Sunday, June 24, 2012

Steven Pinker on Group Selection

"I am often asked whether I agree with the new group selectionists, and the questioners are always surprised when I say I do not. After all, group selection sounds like a reasonable extension of evolutionary theory and a plausible explanation of the social nature of humans. Also, the group selectionists tend to declare victory, and write as if their theory has already superseded a narrow, reductionist dogma that selection acts only at the level of genes. In this essay, I'll explain why I think that this reasonableness is an illusion. The more carefully you think about group selection, the less sense it makes, and the more poorly it fits the facts of human psychology and history." 

                  ~Steven Pinker

In an article published at The Edge Steven Pinker addresses the recent dust-up in the debate between "new group selectionists" and "gene-selectionists." The former being spearheaded by biologists and social scientists like E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Hiadt, the later group lead by evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne. 

I have covered this emerging debate here at Tom Paine's Ghost and at the World Science Festival blog.

You can read Steven Pinker's essay here.

I think this debate comes down to conceptual semantics.  The observations of science really should not be limited by language.  Whether thinkers decide to call a gene "selfish" or "altruistic" the author is still assigning a false personality to a physical thing. A gene alone does not have "will" in either case. This is hard to accept but after reading Sam Harris' Free Will I can accept that free will is an illusion more readily. Darwin himself struggled with false anthropomorphism when he decided to use the word "selection" - as in natural selection. He went to great pains to point out that the natural process does not have any will to select. 

This debate will not be settled with words. It ought be settled on an agreement on which equations describe genetic fitness most realistically. After reading the infamous Wilson, Tartinia, Nowak Nature paper (including the 45-page-long prose-heavy supplemental) I am not convinced of Nowak and his fancy equations. It appears to me he is intentionally complicating the math to the point of obscurity.  Carefully reading the new equations he proposes to describe an individual's fitness I am left confused. This is unnecessary confusion inside a supplemental text (usually overlooked) behind a paywall.  It pangs of academic secrecy and I can not stand it. I hope the debate continues and these equations are scrutinized in public view! Bully to Steven Pinker for jumping in the ring.
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