Last time I wrote about how (socio)biologist Edward Wilson mis-interpreted the work of sociologist James Coleman. Basically, I argued that Wilson mixed what need the be explained (explanandum) up with what to explain it with (explanans). In the reactions it was pointed out (by Inti Suarez), that the criticism Wilson receives is often more general in nature. That is, WIlson is criticized on his statements about on what level of aggregation should take place.
This reminded me of a newspaper article (NRC, 26-01-2008) on altruism. Altruism (doing something for another member of your species which results in smaller chances of survival for yourself) for some time has been a serious problem for evolutionary biology. Why would altruism, leading to diminishing life chances for individual organisms with that characteristic, lead to a Darwinian advantage?
Several theories on how this is possible have been proposed. For long, two general strands of theory existed. The oldest stated that selection takes place on individual level. An example of this would be that bees sacrifice themselves to protect their bee-hive in which their family lives. This results in the survival of at least some of the genes of the sacrificing gene. Another theory states that selection takes places at group-level. If organisms in a group cooperate successfully their genes have a greater chance of survival, whether or not the members of the group are family.
Recently, Wilson wrote an article on this subject, in which it becomes clear that he is switching position. While he has been a strong proponent of selection at the individual level, he recently changed towards the defense of selection at the group-level. This change of position is not what is really strange. The problem is, that new theories acknowledge that both types of selection can go hand in hand and take place simultaneously. In the news-paper articles this is referred to as multi-level selection.
And that is where we see another indication that Wilson misunderstood the work of James Coleman. As I’ve detailed elsewhere[in Dutch], the contribution of Coleman was that he showed that macro-level and micro-level changes need different positions in the analyses of social phenomena. When this is drawn out schematically, this form somewhat resembles a boat. Hence, the theorem of Coleman is sometimes lovingly referred to as “the boat of Coleman”.
This leads me to think that E.O. Wilson is indeed `missing the boat’ when it comes to different levels of aggregation. He misunderstood the work of James Coleman and now it appears that he receives similar criticism on other aspects of his work, all relating to the question on what level of aggregation analysis should take place. Perhaps the unified scientific methodology he stands for should take into account a little less of his biology work and a little more of some other discipline.
Also of interest: stunning movie about collective behavior of ants.