Evolution for Everyone

The phrase “truth and reconciliation” describes a constructive process for coming to terms with a troubled past. It has been used to resolve bitter political conflicts and achieve national unity, starting with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995. I would like to initiate a similar process to resolve a bitter scientific conflict.

The idea of comparing a scientific conflict with political conflict is likely to raise hackles from the very beginning. Are not science and politics totally different enterprises? We expect bitter conflicts in politics whereas science is supposed to result in objective truths upon which everyone can agree. Saying that science is like politics appears to sully its reputation.

It is not my purpose to rob science of its dignity. When it comes to science, I’m a true believer. I believe that there is a real world out there that can be apprehended by the human mind–but only if we follow a collection of practices known as the scientific method. The individual mind is too feeble and prone to biases to directly apprehend reality. Even groups of people, left to their own devices, will be prone to biases that depart from reality to serve their collective interests. Science isn’t natural. It is a cultural invention that must be carefully maintained to work properly. When science functions as it should, it does indeed result in objective truths upon which everyone can agree. As far as I am concerned, there can be no higher calling than to be a scientist.

While we’re at it, let’s restore some dignity to politics. Wikipedia, that great populist body of knowledge, defines politics as “the process whereby groups of people make decisions.” Politicians are noble to the extent that they make wise decisions on behalf of everyone in their group. They are ignoble to the extent that they make partisan decisions that benefit some at the expense of others or the long-term welfare of the group as a whole. When politics functions as it should, there can be no higher calling than to be a politician.

Of course, politics rarely functions as it should–hence the low reputation of politicians. It’s easy to blame individuals, but we also need to blame whole political systems. Politics isn’t natural, any more than science is natural, especially at the large scale at which it must be practiced in modern life. Politics needs a well-designed system of checks and balances, similar to the checks and balances associated with the scientific method.

A truth and reconciliation process becomes necessary when politics hasn’t been working as it should, which is a droll understatement for the injustices that took place during the apartheid era in South Africa and elsewhere in the world. An essential part of the process is for a society to acknowledge what happened, even if all wrongs cannot be righted. Revisionist histories must go. Truth is required for reconciliation.

What happens when science doesn’t work as it should? Such is the case for the controversy over group selection, which began with Darwin, became prominent during the 1960’s, and continues to fester at all levels of scientific discourse, from the pages of scientific journals such as Nature to popular science blogs. Thankfully, scientific conflicts no longer result in torture and death, as they once did and as political conflicts still do. Nevertheless, the word heresy appears disturbingly often in the annals of the group selection debate and proponents of group selection have risked scientific death in the form of rejected articles and grant proposals, lost job opportunities, and all-around social exclusion. Most of all, the group selection controversy is still plagued by historical revisionism. There is not even a basic consensus on what happened, least of all in textbooks, and many accounts read embarrassingly like patriotic histories, complete with black-and-white villains and heroes.

It is precisely because I am such an idealist about science that I am calling for a truth and reconciliation process for group selection. Something has to change. The controversy didn’t need to drag on for decades and it will continue for decades more unless something deliberate is done. The goal is to be constructive–to heal rather than aggravate old wounds. Yet, even healing can be painful, for scientific conflict no less than political conflict.

Another reason to initiate a truth and reconciliation process is because group selection is arguably the single most important concept for understanding the nature of politics from an evolutionary perspective. Recall Wikipedia’s definition of politics as “the process whereby groups of people make decisions.” Why should people be expected to make decisions “for the good of the group” in the first place? Why should they be expected to act “for the good of the group” after a decision is made? These are the questions that caused Darwin to propose the theory of group selection in the first place.

How fitting, that a process for resolving conflict and achieving unity in the political realm can be used to resolve conflict and achieve unity in the scientific realm about the nature of politics from an evolutionary perspective (to be continued).


  1. #1 Winawer
    October 23, 2009

    Um, I think you accidentally duplicated half the text, Erin.

  2. #2 Erin
    October 23, 2009

    Ah, yes – thanks, Winawer. Should be fixed now 🙂

  3. #3 NewEnglandBob
    October 23, 2009

    Another reason to initiate a truth and reconciliation process is because group selection is arguably the single most important concept for understanding the nature of politics from an evolutionary perspective.

    The key word here is ‘arguably’. You seem to be starting with one party’s conclusion.

  4. #4 MarkP
    October 23, 2009

    Why should people be expected to make decisions “for the good of the group” in the first place? Why should they be expected to act “for the good of the group” after a decision is made?

    Variations of kin selection and reciprical altruism can explain much of what appears to be “for the good of the group.” Evidence suggests that humans are more likely to perform “altruistic” acts (such as giving blood) when they are socially recognized and rewarded for the act (like a “be nice to me, I gave blood” sticker). The more strict reciprical altruistic explanation is that they may one day need blood donated by others.

    Mathematical modeling suggests that group selection cannot act quickly enough to exclude cheaters without some policing mechanism already built into the social system. The emergence of politics can be accurately described as the evolution of sociality without any need to appeal to group selection theory.

  5. #5 Piker
    October 23, 2009

    Truth and reconciliation requires those who have been obscuring truth to concede that fact. But that’s the rub – the revelation has to then be recognizable as fact. The analogy with science fails on another level as well, since science isn’t about revealing truths that were deliberately hidden from view. Truths are hidden from the scientist only in a metaphorical sense. Truths are of course hidden by politicians in every sense of the word.

  6. #6 InfuriatedSciTeacher
    October 23, 2009

    So, in an attempt to be fair and open minded about your (David’s) theory, I’ve actually read the publications on the SUNY Binghamton page. Wondering if you can address an issue: in

    Wilson, D. S. (2001). Cooperation and altruism. Evolutionary Ecology: Concepts and case studies.

    you use the larval stages of Dicrocoelium dendriticum as an example of group selection as opposed to altruism. Being that a large number of the larvae in a given ant are 100% genetically identical due to the asexual reproduction that takes place in the intermediate host, and the liklihood of and others being 50% related (siblings or asexual clones of siblings), how is the “sacrifice” gene that causes the ant to climb stalks of grass not benefitting itself in that instance? If the gene programmes the fluke to cause a specific behaviour that benefits every larva in the ant but the one penetrating the ganglion, but the other larva are also carrying the gene, that’s a selection pressure in favour of that gene and its expression. Either that example is rather poor, or I’ve missed how group selection explains that better than altruism or a selfish gene concept… care to elaborate?

  7. #7 ppnl
    October 23, 2009

    Can the “Out of Africa” theory be seen as a group selection theory with the multiregional theory being more of a gene or individual selection theory?

    If the evolutionary tree of life is extremely bushy then competition between the branches would seem to be important.

  8. #8 Mike
    October 23, 2009


    The problem with an explanation in terms of reciprocal altruism is that unless there is a strong tendency to actually repay benefactors, which is transmitted stably over generations, there could be no selection for altruism that is dependent on reciprocity. And the strong tendency to reciprocate would have to have an independent explanation, too.

    As for mathematical models suggesting that group selection cannot work because of the free-rider problem – it is true that free-riders are always a problem, and will win over altruists in a group. But it doesn’t detract from the plausibility of group selection.

    For group selection to work, egoists may still win over altruists in a group, what matters is that groups of altruists simultaneously fare better than groups of egoists, because altruism allows for efficient strategies at the group-level to emerge than make the group more fit than a group without those strategies (these include foraging/hunting-strategies, defensive and offensive strategies concerning group-competition and strategies for enhancing in-group welfare).

    Aside from that – free-riding is a problem for every potential explanation of altruism.


    In addition to the papers you mentioned, I recommend the following to get a more in-depth perspective on group selection:

    Wilson, D.S.:
    -A theory of group selection
    Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol 72, No. 1, pp.143-146 1975

    Wilson, D.S. & Sober, E.:
    -Re-Introducing Group Selection to the Human Behavioral Sciences
    Behavioral and Brain Sciences 17 (4): 585-654, 1994

    Wilson, D.S. & Wilson, E.O.:
    -Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology
    The quarterly Review of Biology, Vol 82, No. 4, Dec 2007

    That last one, I think, is particularly interesting.

    On a side note, I also find it interesting how many people don’t seem to know that Maynard-Smith as well as Dawkins didn’t/don’t think that group selection can’t work. They think (correctly) that it can, – but they opine that the conditions for it to happen and for it to be a major factor in the evolution of a species don’t obtain frequently enough.

    Personally, I think that there is a place for group selection, reciprocity and sexual selection (costly signalling) in the evolution of altruism.

  9. #9 Bob O'H
    October 23, 2009

    Isn’t this just a dead debate now? The theory has been done to death, and there are more interesting questions now.

  10. #10 Mike
    October 23, 2009

    @Bob O’H

    While I don’t agree that the debate is dead and of little interest, I agree that the questions raised by the book you linked to are very important.

    If you liked that book, I can recommend a similar one that goes a little more in-depth and is a little more rigorous and up to date, namely “Evolution and the Levels of Selection” by Samir Okasha. It deals with the ‘Units and Levels of Selection’ in a very interesting way, starting from the price-equation.

    Another set of highly important questions are those raised by the multiple-inheritance systems models by Boyd & Richerson, Jablonka, Henrich and so forth.

    Behavioral and Cultural Inheritance and Evolution are amazingly interesting topics. D.S. Wilson has mentioned “Not by genes alone” (Boyd & Richerson) on this blog, but although most recent, it is more for the general reader. Their original “Culture and the Evolutionary Process” and “The Origin and Evolution of Cultures” are IMO far more interesting because far more in depth, and complete with detailed mathematical models. Boyd & Richerson are the most famous proponents of the dual-inheritance model, but I think Jablonkas extended view is even more realistic (in distinguishing between behavioral and cultural-symbolic evolution). “Evolution in Four Dimensions” by Jablonka and Lamb is the book-length discussion of the idea.

  11. #11 Marion Delgado
    October 24, 2009

    This entirely puzzles me. At the time, I was annoyed by the tactics of supporters of Wilson et al., especially Pinker, no end.

    However, it was my impression that things like punctuated equilibrium lost scope, at least, because of discoveries that filled in the fossil record, and that group selection was coming back into vogue in a minor way for similar reasons, because of recent discoveries.

    Am I wrong?

  12. #12 David Sloan Wilson
    October 24, 2009

    Having just posted T&RII, I’ll take the opportunity to comment on responses to T&RI. Some of the issues raised are a) kin selection and reciprocity as alternative theories that do not invoke group selection; b) the theoretical implausibility of group selection, based on mathematical models;and c) the frame of comparison when thinking about an example such as Dicrocoelium dendriticum (the infamous brain worm). All of these will be addressed in subsequent posts–starting with (c) in T&R II.

    Thanks to Mike for suggesting Samir Okasha’s recent book and for his informed comments about Richerson and Boyd, Jablonka, Henrich, etc. These folks are part of a sizable community of evolutionists who are perfectly comfortable with group selection, and who coexist side-by-side with folks who think that nothing has changed since the 60’s. This “tower of Babel” problem will also be addressed in subsequent posts.

  13. #13 InfuriatedSciTeacher
    October 25, 2009

    Thanks for the references, Mike, I’ll take a look at them. To be clear, I also don’t think the group selection is an impossibility, but I do think the lancet flukes are a poor example because their behaviour can be equally if not better explained by a simpler hypothesis. It strikes me as far more plausible to examine group selection as acting on the emergent properties of a system ( in this case a population) than on a population that contains largely identical individuals.

  14. #14 Marios Richards
    November 6, 2009

    “Thanks to Mike for suggesting Samir Okasha’s recent book and for his informed comments about Richerson and Boyd, Jablonka, Henrich, etc. These folks are part of a sizable community of evolutionists who are perfectly comfortable with group selection, and who coexist side-by-side with folks who think that nothing has changed since the 60’s.”

    I don’t know about Richerson, Jablonka and Henrich, but certainly the reason Boyd is happy with presenting results in a group selection format is the same reason Stuart West is critical of group selection – namely that it’s just a notational shift (cf Lagrangian vs Eulerian). At least, this is what Boyd stated in a September conference at Bristol (I would *guess* that that goes for Richerson and Henrich – not so sure about Jablonka).


  15. #15 Giselle Garcia
    January 9, 2011

    You’re talking about cooperation to compete, right? Dick Alexander, on the human evolution. Does it need to get more complicated than that? I see the need in being able to think in terms of group-against-group. I do, really. But I don’t think you need to revive group selection – with the (rather large) can of worms it would entail – in order to say that, yes, like Dick Alexander hypothesizes, if cooperation-to-compete was an important – if not THE most important – selective force in recent human evolution, then we can certainly say that groups are competing against groups. Reviving all of group selection, though… group selection works ONLY if rebellion against the group is not more beneficial to the individual than working with the group. That is: if rebelling against the group is more costly to an individual than working with the group, non-kin based group cooperation will arise.

    See it?

    If Darwin proposed group selection because of thinking about humans, then I suppose I can’t blame him. But, now we understand that humans, and the selective forces that probably made us the way we are, are relatively unique. The conditions that made “group selection” happen for us… well, I suppose we’re less interested in other species than we are in our own, and I certainly am not versed in all other species’ social systems, but I think we’re probably unique in how important cooperation-to-compete has been in our evolution. All that to say: let group selection rest. It’s not worth it.

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