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(Reformed) New Scientist 3: The Selfish Gene Is No Longer Cool


Readers may recall that New Scientist published an article three days ago on 13 ways we need to “rethink the theory of nature.”

Their Number 3 rethink is … Move Over, Selfish Gene. It’s replaced not just by kin selection now but by cultural group selection.

Most of the article is paywalled but here’s the gist of #3:

But kin selection cannot explain why humans are so nice to strangers…

Some researchers think the solution lies in an idea called cultural group selection. Forget shared genes, they argue: selection can favour cooperative groups if the people within them share enough culture. The idea is controversial because to work it requires that groups remain culturally distinct. As critics point out, people tend to migrate between groups, which should homogenise ideas and customs. Those who back the concept counter that groups have ways to retain their distinct culture, including a process called norm enforcement. Put simply, if someone migrates into a new cultural group, they are pressured into following the local rules because failing to do so leads to punishment.

Michael Le Page , Colin Barras , Richard Webb , Kate Douglas and Carrie Arnold, “Evolution is evolving: 13 ways we must rethink the theory of nature” at New Scientist (September 23. 2020)

Darwin has left the building and returned to his estate.

Incidentally, kin selection was the evolutionary politics scene of a huge uproar back in 2010 when sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, a big name in kin selection, abandoned it in favor of a return to strict Darwinism. For an account of the uproar, see Denyse O’Leary, “An Evolutionary Challenge: Explaining Away Compassion, Philanthropy, and Self-Sacrifice,” Evolution News and Science Today (January 9, 2015).

Oh and see also “Richard Dawkins in furious row with EO Wilson over theory of evolution” (The Guardian, 2012):

The learned spat was prompted by the publication of a searingly critical review of Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, in Prospect magazine this month. The review, written by Dawkins, author of the popular and influential books The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion, has prompted more letters and on-line comment than any other article in the recent history of the magazine and attacks Wilson’s theory “as implausible and as unsupported by evidence”.

Vanessa Thorpe, “Richard Dawkins in furious row with EO Wilson over theory of evolution” at The Guardian

Apparently, the cracks were beginning to show even then. One wonders what Wilson would say about cultural group selection?

See also: (Reformed) New Scientist 2: Evolution shows intelligence. At New Scientist: “‘Maybe, evolution is less about out competing others and more to do with co-creating knowledge,’ says Watson.” That really is a radical idea. Radical yes, but it really is a good idea. We find it hard to improve on. The only thing we can think of is, keep the “intelligent” part in your description of nature and add “design.”

(Reformed) New Scientist 1 on the genome: Not destiny. Sure but then what about the famous twin studies that were supposed to prove so much about human nature? No? Then it’s probably best for the New Scientists to just get out of the “gene for that” hell while they can.


At New Scientist: We must rethink the (Darwinian) theory of nature. If by “our greatest theory of nature,” the writers mean textbook Darwinism, well the new concepts they list are destroying it. What becomes of “natural selection acting on random mutation” if a variety of means of evolution are “natural,” mutations are not necessarily random, genes aren’t selfish and don’t come only from parents, and the fittest don’t necessarily survive? Just for a start…

Their Number 3 rethink is … Move Over, Selfish Gene. It’s replaced not just by kin selection now but by cultural group selection.
Eh? Selfish gene was largely about kin selection. Cultural group selection is interesting. Cultural selection is, of course, what memes were all about. Now what was the title of the book that introduced that concept...? Bob O'H

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