Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Recent Study Challenges Group Selectionism

The good news comes via Francis Sedgemore.


Francis Sedgemore said...

I note that your post slug has the words "kicks" and "selectionists" in it, whereas the title replaces these with "challenges" and "selection". Naughty Anja!

This is one prediction of Wilson's theory that's been falsified by Hughes and his colleagues. The latest study doesn't kill off Wilson's ideas as a whole. Good science challenges good science, and evidence decides the outcome.

Francis Sedgemore said...

I see from the relevant Google Alert that the original title was: "Recent Study Kicks Group Selectionists in the Butt".

Go on Anja, tell us what you really think.

The Wife said...

My next post will be titled: "Stasi Agent runs rampant in South London".

J. Carter Wood said...

Geez, Francis, isn't one allowed the privilege of a first draft (or changing his or her mind on further reflection) any more?

In any case, it's not as if only 'selfish-gene theory' has 'naively social-reductionist interpretations heaped upon it' by non-scientists.

Group selection also attracts its share of people who pile all kinds of metaphysical or political meaning onto its essentially scientific significance.

Some of them have applied this to the study of culture and literature.

And have, not incidentally, been quite unpleasant to those who think differently.

The odd, offhand verbal jab is certainly within the bounds of fair play, I would think...

Francis Sedgemore said...

Don't tell me, his name is Wilhelm Schwätzer.

Francis Sedgemore said...

Don't overreact, John; I'm just prodding.

J. Carter Wood said...

You mean, this guy?

Francis Sedgemore said...

No, the one I mean is even more of a tit than Herr Schwätzer from Wuppertal.

J. Carter Wood said...

Who's overreacting? Moi?

I was merely suggesting it was questionable to prod someone for what they decided not to say rather than for what they did say and, additionally, saying something about why the thing that was -- ultimately -- not said was at least thought.

If that makes any sense. :-)

Francis Sedgemore said...

Oh my, you've come over all Rumsfeldish! :-)

Anyway, there is some serious criticism of the Hughes et al. study. Jamie Hunt, a zoologist at North Carolina State University, says that the study shows correlation but not causation. And Wilson says that Hughes et al. do not prove that monogamy predisposes species towards eusociality.

So I guess it comes down to questions over the validity of the ancestral state reconstruction technique.

Personally, these days I'm not much interested in the social/political arguments on either extreme of this debate.

The Wife said...

Now that I'm back home from work, maybe I can get a word in edgeways in your interesting conversation - though that word, be warned, will be the word of an absolute non-specialist.

First off, I changed my title after looking a little more closely at your post, Francis. Skim-reading is a professional ailment of mine which tends to lead to a certain "Aktionismus" on my part. Especially when I'm about to do something else - like teach a class. I was just so seriously chuffed about that study!

Second, as far as E. O. Wilson is concerned, I don't believe that he is a dyed-in-the wool group selectionist. Quite the contrary - apparently it took D. S. Wilson (no relative), one of group selection's most vociferous champions - ages to convince the other Wilson that his esoteric ideas might be more than ... well esoteric ideas. When D. S. published an article with E. O. on the issue last year, many group selectionists felt that their hour had come - in a way that I thought was more than mildly unpleasant. I think that the study that you, Francis, blogged about, might be a response to this minor "scandal" in the world of entomologists. Joke. Laugh.:-)

For instance, I was really taken aback last year, when someone at a conference on literature and evolution which I attended praised said article, emphasising with relish and a perverse sense of victory that "Dawkins is livid" about it.

Well, so (i.e.: livid) was I. And really, I hadn't realised that this was all part of an anti-Dawkins vendetta - which is definitely what it sounded like, at least from this person's perspective. I also wondered where in the famous altruism idealised by group selectionists was hiding in all that spitefulness.

Oh, of course, in exclusive their altruism towards their group - silly me.

To tell you the truth, I hadn't given group selection (or its implications) much thought until last year, when I met D. S. Wilson at the conference mentioned above. Listening to him and his disciples was a spontaneously disturbing experience. I'm simply not used to the all-American communitarianism that they espoused. And I must say that I was disappointed that he never answered the simple question that I asked him at that occasion.

So, when I came home from that conference, I was glad to find my own spontaneous doubts and fears formulated clearly by George Williams via Steven Pinker:

"Group selection ... does not deserve its feel-good reputation. Whether or not it endowed us with generosity toward the members of our group, it would certainly have endowed us with a hatred of the members of other groups, because it favors whatever traits lead one group to prevail over its rivals (Recall that group selection was the version of Darwinism that got twisted in to Nazism.) This does not mean that group selection is incorrect, only that subscribing to a scientific theory for its apparent political palatability can backfire. As Williams put it: 'To claim that[natural selection at the level of competing groups] is morally superior to natural selection at the level of competing individuals would imply, in its human application, that systematic genocide is morally superior to random murder'" (The Blank Slate 259).

Above all, we don't need a concept of group selection to explain altruistic behaviour. It is a culturalist afterthought which adds nothing to our understanding of human cooperation. At least from my humble, non-specialist perspective.

Which is fundamentally shaped by my ingrained individualism, suspicion of the heard (remember Groucho Marx?) and admiration for Richard Dawkins.

Francis Sedgemore said...

Two points, Anja...

That comment by Pinker in the Blank Slate about group selection and Nazism is one of his more arsey, if not downright outrageous. I understand that it's the kind of remark book editors in science popularisation love (and encourage in their writers), but is mostly treated with contempt within the science community. Over the decades here has been a lot written about Darwinism and the Nazis, and most of it is utter shite. For Pinker to reduce it to that offhand sentence is laughable.

You say we don't need a concept of group selection to explain altruistic behaviour. Group selection was put forward as a testable hypothesis that might shed more light on this aspect of evolutionary biology. If altruism was all done and dusted, then we wouldn't have people working on and testing theories of group selection. It is far more than than a "culturalist afterthought", and those who argue for it in scientific good faith deserve some respect for their efforts.

The Wife said...

I don't really want to go on with this ad infinitum, also because I think that this is an issue of clashing codes and won't get us anywhere.You're giving the answer yourself, Francis, when you're saying that you're "not much interested in the social/political arguments on either extreme of this debate".

Well I am - because I don't believe that you can ever separate science from ideology completely. And I find the ideological uses to which group selection has been put - by scientists themselves(who thereby prove the point that their work is no more "pure" than mine) - somewhat despicable.

These ideological uses are also the point of Pinker's extended discussion of the selfish gene debate in The Blank Slate, which he concludes with the passage that you find "arsey".

Francis Sedgemore said...

No, I don't want to go on with this ad infinitum either. But I will offer one or two points that I feel are important.

It is the extremes that do not interest me, as, when discussing the science, the extremes impede the scientific debate. One cannot separate science from ideology, but science should not allow itself to be led by ideology.

Interesting aside: one of the authors of the ancestral reconstruction study - Francis Ratnieks - got himself into hot water with some ill-advised remarks on policing within apian communities that were interpreted by some as pro-fascist. That led to a damaging and entirely pointless argument.

Despicable is indeed the right word to describe the abuse of science for ideological ends. But Pinker is also guilty of this. Pinker has a lot of interesting things to say, in my opinion, but I also feel that many of his polemics are based more on demonising rhetorical devices that honest argument. Simon Blackburn, who is not entirely innocent in this respect, exposed this in his critique of Pinker's Blank Slate titled "Meet the Flintstones". Sorry, I cannot find a link, and am relying on my hard copy.

I particularly appreciated Blackburn's reference to second-order "meta-demonizing": "Not only have the dangerous fools got themselves into an extreme position, they also have the gall to paint people like us as ourselves extreme. They are not only blind to their own extremism, they are blind also to our moderation. The things they call us! They must be doubly demonic."

Pinker alienated many existing and potential allies with that book.