Monday, May 28, 2012

Good for Goodness' Sake?

I have decided to focus my "homework" leading up to the World Science Festival on E.O. Wilson and his recent change of mind regarding a long-held tenet of evolutionary biology - inclusive fitness. The theory of inclusive fitness provides a logical and mathematical framework to rationalize kin-selection. Kin-selection explains why behavioral traits such as self-sacrifice come to be in certain species. Although it appears an organism is sacrificing their life for the "greater-good" they are really just behaving that way so that their genes can be passed on through their relatives who they are trying to help survive. Wilson has abandoned the idea that altruistic behavior emerges out of the struggle for existence as previously explained by a simple equation championed by none other that HIMSELF at an earlier stage in his life. The equation is rB>C. In which r is a relatedness factor B is the fitness Benefit to the altruistic organism and C is the Cost of genetic fitness to the organism for carrying out the act of altruism. This equation was put forth and formalized by the British evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton in the 1960's.

So why has Wilson changed his mind about inclusive fitness? In a 2010 paper in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Wilson, along with colleagues Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita claim there is not enough evidence in the real world of organisms who display altruistic behavior that follow the rule rB>C. They go further to say that the factors in the equation, B and C are too difficult to quantify.  Wilson admits the equation is simple, elegant, and alluring however he maintains that it is too simple and needs revision.

Wilson's flip-flop (btw, I am not using flip-flop in a negative way here as I think in science changing one's mind is a virtue not a vice) has caused an uproar in the scientific community drawing heavy criticism from some of the most vocal evolutionary biologists including Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.  Wilson's critics have said he is using his authority to make assumptions without backing up his claims with real-world data (though Wilson does cite termite and ambrosia beetle societies). Wilson fires back at them with the same criticism, saying they have a lack of data on their side (though they do cite sawfly, wasp and bee societies). This makes for the juiciest kind of intellectual debate, one that sends scientists out in the field in search for more evidence.

Meanwhile, Wilson's apparent embrace of "group-selection" has opened the flood-gates for scholars from the humanities to jump on board the cooperation-train and use "group-selection" to explain social phenomenon like the persistence of religion in human society and the rapid growth of social networks. Among these are psychologist Jonathan Haidt and social commentator David Brooks. The worry here is that the scientific debate over evidence will be overlooked by the hungry mobs of humanitarians so eager to extract rationale for morals out of biology. 

I am excited to go into this debate and try as I might to filter out the wheat from the chaff when it comes to sound-science.  It gets particularly noisy when morals get involved. I have seen this before at the World Science Festival as I covered the last "Faith and Science" discussion panel in 2010. My big worry is that the conversation will devolve into a silly argument about the participants underlying motives as the festival is in large part funded by a controversial organization called the John Templeton Foundation.  Compounding this fear of mine is that Matin Nowak (the Austrian born, Harvard mathematician, and co-author of E.O.Wilson's) has received many millions of dollars form the Templeton foundation for his research.  Indeed, many of the intellectuals in the Wilson camp are notorious in the scientific community for receiving money from Templeton (Jonathan Haidt winning the Templeton prize in 2001.)  My hope is that the conversation can stick to the science and not get railroaded by money and politics. 

This post has been entered into the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center's travel award contest. Winner's will receive money to help pay for the travel expenses for attending the Science Online conference to be held at the end of January 2013 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Apply for the travel award here!


Barnabus Sackett said...

Glad to see you are getting into the debate! I have many citations for you to read (if you haven't read them already) and look forward to discussing the topic this summer.

Bjørn Østman said...

Do you have a list of questions yet? I will eagerly await a report of the discussion.