Saturday, 1 September 2012

Kin selection and group selection: early rivals

The dust-up between kin selection and group selection began in 1964 with a paper by John Maynard Smith titled "Group Selection and Kin Selection". Maynard Smith wrote this after reading Hamilton's 1964 paper on the topic and delaying its publication. That caused some sour grapes - but we won't go into that story further here. The paper introduced and christened kin selection - and contrasted kin and group selection. Kin selection offered a promising explanation for altruism, while group selection seemed to have demanding prerequisites, and was probably not very significant. The paper established a pattern of thought on the topic that Maynard Smith would perpetuate throughout his career.

Hamilton wrote mostly about kin selection. Williams (1966) came out against group selection. Wilson (1975) promoted kin selection, and Dawkins (1976) was critical of group selection. Kin selection become popular, group selection became neglected and was believed to be an insignificant force.

Frank's 1998 book "Foundations of social evolution" barely mentions group selection. Alexander's "Darwinism and Human Affairs" (1979) says:

We can now say with conviction that Williams' argument against group selection was right.

Group selection was theoretically dubious, biologists seemed to rarely need to invoke it - and there wasn't any evidence for adaptations for the good of the group.

However, group selection refused to die quietly. Over the years its advocates became increasingly vocal in its defense. The "levels of selection" issue became one of the longest-running battles in evolutionary biology. The issue still seems to be alive and kicking in 2012.

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