Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and David Sloan Wilson Attack E.O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth

It's not easy being the leading figure in a field you almost single handedly created, and that is exactly where E.O. Wilson, one of the primary architects of sociobiology, finds himself near the end of his career, with the publication of The Social Conquest of Earth. With that fame and recognition comes the inevitable attacks from those whose own work is perhaps overshadowed or even contradicted.

The latest attack comes from Steven Pinker over at Edge.


An Edge Original Essay
Steven Pinker [6.18.12]

I am often asked whether I agree with the new group selectionists, and the questioners are always surprised when I say I do not. After all, group selection sounds like a reasonable extension of evolutionary theory and a plausible explanation of the social nature of humans. Also, the group selectionists tend to declare victory, and write as if their theory has already superseded a narrow, reductionist dogma that selection acts only at the level of genes. In this essay, I'll explain why I think that this reasonableness is an illusion. The more carefully you think about group selection, the less sense it makes, and the more poorly it fits the facts of human psychology and history.

Why does this matter? I'll try to show that it has everything to do with our best scientific understanding of the evolution of life and the evolution of human nature. And though I won't take up the various moral and political colorings of the debate here (I have discussed them elsewhere), it ultimately matters for understanding how best to deal with the collective action problems facing our species.
Read the whole article.

One of the first attacks, and perhaps the harshest, came from Richard Dawkins at Prospect Magazine.

The descent of Edward Wilson


A new book on evolution by a great biologist makes a slew of mistakes

The Social Conquest of Earth
By Edward O Wilson
(WW Norton, £18.99, May)

When he received the manuscript of The Origin of Species, John Murray, the publisher, sent it to a referee who suggested that Darwin should jettison all that evolution stuff and concentrate on pigeons. It’s funny in the same way as the spoof review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which praised its interesting “passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways of controlling vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper” but added:

“Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book can not take the place of JR Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”

I am not being funny when I say of Edward Wilson’s latest book that there are interesting and informative chapters on human evolution, and on the ways of social insects (which he knows better than any man alive), and it was a good idea to write a book comparing these two pinnacles of social evolution, but unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. In particular, Wilson now rejects “kin selection” (I shall explain this below) and replaces it with a revival of “group selection”—the poorly defined and incoherent view that evolution is driven by the differential survival of whole groups of organisms.

Nobody doubts that some groups survive better than others. What is controversial is the idea that differential group survival drives evolution, as differential individual survival does. The American grey squirrel is driving our native red squirrel to extinction, no doubt because it happens to have certain advantages. That’s differential group survival. But you’d never say of any part of a squirrel that it evolved to promote the welfare of the grey squirrel over the red. Wilson wouldn’t say anything so silly about squirrels. He doesn’t realise that what he does say, if you examine it carefully, is as implausible and as unsupported by evidence.

Read the whole review.

Finally, David Sloan Wilson takes issue with Dawkins and Wilson - writing at This View of Life - mostly for arguing from authority and pretending that their positions are not outlier perspectives in the scientific community. Of the three critics, Wilson is most sympathetic to E.O. Wilson's positions on group selection.

Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, and the Consensus of the Many

Author: David Sloan Wilson         Source: ETVOL Exclusive

Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, and the Consensus of the Many
Appealing to authority is a risky business in science, as Dawkins appreciates, because scientific progress often involves the few prevailing against the many.

Richard Dawkins (1) begins his review of E.O. Wilson’s (2) new book The Social Conquest of Earth with an appeal to authority—namely the 137 evolutionists who co-authored a reply (3) to an article by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Wilson in Nature magazine (4). Appealing to authority is a risky business in science, as Dawkins appreciates, because scientific progress often involves the few prevailing against the many. Nevertheless, Dawkins’ appeal to authority acknowledges something that everyone should know about group selection, kin selection, and all that: Dawkins and Wilson are only two of dozens of scientists who have been working on the issues over a period of decades. This is in contrast to their outsized images on the public stage, as if they are the only two figures meriting attention and all the important ideas sprang from them.

I mean Dawkins and Wilson no disrespect by calling them two among many. I trust that they would agree and would defer to others especially when it comes to mathematical models, which is not their area of expertise. If the public is going to become literate on the issues at stake—as well they should, because they are fundamental to the study of human sociality—then they will need to realize that both Wilson and Dawkins get some things right and other things wrong. Moreover, the entire community of scientists is in more agreement than the infamous exchange in Nature seems to indicate. Taking the argument from authority seriously can lead to a breakthrough in the public’s understanding of social evolution.

Wilson has written abundantly on his rejection of kin selection in favor of group selection, as he thinks of it. Dawkins’ review is the first time he has written at length on the topics of group and kin selection in many years, as opposed to little snippets here and there. I will therefore use Dawkins’ review to outline the zone of consensus that exists among the many, which both Dawkins and Wilson should abide by unless they provide compelling arguments and evidence to the contrary. 
Read the whole review.

No comments: