Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection V: The Patriotic History of Individual Selection Theory

01/25/2009 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One reason that I don't spend a lot of time bashing religion is because there are so many other flagrant departures from factual reality to pick on. Take the patriotic history of nations--the leaders who can do no wrong, the noble "us" and evil "them"--who needs supernatural agents when we can so freely re-arrange the facts of the real world?

Science is supposed to be different. Indeed, science can be idealistically defined as a cultural system designed to hold people accountable for their factual statements. Like religion, however, science as practiced often falls short of science as idealized.

The rejection of group selection and acceptance of the theory of individual selection (see T&R IV) reads disturbingly like a patriotic history. I am aware that this is a serious charge. Basically, I am saying that the theory of individual selection represents a failure of the scientific process and an example of values masquerading as facts, little different than religious, political, and other ideologies. That is why a truth and reconciliation process is needed. Before continuing, however, I want to stress that I remain idealistic about science as a cultural system that--when it works as intended--can indeed hold people accountable for their factual statements. My goal in this series of blogs is to make the scientific process work better for the issues represented by the group selection controversy. Think of me as a scientific reformer.

Consider the following passages written by highly respected evolutionists during the 1970's and 80's.

The economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end...the impulses that lead one animal to sacrifice himself for another turn out to have their ultimate rationale in gaining advantage over a third...Where it is in his own interest, every organism may reasonably be expected to aid his fellows...Yet given a full chance to act I his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain him from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering--his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch and "altruist," and watch a "hypocrite" bleed (Michael Ghiselin, The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex, 1974 p274).

The intervening years since Darwin have seen an astonishing retreat from his individual-centered stand, a lapse into sloppily unconscious group-selectionism, ably documented by Williams...It is only in recent years, roughly coinciding with the belated rise to fashion of Hamilton's own ideas, that the stampede has been halted and turned. We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin's ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label 'the selfish organism', the position which, in its modern form, is dominated by the concept of inclusive fitness (Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, 1982 p6).

I suspect that nearly all humans believe it is a normal part of the functioning of every human individual now and then to assist someone else in the realization of that person's own interests to the actual net expense of the altruist. What this greatest intellectual revolution of the century [i.e., the theory of individual selection] tells us is that, despite our intuitions, there is not a shred of evidence to support this view of beneficence, and a great deal of convincing theory suggests that any such view will eventually be judged false (Richard Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems, 1987 p3).

According to these authors, evolutionary theory ratifies the concept of individual self-interest as a grand explanatory principle. Lest you think that these passages were written for a popular audience, in which case a bit of poetic license might be justified, they are all taken from academic books--scientists writing for other scientists.

Patriotic histories represent conflicts in black-and-white terms and their resolution as definitive. The passages quoted above express complete certainty. Alexander's phrase "a great deal of convincing theory suggests that any such view will eventually be judged false" does not invite continuing inquiry. Richard Dawkins went even further:

As for group selection itself, my prejudice is that it has soaked up more theoretical ingenuity than its biological interest warrants. I am informed by the editor of a leading mathematics journal that he is continually plagued by ingenious papers purporting to have squared the circle. Something about the fact that this has been proved to be impossible is seen as an irresistible challenge by a certain type of intellectual dilettante. Perpetual motion machines have a similar fascination for some amateur inventors. The case of group selection is hardly analogous: it has never been proved to be impossible, and never could be. Nevertheless, I hope I may be forgiven for wondering whether part of group selection's romantic appeal stems from the authoritative hammering the theory has received ever since Wynne-Edwards did us the valuable service of bringing it out into the open (The Extended Phenotype, 1982 p115).

Notice how Dawkins carefully acknowledges that group selection is a theoretical possibility. The basic logic of multilevel selection is impeccable and was affirmed by Williams and others, as I recount in T&R IV. The question is whether group-level selection can ever prevail over individual-level selection. According to Dawkins, this question had been answered so authoritatively that doubters could be compared to romantic dreamers and intellectual dilettantes searching for perpetual motion machines.

Given the certainty with which group selection was rejected, it was kept alive in articles and textbooks primarily as a cautionary tale for how not to think. It became almost mandatory for authors to inform their readers that group selection was not being invoked. Just as patriots vilify their opponents and make sure that they are counted on the side of the righteous, invoking group selection became a heresy inviting ridicule and exclusion. Here is how Stephen Jay Gould recalls the period in an introduction to Richard Goldschmidt's The Material Basis of Evolution (p. xv), which also became the subject of ridicule:

I have witnessed widespread dogma only three times in my career as an evolutionist, and nothing in science has disturbed me more than ignorant ridicule based upon a desire or perceived necessity to follow fashion: the hooting dismissal of Wynne-Edwards and group selection in any form during the late 1960's and most of the 1970's, the belligerence of many cladists today, and the almost ritualistic ridicule of Goldschmidt by students (and teachers) who had not read him.

In future installments of the T&R series, I will show that the certainty expressed by Ghiselin, Dawkins, and Alexander was sheer bravado. The theoretical and empirical case against group selection was never strong and even what there was began to fall apart immediately. That did not alter the patriotic history, however, which is still dutifully reported in text books and transmitted as an oral tradition among graduate students, who warn each other not to invoke group selection in the presence of their faculty advisors. The patriotic history of individual selection theory is a sorry chapter in the history of science. Why did it occur in the first place?

To be continued.