Thursday, 26 January 2012

Richard Dawkins on David Sloane Wilson

I've dragged myself into the group selection debate a little recently - because of the scale of the level of interest in cultural group selection among other scientists in the field of cultural evolution.

I think cultural group selection is probably mostly irrelevant fluff that distracts people from what is actually going on. I have no argument with multi-level selection theory. However, the problem is the old one - the conditions under which the idea can generate group-level adaptations are rather rare in sexual species - due to migration and breeding. However, I do think that cultural group selection is almost certainly one of the most interesting attempts to revive group selection for quite a while.

Today, I was amused to find a video of Richard Dawkins on the topic of the group selection revival - from 2010:

Dawkins says of E. O. Wilson and D. S. Wilson (20 munites in):

I think they are just confused
The so-called "new group selection" is just kin selection or in some cases reciprocal altruism under another name. For reasons best known to himself (which I can't understand) D. S. Wilson thinks it's helpful to rephrase it in terms of group selection. How it can be helpful when he's reviving a word which has been debunked and is simply grafting that word onto the very thing that did the debunking - namely kin selection and reciprocal altruism and various other things - it seems to me be to be utterly unhelpful, to be totally misleading to students and it's deeply regrettable that E. O. Wilson should have teamed up with him in this way.
Hah! I think D. S. Wilson may be getting this response because he regards kin selection and reciprocal altruism as being a special case of his form of group selection.

E. O. Wilson and D. S. Wilson have written a few papers on the topic together: Evolution “for the Good of the Group” and Survival of the selfless.

These papers appear to be mainly about ordinary group selection - not Wilson's "trait group selection". These papers are very confused, incidentally. I'm not sure where to begin with them - but the Ed Wilson material seems to be missing the concepts of parental manipulation and offspring manipulation as alternative mechanisms to group selection for creating eusociality.

The second paper invokes group selection caused by cultural effects - saying:

Group selection is an important force in human evolution partly because cultural processes can create variation between groups, even when they are composed of large numbers of unrelated individuals. A new cultural “mutation” can quickly spread within a group, causing it to be very different from other groups and providing a decisive edge in direct or indirect between-group competition.
Cultural group selection is not vulnerable to the criticism Dawkins gives. That is a straight-forwards revival of Wynn-Edwards-style group selection - though possibly applying the idea to cultural symbionts. It is definitely not genetic kin selection or reciprocal altruism dressed up in misleading clothing.

Dawkins winds up saying (at 26:40):

Everything in Darwinism is gene selection - and it's just unhelpful and confusing for somebody as influential as Ed Wilson to suddenly turn around and say he's started thinking about group selection again. What was he thinking of - confusing the issue like this?
That looks like a kind-of fatal statement to me. Sureley nobody who understands multi-level selection would dream of making a statement as strong as that.

Group selection could be illustrated by finding genes that are deleterious to the individuals possessing them but good for the groups they are in - or by finding adaptations caused by genes like that. Group selection does not contradict gene selection. The idea that gene selection and group selection are mutually exclusive is just a simple fallacy.

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