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.