Richard Dawkins reviews Ed Wilson’s new book

May 25, 2012 • 4:49 am

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.


169 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins reviews Ed Wilson’s new book

  1. For an explanation of Wilson’s journey into ideology (wishful thinking about groups) we need a further piece of biology. The biology of the aging male brain.

    It does appear that there is a correlation between aging male scientists, the normal drops in cognitive ability with age and crackpot ideas. Yes, male brains age faster and worser than woman’s. A lot.

    Shame the nutty ideas of formerly gifted scientists clutter up the public debabte.

    BTW, it does also appear that hostile crackpot ideas may help old guys live longer. Ugh.

      1. Use Google dude do your own research — learn something. Male brain decreases start about age 45 — women: 70.

        1/3 of normally aging folks, separate from dementia. suffer from Mild Cognitive Impairment. Sounds like Wilson is one.

        1. Speaking as a doctor, this is horsesh*t. “Mild cognitive impairment” is (a) NOT a feature of “normal aging” [indeed, one of the diagnostic criteria is typically non-age-related memory deficit], (b) inconsistently associated with sex [some studies show a greater prevalence amongst men, others don’t] and (c) much lower in prevalence than “1/3” [typical figures, depending on how it is defined exactly, are in the range of ~15% for BOTH sexes over age 70.

          Now, can we get back to the point of this article, please?

          1. lol..we’d say an anger management challenged MD. Prob some frontal lobe erosion there.

            We’ve seen different research and also seen the hard realities dismissed — well, mainly in the US.

            We stick with our studies until we see other data.

        2. Oh, and the part of about “male brain decreases” (whatever the hell that means) starting some 25 years sooner than that of females is so bloody wrong, I don’t know where to start.

          1. So the doc says no working memory decreases, more for men.

            The topic of what would make an elderly prominent scientist aggressively promote bad science we propose is also a medical question.

            That’s our point. We can argue the rhetoric of GS forever, the true believers will remain staunch.

            However, the question of why would Wilson be behaving such is useful. Is his behavior a symptom individual conditions and/or ideological behavior?

    1. But see the May issue of Physical Review C, Nuclear Physics, which contains 3 articles by R. Sherr born in 1913, i.e. about 99 y.o.

      1. This is just physiology. All systems in the body run down with age, in men more than women. The dirty/grumpy old man and witch folk stereotypes describe these decreased brain functions.

        You also see most of the Tea Party weirdos are MA+ guys, also the right wing murder suicide guys at the start of Obama’s term.

        Old guy scientists going off the deep end — as Wilson clearly has — are symptoms of cognitive dysfunction. By definition, weird behavior is a broken brain process.

      1. Here’s a basic fact and law of biology, if you understand nothing else — biology is about POPULATION characteristics not individual characteristics.

        The general POPULATION/age cohort of men 45+ loses significant cognitive processing ability — on average. Citing individuals is meaningless in describing generalizable traits.

        Would you say to your relatives — this guy lived to 105 so don’t go to the doctor?

        Are there white cardinals? Yep. It’s meaningless in describing cardinals.

        1. Biology is about populations AND individuals which comprise them AND the genes that generate the individuals, AND many other biological things.

          Describing white cardinals (the bird kind not the pedophile kind) would be perfectly meaningful, especially in a discussion of albinism.

          1. See, weird old guy brains — how the heck did sex get into a discussion of birds!? DO NOT go into it.

            No, individuals don’t matter. Unless, you’re an American in which case the repressive/religious political ideologies say the individual is all.

        2. You’re talking about individuals as well.

          Your bad apples may be the majority, esp. the white industrial weirdos whose dementia starts developing in late puberty. I contend its more a psycho problem, less organic. I could dig out a few more old mathematician counter-examples. (I started collecting these as its a common myth amongst mathematicians that you get old with 30. GH Hardy once said “Mathematics is a young man’s game”. Poor old depressed and burnt out Hardy…)

            1. Perhaps. And that perhaps explains why some folks feel/seem getting stupid with age. But doing science is more than just learning. It’s about understanding things.

              Another example: J.S. Bach’s Art of Fugue.
              He learnt his art, of course, when young. But was creative until death.

              (Now I stop continuing this excursion.)

              1. Here we go off into the land of — stuff that triggers warm fuzzy emotions in me in the moment — being as valid as peer-reviewed science. A childish notion.

    2. Not all studies demonstrate this precipitious decline for males that you claim:

      Also, keep in mind that most of Wilson’s detractors on this issue are no spring chickens either.

      Rather than describing Wilson’s views on kin selection as a reversal of a previous opinion brought on by a crumbling old brain, it is probably more reasonable to assume, as Dawkins did in his recent review, that Ed Wilson never really understood kin selection to begin with.

      1. Look, age denying is very popular in the US as Boomer near the finish line but the physiology is a fact, as is the evolutionary rationale. The male brain doesn’t need to stick around and be robust after child rearing, the grandmother’s brain does.

        The fact is we are looking for Wilson’s out of previous character aggressive promotion of a highly fringe idea outside of his core expertise as a symptom of:
        – A general behavior of older academics aggressively embracing ideas that are clearly incoherent.
        – There behavior is so aggressively and publicly promoting incoherent ideas is also incoherent
        – Priori academic prominence aside, mainly based on youthful work, these kinds of behavior are typical of brain drops in specific kinds of functioning, eg, frontal lobe drops, contra-social behavior, etc.

        We just read a study on this yesterday. MA+ guys get more anti-social and disinhibited.

        Wilson’s group selection ideas are incoherent — at best.

        1. No idea what you are referring to here; I wasn’t “age denying”, and I am not a boomer. What I did was simple – I offered up legitimate contradictory evidence to your claim. Either address the criticism directly or retract/modify your original claim.

          I am betting that you have no real data to back up your claim, and that rather you are just relying on a very simplistic deduction: “I personally cannot see a reason for the male brain to remain spry in old age, therefore it doesn’t.”

          As for the rest of your piece, is this subject matter really outside of Wilson’s expertise? And even if all of your other bullet points are true, that just speaks to the aging brain, and not the stark gender differences in the aging brain that you originally claimed.

          1. If your brain is too lazy to do your own research on this important, and universal, change in brain physiology that effects all behavior 45+, especially in men, we ain’t gonna spoon feed you.

            you don’t care enough to learn for yourself – facts won’t matter.

            1. The research seems mixed – some studies show greater age-related decline in males than females, others do not. And even those studies that do pruport to show a gender difference do not demonstrate it for all structures of the brain.

              So there is no real basis for the sweeping statements that you have been making.

              If name-calling and sidestepping direct refutations to your claims is how you go about exchanging ideas, then go wander off somewhere else.

    3. Well, Lynn Margulis was even nuttier then E. O. Wilson in here declining years. HIV/AIDS denier, trufer.

      1. Bestss, at the risk of beating a dead horse (on a thread that I imagine Jerry may soon step in to politely ask to shut up), let me try to explain the error in your logic that others have pointed out but you seem not to get:

        You’ve cited studies that suggest some cognitive decay in men aged 45+ (well, “cited” is a rather loose term, since every time someone asks you for references, you shout at them to look them up themselves. You also mysteriously use the pronoun “we,” which suggests that you may be the queen of England–if so, then welcome, Your Majesty!). You’ve freely admitted that those studies are based on population averages–that they aren’t necessarily predictive for every individual. Your words:

        The general POPULATION/age cohort of men 45+ loses significant cognitive processing ability — on average. Citing individuals is meaningless in describing generalizable traits.

        Leaving aside the specific references to studies others have given that may refute your general claim (I guess not every reader of WEIT is as ignorant as you think), let’s just take your argument at face value. You see, don’t you, that it explains nothing about the behavior of one particular individual–Ed Wilson–because, as you admit, the data is about averages. So what exactly do you think your point proves? That some older people have nutty ideas because they’re, well, old? Granted, and then some. But unless you’ve got MRI data on Ed Wilson’s brain, I don’t think you’ve added anything meaningful to this particular discussion.

        As an aside, it’s generally common practice when one makes sweeping claims to provide actual evidence, or at least references to published studies, to back those claims up. It’s not at all unreasonable for other posters to have requested those. Your angry refusals to provide those references reflects much more on your own laziness than it does on theirs.

        1. Brain impairments are mainly diagnosed first with behavioral indicators.

          By definition, ideas that are incoherent are due to faulty brain processes. Clearly the thinking and behavior around group selection is incoherent.

          The literature on frontal lobe disorders, aging disinhibition and older males disinhibition in particular are well studied with the latest research on Google and worth everyone’s time to learn about.

          Ad hominem attacks and threats are standard fare for individuals who are personally threatened by new and different ideas. As is moralizing lecturing to others.

          We participate to contribute ideas and findings as we have found them. We are not here to defend those ideas and findings nor provide citations. Brain research also shows, as science proponents have learned, facts supporting things individuals find emotionally distasteful just generate pushback.

          Defensive pushback describes the comment above.

          Curious people will seek to learn more. Defensive personalities will attack the messenger. Human nature.

            1. It’s instructive that when facts are consistently argued, they trigger defensive reactions ala Borg/inhuman.

              One reason why popular science is an oxymoron.

              1. Aaaw, the group has a nanny who is keeping the kiddies in line.

                Patronizing ad hominem is one defensive tactic.

          1. Here’s the thing, bestss… Your inability to clearly separate what your actual point is from your ass-hattery is causing considerable confusion. It makes it difficult to recognize ideas that many the rest of us might actually agree with you about. (I think. Maybe. But who really can tell?). You make poorly articulated statements, add an insult, and then accuse people laziness if they don’t fall agree with you and the mouse in your pocket. Try reading your own posts.

              1. It is interesting how our minds lover personal attacks and ad hominem tactics when uncomfortable ideas come up.

                But our minds are lazy, lazy….scary.

                This is the same tactics bullies of all stripes use — anti-science/evolution, Tea Party, etc. You see the same tactics in other social groups and meetings etc.

                It’s one of the main reasons, discussions like this end up worthless.

                It’s effective though for the people who want to shout down new and different ideas. When the bullies, like the above commentators, attack one person they are warning away the other shy, thoughtful folks who might comment. Too bad.

                Zero tolerance for personal attacks by the moderator is the principal to follow.

                If you can’t make your point without naming another commentator — t’ain’t worthwhile.

            1. Go disprove the statement, any statement — to yourself. Until you do that, there is nothing to discuss.

              If you don’t care enough about the claim — why bother to discuss it.

              If the claim(s) made you feel uncomfortable and you want to take a swipe at the messenger (just lazy ad hominem thinking)– well, keep doing what you’re doing.

              1. The burden of proof is on you chief, especially when you are making very detailed and specific claims. Perhaps you are correct about the greater age-related decline in cognition in males, but you are incorrect as to the scope or the age at which this starts to occur.

              2. Sigh.

                I can’t speak for anyone else, but your claims do not make me feel in the uncomfortable in the least. They are so poorly articulated that I can’t make sense of them enough to be either uncomfortable or to give you an “atta-boy”.

                But it doesn’t take much to recognize pure ass-hattery on display. And even a lumpen proletarian like me can recognize obnoxiousness masquerading as sophistication.

              3. Well this set of post proves that name calling is the dominant form of debate online. Likely by individuals of a specific gender and age.

    4. bestss,

      Perhaps you are right, but you really need to back up your claims that male brains start aging way faster than women’s at 45, and that studies demonstrate “change in brain physiology that effects all behavior 45+.” Brain changes that affect all behavior post 45 years old is an extraordinary claim. Also, your claims are not well accepted in the neuroscience field, I just finished a neuroscience class in med school and we had a lecture on normal brain aging, and I read a couple textbooks on the subject, there are some anatomical changes that accompany normal aging, but not universal changes in ALL behavior (as you claim). In fact both textbooks I read said that while as people age they do often think more slowly, there is not an overall decline in the quality of cognitive processes, and the text and lectures said this trope about overall cognitive decline being a part of normal aging is a myth.

      Again, perhaps you are right, but you are making an extraordinary claim that is contradictory to at least several neuroscience textbooks and articles I’ve read on the subject, so perhaps you could link to a well done review that shows that males brains start cognitive decline way earlier and progress much faster than women, and that this decline affects ALL behavior, and is due to physiology. (And remember, anatomical changes are not the same thing as physiological changes, which you seem to be getting mixed up).

      1. Learn. Read more comment less. Prove the contention wrong with the latest research via Google.

        We have studied this for years, just listened to a podcast by expert today. We spend our time learning more not teaching others who can look up the same research themselves. Avoid TED Talks BTW.

        The best source is NIH podcasts. If you don’t know what the NIH is, don’t try. You’ll never understand any of it.

        Science is hard. “Information is expensive.”– not something that can be flogged around on social media. Brain science is real hard since it is complicated and contradicts just about every belief.

        Aging denialism is a sales scam. Just lies to soothe fears.

        Enough said — we have more lectures to listen to and papers to read. Some great stuff from Cambridge today. Brits are the best.

        1. Bestss

          Kindly link to the podcast that you “just listened to today” that you claim supports your original assertions about the aging brain and, specifically, the gender differences. It will take you all of 10 seconds.

          Thanks in advance.

          1. Man, we cannot do your work for you…go to Brain Science Podcasts, recent episode.

            Stretch yourself, dig into NIH lectures, dude. Your wife will thank us.

            1. I am always eager to learn new things, but I do not have hours upon hours to plow through podcats on a wild goose chase. You assert that you listened to a “podcast by expert” just this day that is germaine to your rather strange claims.

              I have linked the NIH’s most recent podcasts and to a specific search on aging of the brain.



              Kindly let me know which podcast it was. If that is too much effort, just tell me the MONTH in which the podcast was originally broadcast.

              If you really are not full of BS, I see no reason why you wouldn’t have supplied this info several posts ago.

          2. So if I go listen to this podcast it will verify your claim that these physiological changes affect all behavior after 45? That these anatomical changes are global, not in specific areas? That normal aging involves a decline in all facets of cognition, not just specific aspects?

            I do often listen to that podcast, and it is interesting, but Dr. Campbell often has people on that are pretty far outside the mainstream of neuroscience, so you acting like since you heard this on a podcast it is settled science is premature.

            1. No, you will never believe anything different from what is status quo for your brain. None of us do. We can agree on that.

              That’s why providing citations is a waste of time.

              If a statement is of enough interest to explore or disprove with reading — that’s a plus. If it’s not enough to do that –why bother discussing it at all.

              There is no proof — just population likely hoods. Try this — just focus on working memory across ages for different genders. What do you find?

              If you don’t care enough to look — fine. Spend your time on something you do care enough about to do so.

              The specific piece seems relevant to Wilson is the frontal lobe drops and disinhibitions, that’s complex — avoid that for now.

              1. OK, you have got to be a Poe. I haven’t seen this bad of reading comprehension, postmodernist arguments melded with muddled science, citations of podcasts and ‘google’ instead of real research, the inability to link to research that ‘everyone’ knows is true despite the primary literature showing the opposite, blindly repeating the same talking points, and weird syntax since I read young-earth creationists books and blogs.

                Nice job, you got me. Certainly one of the better Poe-jobs I’ve seen.

              2. @Dan: I think “troll” is the technically correct term. “Poe” refers to parodies of fundamentalism. What we have here is a parody of something else.

        2. Am I getting fooled by a Poe, or did you not read my comment before responding?

          Like I said, I have studied this, I just finished a graduate neuroscience class. I’ve read two textbooks on the subject, and read some primary literature on the subject (and I’m in medical school, of course I know what the NIH is). Obviously that doesn’t make me right, but it does mean that what you think is established science is contradicted by several neuroscientists (and everyone I’ve read on the subject).

          You are doing what many trolls do: make an extraordinary claim that it contrary to the bulk of primary literature and textbooks, and then just tell people to look up the non-existent research for you. I did search in PudMed and can’t find a paper saying that normal, evolutionarily programed physiological changes start occurring at 45 which make males cognitively decline much more progressively than women in ways that affect all their behaviors (in fact I find papers that contradict that claim). Since you say those statements are established science, despite what all the research I can find says, than maybe you would be kind enough to tell us where you read that research? You don’t even have to link to it, do you remember the names of authors? Or the Journals and time frame? Or part of the titles of the papers? If I’m wrong I want to know, but I’m not just going to trust your recollection of podcasts, generic ‘Brits’, and some Goggle results.

          1. lol…Last refuge of the lost – name calling. Dude, you only have to convince yourself, not us.

            That’s you work time, not ours.

            1. Who was the expert that gave the podcast that you just listened to that supports your claims about global, age-related changes in the brain and the large gender differences?

              Just give the name.

              This is not an ad-hom. This is a perfectly reasonable request for information that you have absolutely no reason to withhold if true.

              1. I wonder if bestss was not sleeprunning – or was it sleeprunner? – in a previous incarnation: the language, the obsessions and the accusations (ad hominem attacks!) are curiously similar.

  2. Ed Wilson’s book Sociobiology was one of the books that enthralled me when it came out (about the same time as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene). I, too, am saddened to see how his late career tarnishes his reputation.

  3. >>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.

    >>You can buy Wilson’s book here for only $16.66 in hardback.


      1. So the recommendation is that the book is garbage, but worth spending $16 on so one can form one’s own opinion that it is garbage?

    1. Spend a lot of time reading anything of Trivers – a true genius and wild guy — or was. Try his original paper. Suffers from manic depression. Biology’s Nash – Beautiful Mind.

      The powers of darkness at Harvard, led by Lewontonin, ran him out of there for being a Harvard status quo heretic.

      KS is pretty simple and intuitive actually. Over endless generations and individual actions in small group settings, from the prior hundreds of millions of years of animal selection, the more you do to help those who carry same kinds of genes (relatives) more successful those genes will be.

      Remember (very recent, Western) human ideology (wishful thinking) came up with the (sales) idea of “altruism.” — there is none. Kin selection evolved for eons before us wee humans popped up. We inherited this “mechanism.”

    2. In my limited experience, I think many professional biologists misunderstand kin selection – and can’t get their head around genic-level selection. Gould and Wilson are strange bedfellows on this. After plowing through Gould’s magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, I became convinced that this brilliant mind still failed to grasp kin selection.

      1. you know it is so darn simple and one of the few advanced bio concepts that is quickly intuitive.

        Wonder if the problem is having to give up on the (silly) ideological notion of altruism which doesn’t exist — how could it.

        If any individual behaved so as to hurt their own chances of reproduction — how who that last multiple generations? Life is always about competition for limited resources.

        Actually, there was a species of our earliest ancestors, bacteria, that were entirely selfless. They went extinct after two generations. lol

        Even the arithmetic of KS is child’s play.

      2. In my limited experience, I think many professional biologists misunderstand kin selection – and can’t get their head around genic-level selection.

        I agree with you. Many professional biologists just blindly accept these concepts without really thinking about them.

  4. I’ve just finished reading Wilson’s book and it’s not nearly as crazy as Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and most readers of this site think. Dawkins is wrong that a group can’t have something like a phenotype. As a simple example, what about the fraction of cooperators (in a model where individuals are cooperators or defectors)? When a group fissions (which is one way groups can reproduce) the offspring groups will inherit this trait, with some variation. Think about it – it works. And there are models to prove it, as I’ve pointed to before on this site.

    Wilson get’s the mechanism a little bit wrong. He never really explains what he means by group selection, i.e., how it actually works. He gets close on page 290 (last chapter) when he states that group reproduction has heritability and variability – but he claims (incorectly) that the heritability is at the individual level, i.e., cooperators beget cooperators. The heritability and variation that drives group selection are both at the group level.

    1. What is the evolved chemical thing that passes your group trait across generations and via individual physiology?

      Groups don’t reproduce dude, men and women do.

      1. Strictly speaking, it is not necessary that groups reproduce – they just need to form and re-form with sufficient frequency, so that alleles conferring group benefits outcompete those conferring individual benefits within a group. Groups are constantly winking on and off. Sewall Wright modeled this, and one system where it has been looked at is with respect to cannibalistic vs. non-cannibalistic “groups”, such that alleles for low cannibalism (which increase group productivity and reproduction) can increase – but under very unusual, stringent, and unrealistic conditions.

        1. How does the behavior get chemically/physiologically passed on from parent to kids?

          So if the behavior helps the group have more offspring but hurts the individual have more offspring how does that arithmetic work?

          Let’s move away from humans to frogs. How would it work in frogs?

              1. I’m sorry, but I’m having trouble parsing your comments. I don’t quite understand what your point is. Can you make it clear?

              2. Let’s keep it simple — what is the chemical/physical mechanism for group selection?

                Wait! GS has already been debunked at length. Nevermind. lol

            1. What would you call it when a group breaks into pieces, and each piece becomes a new autonomous group?

              1. I would call it breaking into pieces. Fragmenting. Disintegrating. But definitely not reproducing. If I drop a window pane on the ground, the glass sheet does not reproduce.

              2. We’d call this a rhetorical trick to misuse a metaphor to make an ideological point.

                How do you define offspring? The biological definition is an individual that shares half of parents genome.

                But incoherent group selection ideas have already been debunked.

                What is worth discussing is the ideological drive that is leading academics who should know better to preach this.

                We say it is a craving to sell warm fuzzy ideas for popular attention. Group selection supports the wishful thinking that evolution produces “good” behavior in human beings or animals.

                Thus, evolution can be used to support a moralizing fantasy of life and the universe — praise jesus!!

                With a scream name “cooperator” clearly your brain likes the sales scam of a moralizing reality. Gues what, teh best sciecne says your cooperating is dead cold selfish.

              3. I hate to agree with bestss, but in amongst the unnecessary obnoxiousness is a serious point. There is little value to the idea of group selection. It is poorly articulated and not needed. Regular old natural selection and inclusive fitness does just fine as an explanatory tool.

              4. Gee, our bad for being so impolite. Any one who spends time on silly ideas will have no time for good ones.

                But why is GS being so actively promoted by smart, people who know better?

                Why is Wilson using logic and facts he clearly couldn’t have to build his career. We say age is a big factor.

                Why promote it so widely? This could have been a quite scholarly side discussion. We say ideology promotion/sales is the goal with being so aggressive about promoting it in media.

              5. Is your posting ID “bestss” because there are two of you? More? Or just you and the mouse in your pocket?

            2. But broken glass doesn’t grow! The pieces of the original group grow by individual-level reproduction. Then those grown pieces might break up. Things happen at two levels!

          1. That is not a problem at all. Virtually all behaviors have a heritable component in natural populations – even though the environmental component may be high. In the system, I alluded to, groups of flour beetles can be composed of individuals with genotypes for low or high tendency to cannibalize smaller larvae. The problem, as Dawkins notes eloquently, is with groups have a formation dynamics that makes them replicators.

      2. Could everybody please pause until having read this paper by Steven Frank (‘’ and then click through to the paper) or one of his previous reviews on the issue in JEB and then continue with an informed and worthwhile debate?

          1. bestss wrote:
            Cite peer reviewed evidence.

            That really made me laugh, coming from someone who refuses to cite anything, peer reviewed or not.

            There was another commenter who used the royal “we” all the time, though I can’t recall the name (must be my age.) Sounded an awful lot like this one, though.

          2. @bestss
            It’s a revie paper and it’s paart iV all made freely available at the Journal of Evoluionary Biology. My personal opinion is that any of Frank’s papers is worth tons of pop-science writing Dawkins, or Coyne, or Wilson (E.O. or D. S.). You just go there, you read it, you get it, and then you’ll see… trust me – it’s worth it. And there’s no cheap way around it.

        1. Thanks! I’ve heard about that paper but haven’t seen it. I skipped right to the part on group selection, and it’s the same old problem. The Price equation “recursion” does not represent group selection because the fitness measure, w_i, is wrong in general. There’s no reason that group fitness should be the average of the individual-level fitness measures of the individuals living in the group. We should take this discussion off line.

          1. I suppose it’s possible to let group i fitness w_i *not* be the average fitness of group i’s individual members, but instead some “emergent property” (a non-linear function) of the individual group members’ phenotypes (the z_ij), and then use the Price equation to model group selection. However, I guess that wouldn’t be a very useful approach since the Price equation only tracks the average group phenotype from one generation to the next – not the full distribution of group compositions.

            So I think that the Price equation is not a good tool for modelling the interesting kind of group selection, where group phenotype is not the average of group member phenotypes.

            Can you cite a paper that models group selection in a better way?

            1. Hi IdoP, I think we’ve had this conversation before. Please check Simon,Fletcher,Doebeli, JTB, Vol 299, 2012 at

              It just appeared. I’ll be happy to discuss further if you get hold of me. To build a better model, you specify the rates that various events occur at (e.g., birth rates, death rates, fissioning rates, fusion rates, etc.), as functions of the state of the system, and write down the dynamical equations that result. The Price equation, inclusive fitness, etc. are irrelevant.

              1. You are allowed to tout your own papers only once on this thread.

            2. I overstated! Inclusive fitness is not always irrelevant, it depends on the problem. But for sure, it isn’t always relevant in two-level population processes.

              1. Exactly: it depends on the problem. For many problems, an inclusive fitness approach is very useful. For others, not so much. Yet the basic insight that genetic correlations between social partners are important for the outcome of the evolutionary dynamics remains true, even if it is not always convenient to express such outcomes in terms of Hamilton’s rule-like inequalities.

              2. Right, but the inclusive fitness effects are at the individual level. You need to keep track of inclusive fitness sorts of things to determine how the populations of individuals in the groups change in time, but the group-level events like fission and fusion typically have nothing to do with inclusive fitness. I don’t think there are any interesting examples of two-level population dynamics that can be analyzed via inclusive fitness. When inclusive fitness is sufficient then you can be pretty sure your example is really just operating at one level.

                And saying that it is not convenient to express these things with Hamilton’s rule is an incredible understatement. Check out the paper I linked to.

  5. Quoting Dawkins: “Genes, but no other units in life’s hierarchy, make exact copies of themselves in a pool of such copies. It therefore makes a long-term difference which genes are good at surviving and which ones bad. You cannot say the same of individual organisms (they die after passing on their genes and never make copies of themselves). Nor does it apply to groups or species or ecosystems. None make copies of themselves. None are replicators. Genes have that unique status.”

    Unique status? Perhaps I’m missing something. Try this. “When a gene (species) duplicates it makes an exact copy of itself. Further variation of the duplicate gene (species) may be advantageous and assist its survival by natural selection.” Many would not agree with the parenthetical inclusion of species here, because they believe that natural selection is the spark that initiates a new species.

    However, as Darwin’s research associate, George Romanes, proposed in 1886, there is a case for natural selection not being the spark. Like a gene, a species duplicates and then natural selection comes into play. So perhaps species are also replicators.

    1. I thought chromosomes had more stuff in them besides genes like histones or non coding sequences. Those have exact copies of themselves as well along with the genes in the new cell, don’t they?

      Then there’s the problem that genes don’t really do that, I mean, they aren’t active agents that do stuff. Rather, they are used as a mold to make copies of cells, it’s different.

      Also, you can certainly say the same of individual organisms, most organisms are asexual if I recall correctly. It’s peculiar that he says organisms don’t count because the original dies after replicating, as if the original gene were never destroyed when the organism carrying it dies.

      1. This is the danger of reading quotes out of context and then interpreting them using different definitions of the terms used. “Gene” in this case is being used as a generic term for a single (i.e. non-recombining) genetically inherited unit of information, not the school textbook protein-coding gene. (“Gene” is terrible for meaning different things in different circumstances and, like “species”, it is both pretty much impossible to come up with a definition that universally works but also very useful. Like the “species” concept, “gene” in this context represents a continuum where things clearly count at one end, clearly don’t at the other and are a fit fuzzy in the middle.) The DNA may be destroyed in time but the “gene” – the information – is not. This is the problem also with groups as replicators. Yes, they may change through time. Yes, their composition may affect that change to some extent. But, they do not contain information that is replicated. That is still in the genes and so any group selection model that “works” is merely a special case of standard gene-centric evolution where the “interests” of the gene happen to match those of the group.

        1. You mean Dawkins needs to change the common meaning of “gene” for his argument to work? That’s not very useful, is it?

          Why did he decide to call that a gene anyway?

          1. Jose, he decided to call that a gene because it is the original, “true” definition of “gene” from the early 1900s (before we knew genes were encoded by DNA) as the fundamental physical and functional units of heredity. In fact, he uses same definition as George Williams, whose ideas formed the basis of The Selfish gene, as “that which segregates and recombines with appreciable frequency.” It is still the (or at least one) common meaning if you think for a moment of the meaning of the phrase “gene pool”, which is still used quite frequently, I believe.

            1. PS. Apologies, that was a bit of a rubbish reply in hindsight as I have clouded the issue myself by bringing up the “physical” aspect of the original definition, which I think might be what you are getting at. The “gene pool” example still stands, though – there are many different context-dependent ways that “gene” is used and the way that Dawkins is using it is neither unusual nor wrong. The confusion comes from the gene’s status as an information-carrying “replicator” – both the physical copy and the information contained can (rightly) be described as “the gene” depending on the situation. In terms of evolution rather than molecular biology, however, the emphasis is clearly on the information and not the physical molecule. I hope that is clearer.

  6. Whatever you think of Wilson’s book (or of the feasibility of group selection), this is a rather poorly researched review by Dawkins. For example, he claims that Bert Hölldobler is “yet another world expert who will have no truck with group selection”. On the contrary, Bert was Wilson’s co-author on his previous pop-science book “The Superorganism” where Wilson first displayed his trend towards group selection. And it is a bit amusing to read that Dawkins is dismayed that Wilson is “going over the heads of experts and appealing directly to a popular audience”, given that Dawkins whole career has been exactly that, for better or worse — he certainly isn’t known for his rather small pool of peer reviewed work.

    1. I’m sorry but you don’t know what you’re talking about here. Richard and I have both seen a letter from Bert, which he’s made no secret of, having talked about it to a reporter, that he was in strong disagreement with Ed over group selection in that book, and that what was ultimately written in favor of g.s. was Ed’s part. And he is in strong disagreement now with Wilson’s stance against inclusive fitness.

      The snark about Dawkins isn’t justified, either, because Richard explicitly writes popular books. Wilson presents a scientific concept, developed in a scientific paper, IN a popular book and then completely neglects the huge amount of criticism that he got.

      Sorry, but Richard’s letter is not poorly researched; you just don’t know all the facts and are using that one point to diss what Richard wrote.

      1. Perhaps Bert has changed his mind on the subject, but he has written in favor of group selection not only in “The Superorganism”, but also in peer reviewed literature (the 2005 PNAS paper “Eusociality: Origin and consequences”). It just isn’t true to claim that he “has no truck with group selection”. Perhaps he “no longer has truck with group selection” but that isn’t the same thing at all.

        As for the snark, well, the review itself was almost entirely comprised of snark, from bringing up the old chestnut about “Lord Chatterly’s Lover” to comparing Wilson with his late arch-rival Stephen Jay Gould. What goes around comes around.

        1. You’re dead wrong about Dawkins’s review: the vast bulk of it is an explication of how kin selection works and why it’s useful. You keep distorting one thing after another. And it’s not snarky; he’s honest in his disagreement, except perhaps in the last sentence.

    2. How on earth has Dawkins been “going over the heads of experts”? He writes generally about the scientific consensus both within and outside of his field of expertise?

      His best known book “The Selfish Gene” may have been ground breaking in the way that biologists might view selection but it was hardly contravening a prevailing consensus.

      Your comments are utter tripe.

  7. I didn’t read the entire review — don’t have time — but I can’t see why the inability to shoehorn group selection into a particular metaphor (replicator/vehicle) is a logically coherent argument against group selection.

    1. Ah, and that there is no such thing as group phenotypes — it’s so obviously false it’s embarrassing. All nonlocal measures characterise the group, not its individuals. And if this doesn’t convince you, then there are zillions of emergent phenomena that manifestly belong to no subset of group members but to the group itself.

      1. Sure, there are group phenotypes: people who wear funny hats, sport team fans, office mates with same style name badges, etc.

        1. Those are cultural phenotypes, not gene-linked. I think you and Dawkins perhaps just have a different concept of what a “phenotype” is. For Dawkins, I think, it is explicitly the downstream effects of a “gene” (i.e. some genetic information) upon which selection may act. It is not simply what stuff looks like. Clearly species (one type of group) have distinct traits, or taxonomy would never have got started. This is down to individuals sharing characters, though, not explicitly group-driven traits as in your cultural examples. Do you have any examples of true group phenotypes in nature that are transmitted by the group itself, not the individuals within the group?

      2. I think you should have read the whole article before critiquing it, so that you know what you are critiquing. Regarding group phenotypes, Dawkins is quite explicit about what he means:

        “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.

        Do groups have phenotypes, which might qualify them to count as gene vehicles? Convincing examples are vanishingly hard to find. The classic promoter of group selection, the Scottish ecologist VC Wynne-Edwards, suggested that territoriality and dominance hierarchies (“peck orders”) might be group phenotypes. Territorial species are more spaced out, and species with peck orders show less overt aggression. But both phenomena are more parsimoniously treated as emergent manifestations of individual phenotypes, and it is individual phenotypes that are directly influenced by genes. You may choose to treat a dominance hierarchy as a group phenotype if you insist, but it is better seen as emerging from each hen, say, being genetically programmed to learn which other hens she can beat in a fight and which normally beat her.” (My emphasis.)

        So, far from ignoring the emergent group characteristics that you propose as group phenotypes, he explicitly deals with them. You need to show (a) how the development of the group and these emergent properties might be influenced by genes that will promote their own survival by doing so and (b) that it isn’t simply an emergent property of individuals maximising their inclusive fitness (including kin selection).

        Do you have any examples of this?

        1. I think something very simple, like the fraction of the group that is cooperators, has all the properties needed to be a “phenotype”. Groups reproduce by (for example) fissioning into pieces that then grow (by individual-level reproduction), and groups die by extinction or when they fission.

  8. Thanks! As always a pleasure to read Dawkins, and I believe my non-biologist understanding of kin selection, such as it is, was deepened a lot.

  9. OK, the ad hominem guys are out in full force so we’ll, ignore those threads, and restate our original question.

    If we look at Wilson. et als aggressive preaching of group selection it seems fair to ask:
    – What is this signaling? What’s driving this media effort around what is clearly bad science — by a science luminary
    – Is there a programmatic agenda? In preaching group selection how do those claims fit in a wider intellectual framework that Wilson is following.
    – Is there a personal agenda? Something to do with Wilson’s particular brain processes/thinking? Now we have seen examples of older academics and scientists promoting ideas: a) outside their expertise, b)making unsupportable contentions. c)that have generally a moralizing social slant. Is there a common physical process, elated to age or gender that suggest such ideation and behavior. We say yes.

    The implication for the last is that Wilson is not fully coherent. That seems to be insulting to some on this discussion. However, is it any more unfair than asking about muscle strength or working memory at advanced age?

    Besides, haven’t all WEIT readers accepted the no free will reality!? lol

    1. Have you no sense of irony? Your entire argument is an ad hominem attack on Wilson. You are attacking the man (for being old and male and thus, according to you, addle-brained) rather than his idea. That is the very definition of ad hominem! That you don’t see this leads me to conclude that – applying your “logic” – you are a very old, and very male, man. ; )

      1. Nope, we are saying there are physiological changes that can contribute to illogical behaviors like Wilson’s aggressive marketing of group selection — not the argument he and his try to make.

        Our point about physiological impairments is about his promotional behavior not his arguments.

        We are not challenging his ideas based on personality factors but looking at possible drivers for the behavior. The illogic of the group selection ideas has been established. Not based on Wilson’s personality.

        Boy, the fact of guys brains going bad in old age has really blown a lot of dresses up – lol. It’s a standard fact of physiology.

  10. A substantial proportion of commenters here, and indeed over at the original site, appear to be amateurs either petulantly or fatuously claiming that Dawkins was wrong – for reasons that I suspect the few experts around these parts may find truly exasperating.

    Richard, and Jerry, and indeed anyone else whose is ACTUALLY qualified to competently adjudicate these matters, you should know that not all the amateurs are so haughtily dismissive of these wonderful, but subtle, ideas. (Some of us may even understand them, in no small part thanks to your tireless explanations.)

  11. Speaking of kin. Would think evolutionary trends would express in language — maybe not.

    “Family labels framed similarly across cultures
    Descriptions of kin reflect trade-off between simplicity and utility
    By Bruce Bower
    Thursday, May 24th, 2012

    Relatively Speaking Limits exist on how different languages define family relationships, a new study finds. English describes a mother’s mother and a father’s mother as “grandmother,” and a mother’s father and a father’s father as “grandfather.” New Guinea’s Abelom tongue uses one label for both of a mother’s parents and another term for the father’s. No documented language has a term for a mother’s father and a father’s mother, or for a mother’s mother and a father’s father, perhaps because such categories are overly complicated.C. Kemp, T. Regier

    Scientists may have found a couple of principles of relativity in family trees from different cultures.

    Kin connections get defined in a dizzying number of ways from one language to another. But a new study, conducted by cognitive scientists Charles Kemp of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Terry Regier of the University of California, Berkeley, uncovers what may be universal rules of thumb for thinking about connections among relatives — and perhaps about other categories.

    Terms used to describe kinship in languages from Africa to the Americas neatly balance between two opposing principles, Kemp and Regier report in the May 25 Science.

    “Kinship systems achieve a near-perfect trade-off between simplicity and usefulness,” Kemp says.

    Some languages veer more toward simplicity in defining kin relations, and others pack in more information, but not so much that each concern isn’t efficiently addressed, the researchers find in a new mathematical analysis of words describing family relationships.

    The study shows that verbal communication places general limits on how people think about categories, including kin relationships, psycholinguist Stephen Levinson comments in the same issue of Science. Cultural forces, such as whether descent is traced through the mother’s or father’s side of the family, shape specific kin systems, adds Levinson, of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands.

    Simple yet informative terms work best for more concrete categories, such as kin relations and colors, remarks anthropologist Doug Jones of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Pairs of relatives, for instance, can be distinguished by distinctive features, such as sex for sisters and brothers. Single, distinguishing features can be tough to find for members of other categories, say for closely related animals such as deer and elk, Jones says.

    Using complete sets of kin terms previously collected from 487 languages by another researcher, Kemp and Regier calculated that existing ways of communicating about kinship among speakers of different languages represent a tiny portion of possible ways to classify family relationships.

    Based on the length of each language’s definitions for kin terms and the ability of those terms to specify intended individuals, the scientists calculate that cultures consistently devise words for various types of relatives that are fairly easy to understand but still informative. The balance between these principles typically tips in one direction or the other.

    In English, for instance, the term “uncle” refers to a father’s brother, a mother’s brother, a mother’s sister’s husband and a father’s sister’s husband. In other languages, more intricate terminology for “uncle” conveys more specific information by denoting relatives only on the mother’s or the father’s side, sometimes over two or more generations.

    Kemp and Regier plan to use their mathematical approach to examine whether color terms in different languages maximize listeners’ ability to identify hues similar to those intended by speakers.

  12. Dawkins in fine form, fun and informative.

    I don’t have Wilson’s early books, but remember him suggesting somewhere that what individuals are (and should be) trying to maximize is the success of their social group. Not sure whether this was in the ‘human’ chapter of Sociobiology or On Human Nature, or an interview or something else around that time (late ’70s). Reading in the late 80s/early 90s, it struck me as particularly naive in an almost stereotypical (USian/Southern/conservative/naturalistic-fallacy/nationalistic/BoyScout/hated-the-60s) way.

    I had the feeling he’d moved away from that, but that may have been an illusion: it now seems he’s either drifted back, or never changed.

    No evidence here of senile decay in everyone over 45. But then I would say that. Bipolar folks in manic phase posting comments a little too frequently? – I can cut some slack for that too.

    1. In fact there seems to be, with the lowering of testosterone in older men, an emphasis on more affiliative behaviors. This has been documented cross culturally, around the world.

      This coupled with decrease in frontal lobe control could lead to aggressive preaching of pop moralistic notions by Wilson and team.

      We will ignore the flinging of a personal insult to try to score argument points. That is just deeply dishonest.

      There is no slack for that.

  13. Here is the lamest, weakest, thinnest sauce of a sentence ever written by Richard Dawkins:

    I would not venture such strong criticism of a great scientist were I not in good company.

    1. What is lame about saying “I wouldn’t easily criticise someone about something were it not for the fact that many others share my concerns”?

      What is weak about that?

  14. I see hundreds of comments on this thread and assume this will be a lively discussion, on a topic that is really important. This thread is not, it is mostly emotional outbursts of one person and people who counter them.

    BTW, Dawkins is always controversial, I read the article, another superb one by Dawk in my opinion .. the explanation on kin selection is brilliant.. you should all read it for sheer enjoyment, even if you already know everything about it. The comments on that article is not all too kind to Dawkins, though. Another typical Dawks..

    As about EO Wilson, yes agree with Richard, it reminds me of the late Stephen J Gould. Some people think that they have to be the vanguard, resulting in deteriorating situation in the end …

    Lets us all pray our St. Dawk won’t end up like that himself (remember his outburst on feminime sensitivities ?).


    1. I think that everyone should make sure they have read the article before proceeding further. It’s quite long, so I am going to finish it later, but after a few paragraphs it is already clear that (like most Dawkins-bashing) people are attacking quotes taken out of context without understanding what he is actually saying. (I won’t go as far as to say that they don’t know what they’re talking about but sometimes it is very clear that they don’t know what *he* is talking about!)

      1. I am reading Wilson’s book now, more than halfway. Actually, Dawkins’ review is right, in the sense that this book is flawed in the way it pushes the “2010 paper that I wrote ..” unnecessarily.
        On the other side, Wilson’s book – as Dawkins says – is also very interesting read. He talks about comparison of eusociality between insects and human , an original and I expect very productive concept to explore further.

        Regardless to say, Wilson is totally against organized religions. The sad part is that this hypothese about human eusociality does not need the group-selection thingies that EOW tries to sell to everybody as his last battle!

        Still, EOW’s book is an interesting read.
        And the good part is the book still an interesting read without you buying into group-selection!

        Looking at human (cultural) evolution through the eusociality I believe is a good angle. It explained a lot of what happened with human history (esp religions). It will be even better if somebody merged this eusociality with memetics. This will be not-exclusively biology, but culture, philosophy and a lot of things that some biologist actually loved to talk about, religions!

        And, though EOW has his old-guy quirks, but this book is an opening to that direction. Forget EOW’s group selection, enjoy what he knows best, eusociality.

        1. Let’s look at metaphors, which is not science or rarely can be evidence based. Metaphors are all based on emotions triggered and current pop culture references.

          Metaphors seem the main content of Wilson’s current work. He is extending metaphors all over the place. It is a house of sand.

          His point is that the key social behavioral characteristic of social insects, eusociality, is a perfect metaphor for:
          – human social organization
          – a fact about how life, the universe and everything is organized

          He puts the cherry of sin to top off his metaphor sundae.

          Let’s set aside the, also pop cultural and warm fuzzy (emphasis on fuzzy), ideas about memes — whatever the heck those are.

          To prove to the world that humans are organized like ants and that this is the most “advanced/etc” form of life — Wilson’s life and end of life work — he resurrects group selection.

          The rhetorical and polemical goal seems to be simply to prove that the species Wilson is an expert in are the perfect model for how life is “best” organized and least sinful.

          The core of his proof seems metaphorical, however.

          OK, well who at the end of their lives doesn’t want to claim their life’s work reveals the secret to everything good?

          BTW, science was invented because metaphors and warm fuzzies as a basis for action were getting a lot of folks killed.

    1. Dawkins’ behaviors and personal details have nothing to do with the legitimacy of his arguments.

      “Abusive ad hominem (also called personal abuse or personal attacks) usually involves insulting or belittling one’s opponent in order to attack his claim or invalidate his argument, but can also involve pointing out true character flaws or actions that are irrelevant to the opponent’s argument. This is logically fallacious because it relates to the opponent’s personal character, which has nothing to do with the logical merit of the opponent’s argument,”

        1. Then why headline the video with that logically false statement? BTW, it helps to prove that Wilson’s agenda is ideological and personal — not scientific.

            1. Oh, so you posted this video to prove your point. It backfired.

              Got any more “support?” You aren’t bothered at all that Charlie Rose tolerated Wilson trashing Dawkins as a person, author and academic?

  15. Thanks for the video. So it appears Wilson’s drive is to prove:
    – The commonality of eusociality with humans and social insects
    – The “advanced” and superior nature of this set of behaviors and we have to assume the neural system that produces them.

    So group selection therefore he would seem to judge as more “advanced” — on the basis of simple ecological measures like bio mass or number of density of individuals. Suppose bacteria, etc would count as advanced?

    There would seem to be problems with use of the term “advanced” — how the heck would that be universally measured?

    Is Wilson’s quest scientific or ideological?

    The psychological goal seems to prove the superiority of:
    1. The species he is an expert in
    2. The species he belongs to

    Sounds a bit self serving.

      1. No, Wilson is making logical and scientific claims, while at the same time appealing to pop moral and current ideological, narrow christian American, platitudes and claims.

        Dawkins is questioning the scientific credibility of the claims and the whole exercise. He is pointing out logical failures of Wilson’s argument.

        Wilson attacks Dawkin’s personally and dismisses him. Why?

        Ad hominem dismissals of questions sa a dishonest tactic. Why would Wilson stoop to this?

  16. Here’s the thing. The behavior that is non-kin related is very small. The vast majority of all behaviors is kin related — certainly the exchanging of resources is mainly with kin or other supporting kin (small groups).

    We know the worker ant share genes with queen, duh So it looks like the ants are supporting the hive but actually it’s just the genes of the queen which they all share, right?

    GS should be provable in single cell species since they communicate and form groups – colonies.

    Positing a whole new mechanism to support what is basically a cultural-ideological argument is off the deep end. Culture seems trivial in genetics but top of mind in daily experience, of course.

    He wants to bring in social sciences and humanity to the physical science with this — why?

    Anytime Joanh Lehrer is on your side, your in trouble. Pop journalism must always promote the status quo simplistic moralizing of the moment — in between ads for expensive watches, clothes, vacations, perfume, etc. Same with Charlie Rose.

    Finally, and this was our earlier point about ideological agenda and illogical behavior, Wilson states (paraphrased) that — altrusic groups beat selfish groups, individual selection tends to produce “sin!!” At last, the problem of evil solved! “Why can’t we all just love one another?”

    Sweet jesus, he’s off his rocker.

    Imagine that! The core process of biology and life proves out current American christian morality! wow

  17. Any time the word/idea of “sin” in used in a discussion about facts, evidence and science — we’ve entered crackpot territory.

    Interesting how Rose let’s him dishonestly dismiss Dawkin’s concerns by dismissing Dawkins personally – what a scam tactic and Wilson simply lies.

    Someone should probe with Wilson, although it would be embarrassing, what kinds of “sins” exactly? lol

    1. Maybe you could watch the whole video, rather than the 3 minutes where Wilson politely addresses Dawkins’ (who’s thrown a few ad hominems himself) disagreement by explaining that he lacks scientific credentials (which he does, by comparison).

      1. Did watch whole thing. It’s a dishonest cut and paste job with a polemical agenda, like Wilson.

        Dawkins could be a mass murderer, it’s irrelevant to the questions he asks and points he makes.

        Wilson reveals him self to be using deeply dishonest rhetorical tactics.

        1. “It’s a dishonest cut and paste job with a polemical agenda, like Wilson.”

          If I hadn’t cut it at all it would be about 8 hours long. Every video used is available in full online.

          Go fuck yourself.

          1. All right, Igneus Patrick Freely, apologize to the commenter you cursed at, and to all of us, or I’ll ban you. We don’t tolerate your kind of invective over here.

          2. Oh, this is YOUR video. Well, at least you left the embarrassing parts for Wilson in.

            Will go look at the other ones.

            Foul language online is just bulling behavior.

  18. For the science geeks among us. Little long, but hey, it’s a holiday

    “What insect societies tell us about cells

    23 May 2012 by Seirian Sumner and Solenn Patalano Magazine issue 2866.

    Could the destiny of social insects and human cells be controlled by the same mechanisms?

    THEY fight, punish, reward and coerce their friends. They are promiscuous, selfish, altruistic, deceptive and manipulative. They are farmers, predators and scavengers. They dispense law and order. Eusocial insects – bees, wasps, ants and termites – are the soap opera stars of the non-human animal kingdom.

    Much of that behaviour centres around an extreme division of labour, with individuals becoming queens, workers and sometimes soldiers. Once it starts, this process is usually irreversible – much as embryonic stem cells have no alternative but to become part of a kidney or cartilage once the biological “switch” is thrown.

    Recent research into honeybees and other social insects is painting a fascinating picture of the mechanisms that underlie those processes in both insects and cells. This will help us build a better model of how cells and insects lose and gain plasticity. Needless to say, one of the big goals is a better understanding of those cells humans prize most – stem cells.

    First things, first, though. Let’s look closely at the insect colonies. Every day, millions of colony-mates settle conflicts or fall victim to coercion in order to coordinate the countless interactions required for a colony to function at all. Alongside that collective behaviour, each individual also strives to cash in as best as they can on their own personal investment. Queens do the reproducing, workers help raise the brood, to whom they are usually related, and, in some species, soldiers defend the colony.

    So the evolution of “castes” is the secret to eusocial insects’ success. In highly social species such as honeybees and most ants, queen and worker castes can differ so profoundly in physiology, morphology and behaviour that they can easily be mistaken for a different species. Queens can be orders of magnitude larger than workers, and may lack the enormous mandibles some workers have for foraging or defence. In many species, such differences arise during brood development, usually in response to environmental cues. For example, only honeybee larvae fed royal jelly develop into queens, the rest become workers.

    The process behind eusocial insect castes is one of the most amazing examples of how a single genome can give rise to individuals that differ dramatically in behaviour, morphology, and/or physiology. Recent research has shown that castes usually arise through different levels of expression of the genes they share, and common sets of genes seem to be associated with queen and worker behaviours across different species.

    This society-level functioning is not unique to social insects: it pervades all levels of biological organisation – from cells to organisms to societies, including human ones. For example, your body is your own personal society made up of cells committed to performing specialised functions essential for the “society” called “you”. Uncommitted, or totipotent, cells are programmed to perform specific tasks through cell differentiation, which amounts to a coordinated division of labour. Such a division must be perfectly coordinated to ensure the successful working of the society that is your body.

    We now wonder if the evolution of cellular society and eusocial insect society can be explained by the same theoretical framework: group living, whether as a multicellular organism or insect colony, evolves if the benefits and degree of relatedness of group members outweigh the costs of living as a group. Could this framework mean that the same processes control the division of labour in both cells and insect colonies?

    The notion of commonalities between cells and societies is not as surprising as it may seem at first. For decades, ethologists and cellular biologists have used the same terminology. Social insect biologists describe a larva as “totipotent” while it can still become queen, worker or, in some species, soldier. Similarly, for cellular biologists a totipotent cell is one yet to embark on any of several different pathways to specialisation.

    More broadly, early ethologists talked about an animal’s behaviour being “programmed” or “reset” in response to the creature’s changing internal or external environment. The defining feature of insect castes and differentiated cells, then, is that they are programmed to “commit” to their fate in response to some environmental trigger and subsequently may lose the ability to be reprogrammed. The same key phases of development – reprogramming and commitment – describe development at the cellular and at the colony level.

    But the commonalities run deeper. Like social insect castes, cell differentiation is an example of plasticity in the phenotype. The same genome allows for different cell functions through differential expression of shared genes. We know quite a lot about cell differentiation: a key process is the chemical (epigenetic) “tagging” of a creature’s DNA that does not affect its sequence, but helps control both reprogramming and cell commitment. The question is whether the processes before, during and after the “switch” at both the cellular and colony levels of biological organisation are controlled by similar epigenetic mechanisms.

    Epigenetic modifications are ancient mechanisms found in fungi, plants and animals, controlling fundamental biological functions such as cell differentiation. Recently, a DNA methylation system (the addition or removal of methyl “tags” on specific genes) was identified in the honeybee. These epigenetic changes appear to control the cell differentiation that turns larvae into queens or workers. This is the latest piece of research in social insects tying the machinery of methylation to caste differentiation.

    So the potential building blocks are there, and early evidence suggests epigenetic processes are involved in caste regulation. But how far can we push the analogy of cell and caste differentiation? The best data comes from mammalian cell development. There, totipotent zygotes turn out to have a specific epigenetic profile that allows them to produce any kind of cell, much like the totipotent insect larva. Big changes occur after fertilisation when the zygote sheds methyl groups from its DNA as epigenetic programs from the previous generation are erased in preparation for creating a new individual.

    This epigenetic “clean slate” is short-lived, however. The early embryo’s cells soon lose their totipotent ability and begin to differentiate into many different types of cells with specialised functions. As cells commit to their new function, they also acquire specific patterns of DNA methylation throughout their genome. These unique epigenetic signatures help define the identity and physiological function of specific cell lineages and organs in the developing embryo.

    A similar point of divergence must occur in social insects, when the totipotent insect receives a specific nutritional or social cue that sets it on its developmental pathway. And, like humans cells, that pathway is likely to involve a reorganisation of methylation on specific genes. Once these epigenetic profiles are set, caste and cell lineage (and therefore phenotype) is fixed and there is rarely an opportunity for future change.

    But one of the great things about studying eusocial insects is that we can see clearly how different species represent different stages in eusocial evolution, with different degrees of caste differentiation and commitment. Take the polistine paper wasps. This subfamily includes species that range from the small colonies of the primitively eusocial Polistes paper wasps, which represent an early stage of social evolution where individuals seem able to reprogram throughout adulthood, to the large, socially complex colonies of highly eusocial and swarm-forming paper wasps, which have roles fixed during development.

    Two new and powerful ideas make these exciting times for sociobiologists. The first is that the dynamic epigenetic landscape controlling caste differentiation may well be the same as that which controls cell differentiation. The second is that the same ancient molecular regulatory processes have been co-opted to produce the fascinating array of social complexities in both insects and cells.

    Using the comparatively simple insects as models, where there are few “lineages” compared with cells, we may have the technical means to test the idea of a unified framework across levels of biological organisation. Looks like our soap opera may be heading for an uncharacteristically happy ending.”

  19. Jerry,
    i am wondering if you are being a little unfair to group selection.
    first off i am not a biologist so please correct any mistakes, misinterpretations.

    in this 4 way discussion you previously discussed here

    and it seems to be agreed that

    1. there is no single formal model of group selection, studies by okasha 2004 showing at least 4.

    2. two popular models are the a. Wynne-Edwards group selection and b. Multilevel selection (MLS).

    3. Wynne-Edwards seems to be not a general model and only applies when relatedness = 1 or inter-group competition is totally suppress (e.g. at the major evolutionary transition).

    4. MLS is is seen as another partitioning of the price equation equivalent to Inclusive fitness maximization.

    5. there seems to be a lot of confusion generated by the different group selection concepts.

    Stu west has a nice paper covering this and much more.

    the reason i say you are harsh is that MLS seems to be a valid group selection formulation and seems to be the one currently being promoted by DS Wilson, EO wilson, Elliot sober, etc.

    1. Sweet jesus, what does “fair” have to do with anything. It’s all about evidence and a lot of hard work trying to test everything, over and over and over…for years.

    2. “the reason i say you are harsh is that MLS seems to be a valid group selection formulation and seems to be the one currently being promoted by DS Wilson, EO wilson, Elliot sober, etc.”

      you’ve bought an empty cheese wrapper.

      their models were ALWAYS plausible, and mathematically sound.

      they have simply failed in the field.

      group selection simply does not explain even .01% of the variation observed in the field.

      people like Sloan Wilson would have you believe it’s the primary mechanism. I know, I’VE ASKED HIM.

      it’s wrong, they’re wrong, and I can’t see how they ever will be right, given we already have significant data from the field to reject group selection as a significant mechanism.

      maybe in an alternate reality, but not this one.

      1. But they can score ideological and polemical points with the public and lay audiences by playing to:
        – Doubts about “evolution”
        – Appealing to pop moralistic notions of “sin,” etc.

        It is a deeply dishonest but clever and effective tactic. By playing to pop ideological notions of morality/religion, Wilson paints any critics into a corner as being pro-sin.

        So Dawkins, and all the other followers of he current evolutionary models get shuffled quickly to the dark side while Wilson, et al stand for American christian evangelical morality and “good.” You can see this reflected in the thrall he captures Charlie Rose in.

        So the rhetorical agenda here is hardly scientific nor benign.

        He is basically saying evolutionists don’t know what they’re talking about and are dead wrong about a fundamental precept. Lots of folks want to hear that message today.

        1. I think you might be reading more into the religion thing than there is.

          I’ve talked to Sloan Wilson, and he seems to think now that religions are excellent candidates to apply his group selection models to.

          He’s out to lunch, IMO, but I’d guess this is where any of the religious jargon is coming from.

          or, hell, maybe they spiked his kool-aid since I last spoke with him; that was over a year ago.

          1. We propose that:
            – The aggressiveness of this campaign
            – And it’s unscientific and illogical nature
            – Along with the broad publicizing of it….

            Only really make “sense” in terms of EO Wilson’s use of the term “sin.” That’s logical.

            Of course, there is also the discussion of “advanced” species and all that. Human exceptionalism runs thru the narrative – and that is a standard religious trope.

            He is also claiming to provide a sweeping statement about the fundamental moral/alturistic nature of life and, we must assume, all of reality, ie, physics created a moral biology. The comment about the mass of eusocial insects is great

            Apparently the more your species weighs the more “right” (less sinful) you are!

            He seems to have made this a wedge issue for science and evolution. Clever.

      2. In our view, if you take away Wilson’s air of noblesse and avuncular manner, again effective, the whole enterprise borders on a screed.

        The video strikes us that way, but so do Wilson’s other written statements.

  20. this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force.

    …even when Richard borrows, it’s done well.

    so, so, SO tired of this decades long “debate”.

    Richard was correct 30 years ago that Wilson willfully misunderstood and misapplied Hamilton’s kin selection concepts.

    nothing has changed since.

  21. Reblogged this on MOUNT IMPROBABLE and commented:
    I know it’s old news, but I’ve only just recently finished reading both “The Social Conquest of Earth” and “The Greatest Show on Earth”, and we’ve been discussing this lately at University…

    Perhaps I’ll go into eusociality once I understand it a little better…

  22. Spot on with this write-up, I really believe that this site needs a
    lot more attention. I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the info!

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