Evolution for Everyone

Scientists who write for the general public must be constantly on their guard. It’s so easy to depart from scientific mode and become just another talking head, opining on topics that one knows nothing about.

So it is with Jerry Coyne on the topic of group selection. Jerry is a highly respected evolutionist who writes for the general public in his book Why Evolution Is True and his blog of the same name. When it comes to his research area of speciation, Jerry is a world-class authority. He’s also a staunch defender of evolution against creationism and its born-again cousin, intelligent design. When it comes to the topic of group selection, however, he hasn’t written a single paper and there’s little evidence that he’s read the literature. Yet, that doesn’t prevent him from holding forth on the topic and scolding others like a schoolteacher wagging his finger at truant students who haven’t learned their lesson.

Jerry’s most recent lecture on group selection is in his review of my new book The Neighborhood Project, but a glance at his blog reveals that he trots it out again and again. Group selection is controversial. Modern evolutionary theory emphasizes natural selection acting on genes and individuals. Between-group selection is inefficient compared to within-group selection. There is little empirical evidence for group selection. There are plausible alternative theories to explain behaviors that appear “for the good of the group”. Only a few benighted zealots advocate group selection.

For me, this is like hearing Rip van Winkle mumbling in his sleep. With my former PhD student Omar Eldakar, I wrote an article for people like Jerry. It’s titled “Eight Criticisms Not To Make About Group Selection” and it’s published in an obscure journal titled Evolution. Here’s the abstract:

Group selection, which was once widely rejected as a significant evolutionary force, is now accepted by all who seriously study the subject. There is still widespread confusion about group selection, however, not only among students and the general public, but among professional evolutionists who do not directly study the subject. We list eight criticisms that are frequently invoked against group selection, which can be permanently laid to rest based upon current knowledge. Experts will always find something to critique about group selection, as for any important subject, but these eight criticisms are not among them. Laying them to rest will enable authors to openly use the term group selection without being handicapped during the review process.

Jerry is the perfect example of a professional evolutionist who does not directly study group selection and perpetuates outdated views about it. Two of the invalid criticisms that he employs in his lecture are that group selection is theoretically implausible and that little empirical evidence exists for group selection. Read the article for more. The journal Evolution doesn’t publish articles like that when they’re written by benighted zealots.

While you’re at it, read the “Instant Expert” feature of New Scientist magazine titled “The Evolution of Selfless Behavior“, which explains the long history of group selection in as short a space as possible. I was pleased when New Scientist asked me to write this article. Now if only experts on other topics, such as Jerry, will pay attention.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, then read some of the excellent recent books, such as Oren Harman’s The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, Mark Borello’s Evolutionary Restraints: The Contentious History of Group Selection, or Samir Okasha’s Evolution and the Levels of Selection. Or type the search term “group selection” or “multilevel selection” into Google Scholar for a sample of academic articles.

What Jerry doesn’t seem to realize is that even the most severe critics of group selection nowadays, who know enough to publish in peer-reviewed journals, accept that group selection occurs. All they can say against it is that they prefer to think about natural selection by averaging the fitness of individuals or genes across groups, rather than by comparing selection differentials within and between groups. The strong critique that between-group selection is invariably weak and that there are alternative ways to explain “for the good of the group” behaviors has become a wimpy “I don’t like to think of it that way” (see I,II,III, IV, V).

One victim of Jerry’s scolding is Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist whose next book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, will be published early next year. Jerry works himself up into a lather of rhetoric that would do a member of the Tea Party proud: “bogus…a few miscreants…this is evolutionary psychology of the most noxious and misleading sort…he simply asserts without proof…this is not only foolish, but positively misleading…I wish that there was at least one op-ed editor at the New York Times who knew something about biology.”

Give me a social psychologist who does his homework over an evolutionist in righteous indignation mode any day. If Jerry were functioning in scientific mode, he’d acknowledge that Jon’s thesis is based on the work of mainstream evolutionists such as John Marynard Smith and Eors Szathmary in their books The Major Transitions in Evolution and The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language, as far back as the 1990’s, and dozens of evolutionists today, whose credentials are every bit as good as Jerry’s. A few miscreants indeed. Jon’s new book goes a long way toward explaining why otherwise intelligent people such as Jerry are prone to go off on such rants.

This post is blunt, but some people evidently need to be whacked on the head with a 2×4 to get their attention. Being a scientist or an evolutionist, and becoming an authority on one particular topic such as speciation, does not quality someone to hold forth on other topics without doing their homework. Science works because people hold each other accountable for their factual statements about the world. I’m here to hold Jerry accountable on the subject of group selection. Someone who titles his blog “Why Evolution is True” needs to keep himself in scientific mode to avoid becoming false.


  1. #1 b.weeks
    September 11, 2011

    I have seen Jonathan Haidt speak and have the notion that he will be the subject of derision for many scientists..not because of his lack of scientific merit, but for his critique of politics and liberalism in academia.

    I wonder if group selection will ever be able to reach into the public consciousness …including with some scientists like Jerry Coyne. The reason being that individual selection has practical and visible applications….such as artificial selection. My students find it easy to accept that line of evidence for individual selection. Group selection is not so visible or practical…thus their difficulty in accepting that it actually occurs.

  2. #2 Jeffy Joe
    September 11, 2011

    I will happily read your “8 criticisms” piece to learn more about the substance of your argument, but I’d imagine that many will find this post as off-target and unconvincing as I do. Moves such as “my work is in a really good journal” and “Jerry Coyne is like a tea-party member” make you come off as someone who just got his feelings hurt by being criticized by a more important scientist. Moreover, it’s always a bit vexing when folks link to their own work instead of just summarizing the substance of their argument. How about mentioning some of this great evidence for group selection instead of going on and on about Jerry’s supposed ignorance of the topic? The “everyone who does group selection research totally believes in group selection” argument is lame for fairly obvious reasons.

  3. #3 Jeffy Joe
    September 11, 2011

    And now I see that I CAN’T evaluate the substance of your argument because you linked to an article behind a pay wall. I guess I’ll just have to take you word for it, given that Evolution is such a prestigious journal. (Not to mention the extreme similarity between Jerry Coyne and the Tea Party.)

  4. #4 David Sloan Wilson
    September 11, 2011

    To b.weeks–Interesting that you should mention artificial selection. Some of the most compelling evidence for group selection is based on artificial selection experiments at the group level. Create a bunch of groups, select for a group-level trait, and see if there is a response to selection. It almost aways works, providing definitive proof that heritable variation exists at the group level. In fact, some traits are more heritable at the group level than at the individual level, because of epistatic effects that were never considered by the early theoretical models and had to be revealed by laboratory experiments. Artificial selection at the group level is now widely employed in the animal husbandry industry to select for docile behaviors in hens, pigs, and other domesticated animals. When a trait such as egg productivity in hens is selected within groups, egg productivity declines because what you have really selected is more aggressive hens. Everything that is discussed in terms of altruism and selfishness in the academic literature plays itself out in the hen cages. Group-level selection has also been a staple of the plant breeding industry. For more, check out the websites of Charles Goodnight at the University of Vermont, Michael Wade at Indiana University, and Bill Muir at Purdue University. Laboratory evidence for the efficacy of group selection began with Mike Wade’s classic experiments in the 1970’s and was reviewed by Charles Goodnight and Laurie Stevens in another shoddy journal–the American Naturalist–in 1997. Why doesn’t this body of research have more of an impact? Group selection deniers are never at a loss for an explanation. The typical reaction is “Those are just experiments!”

  5. #5 David Sloan Wilson
    September 11, 2011

    To Jeffy Joe–I present my reasoning in my blog posts in more detail than most readers want. Start with my 19-part series titled “Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection” and proceed to my 5-part series titled “Homage to George Williams and the Last Gasp of Individualism”. When I address academic audiences on group selection, I ask them to read the “Truth and Reconciliation” series before any of my academic articles. There is no dumbing down and more opportunity to explore such things as social context. While we’re dueling over rhetorical flourishes, check out your own “more important scientist”. Science isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about status. To paraphase Bill Clinton– it’s about framing and testing hypotheses, stupid.

  6. #6 Jeffy Joe
    September 11, 2011

    I will do that. I guess the important thing is WHY Jerry is important. Probably not because he is in the habit of expressing/challenging ideas that he does not understand. But, again, I’ll give you the chance to convince me. So, it will probably take me a while to get through all 19 parts. For a preview, what would you cite as the knock-down evidence for group selection? Something akin to homologous genes as evidence for common decent.

  7. #7 Jeffy Joe
    September 11, 2011

    OK. I’m through 5 columns and I haven’t found any evidence for group selection. I have found more talk of individual-selection theorists “mistaking values for facts.” I’ll keep slogging through, but if someone could clue me in to which ones present the evidence, I’d greatly appreciate it.

  8. #8 pdf
    September 11, 2011

    One of my favorites

    Taylor, D., Zeyl, C. & Cooke, E. Conflicting levels of selection in the accumulation of mitochondrial defects in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. P Natl Acad Sci Usa 99, 3690 (2002).

  9. #9 Jeffy Joe
    September 11, 2011

    I got through 12, and that’s all I can do for a while. Sorry. I’ll reward my hard work by going to read some of Jerry’s posts, which I always enjoy. Other than lengthy descriptions of just how mean the myopic biologists can be to group-selection proponents, I got one proof of concept showing that group selection can produce altruism in an appropriately parameterized model. It’s something.

  10. #10 Jeffy Joe
    September 11, 2011

    Back for more. I made it up to the laboratory evidence article in the series, and that was what I was looking for all along. So you have the hen example, where selecting productive hens within a coup does not increase overall productivity because those hens were succeeding at the cost of others. In contrast, selecting productive coups was highly effective. Not surprising in hindsight, I guess. But isn’t there one big problem here (and I honestly want to know)? When the researcher selected a productive coup, all of the hens in the coup had an equal chance to go into the next “generation.” There was no cost to the hens who laid fewer eggs within the coup and no gain to the hens who laid more eggs within the coup. That is, within-group selection was shut down completely. If a main argument against group selection is that it couldn’t possibly keep up with individual selection, then an experiment that eliminates within-group selection would not seem to be informative. Am I mischaracterizing how the study worked?

  11. #11 pdf
    September 11, 2011

    Is that the main argument?

  12. #12 Jeffy Joe
    September 11, 2011

    It’s certainly an argument I have encountered more than once, and an argument that is outlined earlier in the same series. To put it another way, no one thinks that selection isn’t going on at the individual level. So the question is whether group selection contributes on top of individual selection, not whether group selection could work if individual selection is artificially prevented. That is the impetus for my question.

  13. #13 steevx tossling
    September 11, 2011

    Disappointing article. Rather personal and unscientific. Why don’t you take up your spat in email and provide readers some useful info about group selection: that’s what I came for.

  14. #14 David Sloan Wilson
    September 11, 2011

    To Jeffy Joe–Thanks for your measured tone and willingness to give the issues the attention they deserve. We’d have to consult the details of the hen experiment to see how much within-group selection took place in the group selection treatment. If they pooled the eggs from each group, then the most aggressive hens would have a disproportionate share. Hen mortality would also favor the most aggressive hens, even if each surviving hen contributed an equal number of eggs.

    More generally, there are plenty of experiments, field examples, and theoretical models to show that group selection can prevail against substantial within group selection (e.g., the haystack model revisited, sex ratio, disease avirulence, the Kerr experiment, male aggressiveness in water striders…). In addition, there are biologically important cases where within-group selection is weak or in the same direction as between-group selection. There is also the very important concept of “equilibrium selection”. Complex social (and ecological) interactions often result in multiple locally stable equilibria, which are internally stable by definition but differ in their group-level properties. Group selection then takes the form of selection among the equilibria. Equilibrium selection is especially important in human cultural evolution, since norms enforced by punishment can stabilize just about anything.

    The blanket rejection of group selection ignores all of these nuances. Since Jerry can’t even accept the idea that human cultural evolution is meaningfully similar to genetic evolution, he’s not even in the ballpark of appreciating the importance of cultural group selection.


  15. #15 Jeffy Joe
    September 11, 2011

    Thank you for responding. I wouldn’t say I’m convinced, but I have realized that I need to do more thinking and reading to be able to clearly express why I find inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism more compelling than group selection (or give up that conviction). I have heard one side of this issue much more than the other, and I’ll be making more of an attempt to read arguments from group-selection advocates. I still find your characterization of Dr. Coyne to be *completely* off the mark, but I’ll try not to let that distract me from the evidence and arguments.

  16. #16 b.weeks
    September 11, 2011

    Dr. Wilson:

    Thanks for your response and insight into group selection. I wish introductory biology textbooks would mention some of the evidence you described in group selection experiments as a way of introducing the concept to students.

  17. #17 Richard
    September 12, 2011

    Great post! Pity to see Coyne perpetuate outdated ideas with such zeal.

  18. #18 Michael Dowd
    September 12, 2011

    Excellent post, David. I greatly enjoy reading Jerry’s blog posts, pretty much on a daily basis, but it always pains me to see how relatively clueless and outdated he is on the subject of multilevel selection. I hope this post of yours in widely read and cited.


    ~ Michael

  19. #19 Jesse
    September 12, 2011

    Please stop using the term “evolutionist”, its outdated and is perceived by laymen as a religious stance. You might as well call people “gravitationists” or “heliocentrists”. They are biologists, or scientists, or something similar. Words like “evolutionist” seriously hinder science communication, and you should know better.

  20. #20 Michael Dowd
    September 12, 2011

    Jesse, I don’t know where you’re getting your information but you should know that there’s an enormous number of us that find the term “evolutionist” both useful and attractive.

  21. #21 Jesse
    September 13, 2011

    It’s neither useful or attractive. It perpetuates the myth among the public that the “evolutionists” are a philosophical or religious group, rather than a group of scientists and educated people who understand the natural world.

    It’s extremely outdated, and as I noted before, about as absurd as calling oneself a “heliocentrist”. Evolution is a fact, and there is no need to create a term for somebody who “believes” or studies it. Same goes with gravity, germ theory or any other scientific theory that is established as fact.

  22. #22 Will
    September 13, 2011

    Jesse, I understand your concern, but terms like “zoologist” or “pathologist” don’t imply somebody believes in zoology or pathology. It means they study it, so I think the term “evolutionist” is a reasonable term for somebody who studies evolution.

  23. #23 OTE
    September 15, 2011

    actually you are both wrong as Evolutionist = Awesome

  24. #24 Scott
    September 16, 2011

    Haidt has done fascinating scientific work with which everyone should familiarize themselves. However, his own interpretation and application of it to politics and religion is much less impressive.

  25. #25 Linda Passarella
    February 3, 2012

    I feel I must break the news to you so here it is. First creation than evolution, both are correct. I have a legal artifact collection showing it. I call it Terrestrials, Sheriffs, and Lenape Indians. I posted 4 different articlesd and several pictures of Pictographs and Petroglyphs on wierd NJ forum. Please let people know.


New comments have been disabled.