Wilson missing the boat on altruism?

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.

Sociology perhaps?

Also of interest: stunning movie about collective behavior of ants.

3 comment on “Wilson missing the boat on altruism?

  • The discussion goes on, cool.

    Individual selection and group selection are not theoretical alternatives. It is well recognized that both can happen. Wilson, already long time ago in his 1976 book Sociobiology, claimed that group selection is a determining force to explain some natural patterns (like altruism). He thought that because individual selection could not explain altruism, group selection could. The answer from the more reductionist biologists is that individual selection does explain altruism (kin selection by hamilton, that you describe above) and yet stronger that when individual selection opposes group selection, individual selection wins. That is why group selection, fashionable in the seventies/eighties, drop out of the bleeding edge of evolutionary biology.

    What now is recognized in the evolution of altruism is that space plays a role. To the date, if you set up a population of altruists and let them evolve, a egoist mutant wins. But if you add space in the model, and allow for altruist individuals to be more frequently in contact with each other, altruism might evolve as a stable strategy.

    This link to spatial structure makes the connection evolutionary biology/sociology interesting. Think in guetto forming. We politicians do not like it, but perhaps it is a “natural” way to organize ourselves…

    In any case, to follow up the evolutionary biologists that are busy with the evolution of altruism and related things, don’t pay much attention to Wilson.

    A not too old attempt to fundament multilevel selection is here:
    Multilevel selection: the evolution of cooperation in non-kin groups
    Goodnight, C.J. 2005
    Popul Ecol: 47: 3-12

    A more recent article from somebody here in NL tackling the issues that you are concern with is:
    Why kin and group selection models may not be enough to explain human other-regarding behaviour
    van Veelen, 2006
    Journal of Theoretical Biology: 242: 790-797

    If you care about the evolution of cooperation, the following is the most important recent paper, check the references. Their point is that for cooperation to evolve, you need to have repeated interactions, memory, and the capacity of choose your interaction partners:

    The coevolution of choosiness and cooperation
    McNamara et al, 2008
    Nature 451: 189-192

    And last but not least, a duo that worked out relations in between human behaviour, space, cooperation and war:

    The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War
    Choi and Bowles 2007
    Science 318: 636-640

    Interesting field of research, no doubt… by the way, the article that you quote from the nrc (from the cpb director, I believe) seemed very superficial to me… what’s your opinion?

  • Dear Inti,

    thanks for the reaction and the very interesting-sounding references.

    I’m not really shure if I agree with you that the article in the NRC is really superficial. I think the focus was more on the persons behind the ideas that on the ideas/theories themselves. A legitimate choice by the authors, I think.

    Nevertheless, I would have preferred an article that focused more on the theories than on the persons.

  • We agree on that last one sentence…

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