s dismissal of inclusive fitness is wrong. That brand of fitness is obviously important, as parental care, weaning conflict, and sibling rivalry (ubiquitous phenomena in animals) clearly demonstrate.  It’s a pity Wilson is trying to dismiss all this at the end of his career. But though I’ll fight his misguided ideas tooth and nail, I wish him well, for I like the man. I was his teaching assistant at Harvard, and in fact he helped get me into Harvard for graduate school.

Scheussler’s article has two other statements by Wilson. This one I like:

Not that he shies away from alienating potential allies. Religious readers, for example, may not take kindly to a chapter in the new book depicting religion as an archaic “trap” kept alive today by “purveyors of theological narcissism,” from the pope to the Dalai Lama.

“We’ve been spinning our wheels trying to talk about ways to bring the best of religion and science together,” he said in the interview, dismissing organized religion as fostering tribalism we no longer need.

This one I don’t like.  Although I dislike the term “scientism,” if ever it was instantiated by a statement, it’s in this view by Wilson:

And while some humanities scholars have embraced evolutionary ideas, many others will roll their eyes at his declaration, in a chapter on the arts, that the humanities will achieve a “full maturing” only when they take account of findings in cognitive science and genetics.

I’m not convinced that Beethoven, Tolstoy, or Joyce would have written appreciably better books or music had they had a deeper understanding of evolutionary biology.

Here’s my well-worn copy of Sociobiology. Inside I wrote my name and “September, 1975”: the year of publication:

39 thoughts on “A NYT profile of E. O. Wilson and his new book

  1. That second quote is from his thoughts on consilience: all human knowledge should fit together. I concur that actually fitting it into a human brain in a human lifetime and getting stuff done as well might be a bit of a stretch.

  2. Subscribing so I can keep count of the many people supporting inclusive fitness vs. group selection’s few supporters.

    1. Basically, it’s calculated for a gene that does something like affect behavior, and it’s the relative fitness of that form of a gene compared to other forms that don’t have that behavior, counting the copies of that gene in related individuals. For example, a gene that codes for this behavior: “commit suicide (e.g. by falling on a grenade) if you can save more than two brothers or sisters by doing so” has a higher inclusive fitness than a gene that says “don’t fall on the grenade”, because if you die you lose one copy of that gene but save 1.5 others (you’re 50% related to those three siblings), while if you don’t fall on the grenade (and run away), you save your own copy but lose 1.5 others. The gene for the “altruisitc” behavior will spread because genes for it have a higher INCLUSIVE FITNESS than the other form of the gene.

      Is that clear?

      1. Ahh, this reminds me why I so enjoyed Evolution class. I find these concepts fascinating. Though I admit I don’t know much about group selection (we briefly touched on it in class but never focused on it as a widely accepted concept), I have always found the arguments for inclusive fitness to be quite convincing.

  3. I love a good kicking up of the dust. Kin selection is touted as the be all and end all to the story of sympathy/self sacrifice. Dawkins proudly boasts the old line “I am 50% likely to risk my life for my brother… and 25% likely to risk my life for my brother’s children… blah blah blah.” (or however the claim is being used currently). He states this with such a strident and boastful tone that I am nearly certain he must be at least partially wrong. It is almost like his swagger gives away his uncertainty (and he doesn’t like the idea that he may be proven at least partly wrong).

    I am personally not convinced the story is so simple. I think the fact that 150 scientists have to write a letter to bitch about Wilson shows a level of “false pride” that is not healthy. The evolution of social behavior is likely far more complex than we know and it is far to early to throw group selection in the waste bin. (just my opinion as a non-scientist who has no vested interest in the outcome of this debate)

    1. I don’t think you comprehend the controversy. First, the fact that 150 scientists write in does not show “false pride”: it shows that we disagree with Nowak et al.’s statements that a. kin selection is not a form of natural selection, b. kin selection has been useless in understanding social behavior and c. group selection is the key to understanding the evolution of eusociality.

      a. is wrong, b. is wrong, and we provide evidence to support it, and c. nobody has thrown group selection into the waste bin. It has been discussed as a theoretical possibility for decades, but has simply gone off the radar screen because there is no substantive evidence for it. And no, none of us think that kin selection is the be-all and end-all to the story of sympathy and self sacrifice. There are many nongenetic and cultural theories for such behavior in humans, as well as non-kin-selection theories based on reciprocal altruism.

      The story is not simple, and I don’t know where you get the idea that it is. But what is simple is that the idea of inclusive fitness has been enormously productive in understanding the evolution of social behavior, and when three prominent scientists say it isn’t, it is not “false pride” to correct them. Such correction is simply the normal procedure of science.

      1. So what is the big gripe here? This passage is from the book review you sighted in your original post.

        “In the end, Mr. Wilson comes down on the side of what is called multi-level selection—the view that evolution involves a combination of gene selection, individual selection, kin selection and group selection. Although he says his new theory opposes the idea of kin selection, in another sense he is simply maintaining that everybody is right.”

        Looks to me like Wilson is leaving this topic very open. You and Dawkins (and the dozens of others) look to be the demagogic ones. Still looks to me like a highly prized kin selection dogma is being protected through political assassination.

        As an outsider I just can’t see why so many biologists are bitching so loudly. Let the old man write his book and let it stand on it’s merits.

        1. Read the damn Nowak et al. paper and see what it says before you start writing stuff like this. What he says in that paper, and has been saying in other places, is different from the statement you make above. You obviously haven’t read the paper and are writing, as I said, from ignorance of the controversy. Perhaps you should do some reading before make posts like this.

          Oh and “sighted” is misspelled and “it’s” is not a contraction.

          And you are a rude man, as well as someone who makesloud and strong criticisms (and blogs) under a pseudonym so that nobody knows who you are. If you want to make criticisms like this, give us your name.

        2. Perhaps you should learn a bit more about how science works. When a scientist like Ed Wilson proposes an explanation it is the duty of other scientists to poke at it and find the problems.

          Your suggestion that this is a matter of demagogy, false pride, or bitching is indicative of a profound misunderstanding of what science is all about.

          Jerry explained to you exactly what the “big gripe” is. If you didn’t understand, it is not for want of explanation.

          1. Indeed! It’s the “poking at it” that makes science great. Either what remains is a pile of scrap (some which may still be useful) or a hardened, polished edifice that will weather time (perhaps not forever, but for a long period). TOE, for example, is a marble column, still standing after 150 years…although reshaped through scientific poking, it’s more beautiful than ever.

      2. For the record, I don’t think Nowak et.al. made the claim (a) in your reply. They argued that kin selection is a small subset of the varieties of natural selection (which should be uncontroversial) and that other mathematical models are more general (probably true). It was (b) that ticked everybody off.

        With (c), you claim there is no evidence. What would constitute evidence for group selection? What evidience is there for kin selection in the evolution of eusociality? Just mathematical models, right?

        1. You want evidence for kin selection in the evidence for eusociality? How about this paper? You seem to be unaware of it.

          Hughes, W. O. H., B. P. Oldroyd, M. Beekman, and F. L. W. Ratnieks. 2008. Ancestral monogamy shows kin selection is key to the evolution of eusociality. Science 320:1213-1216.

          Other evidence for kin selection versus group selection operating WITHIN eusocial insects is the 3:1 ratio of queens to drones (males), i.e. 3 grams of queens are produced for every one gram of males in singly-mated colonies. This is what is exactly predicted by kin-selection theory if workers control the brood sex ratio, for the workers are three times more related to new female queens as they are to new males. “Group selection”, i.e. selection based on the single reproductive female present in such a colony, would presumably favor a more equal sex ratio.

          And for the record, Nowak et al. repeatedly draw a distinction between “standard natural selection theory” and “inclusive fitness theory”. There is no distinction: the former subsumes the latter.

          1. My (possibly incorrect) understanding of E.O. Wilson’s later position was that he does no longer regard eusociality as understandable by a monocausal explanation (genetic relatedness). While genetic relatedness can surely facilitate the origin of eusociality, there must be other factors involved. Naked mole rats and termites are not haplodiploid and still evolved eusociality, aphids are clonal for large parts of the life-cycle yet only some evolved eusociality.A defensible gall or nest seems to be one condition without which eusociality cannot evolve in the first place. So this seems to be a squabble over the question whether kin selection is in the driver seat of the evolution of eusociality, just a facilitating boundary condition, or a multicausal explanation is required.

  4. I get annoyed that E.O. Wilson frequently makes lists of ‘most influential atheists’ even though he is not an atheist – he self-identifies as a “provisional deist.”

    1. It’s hard to pick on a guy who says that he is… “willing to consider the possibility of an ultimate cause. But we haven’t really come close to grasping what that might be.”

      and he is of course correct in his assessment of religion and its effects on group cohesion.

      1. You are only trolling here and elsewhere: of course it is easy to pick on someone who proposes a solution to “Life, the Universe and Everything” without a iota of evidence in favor and a lot of evidence against.

        Especially if it is a scientist, who should know better.

    2. Wilson ascribes to no religion. He has always made it clear he does not believe in a personal god. In the quotations cited above by Jerry he identifies “religion as an archaic ‘trap’ kept alive today by ‘purveyors of theological narcissism,'” and calls for “dismissing organized religion as fostering tribalism[.]” Everything I’ve seen, read, and heard about him suggests that he is a truly nice person. His scientific accomplishments are substantial and his historical stature is secure — even accepting that he has pulled a glaring, late-career boner with this group-selection stuff.

      So why would you get “annoyed” that someone, somewhere names him to a “most influential atheist” list? Has he violated some atheist orthodoxy, departed from atheist dogma, broken an inviolable atheist taboo? Odd how we come to ape what we oppose — like Fundies driven to annoyance whenever Mormons are listed as “Christians.”

  5. He is indeed a good writer, although his recent foray into fiction (“Anthill”), which I recently read, I did not quite enjoy and found at times rather clumsily written. That said, the nested sub-plot about ants was quite gripping and by itself made reading the book worthwhile.

    I also saw him talk once or twice, and I must say he gives the impression of being an extremely nice guy. (The one time I saw Gould, on the other, I had the opposite impression).

  6. Wilson made a presentation at Rice University in Houston early last week which I attended. He was here promoting his new book which is stirring up the controversy. Unfortunately, he was not well prepared and actually apologized for the disjointed presentation afterwards, saying it was the first time he had given that particular talk. He also had a great many computer problems and clearly doesn’t understand how to use Powerpoint. Even with all that, my wife and I found the talk interesting, if a little disappointing. Wilson was much more on his game during the Q&A afterwards though some of his answers were a bit tangential to the questions. I have not read the latest book, but was more than a little surprised that he came down on kin selection as firmly as he did.
    The next evening I tuned into the Charlie Rose show a little late unfortunately – Wilson was one of the guests and was on first, so I missed most of his portion. Wilson dissed a Dawkins quote on the controversy, saying “Richard is confused” and “doesn’t publish in peer-reviewed journals.” I cannot understand why he would want to start a public war with Dawkins for the life of me.
    I am more than a little saddened by all this since I have been an E.O. Wilson “fan” for a long time.

    1. I think that Ed Wilson is a Fatheist. He doesn’t believe but wishes he could. He has a fondness for the warm fuzzies he felt as a kid growing up in the faith. He seems to be expressing this in the familiar Accomodationist Dawkins trash talk.

  7. “As far as I know, he’s the only scientist who has won two Pulitzer Prizes”.

    Steven Pinker: How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate.

  8. “I’m not convinced that Beethoven, Tolstoy, or Joyce would have written appreciably better books or music had they had a deeper understanding of evolutionary biology.”

    Wilson isn’t suggesting that they would have. He is saying that scholars in humanities — of which Beethoven, Tolstoy, and Joyce are subjects — would have a deeper understanding of the objects of their study. Do you disagree?

    1. Whether humanities would have a better understanding of their subject is for Wilson to show.

      It has long been recognized in science that emergence effectively partition different scales into disparate phenomena that has no relation. This is why we have effective theories like classical gravitation and general relativity, why we have chemistry, why we have solid state physics, why we have biology et cetera, without the benefit of a deeper understanding of quantum mechanics.

      In a few cases a _shallow_ understanding of quantum mechanics and so forth benefit an emergent level (especially solid state physics!), but I hardly think this is the stumbling block against maturity that Wilson envision. Unless you define “full” maturity in an unrealistic and perhaps non sequitur “complete” sense instead of degree of maturity.

      In short, I disagree in the general case.

    2. Although “full maturity” seems hyperbolic on Wilson’s part (the rest of the quoted paragraph appears to be Scheussler’s paraphrase of Wilson’s words), how could humanities scholarship not benefit from taking account of the findings of cognitive science and genetics?

      Might not a literature scholar with a working knowledge of cognitive science have something interesting to add to, say, the analysis of Raskolnikov’s actions in Crime and Punishment — or to a literary biography of a Dostoyevsky, or a Kafka, or a Nietzsche?

  9. If he states that he’s in the minority, among evolutionary biologists, I don’t see a problem with him arguing for his views. I’m not sure what evolutionary mathematicians think, but from what I’ve read, mathematically inclusive fitness requires some of the same preconditions as group selection (Rice, “Evolutionary Theory: Mathematical and Conceptual Foundations”), in that book it’s treated as a special case of group selection.

  10. This is one struggle I identify hugely with, and I think you have grasped how confusing Wilson et al’s views are for the general public. When I started to touch evolution, after an abysmal treatment in school and becoming curious what made creationists reject science, I couldn’t get the level of selection. (I hadn’t seen population genetics at the time.)

    Only insistent references to Dawkins’ gene-centered view by more knowledgeable commenters cleared the fog. I benefited enormously albeit indirectly from his treatment, and I have no doubt I will benefit more whan I take the time to read the man.

    Sorry to say, I think Wilson’s parochial view will benefit no one, no matter the worth of his own contributions. So yes, by all means, keep the science light up in the darkness of faithists and religionists (whatever their causes for making fog are)!

  11. Tolstoy sort of carried out the experiment. In his earlier fiction, he held a more naturalistic view of the world, one more consonant with the materialist findings of the science of his time. The results are famed works like Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Then he wrote works infused with his new religious views. I’m a little unsure about what these works might be. The Kreutzer Sonata? Resurrection?

    Wilson cited cognitive science and genetics specifically. That suggests that he was thinking of a literature, drama and criticism that rejects such exploded notions as the soul, free will, an inborn human nature, etc. Is it really so scientistic to conceive that such notions detract from the arts, and that the arts would be better without them?

  12. Whenever someone bring up Consilience, I can’t help but think of this quote from Lovecraft:

    “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

    Which in turn makes me think of this quote from Feynman:

    “I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell — possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”

    1. It’s a tricky one. Compartmentalisation is, of course, an intellectual sin. Attempts to reconcile all contents of the brain are historically associated with people decompartmentalising a bit of toxic waste and coming to the realisation that what they really need to do is crash a plane into the Twin Towers. Engineers are particularly prone to this. See Nerds Are Nuts, Reason as Memetic Immune Disorder.

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