Thursday, April 26, 2012

Multi-level selection

I've been watching with great anticipation as one of the oldest battles in evolutionary biology is being born anew this year thanks to E.O. Wilson and his mathematical comrades Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita. The trio lead by the old sage - Wilson - has in essence capsized the boat when it comes to the debate between group-selection and kin-selection.

As a bright-eyed college freshman I was made to read the selfish gene by Richard Dawkins. In this book Dawkins lays out a strong case for kin-selection and the rugged individual as embodied by "the gene." This world-view provides the logical starting point when building an argument for "kin-selection." E.O. Wilson was in the kin-selection camp for decades, indeed he was there close to the birth of the concept. But now looking back at his long career he has made an epic flip-flop (which consequentially I think is a high virtue in science despite being maligned by politicos the country over).

Wilson's flip-flop is away from kin-selection and towards group selection. I learned more about his opinions regarding this philosophy in this rough-cut interview with Carl Zimmer. A core concept Wilson acknowledges is not well developed is multi-level selection. Mult-level selection is a more nuanced approach to understanding group-selection. Wilson suggests multi-level selection ought to be fleshed out in order to replace what he considers the erroneous inclusive-fitness theory.

I had not grasped what "multi-level" selection meant until I got to 9:00 in the following TED talk by Jonathan Hiadt. Here he explains in basic terms what multi-level selection theory looks like using a crew-team to illustrate his point. I immediately thought of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque. One of the continuous themes is the hatred the main character and all of his fellow soldiers feel toward their commanding officer. One of the most gruesome scenes in the book is an ambush of the officer his own men orchestrate. They beat him to within an inch of his life to let him know he does not control them. This internal conflict is more nuanced than the conflict with the enemy and also illustrates one layer in multi-level evolution theory. Please watch the video and let me know what you think.

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