How not to do science journalism: the Guardian screws up the group-selection debate

June 25, 2012 • 8:39 am

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.

For example:

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.

49 thoughts on “How not to do science journalism: the Guardian screws up the group-selection debate

  1. Dr. Coyne, I hope your blood pressure has not gone through the roof due to this Guardian article. Down a stiff bourbon.

    You certainly took them apart for it 🙂

  2. Have to say, we are pro marketers and strongly propose that “popular science” and science journalism can’t be done and actually cause more harm and blowback than do good and instruct.

    Good evidence-based knowledge directly challenges all ideologies and the status quo and pop media and journalism literally gets paid (time, money and attention) to pander to the lowest common denominator, ideology and the status quo.

    Now, Yanks love gadgets so any “science” that is somewhat relevant to a new gadget is hot headline (we call it The Tang Effect: what is the most meaningful product of space exploration to Yanks — Tang) — the rest the media really hates. Brits and EU are better but not that much as this article shows. Dum

  3. Great post – this kind of journalism needs taking apart publicly. To add to the patronising tone, even the URL on the Guardian webpage has “battle of the professors” in it.

  4. The trouble is they got the Arts & Media person to write this story – I assume Robin McKie was in Rio?

    1. Perhaps. Coyne’s tying group selection efforts to Templeton had me looking for any connections between them and Thorpe. Didn’t find any, but she has written a cheerful (or naive, as in expecting them to show prayers working) article on UK prayer studies adopted from Templeton origins.

  5. What is telling is that Wilson clearly states factual errors. That suggests either he is willingly lying or is delusional.

    He is clearly:
    – Running away from serious scholarly and evidence-based dialog
    – Running as fast as he can into the arms of pop media.

    Ergo, along with his telling comment equating “selfishness” with “sin” he seems to be using the standard dishonest demagoguery tactic. Sad, for the coda of his career.

  6. And you haven’t even dealt with the >600 comments, Jerry, many of which begin ‘I’m not a biologist but *insert ignorant comment here*’ or which delight in saying ‘I don’t like Dawkins because he appears arrogant’, and thereby conclude that he must be wrong in this debate. No more coffee today, Ceiling Cat!

    1. But at least a few lamented the absence of a Coyne, PhD.

      [Disclaimer: I was one of them. But not alone!]

    2. One of the best example of this nonsense is from a poster called “Leconfidant” claiming that the selfish gene is the pretext for the right wing ideologies of the new atheists…

      He even claims in one post that Mary Midgely defeated Dawkins in their debate on the selfish gene!

      1. ‘Fraid I gave up on the comments (which are now 800+) when I saw that the thread had, sadly and inevitably, degenerated into the normal evolution bashing ….

        1. The thing with the evolution-bashers is nobody takes them seriously other than the religiously motivated. The ones that worry me are the type who accept evolution but argue that E. O. Wilson and also Lynn Margulis are (or were) onto something good.

      2. I guess he might be right about the Mary Midgely. She did seemed to have “defeated” Dawkins’s efforts to get her to read the book for goodness’ sake rather than writing lengthy papers on why the gene cannot be “selfish” because (surprise!) it does not have a brain or something.

        1. It is a shame people seem to think that she has anything worthwhile to say on this issue. It’s clear she has an axe to grind and woan’t let anything as sordid as evidence get in the way of her assertions. Years ago when Coyne and Dawkins wrote an article in the Guardian about why ID should not be taught she replied in the letters page supportive of ID and using the tired argument of evolution being random.

          1. I was also wondering if she is into criticizing Steven Pinker these days, on the grounds that “angels” do not exist, or if she also holds a grudge against Steven Hawking, for “time” is not a historical person place or thing. She seems perfectly capable of such feats

          2. I dread to ponder what she thinks when on
            opening the TV guide she sees “Come Dancing” is on…

    3. I looked at one or two comments & my mind boggled at the ignorant rubbish the Richard Dawkins haters spouted. That is the trouble with facts -people find them unsettling & shoot the messenger.

  7. Glad you took this horrible article apart. Despite promising myself I would NOT read ‘comments’ on articles in the Guardian that mention Dawkins, I couldn’t help myself: whew, there’s a lot of spite and hatred for that man, usually based squarely on a determined and principled insistence of misunderstanding just about everything he has ever said or written. Still, there were a few lone voices pointing out errors and exaggerations in the article.

  8. Sadly creationists will zoom in on the Guardian headline “Richard Dawkins in furious row with E. O. Wilson over theory of evolution” when no such thing is evident.

  9. the comment by queller on pinker’s article in edge seems spot on. in 92 he showed group selection is formally equivalent to inclusive fitness theory. brands idea is also good following margulis.

    i think there is a ‘religious’ or ‘paradigmatic’ aspect to the debate. people just object to using certain terms—eg i prefer to refer to myself as an agnostic (the question of god is an ill posed problem) and am willing to grant theists their choice of the word god or creator if they want, or atheists their opinion, but consider that formally equivalent to my preference for something more like ‘the laws of physics/evolution’ or quantum field theory. both are unknowable. wittgenstein i think said something along these lines. the null hypothesis is null.

    i prefer ‘groups’ because its intuitive. its hard to figure out who is or isnt kin, so maybe its empirically useless unless you want infinite data collection. also many suggest kin recognition devices may not be very robust, so then it makes no sense to look for relatedness. group selection is a default option.

    1. Are you the last Yahi? 🙂

      Group selection can only be a default option if you unthinkingly accept the reality of discrete groups within a species.

      In other words, it’s the natural assumption for nationalists, sectarians, class warriors, chauvinists, tribalists and/or bigots.

      That is – in theory – completely separate from any possible scientific basis such as Wilson et al. claim to possess.

      If you think identifying kin is hard, what makes you think ‘groups’ are obvious?

    2. Organisms don’t need to “figure out who is or isnt kin [sic]”. They just need to engage in behavior that happens to benefit their kin more than non-kin.

      And would it kill you to punctuate?

  10. Minor quibble Jerry.

    The article did not actually appear in the Guardian, but in the Observer, which is the Sunday equivalent but with a different editorial staff.

    They share a website that for some reason seems to make it very unclear which paper it was actually published in.

  11. Wow … someone like Koentges who fails to understand fairly simple concepts can have a job in a genomics lab?

    And as for this one from E.O.W.: “… and navigating with geocentric maps.” News flash: we navigate primarily with geocentric maps. Even those automotive GPS units are showing you geocentric maps and ships have a similar system of maps. Aircraft with the appropriate instrumentation *can* navigate without the maps, in which case they’re simply using the “geodetic model” which is still a geocentric model, but as you approach an airport you use those damned geocentric maps again.

  12. I just check who wrote the article. It was Vanessa Thorpe (whom I’ve never heard of) who is an arts journalist on the paper.

    Ignorance in the article partly explain, but not why an arts journalist was tasked to write a science story, and why no sub pick up the problems with it.

    The Observer’s science editor is Robin McKie, and is normally very good indeed.

      1. Oh! At least he’s doing manufacturing and mechanical engineering with robotics, not microfluidic engineering… 😉


  13. Dr.Koentges is head of the Laboratory of Genomic Systems Biology and Evolution. He is a molecular biologist who studies DNA and certainly wears a white lab coat. How could a mere naturalist dare dispute him?

  14. I was so hoping you’d weigh in on this article, and I’m thrilled you did–thank you. As a non-biologist, I referenced the article in relation to my reading of The Extended Phenotype in a review post a few days back, but even as I did so, aspects of the language used by The Guardian (and particularly the prioritization of “balance” over “fairness”) weighed on me. Going back now and linking readers of that post to this commentary–thanks again!

  15. In light of stiff competition for revenue I do feel it’s a dangerous game the media play by continuing their lazy and inaccurate approach to journalism. These days anyone who’s actually interested in the subject can easily find far more accurate accounts of the facts elsewhere on the web, such as on this blog for example. And as they continue to do so they will turn further and further away from traditional media. Although perhaps that would be a good thing…

  16. — Cold fusion, homeopathy, anti-vaxers, HIV denialists, anti-global-warming-ites. . . the list goes on. —
    Jerry, I object to you placing E.O.Wilson (how wrong he might be on selection) on a same level as homeopaths or anti-vaxers. Comparing E.O. Wilson to such obvious frauds is, I think, completely unjustified and unnecessarily insulting.
    Could you not list some honest scientific theories that were proven wrong? E.g. the aether theory, the phlogiston theory (mentioned by Wilson), or Darwin’s gemmules and his theory of pangenesis?

    1. Those were indeed good ‘working’ theories in their time, as was ‘creation theory’ as Darwin called it, however they were superseded because observations of the natural world, technical & technological advances in microscopy & telescopy, & other new discoveries meant that we could get access to new information. There is a difference as compared with the wacky ideas you list there. Is this what you are saying?

      1. Yes.
        E.O. Wilsons ideas about selection are maybe wrong, but they are certainly not ‘wacky’, like those listed above by Jerry Coyne.

        1. Oh come on, Cold Fusion was even more exciting than faster-than-light neutrinos, back in the day.

          Sure, Pons and Fleischman should have written a paper instead of a calling a press conference, but there’s zero reason to accuse them of fraud.

    2. As a list of people who stand against the consensus, but “turn out to be wrong”, it’s rather flawed. Global warming hasn’t “turned out” to be right, and pointing to the scientific consensus to prove it’s right is circular reasoning in this context.

  17. I wondered how long it would take Jerry to take this article apart, and he doesn’t disappoint.

    Its yet another exhibit in our long lament about the dreadful standards in so much science journalism.

    It was almost certainly tossed off in a few minutes by someone who didn’t know the subject, didn’t have time to do anything except skim a few websites, didn’t know who to contact for expert opinion and didn’t know what to ask the expert, and an expert who didn’t know exactly what he was being asked.

  18. Something troubling about this imbroglio. Dawkins floats the idea that Nature would not have published the Nowak-Narita-Wilson paper if the research hadn’t had the imprimatur of Wilson’s name on it.

    This is a serious charge, impugning not only Nowak, Narita, and Wilson but Nature and its peer-review board. Dawkins offers no evidence for his allegation (other than the question-beggary of ‘it-must-be-thus-because-I-disagree-with-Wilson’), so why did he make it? Because he really, really wanted to invoke the “poetic justice” of arguing from authority.

    Dawkins is so beholden (probably unnecessarily) to the fact that 150 evolutionary biologists object to Wilson’s thesis, that he ledes with this toothless argument, hoping to inoculate himself against the justifiable charge of speciousness with his ‘poetic justice’ nonsense.

    Jerry is blaming the Guardian for slipshod ‘science journalism,’ and he has somewhat of a point. But this really isn’t an article about the merits of inclusive fitness versus eusociality. It is about a ‘squabble between eggheads,’ as least as far as the Guardian is concerned, and Dawkins does not come out of it without some mud on his face.

    Perhaps a mainstream newspaper can cover the controversy more directly and concretely — ‘engage the arguments’ as Jerry advises — but that does not appear to be the purview of this article. It’s a bit pointless to criticise it for lacking substance on an angle it had not pursued in the first place.

  19. What really makes my head meet my desk is the inanity of the comments. All the ‘evolution is not proven’ etc crowd are out in force (again). That’s one main reason these articles are so bad – they stick in the mind of the anti-evolution crowd and the Grauniad has just given their opinion credit, it being a respectable newspaper.


    Good thing they have Martin Robbins, apart from that, it’s really almost entirely crap. He must feel lonely there.

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