I am a process engineer in the nuclear industry just re-entering into this discussion after 20 years as a creationist Christian with a degree in Biblical and Theological Studies and am finding it fascinating as well as a bit disturbing! Let me explain why.
After reading David Sloan Wilson’s books “Darwin’s Cathedral” and “Evolution for Everyone” I wanted to find the communities of students and laypeople that David talked so passionately about in his books. His essay “Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, And The Consensus Of The Many” introduced me to this very heated “in-house” debate on group selection. Then I just received my order in the mail from the Skeptics Society “How to Debate a Creationist” where I read the following quote:
“Of the five points of Darwin’s theory, the most controversial today are gradualism…and the exclusivity of natural selection, with Eldredge, Gould, and others arguing for change at the level of genes, groups, and populations in addition to individual natural selection (Somit and Peterson 1992). Ranged against Eldredge, Gould, and their supporters are Daniel Dennett (1995), Richard Dawkins (1976, 1986), and those who opt for a strict Darwinian model of gradualism and natural selection. The debate rages, while the evolution deniers sit on the sidelines hoping for a double knockout. They will not get it. These scientists are not arguing about whether evolution happened; they are debating the rate and mechanism of evolutionary change. When it all shakes down, the theory of evolution will be stronger than ever.”
[“What is Evolution?” p. 1]
I also read “Reintroducing ‘Reintroducing Group Selection to the Human Behavioral Sciences’ to BBS Readers” by Nicholas S. Thompson at Clark University which gave a very interesting perspective from someone who had “switched sides.”
And this is where I became a bit disturbed. After spending twenty years participating in and observing the endless debates about theological minutiae that occur in religion (especially “in-house” Christian debates), I was looking forward to the evolutionist “promise” that the scientific forum was an open and honest conversation where everyone cooperates in the search for scientific truth/reality. I was not expecting to find the scathing and uncharitable comments that I’ve been reading about in these exchanges, from the likes of Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and Sam Harris (e.g., in his exchanges with David Eagleman on “possibilianism”). I was not expecting to find such a hornets’ nest and vitriol toward those who were “on the same team”.
In reading the exchanges, it smacked a bit like the popular kids bullying the little guy that I was accustomed to seeing in elementary school. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a lively debate, I do. And I understand the strategy of those like Dawkins and Harris to push the fence sitters to choose a side. But I think that there still be should be a modicum of politeness and a mutual respect for one another. I think that this can be done in a more gentleman-like way. I honestly wonder how beneficial this current rhetoric on the debate is for the cause and how conducive it is toward any meaningful dialogue. I am also curious how it looks from the perspective of the “other team.”
For those of us who should understand how tribalism works at a psychological and societal level, it is surprising that we would be so easily wrapped back up into creating yet even more tribes along with all of the politics and name-calling that go along with it. It seems like we have a scientific problem and disagreement that requires us to “roll up our sleeves” and solve together rather than setting the stage for yet another turf war with all of the confirmation biases that go along with it in order to protect our careers, books, patents, etc. Perhaps I am just plain naïve here, but why can’t we just work together to solve the problem and make the theory “stronger than ever” like the article cited above suggests? I feel like I’m back debating theological minutia.
Beyond this, I consider myself to be a relatively intelligent individual (perhaps a bit of confirmation bias going on here…), but the explanations in this debate on group selection seem to be rather involved, complicated, perhaps even convoluted. At my workplace, in order for me to understand a process I have to first break it down into its component steps, simplifying it as much as possible so that I fully understand it and am then able to explain it to others. Perhaps it is just that this is an extremely complicated subject and I’m just not smart enough to understand; perhaps it is because scientific-minded people like complicated things and like things complicated!
And this brings me to my questions:
1. Question for group selection (multilevel selectionism) advocates: If behavioral and personality traits can be transmitted to the next generation at the group-level, what is the physical mechanism/vehicle and/or explanation for its transmission and predominance in succeeding generations?
- Does this not assume that these traits are physically heritable (i.e., encoded in our DNA as genes) so that the next generations will be “wired” or “predisposed” for this behavior?
- Doesn’t the mechanism/vehicle for transmission have to be the individual since they are the ones that physically transmit their genes to the next generation?
- Is the reason that this trait becomes dominant in the population of a group simply because its overall concentration increases since it is advantageous for survival of the group (between-group predominates or supersedes in-group competition) and those groups with the highest concentration of the trait survive while the others don’t or does there have to be competition between groups for this to actually work? What happens when there is no competition between groups? Is altruism impossible in this case?
- How does the genes vs. enculturation (nature vs. nurture) discussion impinge upon this subject?
- How does epigenetics impact this subject?
2. Question for merely natural selection (purist gene selectionism) advocates: If transmission only happens based on the “selfish” gene theory, how do behavioral or personality traits that are advantageous for the group but disadvantageous for the individuals within the group ever get transmitted to the next generation and become dominant/ubiquitous?
- If it is heritable, how can this phenomenon be explained?
- How can altruism to non-relatives be explained?
- If it is through enculturation and imitation, how are these behaviors so ubiquitous at a very young age, if not at birth (even applicable to animals/organisms other than humans that presumably do not emit pheromones indicating that they are unambiguously related, e.g., ants)?
If we can start answering these questions together in a modest way, I believe that we can arrive at a rational definition of heritability that defines more precisely the roles of both genes and groups. The sooner we do this, the sooner “the theory of evolution will be stronger than ever.”