Friday, March 15, 2013

Social Creatures

The individual vs. group-selection debate is a "can of worms" as Frans de Waal recently put it.

Do I think there is a genetic component to cooperation? Yes, probably. Is there a special set of genes in ants, ambrosia beetles and human beings that make us uniquely social creatures? I don't know.

When I first read Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene I took away much inspiration. The clarity with which he writes leads the reader to a sense of certitude on how genes proliferate and persist. In an era of rampant disparity in global science literacy it is good to have sure-footed thinkers at the forefront of science communication. As my friend John Romano said recently "Evolution is a theory like gravity is a theory." It is a good thing to have people shouting this from the rooftops.

But, as Jacob Bronowski echos in my mind "science is a tribute to what we can know, although we are fallible" I can not help but think that giving people certainty instead of training them in the ability to think critically for themselves may be more harmful to the spread of science in the long run. The kind of in-fighting that happens about the details gets interpreted by the public at large as - there is no scientific consensus on evolution. When it comes to "paradigm-shifts" in evolutionary biology you often see the tribal side of scientists come out. Camps are formed, lines drawn, fires lit.

E.O. Wilson makes a valid criticism of Dawkins - he has not practiced research science in decades, nor has he had a peer-reviewed paper published in quite some time.

The counter-criticism of Wilson is that his recent switch to embracing a form of "group-selection"  the as-yet-to-be defined "Multi-level selection" may be unwittingly urged by dollar signs in the form of Templeton Foundation money funneled toward his in silico collaborator Martin Nowak. Not to mention the potential to bump up book sales when a book is branded "controversial." (Read more about the Templeton Foundation here.)

Whenever we try to put words on top of natural phenomena there are certain aspects of the concept that get lost in translation as words are by their very nature metaphors. I think this is what is happening to concepts like "inclusive fitness" and "group selection." They are fuzzy all-encompassing terms for broader processes evolutionary biologists are trying to reconcile through observation. This phenomenon of chasing catch-phrases is harmful to science in my opinion. It predisposes researchers to pursue sexy but poorly defined buzz-words rather than novel questions.

If you want to read more about the academic brawl surrounding E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins and "group selection" fellow Blogger Eric Michael Johnson has a wonderfully comprehensive piece on his Scientific American blog.   I have also attempted to cover this before.

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