you say you want an evolution
July 23, 2008 12:33 PM   Subscribe

That first link is great. Thanks for posting this.
posted by RussHy at 12:58 PM on July 23, 2008

Not a damn thing in that about how to have a super orgasm. Just about bee's and stuff.
posted by tkchrist at 1:54 PM on July 23, 2008

superonanism otoh...
posted by kliuless at 2:00 PM on July 23, 2008

He is right. He has to be right. It's where the evidence and the logic both lead. Anything that is capable of reproduction and subject to environmental pressure, evolves. For any given organism, its environment consists of all other organisms both like and unlike itself, as well as the inanimate matter in/on which the organisms live: hence, evolution must operate at a group level. Environmental pressure operates at the sub-individual (eg, immune system, digestive system, etc), individual, familial, group, species, environmental niche, all the way up to planetary level (although planet-wide environmental changes are fortunately rare and slow).
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:06 PM on July 23, 2008

Over lunch he describes his novel in progress, currently titled “Anthill.” Its contents have occasioned certain differences of emphasis between himself and his publisher... Dr. Wilson would like ants to play a large role in the novel, given all the useful lessons that can be drawn from their behavior. The publisher sees a larger role for people and a smaller, at most ant-sized, role for ants. The novel is rotating through draft after draft as this tension is worked out.

This publisher deserves a raise, and a shiny medal, and a giant magnifying glass with which to sadistically burn E.O. Wilson to death.
posted by dyoneo at 2:30 PM on July 23, 2008

Weird. I had always assumed that evolution operated at multiple levels, just because it seemed inevitably so. Individual survival is only relevant when the species survives. One super survivor doesn't a species make.

On the other hand, it shows you how little I challenge my own thinking until someone else does. I gotta do more reading outside my narrow little field.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:39 PM on July 23, 2008

While heroically dosed a long time ago, I came to a similar conclusion. Not being familiar at all with the field of evolutionary biology, can anyone tell me if this is a new concept? Or is he presenting evidence to confirm an already existing hypothesis?
posted by bastionofsanity at 2:42 PM on July 23, 2008

> can anyone tell me if this is a new concept? Or is he presenting evidence to confirm an
> already existing hypothesis?

Group selection has been around a long time and is not accepted by everybody. Richard Dawkins, for one, will tell you it ain't so, especially not for mammals and especially-especially not for humans.
posted by jfuller at 3:05 PM on July 23, 2008

Not being familiar at all with the field of evolutionary biology, can anyone tell me if this is a new concept? Or is he presenting evidence to confirm an already existing hypothesis?

Despite the Dawkins-led screams of GENES GENES GENES GENES!, group selection and multi-level selection have been around in form or another for a long time: Darwin toys with group selection in Descent of Man, as Wilson mentions in the Times article, and Wilson's old scourge Gould was a proponent of multi-level selection. This mostly seems notable as a public proclamation that Wilson has decamped from Dawkins's League of Genetic Superfriends and joined the other supervillains in the Cave of Holistic Mushiness, where such scandalous constructs as "organisms" and "species" are viewed with a less-than-suitably jaundiced eye.
posted by dyoneo at 3:24 PM on July 23, 2008

Group selection is politically unpopular because of its easy interface with notions of racial inferiority/superiority etc.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 3:46 PM on July 23, 2008

I'm not sure to what extent this controversy boils down to the way people use words, rather than having any substantive meaning. To what extent do Dawkins and Wilson think evolution works differently, rather than just having different ways of describing it? How much is lost in the translation from the mathematical discipline of population genetics into layman's English?
The definition of what "level" natural selection is "acting at" in a particular case is something which I find difficult to pin down, and as far as I can see has more to do with human definitions and attempts to translate events into quantitative concepts than with anything that's happening in the real world. To me (and maybe I'm wrong) the question "what level does natural selection act at?" is misguided, and the real question is "what level should I consider natural selection to be acting at for my theory to work out and match the observed facts?". And in this second case, more than one answer might be the right one. Dawkins always boils the theory down to gene-level selection, whereas Wilson might find it more useful to couch a given problem in terms of group-selection theory. It reminds me of a physics professor I once knew who solved EVERY problem by rephrasing it using matrix theory. It worked, but it was not often the only way to do it and frequently another method was more convenient for those who are not so matrix-obsessed.
posted by nowonmai at 3:51 PM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I agree with nowonmai: it makes more sense to me to think of the processes of evolution as being ones which can be analysed at the gene level, group level, planet level, and so on, but that the higher levels are emergent from the lower ones. Where you draw those lines for analysis is more about the observer than the reality itself, I'd say.

You could analyse all of chemistry or geology in purely physics-based terms, presumably - it's the lowest level science on which all others fundamentally rest. It's convienent for us to split the sciences up into somewhat overlapping and hierarchical categories in order to solve problems without going insane - but these divisions don't necessarily have any concrete reality outside of our current scientific culture.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 4:22 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Isn't the author inventing some conflict where none exists?

Afaik, the gene centric model simply isn't ever "wrong" when it directly predicts some outcome. And such "other levels" are perfectly consistent with the gene centric model. But they cover situations where one wouldn't apply a gene centric model directly.

Similarly, an understanding of quantum mechanics does not make you an expert in materials science, but it very likely will help.

p.s. A gene centric model is a wonderful pedagogical tool because one can provide "simple" examples where extremely surprising results are proven outright; hopefully convincing some biology students that math is useful.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:51 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Evolution doesn't even always operate at the multicellular level: eventually some cells decide to cheat by just reproducing instead of cooperating, and unless the rest get chemotherapy soon enough, that's the end of that group of cells.

Obviously evolution can operate at the multiorganism level too, and Dawkins certainly doesn't deny that social insects like ants exist - but where "group selection" differs from "gene selection" is that the former can say "here are the adaptations that help some groups to outcompete other groups", but the latter recognizes that you also need to add "and here is what prevents individuals within those groups from deviating for their own benefit."
posted by roystgnr at 9:04 PM on July 23, 2008

How convenient; I emerge from years of lurking to finally drop $5 on a MF account, and just a few days later there's a post I can actually speak semi-intelligently about. A fair amount of my graduate study and research was in the evolution of altruism, a subtopic of this field. I also attended a conference where EOW spoke about it as well. So bastionofsanity, you can rest assured that this is an old argument, though it jumped to a new level in the 70s, when both Dawkins' Selfish Gene and EOW's Sociobiology came out, and has all the passion and drama you'd expect of any academic debate. Harrumph.

There are three main theories of evolutionary selection. Kin selection, or more generally, inclusive fitness, refers to the evolutionary strategies that favor individuals who are genetically related. The degree of altruism shown (individual actions that increase reproductive success of others, even to the point of decreasing one's own or death) decreases with declining genetic similarity, illustrated by Haldane's remark that he would lay down his life for two brothers (50% genetic similarity) or eight cousins (12.5% similarity). This is the selfish gene perspective. Important.

Reciprocal altruism, OTOH, is simply the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" approach. It requires no genetic relationship, though it does require some function of memory on the part of the organism to remember past interactions. Also important.

Multilevel selection, about which EOW writes here, asserts that selection can occur at multiple levels of organization, beyond the gene to include family, tribe, colony, etc. A lot of work has gone into integrating the first two theories with multilevel selection. I agree, this theory has a much better "gut feel", especially to non-scientists, which leads to another interesting argument...

Non-scientists are much less likely than scientists to subscribe to the reductionist perspective, or the idea that an object is best studied by looking at its constituent parts. The parts in this case are the genes, the lowest level of selection. It is a popular argument that biology is "just" chemistry, which is "just" physics, etc. This is only a one-way argument, though. Given the laws of physics, or even chemistry, nothing's going to get you to predicting the emergence of hemoglobin, much less the duck-billed platypus. Stuart Kauffman has developed this argument extensively in his books Investigations and the recent Reinventing the Sacred. I believe that multilevel selection is a higher-order phenomenon, including and extending the other two, lower-level theories and that the resistance to multilevel selection comes from the traditional reductionist perspective, in this case mistaken. The fact that the reductionist view has supercharged Western civilization ever since the Renaissance? Unquestionable, and it will remain a primary scientific tool forever. but, as Douglas Adams put it, "If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat." I'm glad to see the further development of multilevel selection. I believe in 50-100 years time it will be thought of as head-slappingly obvious.

Apologies for the extended rant. I like this stuff.
posted by sapere aude at 9:28 PM on July 23, 2008 [10 favorites]

I love that MeFi attracts graduate students and other smart cookies. There's always something new to learn from them!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:38 PM on July 23, 2008

Thank you, sapere aude, for providing the details I was feeling too lazy to flesh out. (And hooray for grad students in evolutionary biology!) Perhaps there's some inherent bias in my thinking as I'm trained in evolutionary genetics, but I still have some big misgivings about multilevel selection. It feels warm and fuzzy like the Gaia hypothesis, but I just have trouble envisioning multilevel selection working except in rare cases.

Then again, I live on top of a supercolony of Argentine ants. Nonetheless, it's relatively easy to explain that a group/species of altruists would outcompete a more selfish group, but not necessarily so easy to explain how that altruistic behavior could become widespread in a population to begin with.

Great post, kliuless.
posted by estelahe at 12:34 AM on July 24, 2008

Despite the Dawkins-led screams of GENES GENES GENES GENES!, group selection and multi-level selection have been around in form or another for a long time

Genes operate and are selected on the level of "groups", though. This is the basis for population genetics, for example.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:12 AM on July 24, 2008

I don't think Wilson would agree that it's just a one-way argument.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 10:12 AM on July 24, 2008

speaking of cultural influence on genes, i'd recommend: Clark's _A Farewell to Alms_, Gellner's _Plough, Sword and Book_, DeLanda's _A New Philosophy of Society_ and Anderson's _Imagined Communities_2 :P

now imagine...

posted by kliuless at 11:13 AM on July 24, 2008

@Midnight Rambler

I don't think Wilson would agree that it's just a one-way argument.

I agree that's a little glib. Wilson's goal in Consilience is the recognition that science, arts and the humanities have (or should have) the common goal of accumulation of knowledge, and the assumption "that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws." Nothing I said above should be taken to mean that any natural laws are violated as you move up the ladder of complexity. There is no reason to guess that any biological function violates the laws of chemistry or physics.

However, that being said, one of the great things about natural laws like F=ma is its predictive ability: an object of mass m accelerated at a meters per second squared will exert a force F. You can assert knowledge of future events with it. But while you can describe chemical and biological phenomena in terms of physics, you lose the predictive ability of the laws of physics. F=ma tells you nothing about the chaotic swings of a predator/prey interaction. For that matter, even within the domain of chemistry, hydrogen and oxygen alone tell you nothing about the properties of water. Once you start dealing with complex emergent phenomena, you lose the ability to start from a set of basic laws and predict the future of a system. And that is where the philosophy of reductionism runs into trouble.
posted by sapere aude at 3:22 PM on July 24, 2008

Sapere Aude,

It is true that F=MA tells us nothing significant in the realm of Predator/Prey interactions.

But the counter-argument goes like this: Our apprehension or ability to be cognizant within any particular situation (e.g. complex dynamics) is simply egotism or vanity. These abstract empirical theories (like chemical formulæ) are simply tied to a deeper, richer, set of interactions: The Truth of the situation. It is egotistical in that sense that we are concerned with prediction. It serves our interests and is satisfying. Prediction says nothing about Truth.

Reductionism *does* work in a Platonic sense; However, Reductionists often make a mistake in concluding that *their* reductions work. They do not. The indeterminate quality of nature sees to that. So reductionists struggle, unable to internalize the totality of the situation. Universalists, strangely, are more practical because the knowledge obtained from studying complex systems is derived, not just from assemblies of constituent componants, but also from the apparent behavior of the whole. A better array of tools, but even less grounded in "reality".

Strangely, if you *completely* deny reductionism, you open the door to a metaphysical interpretation of reality. If the universe is unknowable in a absolute sense, then there is a hidden, secret, component that no one can ever know, but through which, Nature asserts itself; Or at the very least, this hidden component would be essential to Nature.

Is an Ant Colony a something or is it just a collection of ants? Food for thought. I definitely fall on the side of recognizing that the dynamic of the Ant Colony exists. I also recognize that the physical 'laws' that govern the interaction between energy and matter have produced platypuses-To my great astonishment!
posted by kuatto at 8:14 PM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Interesting point, kuatto. Reminds me of a minor epiphany I had when I was a kid: that if I could watch chemical reactions as if I was nanoscale-sized myself, that the atoms and molecules wouldn't be color-coded and labeled for easy identification, like my model set. I always stuggle to remind myself that the map is not the territory. I don't at all mean to outright reject reductionism. I just think we're entering into an age where we need more of the systems-based perspective (i.e., your universalists) to understand things like evolutionary dynamics and other phenomena that have had eons to come up with a big bag of tricks to mislead the reductionists.
posted by sapere aude at 9:56 AM on July 25, 2008

fwiw: Where Is Human Evolution Heading? The race's DNA is changing faster than ever; what it means for our descendants
posted by kliuless at 1:52 PM on July 25, 2008

I always struggle to remind myself that the map is not the territory.

I like that saying. Here's another one I've discovered:
"The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance"
posted by kuatto at 4:43 PM on July 25, 2008

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