Evolutionists at war over altruism's origins

An intellectual war of words has broken out between two of the world's leading evolutionists. Oxford University's Richard Dawkins and Harvard's Edward Wilson have gone head to head over the evolution of altruism in the animal kingdom, and whether it can have come about as a result of something called group selection.

The subject matter of their dispute is social insects, particularly ants, which display a supreme form of altruism in that sterile workers lay down their lives for the benefit of their fertile colleagues in the colony.

Conventional Darwinian theory could not really explain why one individual should sacrifice its own life, and its precious genes, for the benefit of another individual, unless it could be viewed in terms of group selection, when indi-viduals do it for the benefit of the colony or the species.

But nearly half a century ago, scientists punched intellectual holes in the theory of group selection and pointed instead to something called kin selection, when altruism in social communities evolves as a result of one individual being closely related to a member of the same colony.

Social insects such as ants display unusual degrees of relatedness within the colony, with sister workers being more closely related to one another than to the offspring they may have. It was therefore seen as beneficial for individual sisters to sacrifice their fertility for their sister queen because of the genes they had in common.

Mathematical models supported kin selection which rose to prominence because it appeared to explain the evolution of altruism in ants and many other species. Group selection was dead in the water. But now Professor Wilson has brought it back to life in a book on ants to be published this year, and in an interview this week with New Scientist magazine.

"If you look at the literature of the theory, there are a lot of impressive-looking mathematical models but they scarcely ever come up with a real measure of anything that can be applied to nature," he says.

This has not pleased Professor Dawkins who, while he has respect for Wilson, spent much of his early career exploding the myth of group selection, which is anathema to the "selfish gene" theory behind kin selection.

In a separate article in New Scientist, Dawkins acknowledges Wilson's "characteristically fascinating account" of the evolution of social insects, but says: "His 'group selection' terminology is misleading, and his distinction between 'kin selection' and 'individual direct selection' is empty."

What matters is natural selection at the level of the gene, not the group, he insists. "All we need ask of a purportedly adaptive trait is, 'what makes a gene for that trait increase in frequency?' Wilson wrongly implies that explanations should resort to kin selection only when 'direct' selection fails," says Dawkins.

"Here he falls for the first of my '12 misunderstandings of kin selection'; that is, he thinks it is a special, complex kind of natural selection, which it is not."

Dawkins points out that Wilson relegates kin selection to a chapter on group selection in his book Sociobiology, published in the mid-Seventies. "Evidently Wilson's weird infatuation with 'group selection' goes way back; unfortunate in a biologist who is so justly influential," he says.

Professor Wilson remains convinced that he will be proved right, and his critics wrong.

"I am used to taking the heat, and in the past I turned out to be right," he said.

Sacrifice in the natural world

* Mothers in many animal species will risk injury and even death to protect their young. This is seen as a prime example of kin selection and can explain why people will tolerate their own children's behaviour but not that of others.

* Many social animals demonstrate acts of altruism based on close kinship within the colony. The supreme form of altruism is seen in social insects, when individuals sacrifice their fertility and lay down their lives for the benefit of their fertile queen.

* Some species engage in what is known as reciprocal altruism, when an altruistic act is carried out in the expectation that it may be returned later on. Warning calls of birds in response to potential danger are thought to be an example of reciprocal atruism. The call puts the bird at higher risk, but it will benefit it in the long run if others reciprocate.

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
life
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Sport
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
football
News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?