Can't we all just get long: evolution of altruism edition

By Razib Khan | October 11, 2010 1:48 am

Samir Okasha is a philosopher of science and author of Evolution and the Levels of Selection. So his recent comment in Nature, Altruism researchers must cooperate, is informed by a scholarly background in these controversies. From what I can gather Okasha’s stance in this case is to “push back” on Nowak & Wilson in particular, who are the ones making positively audacious claims:

All this disagreement creates the impression of a field in massive disarray. In reality, many of the players involved are arguing at cross purposes. Nowak and his colleagues, for instance, have developed a mathematical model that they claim provides a more direct way to calculate the evolutionary dynamics of a social trait such as altruism…However, they overlook the fact that inclusive fitness theory explains what organisms are trying to maximize. It is not just a tool for calculating when a social trait will evolve.

Likewise, in arguing that ecological factors, rather than kinship, are key to the evolution of social-insect colonies, Wilson is imposing a false dichotomy…To fully understand how these colonies evolve, researchers need to consider ecological factors and relatedness. Whether they stress the importance of one over the other will depend on the question they are asking. For example, relatedness has proved crucial to understanding conflicts between the queen and her workers over the production of male versus female offspring in ants, bees and wasps. For questions about how tasks are allocated to the workers in an ant colony or why the size of colonies differs across species, ecological factors are probably more relevant.

As a “big picture” guy Okasha takes a step back, and compares evolutionary biology to physics (not favorably I might add):

Much of the current antagonism could easily be resolved — for example, by researchers situating their work clearly in relation to existing literature; using existing terminology, conceptual frameworks and taxonomic schemes unless there is good reason to invent new ones; and avoiding unjustified claims of novelty or of the superiority of one perspective over another.

It is strange that such basic good practice is being flouted. The existence of equivalent formulations of a theory, or of alternative modelling approaches, does not usually lead to rival camps in science. The Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formulations of classical mechanics, for example, or the wave and matrix formulations of quantum mechanics, tend to be useful for tackling different problems, and physicists switch freely between them.

History shows that, despite its enormous empirical success, evolutionary biology is peculiarly susceptible to controversy and infighting. This is particularly true of social evolution theory, in part because of its potential applications to human behaviour. In the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, left-wing scholars bitterly rejected biological explanations for phenomena such as religion and homosexuality, because they feared such explanations would be used to justify a continuation of existing inequalities.

When evolutionary biologists start to look like macroeconomists from the outside, it’s not a pretty picture.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Genetics
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  • Eric Johnson

    I’ll tell you what else is an audacious claim. Wilson and Wilson saying that altruism in clonal bacteria (towards co-clonals cells) comes from group selection. Both workers are valuable guys. But the cooperation of 99.99% similar bacteria is not too different from the cooperation of my own cells. The cooperation of cells with the same genome (99.99%) is simply kin selection. The survival of a copy of me is just as good as the survival of me, in the great game, and a 99.99% accurate copy of me 99.99% as good as me. I fail to see how this even debatable.

    99.99% is a conservative figure. A fascinating fact: something like 75% of newborn E coli cells have no mutations whatsoever.

    So, EO Wilson has been erring about Hamiltonianism since way before the latest controversy. Again, a valuable worker, but on this one he’s in a dark wood wandering.

    How Nowak got into this stuff, I don’t know, and generally I’m not smart enough to deal with his stuff. Nevertheless, I’m not gonna bet on antihamiltonianism being right, no matter who gets involved with it. I’m smart enough to deal pretty well with Hamiltonianism with reasonable certainty.

  • Rosie Redfield

    Eric, although bacterial cultures can be used to model group-selection phenomena, there’s very little strong evidence that group selection has played much role in bacterial evolution. Most of the ‘evidence’ is just-so stories.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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