It is a puzzle of evolution: If natural selection dictates that the fittest survive, why do we see altruism in nature? Why do worker bees or ants, for instance, refrain from competing with those around them, but instead search for food or build nests on behalf of their companions? Why do they sacrifice their own reproductive success for the good of the group?
In the 1960s, British biologist William Hamilton offered an explanation in a theory now called kin selection. When animals, often insects, help siblings or other relatives survive, they are enhancing the odds that their shared family genes will be passed on. In other words, the genes, not the individual or social group, are what counts in evolution.
Hamilton’s idea was eventually accepted by most biologists, and found an enthusiastic backer, at the time, in Edward O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard evolutionist.
That was then. Now, Wilson has changed his mind, startling colleagues by arguing that kin selection does not lead to altruism.
This is highly misleading. In his most recent book, Evolution for Everyone, David Sloan Wilson, the maestro of multi-level selection theory, implies that E. O. Wilson never accepted that inclusive fitness was the whole story. David Sloan Wilson recounts that it was E. O. Wilson who prodded him into exploring group selective interpretations of his data. In Defenders of the Truth Ullica Segerstrale asserts this explicitly, stating that the idea that E. O. Wilson accepted W. D. Hamilton’s inclusive fitness as the total explanation for social behavior was a myth. Segerstrale contends that it is evident in the text of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis that Wilson remained attached to the viability of group selection long after accepting the power of inclusive fitness as a supplementary paradigm.*
The scientists who are quoted in article as being skeptical of Wilson’s apostasy are British. That doesn’t surprise me, I had a friend who worked at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge where Wilson is a professor, and his opinions in regards to “orthodox” Hamiltonianism have been widely known for the past generation. They didn’t have to read Segerstrale’s book or Sociobiology to infer the state of Wilson’s mind, he would tell them flat out where he stood. His collaboration Bert Holldobler, capped off with the new book The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, is the culmination in a long “coming out” process. From what I have heard the formal models which Wilson is championing now are simply glosses on top of his long head intuition that inclusive fitness just can’t explain all of sociality. Wilson believes various new lines of empirical data (e.g., genetic fingerprinting revising downward coefficients of relatedness in some insect societies below the threshold implied by Hamilton’s Rule) simply make more concrete his intuition as a naturalist, and the mathematical models are necessary cover for the offensive of ideas.
All of this is rather obscure to most people, but it is important to clarify and correct the record here. Perhaps all I have read and heard is wrong, and E. O. Wilson really was a dyed-in-the-wool Hamiltonian all these years, but I doubt it. The headline for that piece is much stronger than the text would warrant, but many people only read the headlines.
Related: Altruism & E.O. Wilson vs. Richard Dawkins and Levels of selection – the coming debate.
* “Scholars” would gain much from reading the works of intellectuals whose ideas they presume to know. I’m thinking here of the caricatures of Herbert Spencer. In any case, from what I recall Segerstrale claims that Richard Dawkins’ exposition of W. D. Hamilton’s theories in The Selfish Gene originated the myth that Wilson repudiated group selection.