The rehabilitation of group selection took another step with the publication of a commentary titled “Eight Criticisms Not to Make About Group Selection” in the journal Evolution. The authors are Omar Eldakar, my former PhD student currently at the University of Arizona’s Center for Insect Science, and yours truly. Omar conducts wonderful research on male mating strategies in water striders from a multilevel perspective, which I have previously reported upon. Our commentary was inspired by the struggle that we and all other authors who wish to employ a multilevel perspective must endure when we try to publish our work in peer reviewed journals.
In Omar’s case, it might be an article showing that docile male mating strategies are favored by between-group selection, even though docile males are trounced by more aggressive males within single groups. Some reviewers praise the research as an elegant demonstration of multilevel selection in a novel context. Other reviewers also praise the research but raise objections such as these:
“Please remove all references to group selection… significant or not, group selection is not going on here.”
“It is all very well to look at success within and between groups, but can you really extrapolate this to group selection?”
“What the authors show is not group selection, but rather that … mating success depends on the social environment”
” This is a controversial topic, worthy of a mention, but not worthy of the extended discussion, because it is largely lacking in both formal theory and empirical support to justify it.”
“I am not sure how this behavior can be maintained under a group selection scenario unless there is no dispersal and populations frequently go extinct.”
If you know even a little about multilevel selection, you’ll agree that these objections are sadly misinformed. How is this possible, when the peer review process is supposed to rely upon expert opinion? The answer is that all of the reviewers were indeed expert on mating behavior, but only some were expert on multilevel selection.
The same problem exists for any other subject that can be approached from a multilevel perspective. Reviewers who are knowledgeable about the subject and multilevel selection tend to like the research in all respects, while reviewers who are only knowledgeable about the subject at hand raise objections about group selection that are sadly out of date. The hapless authors must then fight to retain their explicitly multilevel perspective, often with an uncertain editor acting as a referee.
To address this problem, Omar and I list eight criticisms about group selection that can be permanently laid to rest based upon current knowledge. Even the gang of 139 that can’t be wrong about inclusive fitness theory would not raise these objections about group selection, although they might raise other more nuanced objections. Here they are, although you’ll need to read the article for our commentary.
Eight Criticisms Not to Make About Group Selection
Criticism #1: The fact that a trait evolves in the total population is an argument against group selection.
Criticism #2: If a trait increases the absolute fitness of an individual, it does not require group selection to evolve.
Criticism #3: Conceptualizing the group as the social environment of the individual is an argument against group selection.
Criticism #4: Frequency-dependent selection is an argument against group selection.
Criticism #5: The fact that a trait can be measured in individuals means that it evolved by individual-level selection.
Criticism #6: Group selection is theoretically implausible.
Criticism #7: There is little empirical support for group selection.
Criticism #8: Group selection requires limited dispersal among groups.
Omar and I end our commentary by pointing out an irony. Knowing the difficulties that they will encounter during the peer review process, many authors avoid using the G-word even when group selection is being invoked in every way except the name. Their silence perpetuates confusion about group selection. The individual gains publications and grants over the short term, while the field as a whole remains muddled about the fundamentals of social evolution. Selection against group selection in the peer review process is a case of the tragedy of the commons in academic cultural evolution.
Confusion about group selection at the professional level will end when we eliminate selection against group selection accounts in the review process. Our commentary is intended to accomplish this goal and we are pleased that it has been published in an authoritative journal such as Evolution.