Inclusive fitness theory and eusociality
April 17, 2011 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Big dust up about kin selection. Biologists E.O. Wilson, Martin Nowak, and Corina Tarnita publish a paper attacking kin selection, the idea that the reproductive success of a gene is influenced not only by its effects on its carrier, but also by its effects on related individuals (kin) carrying the same gene. 130 some odd other biologists respond. Richard Dawkins weighs in. Some talking bears offer a summary. [via]
posted by AceRock (46 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Oops. Hit "post" too soon.
- Carl Zimmerman comments.
- Wilson, Novak, and Tarnita's paper.
posted by AceRock at 8:22 AM on April 17, 2011

ugh sorry, mods. saturday morning posting. Should be Carl Zimmer
posted by AceRock at 8:31 AM on April 17, 2011

omg. its sunday not saturday. fail. I should just stop now.
posted by AceRock at 8:32 AM on April 17, 2011 [17 favorites]

We will not allow your genes to pass on.
posted by The Whelk at 8:36 AM on April 17, 2011 [9 favorites]

Um, AceRock? That first link (to Boston Globe) let me read 4 of the 5 pages of the article... and then insisted I register to be able to read the fifth. (grar)

Do you have a cached copy or pdf?
posted by likeso at 8:37 AM on April 17, 2011

Why is Dawkin's response theoretical? I thought Selfish Gene or Extended Phenotype had actual data (on social insect investment in offspring vs naked mole rats vs everyone else).
posted by DU at 8:48 AM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Single page link of the first link, The Boston Globe article.
posted by Daddy-O at 8:48 AM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not seeing a link to the original paper, or a summary of the argument that's not coming from a critic. So this is a pretty problematic post in that regard.

Here's a link to a place where you can buy it. I'm sure there must be an abstract or a neutral or positive summary somewhere (aside from crappy pseudo-machinima argumentation-assassination, we're not seeing any defenses here, either), and I hope someone will find and link it.

Also, the talking bears thing is really not very enlightening. In fact, the whole machinima-lite talking animals thing hardly ever contributes anything to actual understanding of the issue being "discussed", and is usually a good sign that the people putting forth the video have contempt for at least one of the positions being outlined. It's a great sign, in other words, that you should take a very, very critical view of the opinion of anyone who propagates it as a positive adjunct to their criticisms.
posted by lodurr at 8:51 AM on April 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

As far as I recall, Selfish Gene doesn't really have any actual data. Anyway, if I were looking for data from Dawkins I wouldn't look there -- I didn't get the sense it was supposed to be making a hard argument so much as laying philosophical groundwork. But then, it's been almost 20 years since I read it.
posted by lodurr at 8:53 AM on April 17, 2011

I'm not seeing a link to the original paper

The original paper is linked in AceRock's first comment.
posted by pemberkins at 8:54 AM on April 17, 2011

Ooops, missed the link to the paper in the first message. Sorry.
posted by lodurr at 8:55 AM on April 17, 2011

Selfish Gene and the other books aren't overflowing with data, but there is some in there. I was pretty sure data about naked mole rats and wasps was in one of those books.
posted by DU at 8:56 AM on April 17, 2011

Daddy-O, thanks - but sadly, I am now immediately led to the registration page and only the registration page. Guess you're only allowed 4 clicks till datamine time. *sigh*
posted by likeso at 8:58 AM on April 17, 2011

Why is Dawkin's response theoretical? I thought Selfish Gene or Extended Phenotype had actual data (on social insect investment in offspring vs naked mole rats vs everyone else). They Did.

DU, I think this is just because Dawkins wanted to simplify the problem. I'm sure he could list a few pages of experimental data supporting kin selection (as could I, for that matter) but it may well result in a less convincing argument. I like his succinct logical breakdown here: it articulates all the things I wanted to scream when I first read the paper. The overwhelming evidence which supported kin selection then still supports it now and half the things the authors say don't make sense.

It's a very interesting issue. Wilson is the guy who I *learned* kin selection from and now he's trying to say it isn't important.
posted by Buckt at 9:00 AM on April 17, 2011

This is why I love science. You start with a claim, come up with a good logical reason, but at the end of the day, you rely on the evidence which needs the relevant criteria for the scientific community to go, "O.k I'm in."

Nothing wrong with what Wilson is doing, but at the end of the day, it's looking like current evidence and expert peer review is stacked against his ideas.

Going to enjoy watching this progress, and hoping it makes yet another excellent chapter to share with students on why science culture rocks!
posted by davidng at 9:01 AM on April 17, 2011

(Also, I have a PDF of the document on my desktop. If someone gives me an imgur type place to upload it, no problem.)
posted by Buckt at 9:02 AM on April 17, 2011

I can't find the full text of Novak et al's reply, but the abstract is here.

Likeso, pasted full Boston Globe article is here.
posted by AceRock at 9:03 AM on April 17, 2011

People keep referring to Wilson as though it's his paper. Wilson's third on this paper; Dawkins addresses his comments largely to Nowak (doesn't mention Tarnita at all, which is curious in itself). As an aside, that looks a bit boys-clubby from an outsider perspective.

Certainly if he's on it he's endorsing the idea and hopefully participated in formulating it, but unless there was an agreement to arrange themselves alphabetically the convention as I've always understood it would be that he had the least contribution.
posted by lodurr at 9:07 AM on April 17, 2011

Yay! I'm off to linkland. I may be a while.
posted by likeso at 9:07 AM on April 17, 2011

I may be completely missing the boat here, but I don't get why there's such a strong reaction. If I read what Wilson is saying correctly, he's arguing that altruism could favor groups other than kin.

That certainly seems plausible. For example, if a gene give an animal the predisposition to assist others like it, but ones with blue eyes, then the mere fact that the altruism exists should make it more possible that the gene survives, even though the animal itself might not be blue-eyed.

It seems like it rapidly gets related to kin selection once that gene is passed on, but it wouldn't necessarily originate that way.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:10 AM on April 17, 2011

Here we go. This was incredibly easy to upload. for the original article. I can't actually find the reply (I have a printed copy, not sure where I got the PDF originally).
posted by Buckt at 9:12 AM on April 17, 2011

Seems that most comments concern not being able to get the newspaper page.
Wish the arguement were stated with greater clarity, and in a straightforward manner, such as
So and so believe......
whereas this view is contradicted by so and so who believes.....

wondering: what of the many instances of soldiers who give their lives for others and die in the process (Medal of Honor types)? How to explain?
posted by Postroad at 9:14 AM on April 17, 2011

One of the things about the reaction that is standing out to me is how personal it is. Example: "...we believe that their arguments are based upon a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and a misrepresentation of the empirical literature." I.e., they don't know their own subject matter, and are knowingly misrepresenting the work of others to make their theories seem more plausible.

Those are really powerfully polarizing accusations in hard science.

Does anybody have any insight into how it gets this far? Is Nowak a polarizing character? How close to the mark is CheeseDigestsAll's characterization of the arguments in the Nowak/Tanita/Wilson paper?
posted by lodurr at 9:15 AM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Animals with social behaviors are no longer individual organisms, but need to be treated as a colony organism WRT evolution, and selection applies equally to individual and group. I don't see how that can't be true.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:16 AM on April 17, 2011

People keep referring to Wilson as though it's his paper. Wilson's third on this paper

Usually in authorship, the convention is that the first author did most of the work, but the last author is usually the one with the supervisory role. i.e. the first author might be the grad student, post doc, etc who did the bulk of the bench work, but is also the individual who works in his/her supervisor's lab, also usually under the supervisor's grant schematic.
posted by davidng at 9:20 AM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you poke through the PDF I just posted you'll see there is more to it than that. From what I read, what they are saying is much more incendiary.

Take, for example, this: By the 1990s, however, the haplodiploid hypothesis began to fail.
The termites had never fitted this model of explanation. Then more
eusocial species were discovered that use diplodiploid rather than
haplodiploid sex determination. They included a species of platypo-
did ambrosia beetles, several independent lines of Synalpheus sponge-
dwelling shrimp (Fig. 2) and bathyergid mole rats. The association
between haplodiploidy and eusociality fell below statistical signifi-

Eusociality evolved once in termites. It evolved once in mole rats. It evolved once in whatever beetles or shrimp he is referring to (although these species are FAR from the eusociality exhibited by ants, termites, or mole rats). It evolved innumerable times in the Aculeate Hymenoptera, the small group of insects that includes ants, bees, and wasps. Maybe 50 times did eusociality convergently spring up in that one group of insects. It's significant, and most every evolutionary biologist agrees.

There's so much more. I lost about half of my hair to rage the first time I read the paper.
posted by Buckt at 9:24 AM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just don't know what to think about this until Scott Adams weighs in.
posted by meehawl at 9:31 AM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

better science through trolling, or better trolling through science?
posted by LogicalDash at 9:32 AM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

They seem to have brought up discrepancies in the data backing kin selection that need to be explained. I think the responses to this will lead to a better understanding in the long run.

It's always useful to point at interesting data that seems to contradict widely held beliefs.
posted by empath at 9:47 AM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

The evidence for kin selection in termites and insects does have a couple of legitimately shaky points but the evidence for it in microbial evolution is absolutely overwhelming. It's impossible to understand what happens in a single inoculated Erlenmeyer flask over an hour without it. I really love E. O. Wilson and his ideas have inspired me ever since they were introduced to me my Freshman year, but this is ridiculous. It is disappointing to see him clearly not paying attention to what kin selection has found outside of his narrow focus, much less understand kin selection within it.

If y'all want some awesome papers on microbial evolution, or the full text of anything memail me with an email address for academic discussion.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:01 AM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please understand that I'm not coming at this from an "OMG SCIENTISTS DISAGREE" or even a 'beautiful train wreck' perspective, but more a group dynamics one: I really want to know how the gulf of understanding is so wide that a large number of researchers are willing to take the position that other respected researchers actually don't understand their own field of study.

I know this sort of dust-up used to be common, but that was back when these folks didn't literally all know one another.
posted by lodurr at 10:01 AM on April 17, 2011

I know this sort of dust-up used to be common, but that was back when these folks didn't literally all know one another.

Given that the number of researchers has grown over the years, wouldn't all these folks be less likely to know each other (personally, as I presume you mean)?

I vaguely remember reading about the first great dust-up over "Sociobiology" back in the '70s, which has continued in debates over evolutionary psychology, and there's a similar level of tension at times over in physics regarding the string theory enthusiasts and their critics. Seems like this sort of thing is rather normal, if anything.
posted by AdamCSnider at 12:30 PM on April 17, 2011

A minor point: that's Jerry Coyne commenting at Richard Dawkins site, not Dawkins commenting. Coyne's a champion of population genetics and sticking to the modern synthesis, which explains why he haets EvoDevo and Lynn Margulis (who is legitimately a bad ass). This kind of thing usually works out amicably though.

Lodurr, the debate over the locus of selection, how selection actual works, where novelty comes from, and the reason altruism can exist-- this is all still part of the dust ups that happened back in the day, and they're more common among scientists who know each other. But it used to be confined to journals and conferences and personal correspondence; now it happens on blogs.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 1:06 PM on April 17, 2011

The opening comments are Jerry Coyne; the followup seems to be Dawkins (and is much more in Dawkins' voice). He doesn't make it as clear as he could, but you can see a shift in voice and typeface.
posted by lodurr at 1:09 PM on April 17, 2011

My assumption is that major researchers are more likely to be personally acquainted now than they would have been in the '70s, even though there are more of them, because it's much easier for that to happen now than it was then.
posted by lodurr at 1:10 PM on April 17, 2011

Who helped to fund the research of the paper published in Nature (from the follow-up post)

The Templeton Foundation funds a lot of science, but has a particular interest in science that relates to issues of religion and spirituality. This interest is, in itself, enough to make many evolutionary biologists feel that any research supported by Templeton is inherently suspect. I have no horse in that race, and my view is that as long as they are not dictating the outcome of your research, there is no problem. Then, of course, there is the fact that Nowak himself is a devout Catholic, which, I suspect, makes his relationship with Templeton seem even more problematic to your average evolutionary biologist.

Jeffrey Epstein is, of course, the hedge-fund mogul who pled guilty a couple of years ago to a charge of soliciting an under-age girl for prostitution. There is an argument to be made that his extreme wealth allowed him escape much more severe charges, such as sex trafficking. More recently he has been in the news following accusations that he "trained up" a girl who lived with him from age 14 to 18, and loaned her out to his rich friends.

Love the summary
posted by francesca too at 1:18 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Does anyone else think that the response paper being "authored" by 130 people is kind of a dick move? There's no way that all those people actually contributed, unless each author wrote like 1 or 2 words. Instead, it seems like a kind of bandwagon argument: "here are some reasons I think you're wrong. Also, check out my posse."
posted by nhamann at 1:19 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

There seems to be a lot of personal attacking going on in the debate around this. I'm not being naive -- I've heard first-hand physicists, philosophers and anthropologists speaking with childishly frank scorn about colleagues they disagree with -- but I haven't personally seen it made this public by this many people. It's just interesting to me that it can come to this point.

(OTOH Dawkins' comments seem positively restrained, for him.)
posted by lodurr at 1:20 PM on April 17, 2011

Great fun. Definitely lots of personal attacks are going around, but why shouldn't they? Nowak et al. implied that evolutionary biologists either misinterpret or misunderstand the data for kin selection. In other terms "Here are Harvard, we understand inclusive fitness."
posted by Buckt at 2:07 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I had to come back after reading some more stuff that Lynn Margulis has said recently, and retract my assertion of her bad-assness. While she did completely revolutionize our understanding of cell biology, she's recently joined the ranks of HIV/AIDS denialism, and that is not bad-ass in the least.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 3:53 PM on April 17, 2011

yes, and how the heck is that supposed to work, anyway? if i understand correctly, she claims that AIDS is the result of some kind of symbiosis between syphilis and something else?

the stretched interpretations start to look like lysenkoism after a while. though I suppose I should resist the temptation to go all Scott Adams on it...
posted by lodurr at 6:58 PM on April 17, 2011

i kind of got a sense of the politics of it reading oren harman's book -- the price of altruism -- on george price :P

posted by kliuless at 7:28 PM on April 17, 2011

A minor point: that's Jerry Coyne commenting at Richard Dawkins site, not Dawkins commenting.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:06 PM on April 17

It's both. The piece starts with a short extract from Coyne's take, links the full article at Coyne's blog, then Dawkins continues from, "And here are my own notes on the infamous Nowak/Wilson paper, written a few weeks ago when I first read it:-"
posted by Decani at 2:58 AM on April 18, 2011

This is strange. I have a copy of Sociobiology on my shelf at home. Right next to a copy of Dawkin's latest, my first-edition facsimile of Origin of Species and my dissertation (not that it belongs in such august company, but there it sits nonetheless). I have met a few of the people arguing against Wilson and his coauthors, and know at least one of them personally from my time in grad school (don't know the guy well, but I do know him). It's both exciting to see such a kerfluffle, and unnerving that people I respect this much are this upset over this issue. Whether Wilson turns out to be right or not, throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery is great for getting people interested in the ideas. If we don't question, we don't advance. Even if the question turns out not to be productive, the studies generated and the insight obtained from re-examining old, established ideas can invigorate a field that at times seems as if everything there is to know (on an mechanistic basis) has already been discovered.

Personally I can see both sides of the argument. But I think I have to agree with Dawkins on this one; it's a misunderstanding on Wilson's part, not a groundbreaking new idea that no one else has bothered to address. I can see why Wilson might be pushing this but I think he is missing the greater point that his objections are already addressed by the current accepted theories.

Would I argue this to his face? Wow. Not sure there. It'd be like a little league pitcher trying to intercede in an argument between Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan on how to throw a curve ball.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:44 AM on April 18, 2011

Scientific slap-fights can be pretty entertaining, but they can also tear a hole right through a discipline.

I recall while at grad school at USC in the late 80s-early 90s, Professor George Olah going ballistic on Professor Chris Reed during Reed's presentation of some of his work on carborane anions.

Olah - a tall, imposing man with a deep Hungarian accent, loomed up in the middle of the auditorium and thundered criticisms at Reed, metaphorically shitting all over Reed's conclusions (conclusions, may I say, that were supported by pretty stark evidence), and then stormed out of the room, leaving a group of slack-jawed professors and grad students behind.

It was one of the few cases in which Olah was proven wrong. Reed was not only vindicated by the evidence he presented that day, but by many published results since. The stress and acrimony this tension introduced into the department was palpable. Not even the grad students of the respective groups would hang out with each other around that time.

Anyway, Olah got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry a few years later for excellent work he'd done. Reed left USC to take a prestigious post at UC Riverside, where he's thriving today.
posted by darkstar at 8:07 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

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