Wednesday, June 27, 2012

EO Wilson responds in NYTimes

In an opinion piece published online EO Wilson responds directly to his critics regarding his recent rethink of a long held tenet of evolutionary biology.  Wilson officially abandoned his long-held belief that cooperative and altruistic behavior among some organisms can be simply explained as a veiled selfishness (kin selection) in 2010. This came after a lifetime promoting the opposing view. In a controversial peer-reviewed Nature paper titled "the evolution of eusociality" Wilson explains why he thinks kin selection theory is insufficient to explain altruistic behavior and ought to be replaced with multi-level selection theory. With the publication of this paper Wilson and coauthors ignited a massive debate that has recently unfurled in popular media. Wilson explains.

A strong reaction from supporters of kin selection not surprisingly ensued, and soon afterward more than 130 of them famously signed on to protest our replacement of kin selection by multilevel selection, and most emphatically the key role given to group selection. But at no time have our mathematical and empirical arguments been refuted or even seriously challenged. Since that protest, the number of supporters of the multilevel selection approach has grown, to the extent that a similarly long list of signatories could be obtained. But such exercises are futile: science is not advanced by polling. If it were, we would still be releasing phlogiston to burn logs and navigating the sky with geocentric maps.

Though I may not accept multi-level selection theory currently I do like Wilson's point that "science is not advanced by polling."  As a citizen of a post-enlightenment democracy my hope is that all politics will eventually die at the hand of science. Politics is subject to rhetoric. Science in an idealized sense is immune to rhetoric. Science can be spun in all kinds of directions but at its core really is not subject to opinion. The existence of seasonal Antarctic ice layers measurable for nearly 740,000 years is indisputable. The existence of fossilized trilobites in Cambrian geologic formation is indisputable, the fact that you and I have nearly identical genetic code for hemoglobin molecules is indisputable. And so I am undaunted by this new debate in evolutionary theory. In the new version of the group selection vs. kin selection debate no one person's opinion will affect the validity of one over the other. 

Read EO Wilson's entire opinion piece here. See my previous coverage of this topic here and here. So far IMHO Steven Pinker has given the most complete analysis of the debate particularly the short comings of group selection theory.
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