I’m particularly peeved about the Guardian‘s latest report on the group-selection debate, one fueled by a Nature paper by Nowak, Tarnita, and (E. O.) Wilson, and by Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, that was very critically reviewed by Richard Dawkins in Prospect. If you’re a regular here, you’ll know that the debate centers on Wilson’s claims that kin selection (inclusive fitness theory) is a largely useless way of studying evolution, and that the idea of group selection is more productive.
As I noted yesterday, the scientific debate is technical, arcane, and often mathematical. It’s hard to convey to the public, but it can be done. But the Guardian has screwed it all up in its new piece, “Richard Dawkins in furious row with E. O. Wilson over theory of evolution” (subtitle: “Book review sparks war of words between grand old man of biology and Oxford’s most high-profile Darwinist”). It was written by Vanessa Thorpe.
They screw up in two main ways:
1. They don’t understand the science behind the debate about whether group selection is plausible and kin selection wrong, so they just characterize the debate as a “squabble” between eggheads (the title and subtitle above says it all). That means, of course, that they don’t even attempt to discuss the scientific issues at stake.
2. They drag in a single expert who doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about.
It’s a short article, but there are so many fails:
- Failure to engage the arguments. The Guardian characterizes the argument about the number of people on each side of the debate: Wilson, Tarnita, Nowak, and perhaps D. S. Wilson on one hand, and everyone else on the other (about 135 scientists signed critical letters about the Wilson et al. paper). From the Guardian piece:
The Oxford evolutionary biologist, 71, [Dawkins] has also infuriated many readers by listing other established academics who, he says, are on his side when it comes to accurately representing the mechanism by which species evolve. Wilson, in a short piece penned promptly in response to Dawkins’s negative review, was also clearly annoyed by this attempt to outflank him.
“In any case,” Wilson writes, “making such lists is futile. If science depended on rhetoric and polls, we would still be burning objects with phlogiston [a mythical fire-like element] and navigating with geocentric maps.”
But it’s not just about numbers. Each of the several critiques of Wilson et al.’s attack on kin selection dealt with science. Is kin selection different from “regular” natural selection? Do Nowak et al. really have a new theory for the origin of eusocial behavior in insects? Has kin selection failed to tell us anything interesting about nature?
And there have been several published papers in the last year that criticized Wilson’s views. None of the scientific arguments are even mentioned in the Guardian piece. And of course a scientific consensus on this, and on other topics, is not completely meaningless. As someone pointed out either here or somewhere else (I forget), at any given time, for every lone voice in science who stands against the consensus and turns out to be right, there are dozens who stand against the consensus and turn out to be wrong. Cold fusion, homeopathy, anti-vaxers, HIV denialists, anti-global-warming-ites. . . the list goes on. In this case, I’m pretty damn sure that there is no merit to E. O. Wilson’s claims and that the consensus is correct.
- Failure to properly describe the science. The Guardian notes:
Wilson is an advocate of “multi-level selection theory”, a development of the idea of “kin selection”, which holds that other biological, social and even environmental priorities may be behind the process.
Multi-level selection theory is not a development of the idea of “kin selection,” at least in Wilson’s mind. It is something completely different and not related to kin selection. Nor do either kin selection nor multilevel selection hold that the environment is irrelevant to the operation of natural selection. I’m not sure what the Guardian means by “other biological or social priorities,” but if these are factors impinging on natural selection, they’d hold for both theories.
- Failure to ask the proper experts. There are several people the Guardian could have consulted, on both sides, to enlighten its readers. D. S. Wilson or Martin Nowak on Wilson’s side, for instance, or nearly every other expert on the evolution of social behavior on the other side. But who do they ask to adjudicate the debate? Professor Georgy Koentges of Warwick University, a genomic biologist who, while appearing well qualified in his area, seems to have no expertise or publications on the evolution of social behavior. And it shows.
According to one expert in evolution and development, Professor Georgy Koentges of Warwick University, the central problem is the impossibility of defining “fitness”, whether in organisms, organs, cells, genes or even gene regulatory DNA regions. As a result, he sees both Dawkins and Wilson as “straw men” in this debate.
That’s complete hogwash. Fitness can be perfectly well defined for a gene as the average number of copies it leaves after a generation relative to other forms of that gene. It can be defined for genotypes (the genetic constitution of individual organisms) in a similar way. And used in that way it has proved enormously productive in understanding genetic evolution, whether it be the change in frequency of black versus white moths in polluted areas, or the number of males versus females produced by wasps that parasitize fly pupae. If fitness were impossible to define with reasonable accuracy, the whole area of population genetics would be useless and unproductive. It isn’t.
Koentges then goes off into an irrelevant tirade, making statements that are not only dubious, but completely beside the point when considering the group-selection argument. Here’s a dubious one:
“This is a fantasy. There is no such thing as a good or bad gene. It doesn’t work that simply. Genes are used and re-used in different contexts, each of which might have a different overall fitness value for a given organism or a group.”
Well, yes, but this is irrelevant to the argument, which is about what conditions are required for a gene conferring eusocial behaviors (sterility and caste formation) to be good. And though a gene’s ability to replicate does indeed depend on its environment, there are some decent examples of genes that are unconditionally bad. A dominant gene that kills a fruit fly in the embryo stage, for example, is just plain bad, and nothing is going to make it good. The dominant gene for retinoblastoma (eye cancer) seems pretty unconditionally bad. Lots of mutations that simply inactivate essential genes are unlikely to be good under most circumstance—although some can be. But again, this statement of Koentges says nothing about the debate.
The Guardian goes on:
In later life Darwin said he wished he had called his theory natural preservation, rather than selection, but even the preservation of certain genes down the ages is no proof that they are good.
“To use a simple human example, someone with the perfect set of genes for walking with two legs might die early because they jump off a cliff,” said Koentges.
Yeah, so what? That’s an unfortunate environmental effect that has nothing to do with leg genes. It may select against behaviors for walking on cliffs, but it won’t select for having only one leg! There are all kinds of environmental accidents that are irrelevant to selection on certain genes. A tiny mutant krill with a slightly different color won’t reap or suffer the benefit of selection if it’s one of a gazillion of its fellows engulfed in the mouth of a baleen whale. Again, Koentges’s argument is completely beside the point.
And he makes a final, sweeping, and equally irrelevant statement:
Like other scientists commenting on this “tit-for-tat” dispute between Wilson and Dawkins, Koentges also detects the old struggle between those who focus purely on the gene and those who see it as “an anthropological insult to our own feeling of self-belief”.
“The field has moved on, and so should we all,” says Koentges.
Sorry, Dr. Koentges, but both sides in this dispute are arguing about what happens to genes involved in producing certain behaviors. The mooshy idea of “self-belief”, whatever that is, has nothing to do with this struggle. And no, the field hasn’t “moved on.” We are in the midst of a scientific dispute (one pretty well resolved on the side of kin selection, in my opinion), and we won’t move on until everyone takes the real issues on board.
But Koentges should move on: back to his genomics lab.
Shame on the Guardian for publishing this kind of trashy science journalism.