Saturday, 18 January 2014

Nowak nominates inclusive fitness for retirement

The 2014 annual question at The Edge is: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

Martin Nowak nominated inclusive fitness. He writes:

Contrary to what is often claimed there exists no empirical test of inclusive fitness theory; nobody has ever performed an actual inclusive fitness calculation for a real population. Inclusive fitness was originally understood as a crude heuristic that can guide intuition in some cases, but not in general. It is only in recent years that inclusive fitness has been elevated—mostly by mediocre theoreticians — to a religious belief, which is universal, unconstrained and always true. Understanding the limitations of inclusive fitness gives us now the opportunity to develop mathematical descriptions of key phenomena in social evolution. It is time to abandon inclusive fitness and focus on a meaningful interaction between theory and experiment in sociobiology.
This seems like unsubstantiated scientific FUD to me.

Nowak claims that the:

dominant and unfortunate impact has been the suppression of meaningful mathematical theories in wide areas of sociobiology.
He means group selection? I think this is unreferenced and unsupported nonsense.

From the 1970s onwards we actually understood that evolution does not permit a single quantity that is always maximized. This fact still has to sink in with many in the inclusive fitness community.
I think that the first sentence here is technically mistaken. You can in fact, model the evolution of any dynamical system using the concept of maximisation of a utility function. Take, for example, the utility function that assigns world events that happen utility 1 and world events that do not happen utility 0. In this case, the evolution of the system can be modeled by "a single quantity that is always maximized". This is the fact of the matter. Nowak's proposed 'fact' is a simple falsehood. We didn't understand this 'from the 1970s onward' - it is simply not true in the first place.

Nowak writes:

On the level of genes there is no inclusive fitness.
Really? Most pairs of genes are either copies of each other (r=1) or not (r=0). Plug these numbers into Hamilton's rule and it works fine. This illustrates the meaning of "The Selfish Gene": genes only care about themselves - or copies of themselves. Nowak doesn't explain what the perceived problem is.

More relating to Nowak's article:

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