Saturday, 28 December 2013

Why can't we all just get along?

After the 2010 Nowak, Tarnita, & Wilson affair, Samir Okasha weighed in with a comment in Nature, effectively asking: why can't we all just get along?

The paper was titled: Altruism researchers must cooperate. It is indeed ironic that the science of cooperation has led to so much scientific acrimony.

In the paper, Samir embraces equivalence, writing:

kin and multi-level selection are not alternative theories; they simply offer different takes on the question of how social behaviour evolved. Proponents of kin selection, for example, explain sterile workers in insect colonies by saying that the workers are helping the queen to reproduce, and thus boosting their own inclusive fitness. Proponents of multi-level selection argue that the workers are providing a benefit to the colony as a whole, thus making the colony fitter than other colonies. These explanations may seem different, but mathematical models show that they are in fact equivalent
He says the persistent rival camps are a puzzle since:

The existence of equivalent formulations of a theory, or of alternative modelling approaches, does not usually lead to rival camps in science. The Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formulations of classical mechanics, for example, or the wave and matrix formulations of quantum mechanics, tend to be useful for tackling different problems, and physicists switch freely between them.
His explanation:

History shows that, despite its enormous empirical success, evolutionary biology is peculiarly susceptible to controversy and infighting. This is particularly true of social evolution theory, in part because of its potential applications to human behaviour.

I think this is essentially correct. People fight over application of evolutionary theory to humans for many reasons, but among them are: "it's complicated", and "it's important to get it right".

Group selection doesn't score well in the latter category. It isn't so much that it is wrong, it's more that it has led to decades of muddle, confusion and poor-quality science. If kin selection and group selection are feeling different parts of the same elephant, kin selection has hold of the trunk, while group selection is groping the left thigh.

It is certainly frustrating to have all the biology papers using kin selection, while all the humanities papers seem to use group selection.

A big part of the problem is misunderstandings surrounding cultural evolution. Cultural evolution has historically lagged by decades behind conventional evolutionary theory. There was a revolution in the 1970s in which group selection fell out of fashion, and kin selection became much more popular. A parsimonious explanation of the penchant for group selection in the social sciences is that the field of cultural evolution has yet to go through this transition. The significance of relatedness between memes and memeplexes has yet to be fully appreciated.

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