Saturday, 27 December 2014

Kin or group selection: which is more confusing

The last decade has seen a bit of a shake out in the domain of kin selection and group selection.

Until recently it was possible to argue that the group selection advocates were consistently more confused about social evolution than users of kin selection. However as group selection advocates learned more about their topic some of them gradually started making sense - and some of them now hold fairly reasonable positions.

Also, it has become clear that some of the opponents of group selection are very confused about the whole topic. Steven Pinker wrote a fairly embarrassing article on the topic in 2012 - and some of that article's commentators made similarly embarrassing follow-ups.

Popular blogger Jerry Coyne has written a string of articles about group selection. He doesn't seem to have made much effort to understand what advocates of group selection are saying - and so produces mostly straw man attacks.

Richard Dawkins isn't exactly helping either. For example, he writes:

Is a group a replicator? No. We do not have a 'group pool', a metapopulation in which some groups are more successful than others at making replicas of themselves, replicas that persist through geological time.
This seems like classic replicator rot to me. Try talking about copying and heredity instead, and we do indeed have collections of groups, some of which are better at making copies of themselves than others. Maybe none of them are especially brilliant at making copies of themselves: but so what?

The broad equivalence between kin and group selection makes the issue of which framework causes more confusion into a significant issue. One of the main problems with group selection historically has not been that it's wrong, but that it is confusing and easy to mis-apply.

The confusion by the group selection opponents is unfortunate. It doesn't help to make the case that kin selection is less confusing and less subject to abuse.

However, I think it is still dwarfed by the confusion related to group selection. Martin Nowak and E.O. Wilson are perhaps the most prominent examples - but it seems to me that they represent only the tip of a pretty substantial iceberg.

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