Earlier this year, sociobiologist E. O. “Dear Pastor” Wilson disowned his “inclusive fitness” (kin selection) theory, developed from his study of ants and bees. According to his theory, among life forms that live in groups, many members may give up the chance of reproducing their selfish genes so that the group as a whole is more fit. The problem is that it’s notclear how this situation could arise.
He hadn’t long to wait for a reaction from his colleagues:
Online today in Nature, nearly 150 evolutionary biologists challenge Harvard University’s Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s most preeminent scientists, and two colleagues. At issue is the usefulness of a 50-year-old theory about the role of relatedness in the evolution of complex social systems like those of ants, bees, and humans. Wilson, along with Harvard mathematicians Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita argue that the theory, called inclusive fitness, does not explain how these complex societies arose; in a rebuttal today in Nature and in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, their critics say that the Harvard trio have misrepresented the literature and are simply wrong.
– Elizabeth Pennisi, “Researchers Challenge E. O. Wilson Over Evolutionary Theory” Science Insider (23 March 2011)
Of course. If it is not Darwin, or whatever people think is Darwin, it must be wrong, and not only that, but dead wrong and dangerous.
I never “got” Wilson’s theory because it was not clear who, among the ants and bees, had ever made these high-order calculations. That’s probably what’s bugging him, too. As Teilhard de Chardin would have put it, ants do not think, but something in them thinks. If that something is “kin selection”/”inclusive fitness”, then Wilson has discovered a Designer. But my guess is he never meant to invoke so deep a power.
Anyway, efforts to apply the theory to human society are a time sink because humans, unlike ants and bees, make individual decisions. There is no reason to think that a man’s decision to become a childless Buddhist monk, for example, adds “inclusive fitness” to his community. The decision could just as well detract from the community but was taken with utter indifference to fitness, because that is the whole point of becoming a monk.
Jerry “I don’t have time to invent him, but couldn’t anyway” Coyne has announced, with respect to Wilson’s change of mind:
“If the Nowak et al. paper is so bad, why was it published? That’s obvious, and is an object lesson in the sociology of science. If Joe Schmo et al. from Buggerall State University had submitted such a misguided paper to Nature, it would have been rejected within an hour (yes, Nature sometimes does that with online submissions!). The only reason this paper was published is because it has two big-name authors, Nowak and Wilson, hailing from Mother Harvard. That, and the fact that such a contrarian paper, flying in the face of accepted evolutionary theory, was bound to cause controversy. Well, Nature got its controversy but lost its intellectual integrity, becoming something of a scientific National Enquirer.
The lesson: if you’re a famous biologist you can get away with publishing dreck. So much for our objective search for truth—a search that’s not supposed to depend on authors’ fame and authority.”
Lots of us would conga that, but maybe Jerry wouldn’t like the vast, swinging line.