[ExI] NATURE and E. O. Wilson contra kin selection

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Thu Aug 26 15:29:57 UTC 2010


Analysis: biologists slam kin selection heretics
Thursday, 26 August 2010

by Andrew Letten
Cosmos Online

SYDNEY: On the hallowed cover of this week's edition of Nature is a 
paper destined to reignite the flames of a fiery debate that has 
troubled every generation of biologists since Charles Darwin.

Paying short shrift to the idea of 'kin selection' - which has formed 
the cornerstone of sociobiological theory for almost half a century - 
the authors of the offending article propose a contentious new model to 
explain the evolution of 'eusociality'. (Read a news story about the 
paper, in Kin selection is dead, says E.O. Wilson [at linked story]).

Eusociality is exhibited by organisms such as ants, wasps and bees, 
which live in complex, hierarchical social systems - and it has even 
been used to explain why young men give their lives in war.

It's the kind of upstart paper evolutionary biologists would normally 
dismiss as attention-grabbing heresy in an obscure journal.

Problem is, among the heretics is E.O. Wilson, one of the greatest minds 
in modern biology … and the journal is Nature, one of the most 
respected. And all three authors are at Harvard, one of the world's top 

Not only that, but the British journal even deemed it worthy of the 
cover, showing two ants head-to-head above the bold headline, "Social 
services: how standard natural selection explains the evolution of 

Wilson - a scientific provocateur who through his prolific career has 
revelled in upsetting the status quo - co-authored the paper with 
mathematical biologists Martin A. Nowak and Corina E. Tarnita.

In the accompanying press release, they pull no punches: "We hope our 
new theory for the evolution of eusociality will open up sociobiology to 
new avenues of research by liberating the study of social evolution from 
mandatory adherence to kin selection theory. After four decades ruling 
the roost, it is time to recognise this theory's very limited prowess."

Kin selection, and the parent concept of 'inclusive fitness', attempt to 
explain why individuals perform selfless tasks that will not benefit 
them directly, but have a fitness payoff for their shared genetic 
heritage with the family, the tribe - or the hive.

It seeks to explain why individuals take the seemingly paradoxical step 
of sacrificing their own reproductive potential in order to care for the 
offspring of relatives.

Most evolutionary biologists are unimpressed. In fact, some had trouble 
staying calm enough to explain their objections. A straw poll of leading 
names in sociobiology found almost all were at a loss to explain how 
such a "flawed" (their words) body of work could have found its way into 
Nature - let alone onto the front cover.

"The paper is so obviously incorrect that it won't have any impact on 
the study of eusociality," asserted Stuart West, a professor of 
evolutionary biology at Britain's University of Oxford who has had a 
long interest in the evolution of social behaviours. "The proposed model 
may be of mathematical interest, but it is unfortunately based on a 
scenario that empirical data show is irrelevant."

While the authors argue that emerging evidence is undermining the basic 
idea that relatedness is a driving force for the rise of eusociality, 
West counters that "the discussion of the existing empirical data 
ignores the last 40 years of empirical research, which is actually a 
period when the interplay between inclusive fitness theory and data has 
led to a golden era in research on the social insects and indeed on 
living organisms in general."

Evolutionary biologist David Queller of Rice University in Texas is not 
even sure if the paper presents a new theory of eusociality.

"They have not explained how their theory differs from kin selection, or 
what predictions it makes … and though they denigrate the importance of 
genetic relatedness, their model involves, and I suspect requires, close 
kinship," he said.

Ben Oldroyd, a behavioural geneticist of the University of Sydney, 
refutes [[sic--he means "denies"]] outright the suggestion made by the 
trio that inclusive theory and the role of relatedness has been 
unproductive as a font of new theory and testable predictions.

Equally interesting was the number of key researchers in the field who 
heatedly declined to comment on the record. This reporter could not tell 
if whether they don't want to get caught in the crossfire, or are biding 
their time until they can retaliate in full.

And yet, the debate around kin selection is not a new one: debate 
surrounding the apparent evolutionary paradox began with the publication 
of On The Origin of Species.

Darwin humbly admitted to "one special difficulty, which first appeared 
to me insuperable, and actual fatal to my theory." The conundrum in 
question concerned the nature of colonies of social insects such as 
ants, wasps and bees, and how to explain how sterile worker castes could 
have evolved if they produce no offspring.

In viewing the entire colony as the unit of selection, Darwin compared 
it to a vegetable domesticated through artificial selection, with 
sterile casts [[castes]] representing the fruit, and the queen the plant 
that produced it.

Later biologists fermented this idea in the now taboo guise of 'group 
selection', but it wasn't until the 1960s that researchers arrived at a 
rational explanation for how selective forces acting on an individual 
could result in the staggering levels of altruistic cooperation 
evidenced in insect colonies. That idea was kin selection.

In the intervening period, a plethora of studies have elegantly 
illustrated the apparent validity of kin selection theory. Wilson was 
among those who for a long time backed it.

However, in the last few years, an academic minority - led by Wilson as 
chief protagonist - have begun to question their own original beliefs in 
favour of models that appear more reminiscent of early group selection 

The debate is sure to get fiery: a major symposium is being held in 
Amsterdam on September 22. Entitled The Evolution of Cooperation, it 
brings together many notable figures in the field … including two of the 
authors of the incendiary Nature paper, as well as the journal's editor.

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list