For anyone who thought that TVOL would pass down the Word, based on the authority of Science, think again. Science is a boiling cauldron of disagreement. The only thing distinguishing it from other boiling cauldrons is that it is supposed to result in progress rather than endless gridlock. Progress is the accumulation of knowledge, which starts as untested hypotheses and ends with something durable enough to be called fact. The earth is round. It is also very old. Continents drift. All of these claims were once hotly contested, but then science did its magic and they are now regarded as facts.
Science is not necessarily a gentlemanly sport, like tiddlywinks. It can be a contact sport, like boxing—but even boxing has rules and referees to make sure that the hitting is above the belt.
Science journalism reports on science. A science journalist must explain to nonscientists why a given topic is worth caring about, which often involves poetic license and omitting the minutia. Otherwise, science journalists are bound by the same code of ethics as scientists, such as respecting the authority of empirical evidence, avoiding ad hominem attacks, and so on.
Against this background, welcome to the hard-hitting world of group selection and selfish genes. The controversy seems to persist forever. Is that because the topic is so very complicated, or because the data is so hard to collect? Or might it be the kind of futile gridlock that occurs when some of the participants stop functioning as scientists and start hitting below the belt?
In the most recent round, I came out swinging in an article titled “When Richard Dawkins is not an Evolutionist”. That might seem below the belt, but I chose the word “when” carefully. When does anyone function as an evolutionist, which also requires functioning as a scientist? In other words, what constitutes hitting above and below the belt? It’s not hitting below the belt to ask for a clarification of the rules!
Then I claimed that Dawkins was hitting below the belt on two subjects: religion as a human construction and selfish genes in relation to group selection. On religion as a human construction, there is a community of scientists who hit above the belt, they are making progress, and Dawkins is not among them. Readers who want to learn more should consult evolutionists such as Scott Atran, Jesse Bering, Pascal Boyer, Joseph Bulbulia, Joseph Henrich, Dominic Johnson, Richard Sosis, Harvey Whitehouse, and TVOL’s RELIGION editor Michael Blume, to name a few. ETVOL is proud to provide a journalistic forum for their work.
It would take a long time to document how Dawkins departs from factual reality on the subject of religion as a human construction, but selfish genes in relation to group selection is more straightforward: The concept of genes as replicators was initially regarded as a drop-dead argument against group selection, but it proved to be nothing of the sort. In a genetic model, genes are the replicators regardless of whether group selection does or doesn’t occur. Group selection occurs when genes (or memes in a cultural model) evolve in the total population, despite being selectively neutral or disadvantageous within groups (as a technical aside, a trait can also be favored by both within- and between-group selection). This can be regarded as a fact, as surely as a round earth, deep time, and drifting continents. It’s understandable that people might have been ignorant of the fact before (as with those other facts), but there is little excuse for an evolutionist today, since it was established decades ago. My claim is that Dawkins evades this fact and continues to treat selfish genes as an argument against group selection. Whether I am hitting above or below the belt depends upon the veracity of my claim.
In response to my article, the distinguished evolutionist Jerry Coyne came out swinging on his Why Evolution Is True blog. Because the mission of TVOL is to feature controversy, and not to present just one side, we immediately carried the story on our front page. Part of hitting above the belt involves acknowledging areas of agreement into addition to areas of disagreement. In my article, for example, I agreed with Dawkins on the lack of empirical evidence for supernatural agents that actively intervene in physical processes and the affairs of people, before disagreeing with him on the nature of religion as a human construction. I am now pleased to indicate my areas of agreement and disagreement with Coyne.
First and foremost, Coyne and I agree that selfish genes do not constitute an argument against group selection. Here is Coyne in his own words:
Yes, genes are replicators, but no, Dawkins never claimed that their status as selfish replicators somehow rules out group selection. What he claimed, in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, was that successful replicators must share the same vehicle if they are to be successful in the future. Usually that vehicle is the body of an individual organism, which is used by the replicators to propagate themselves. Dawkins’s argument against the efficacy of group selection was that this form of selection is usually unsuccessful because groups are vulnerable to subversion from within by those selfish replicators. That is, “cheating” replicators that are “good” for individuals but bad for the group as a whole will tend to propagate themselves. Yes, altruism may help groups propagate, but altruistic groups are susceptible to invasion by cheaters unless the “altruism” is based on kin selection or individual selection via reciprocity.
Coyne has made my work easy. Any competent historian of the subject knows that the “group selection is wrong because genes are replicators” argument was the received wisdom during the 1960’s and 70’s. Here is one of dozens of passages that could be quoted, this one from Richard Alexander in 1979:
In 1966 [G.C.] Williams published a book criticizing what he called “some current evolutionary thought” and chastised biologists for invoking selection uncritically at whatever level seemed convenient. Williams’ book was the first truly general argument that selection is hardly ever effective on anything but the heritable units of “genetic replicators” (Dawkins, 1978) contained in the genotypes of individuals.
I have discussed Dawkins’s role in the initial confusion elsewhere (here and here). For Coyne to claim that no one was ever confused on this point is historical revisionism, and that’s hitting below the belt.
Dawkins did acknowledge that group selection is a matter of vehicles, not replicators, in The Extended Phenotype, published in 1982. That’s why I was surprised when he took it back in 2007, in a response to an article written by Edward O. Wilson and myself in the American Scientist:
Genes Still Central: David Sloan Wilson’s lifelong quest to redefine “group selection” in such a way as to sow maximum confusion–and even to confuse the normally wise and sensible Edward O. Wilson into joining him–is of no more scientific interest than semantic double talk ever is. What goes beyond semantics, however, is his statement (it is safe to assume that E.O. Wilson is blameless) that “Both Williams and Dawkins eventually acknowledged their error [that the replicator concept provides an argument against group selection]…I cannot speak for George Williams but, as far as I am concerned, the statement is false: not a semantic confusion; not an exaggeration of a half-truth; not a distortion of a quarter truth; but a total, unmitigated, barefaced lie. Like many scientists, I am delighted to acknowledge occasions when I have changed my mind, but this is not one of them. D.S. Wilson should apologize. E.O. Wilson, being the gentleman that he is, probably will.
So, according to Dawkins, the status of genes as replicators is still central to the evaluation of group selection. That makes him a flat-earther on the subject and anyone refereeing the scientific process should call him out—including Jerry Coyne.
With someone of Dawkins’ stature saying whatever he pleases, it’s understandable that the rest of the world remains confused. Here is a passage from one of the people who commented on Coyne’s post:
Yes, it’s necessary to once again point out that individuals cooperating as a group is NOT evidence for group selection, in itself. This sort of behaviour has been shown, time and time again, to be the result of selection at the level of the individual’s genes.
The comments on Coyne’s post also demonstrate rampant confusion on the question of whether kin selection is a type of group selection or an alternative to group selection, another issue that was settled decades ago (go here). There is virtually no awareness among Coyne’s reading public of the concepts of equivalence and pluralism, which is the current frontier of debate (go here). I’m not to blame for this degree of illiteracy—go ask Coyne or Dawkins!
Coyne’s hard-hitting post in response to my article is a veritable flurry of below-the-belt punches, including:
• Questioning the mental competence of one’s opponent (e.g., “losing it again”, “totally over the waterfall”, “sheer madness”).
• Misrepresenting the number of scientists who accept group selection as a significant evolutionary force (e.g., “futile one man crusade”).
• Guilt by association (my association with the John Templeton Foundation, which evidently taints everything I have said or done; more about that in the future).
• Misrepresenting the amount of evidence for group selection, as in this passage:
The concept of genes as selfish replicators, which has held up perfectly well since The Selfish Gene was published in 1976, says nothing about the efficacy of group selection. Dawkins’s (and my) beef with group selection as a way to evolve traits that are bad for individuals but good for groups is that this form of selection is inefficient, subject to subversion within groups, and, especially, that there’s virtually no evidence that this form of selection has been important in nature).
Once again, Coyne makes my work easy. Keep in mind that he is a fly geneticist who hasn’t published a single peer-reviewed article on group selection. Somehow, my own madness results in peer-reviewed publications in top journals, and not just me but dozens of my colleagues who straightforwardly demonstrate the evolution of genes and memes in multi-group populations that are selectively disadvantageous within the groups. For every colleague who dares to use the term “group selection” to describe this process, there are others who strip the term from their manuscripts to avoid harassment by people like Dawkins and Coyne, which only perpetuates the confusion, as Omar Eldakar and I describe in an article titled “Eight Criticisms Not to Make About Group Selection” published in Evolution.
For readers who are up for a challenge and want to learn more about the theoretical basis and empirical evidence for group selection from someone other than myself, I recommend Steven A. Frank’s “Natural Selection. III. Selection vs. Transmission and Levels of Selection (Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2011). For Frank, it goes without saying that natural selection is a multilevel process and that the group level is often a significant evolutionary force.
Readers can decide whether I punch above or below the belt in my own articles. I expect to be refereed along with everyone else. But there is one move that surely qualifies as “not science” – the decision not to engage at all. Refusing to talk is one of the main reasons why other boiling cauldrons of disagreement fail to result in progress. If my evolutionist colleagues such as Coyne and Dawkins fail to show up for the match, then they’re not functioning as scientists for sure.