November 5, 2007

Rethinking Group Selection in the Evolution of Species

In the current issue of New Scientist (November 3, 2007), evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson effectively end the hegemony of the selfish gene idea: they review the field and declare in a voice loud and clear that group selection was mistakenly cast aside during previous decades, that the evidence for group selection is too strong to be ignored, and that the current ideas about how evolution works need to be revised.

In the words of the authors:
"The old arguments against group selection have all failed. It is theoretically plausible, it happens in reality, and the so-called alternatives actually include the logic of multilevel selection. Had this been known in the 1960s, sociobiology would have taken a very different direction. It is this branch point that must be revisited to put sociobiology back on a firm theoretical foundation. Accepting multilevel selection has profound implications. It means we can no longer regard the individual as a privileged level of the biological hierarchy..."


1 comment:

David Sloan Wilson said...

Dan Agin has boldly waved selfish genes goodbye in his report on my article with E.O. Wilson in the November 3 issue of New Scientist, which is a digest of a more comprehensive article that will appear in the December issue of Quarterly Review of Biology titled "Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology."

Agin´s farewell provoked a flurry of comments that raise the issue of what selfish genes, and memes, really mean.

The problem with these words is that they have both a broad and narrow meaning. Selfish genes broadly refer to all genes that evolve by natural selection, which by definition are more fit than the genes they replaced.

Similarly, "selfish memes" broadly refer to all traits that spread by cultural evolution. It would be impossible to say goodbye to these definitions because, by including everything that evolves, they come perilously close to explaining nothing in the first place.
No one would care about selfish genes or memes if they didn´t imply something more specific. Selfish genes were originally regarded as a drop-dead argument against group selection, and so they are still regarded by many.

Selfish memes suggest a number of specific implications; that culture can be atomized into gene-like bits, that they are encoded as something gene-like inside the head, and especially that culture can be like a virus that propagates itself without benefiting human individuals or groups. I repeat: the broad meanings of genes and memes are not restricted to these implications, but the narrow meanings give the words their power to influence the way we think about the world around us, and to which we can bid adieu.
It´s not just the general public that is confused about broad vs. narrow meanings, but the master himself, Richard Dawkins. In dozens of passages he cautions that selfish genes don´t really imply selfish individuals, and in dozens of other passages he asserts that they do. One of his most recent essays, titled "Atheists for Jesus", is a gem for revealing the limitations of his thought. He proclaims that "Natural selection is a deeply nasty process" and that "From a...Darwinian point of view, human super-niceness is just plain dumb." By human super-niceness, he means the fact that "so many people are kind, generous, helpful, compassionate, and nice." Notice that he is not referring to universal niceness, which after all is extremely rare in our species, but merely the garden variety of human niceness that goes beyond nepotism and mutual-back scratching.

Since human super-niceness is beyond Dawkins´ imagination as an adaptation (either genetic or cultural), he can explain it only as an evolutionary mistake that must be perpetuated to make the world a better place. Dawkins says:

The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. 'Atheists for Jesus' would grace a T-shirt... [P]erhaps the oxymoronic impact of 'Atheists for Jesus' might be just what is needed to kick start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right - could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post- singularity enlightenment?

A slogan on a T-shirt is our best hope for achieving peace on earth? Sadly, Dawkins is a victim of his own limited view of memes as little bits of culture that spread like viruses. It is beyond his imagination that culture might take the form of complex systems of belief and practice that adapt entire groups to their environments, including forms of niceness that go beyond nepotism and narrow back-scratching. The broad definition of selfish genes and memes could be taken in that direction, but that is not where Dawkins takes it.

But Dawkins was not alone and was standing on the shoulders of giants who turned group selection into a pariah concept ten years before the publication of The Selfish Gene. Nor is it necessary to personify ideas; there is much to recommend the gene´s eye view, once we see the fallacy of regarding it as an argument against group selection. And culture is manifestly important, regardless of whether we use the word "meme." Saying goodbye to selfish genes and memes involves questioning everything that has been associated with these concepts and reviving what they seemed to deny: the concept society as organism.

This means regarding most people as innately disposed to function as team players in the pursuit of common goals, not just consciously but to the roots of our unconscious mental processes. It does not lead to the naive view that everything is nice, since superorganisms display the same spectrum of relationships known for individual organisms, from extreme conflict to mutualism. It does not automatically lend support to any particular political ideology, but rather explains all political systems, religious systems, and other cultural systems as roughly like species in ecosystems. Put simply, it enables human behavioral and cultural diversity to be approached in the same way that evolutionists already approach the rest of life. And it leads to more sensible recommendations for improving the human condition than slogans on a T-shirt.

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