The return of group selection


Jason Collins


April 3, 2012

In 2010, Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O Wilson had their paper The evolution of eusociality published in Nature. They argued that inclusive fitness could not explain eusociality, and that competition between groups was required as an explanatory factor. The anti-group selection forces were quick to mobilise. Apart from the many blog posts and column inches, Nature published a response with 137 signatories defending the concept of inclusive fitness. One paragraph by Carl Zimmer captures (for me) where the argument is at:

Nowak et al respond to all the criticism and don’t budge in their own stand. They claim that their critics have misinterpreted their own argument. And they claim that sex allocation does not require inclusive fitness. Oddly, though, they never explain why it doesn’t, despite the thousands of papers that have been published on inclusive fitness and sex allocation. They don’t even cite a paper that explains why.

Despite the lack of traction for group selection in the evolutionary biology world, there appears to be a resurgence in the social sciences and popular press. For example, Jonathan Haidt, author of the recently released The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, argues that humans have been subject to and shaped by group selection. Haidt is getting plenty of relatively unimpeded coverage in the popular press.

This resurgence is about to hit a new high with the upcoming release of The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O Wilson. While I am sure it will receive a skeptical reaction from most of Wilson’s fellow biologists, it is already getting a welcome reception in parts of the media and from some social scientists. Take this piece by Jonathan Gottschall in the Huffington Post. Gottshall writes:

Of course, it would be a great distortion to suggest that people are – like ants – selfless all of the time. But the vision of rigid selfishness that arose from biology’s rejection of group selection was an equally great distortion. The real picture is more complex. Natural selection occurs at the level of groups and individuals. Between-group competition favors selfless genes while competition inside groups favors selfish genes. As Wilson and a colleague wrote, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

My perception is that there is a growing gap between the relative standing of group selection in the social science and evolutionary worlds. This is particularly the case for discussion of the evolution of cooperation and altruism in humans. How wide will this gap grow before a serious response emerges from the evolutionary sciences to the claim that human cooperation is shaped by group selection? There have been some good papers (pdf) on this in the past, but these types of arguments are not getting much column space.