Over at Prospect magazine, Richard Dawkins reviews E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, in an essay with the double-entendre title, “The descent of Edward Wilson.” If you think Richard’s incursion into atheism has eroded his ability to explain biology in an engrossing way, be heartened: this is a good review. Well, it’s a well-written and lively review of a book that Richard doesn’t much like.
He begins with an amusing and amazing anecdote about one reviewer’s reaction to Darwin’s Origin, and then gets to Wilson’s book:
I am not being funny when I say of Edward Wilson’s latest book that there are interesting and informative chapters on human evolution, and on the ways of social insects (which he knows better than any man alive), and it was a good idea to write a book comparing these two pinnacles of social evolution, but unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. In particular, Wilson now rejects “kin selection” (I shall explain this below) and replaces it with a revival of “group selection”—the poorly defined and incoherent view that evolution is driven by the differential survival of whole groups of organisms.
The bulk of the piece is an exposition about kin selection—one of the best I’ve read—and how Wilson’s recent rejection of the concept is scientifically unfounded: something I’ve discussed at great length on this site. For example:
So, “replicators” and “vehicles” constitute two meanings of “unit of natural selection.” Replicators are the units that survive (or fail to survive) through the generations. Vehicles are the agents that replicators programme as devices to help them survive. Genes are the primary replicators, organisms the obvious vehicles. But what about groups? As with organisms, they are certainly not replicators, but are they vehicles? If so, might we make a plausible case for “group selection”?
It is important not to confuse this question—as Wilson regrettably does—with the question of whether individuals benefit from living in groups. Of course they do. Penguins huddle for warmth. That’s not group selection: every individual benefits. Lionesses hunting in groups catch more and larger prey than a lone hunter could: enough to make it worthwhile for everyone. Again, every individual benefits: group welfare is strictly incidental. Birds in flocks and fish in schools achieve safety in numbers, and may also conserve energy by riding each other’s slipstreams—the same effect as racing cyclists sometimes exploit.
Such individual advantages in group living are important but they have nothing to do with group selection. Group selection would imply that a group does something equivalent to surviving or dying, something equivalent to reproducing itself, and that it has something you could call a group phenotype, such that genes might influence its development, and hence their own survival.
It is a common mistake to invoke the process of group selection to explain adaptations of animals for living in groups. Many of these, including reciprocal altruism, may well have evolved by individual selection. That’s not just a guess, for models can easily produce such results using biologically realistic assumptions.
I’ll let you enjoy the longish review on your own, but will tender the conclusion:
Edward Wilson has made important discoveries of his own. His place in history is assured, and so is Hamilton’s. Please do read Wilson’s earlier books, including the monumental The Ants, written jointly with Bert Hölldobler (yet another world expert who will have no truck with group selection). As for the book under review, the theoretical errors I have explained are important, pervasive, and integral to its thesis in a way that renders it impossible to recommend. To borrow from Dorothy Parker, this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.
Although I haven’t yet read the book, I share Richard’s dismay about Wilson’s late-life rejection of kin selection. Wilson is indisputably a giant of modern biology—one of the last of the greats in his generation—and it only tarnishes his legacy to wind up dissing one of the most productive concepts in modern evolutionary biology—inclusive fitness (the basis of “kin selection). As I’ve said before, there is powerful evidence in favor of the inclusive-fitness explanation of eusociality (the situation in which a colony or group consists of sterile “castes” whose efforts increase the reproductive output of the fertile “queen”). That evidence includes not only the fact that all eusocial insects descend from ancestors who mated only once (a powerful prediction of inclusive fitness theory) and a higher ratio of queens than male drones produced by the sterile worker bees, something repeatedly confirmed by observation.
You can buy Wilson’s book here for only $16.66 in hardback.