E. O. Wilson has not changed his position on altruism

E.O. Wilson shifts his position on altruism in nature:

It is a puzzle of evolution: If natural selection dictates that the fittest survive, why do we see altruism in nature? Why do worker bees or ants, for instance, refrain from competing with those around them, but instead search for food or build nests on behalf of their companions? Why do they sacrifice their own reproductive success for the good of the group?

In the 1960s, British biologist William Hamilton offered an explanation in a theory now called kin selection. When animals, often insects, help siblings or other relatives survive, they are enhancing the odds that their shared family genes will be passed on. In other words, the genes, not the individual or social group, are what counts in evolution.

Hamilton's idea was eventually accepted by most biologists, and found an enthusiastic backer, at the time, in Edward O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard evolutionist.

That was then. Now, Wilson has changed his mind, startling colleagues by arguing that kin selection does not lead to altruism.

This is highly misleading. In his most recent book, Evolution for Everyone, David Sloan Wilson, the maestro of multi-level selection theory, implies that E. O. Wilson never accepted that inclusive fitness was the whole story. David Sloan Wilson recounts that it was E. O. Wilson who prodded him into exploring group selective interpretations of his data. In Defenders of the Truth Ullica Segerstrale asserts this explicitly, stating that the idea that E. O. Wilson accepted W. D. Hamilton's inclusive fitness as the total explanation for social behavior was a myth. Segerstrale contends that it is evident in the text of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis that Wilson remained attached to the viability of group selection long after accepting the power of inclusive fitness as a supplementary paradigm.*

The scientists who are quoted in article as being skeptical of Wilson's apostasy are British. That doesn't surprise me, I had a friend who worked at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge where Wilson is a professor, and his opinions in regards to "orthodox" Hamiltonianism have been widely known for the past generation. They didn't have to read Segerstrale's book or Sociobiology to infer the state of Wilson's mind, he would tell them flat out where he stood. His collaboration Bert Holldobler, capped off with the new book The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, is the culmination in a long "coming out" process. From what I have heard the formal models which Wilson is championing now are simply glosses on top of his long head intuition that inclusive fitness just can't explain all of sociality. Wilson believes various new lines of empirical data (e.g., genetic fingerprinting revising downward coefficients of relatedness in some insect societies below the threshold implied by Hamilton's Rule) simply make more concrete his intuition as a naturalist, and the mathematical models are necessary cover for the offensive of ideas.

All of this is rather obscure to most people, but it is important to clarify and correct the record here. Perhaps all I have read and heard is wrong, and E. O. Wilson really was a dyed-in-the-wool Hamiltonian all these years, but I doubt it. The headline for that piece is much stronger than the text would warrant, but many people only read the headlines.

Related: Altruism & E.O. Wilson vs. Richard Dawkins and Levels of selection - the coming debate.

* "Scholars" would gain much from reading the works of intellectuals whose ideas they presume to know. I'm thinking here of the caricatures of Herbert Spencer. In any case, from what I recall Segerstrale claims that Richard Dawkins' exposition of W. D. Hamilton's theories in The Selfish Gene originated the myth that Wilson repudiated group selection.

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"Wilson remained attached to the viability of group selection long after accepting the power of inclusive fitness as a supplementary paradigm"

In Chapter 5 of Sociobiology "Group Selection and Altruism" Wilson relays the facts as they were known at the time (i.e. the professional anal raping of Wynne-Edwards), but remains optimistic that group selection findings would remain important in evolution (just not the areas that had previously been promoted as examples):

"In summary, deductions from the two models agree that evolution of an altruist gene by means of pure interdemic selection, based on differential population extinction is an improbable event ... What this means is that most of the wide array of "social conventions" proposed by Wynne-Edwards and other authors are probably not true ... Moreover [it]... is least likely in the largest, most stable populations, where social behavior is the most highly developed... [which are] cited by Wynne-Edwards as the best examples of altruistic population control... In these cases one must favor alternative hypotheses that involve either kin selection or individual selection. Even so, a mechanism for the evolution of population-wide cooperation has been validated, and the hypothesis of social conventions must either be excluded or kept alive for each species considered in turn." (p 113-114)

Later Wilson nods to other models by Maynard Smith and DS Wilson, and asserts that "frequently permissible conditions... exist in nature" for interdemic selection to occur but that actual cases of it are rarely reported in the literature. (p 116)

The space devoted to group selection is larger and more sympathetic than the space devoted to kin selection where Wilson simply concludes: "Hamilton's viewpoint is also unstructured. The conventional parameters of population genetics... are mostly omitted from the equations. As a result, Hamilton's mode of reasoning can be only loosely coupled with the remainder of genetic theory, and the number of predictions it can make is unnecessarily limited." (p 120)

By Jason Malloy (not verified) on 10 Nov 2008 #permalink