11/03/2007 06:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Goodbye Selfish-Gene: A New Upheaval in the Science of Human Behavior

For nearly half a century, the evolution of human behavior has
been presented to the public framed by the ideas of Edward O.
, Richard Dawkins, and a cohort of sociobiologists,
evolutionary psychologists, and media gene-mongers. The
scientific basis for the frame is the idea that the focus of
Darwinian natural selection is the selfish gene, selection always
acting within groups and never between groups -- individual
selection rather than group selection, the unit of selection the
gene. From this has followed the selfish-gene evolutionary
analysis of various human behaviors, especially the analysis of

Well, it seems that the father of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson has
changed his mind: in the current issue of New Scientist (November
3, 2007), evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward
O. Wilson effectively end the hegemony of the selfish gene idea:
they review the field and declare in a voice loud and clear that
group selection was mistakenly cast aside during previous
decades, that the evidence for group selection is too strong to
be ignored, and that the current ideas about how evolution works
need to be revised.

The scientific revision, well-known to professional biologists,
has actually been in the works for more than a decade (see,
Wilson, D.S. & Sober, E. (1994). Reintroducing group selection to
the human behavioral sciences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences
17(4): 585-654) but with this new article in the popular media
the public revision begins.

Here are the words of the authors in the New Scientist:

"The old arguments against group selection have all failed. It is
theoretically plausible, it happens in reality, and the so-called
alternatives actually include the logic of multilevel selection.
Had this been known in the 1960s, sociobiology would have taken a
very different direction. It is this branch point that must be
revisited to put sociobiology back on a firm theoretical
foundation. Accepting multilevel selection has profound
implications. It means we can no longer regard the individual as
a privileged level of the biological hierarchy..."

It's a new game now. Watch the media gene-mongers twist and turn
as they attempt to reconcile their years of bamboozling the
public with cute stories about how this or that human behavior
can be explained by a simple selfish-gene analysis. The routine
has always been to completely neglect the interactions of
individuals with their groups -- no group selection by evolution,
only selection of individuals. Altruism was explained in terms of
individual genetic cost-benefit analysis. The Wilsons have now
turned the table over, dishes crashing to the floor, and
announced that altruism is more readily explained by group
selection -- groups with more altruists tend to do better than
groups with less altruists, and such groups therefore thrive.

Of course, genes are not out of the picture: for one thing, the
membership of an individual in a group provides nurturing and
protection to increase the probability of reproduction by that
individual -- the group improving individual gene replicability.

Plain talk: The Darwinian prop of the lone cowboy rugged
conservative bundle of selfish genes has now been pulled out from
under the cowboy and the lone cowboy has suddenly collapsed into
a mumbling baffled cartoon.

Humans are pack animals. We live and die in herds. The group
provides the individual with the means of physical and
psychological survival. We need the group as much as the group
needs us. It's a fair trade that's been evolving for millions of

The selfish-gene mantra of conservative psychologists and
columnists is now more or less dead. Will we see the public media
focus on this new development?

There will be die-hards. There are people who don't like the idea
that society is as important as genes in determining behavior.
They don't like the idea that nature can select societies as well
as individuals. They don't like the idea that humans have some
control over their own evolution, that behavior can be changed by
changing social circumstances. They are people who think there is
something glorious about the lone cowboy fending for himself with
a gun and a campfire. They forget that lone cowboy was usually as
unwashed, unschooled, and as mute as the cows he herded.

If anyone represents our future it's those astronauts up there
who depend on each other for their survival. Not the lone cowboys
down here who feed on the rot of greed.