Eric Michael Johnson has an excellent round-up of and commentary upon recent debates about “group selection” (also, a decent primer on the basics). If there is one major issue I might take with the narrative outlined, it is the idea that E. O. Wilson has made a recent about-face in regards to group selection, going from a skeptic to a believer. In Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate Ullica Segerstrale pointed out that this was obviously not the case even in Wilson’s grand book Sociobiology. If you don’t accept this, David Sloan Wilson seems to implicitly confirm Segerstrale’s position in his semi-autobiographical book Evolution for Everyone. Finally, I’ve heard it from acquaintances at Harvard that it was an open secret that E. O. Wilson was skeptical of the “Hamiltonian orthodoxy” ascendant in evolutionary biology and ecology. The controversy over the notorious paper, The evolution of eusociality, was years in the making. From what I gather many of Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard were skeptical that he comprehended the depths of the mathematics which he promoted to support his more intuitive empirically informed skepticism of the power of inclusive fitness. It isn’t an unheard of sin for an eminent empiricist to go shopping for a theoretician to add some luster to his logic, but it does frame the reason that some of Wilson’s colleagues seem so irritable about the whole affair.
In reading The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation in PNAS I couldn’t help but think back to a conversation I had with a few old friends in Evanston in 2003. They were graduate students in mathematics at Northwestern, and at one point one of them expressed some serious frustration at the fact that so many of the science and business students in his introductory calculus courses simply wanted to “learn” a disparate set of techniques, rather than understand calculus. The reality of course is that the vast majority of people who ever encounter calculus aim to learn it for reasons of utility, not so that they can grok the fundamental theorem of calculus. With the proliferation of tools such as Mathematica and powerful portable calculators fewer and fewer people are getting their hands dirty with calculus in an analytic sense, and more often see it as simply a “requirement” which they have to pass.
Calculus, and mathematics generally, is a clean and crisp human invention. In the late 17th century Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz originated calculus as we understand it. Later thinkers extended their work. But for the vast majority of humans who have ever learned calculus it is simply a “black box” set of techniques which work rather magically. They did not contribute anything new to the body of knowledge which they drew upon. Mathematics is part of our cultural patrimony, we implicitly stand upon the shoulders of giants without apology. Such is to be human.
The fruits of human cooperation
Why cooperation? Why social complexity? Why the ‘problem’ of altruism? These are issues which bubble up at the intersection of ethology and evolution. They also preoccupy thinkers in the social sciences who address fundamental questions. There are perhaps two major dimensions of the parameter space which are useful to consider here: the nature of the relationship between the cooperators, and the scale of the cooperation. An inclusive fitness framework tracks the relation between altruism and genetic relatedness. Reciprocal altruism and tit-for-tat don’t necessarily focus on the genetic relationship between the agents who exchange in mutually beneficial actions. But, in classical models they do tend to focus on dyadic relationships at a small scale.* That is, they’re methodologically individualistic at heart. So all complexity can be reduced to lower orders of organization. In economics a rational choice model of behavior is individualistic, as are the critiques out of behavioral economics.
There are other models which break out of this individualistic box, insofar as they make analogies between organisms at the individual scale to social entities which are aggregations of individuals (e.g., a colony or ethnic group). The society as an organism has an old intellectual pedigree, and was elaborated in great detail by Émile Durkheim. More recently David Sloan Wilson has attempted to resurrect this framework in an explicitly evolutionary sense. Wilson has also been the most vocal proponent of multi-level selection, which posits that the unit of selection can be above the level of the gene or individual. For example, selection operating upon distinctive ‘demes.’ Roughly, a breeding social unit.