Dawkins v Wilson on Group Selection

A minor irritant in Dawkins’ book just discussed is that he several times describes claims by other scientists and then patiently explains why they are wrong. In one case it’s a recently published paper in a journal. In another he takes on E.O. Wilson on group selection, in Wilson’s book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, that had just been published the year before. These are irritating because he makes the issues a bit too personal.

Without attempting to explain group selection, I note here only that there remains an ongoing debate, or perhaps merely a lingering disagreement, about the concept of group selection vs. individual selection, whether group selection ever applies. Dawkins is insistent upon the position that it does not, and he has several examples in his book of behaviors that may seem to benefit only the group (perhaps by relation) but which in fact can be understood the individual only.

At the same time Wilson has carried forward the banner for group selection, a steady theme through his many books and especially prominent in the last few of his books since The Social Conquest of Earth (2012). In these later books Wilson claims to have developed (along with his students) mathematical models that prove that group selection applies in certain circumstances.

Yet his does seem to be a minority position. Jerry Coyne had a blog post recently wondering why Wilson has hitched his wagon, in his declining years, to an invalidated theory. And Steven Pinker published an essay somewhere a few years ago called IIRC “The False Allure of Group Selection.”

Dawkins, I recall noting, is not quite as harsh on the subject as he used to be. And yet (just now checking several of his later books’ indexes) he’s only ever referenced Wilson once or twice. Wilson, for his part, has never referenced Dawkins at all.

And Wilson in his recent books is persuasive. I suspect the dispute arises in how different analyses make different starting assumptions, or prioritize one kind of analysis over another.

My impression is that Wilson’s analysis applies more at the level of social or cultural evolution. In any case, one of the fascinations of science is watching how some matters are never completely settled. Yes, maybe it’s different starting assumptions or different perspectives, or maybe each side is looking at different subcases of a larger phenomenon. It has to be something like that. If it were a trivial disagreement, it would have been settled by now. The issues still open in science are necessarily not the simple or trivial ones.

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