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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003