Thursday, July 17, 2008

Immanentizing the Eschaton

A really fascinating interview in Tuesday's New York Times with E. O. Wilson, he of Consilience and Sociobiology fame, in which he discusses his revised views on group selection in evolution:

The new fight is one Dr. Wilson has picked. It concerns a central feature of evolution, one with considerable bearing on human social behaviors. The issue is the level at which evolution operates. Many evolutionary biologists have been persuaded, by works like The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, that the gene is the only level at which natural selection acts. Dr. Wilson, changing his mind because of new data about the genetics of ant colonies, now believes that natural selection operates at many levels, including at the level of a social group.

It is through multilevel or group-level selection — favoring the survival of one group of organisms over another — that evolution has in Dr. Wilson’s view brought into being the many essential genes that benefit the group at the individual’s expense. In humans, these may include genes that underlie generosity, moral constraints, even religious behavior. Such traits are difficult to account for, though not impossible, on the view that natural selection favors only behaviors that help the individual to survive and leave more children.

“I believe that deep in their heart everyone working on social insects is aware that the selection that created them is multilevel selection,” Dr. Wilson said.

There is also a link in the article to a paper that Wilson has co-written in The Quarterly Review of Biology. It's long but well worth reading, even if you aren't a biologist. Most of it is straightforward and easy to understand. For those of you without the time, here are the closing lines:

When Rabbi Hillel was asked to explain the Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot, he famously replied: “Do not do unto others that which is repugnant to you. Everything else is commentary.” Darwin's original insight and the developments reviewed in this article enable us to offer the following one-foot summary of sociobiology's new theoretical foundation: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

I see some interesting parallels in the article to stuff we've written about here before and Mancur Olson's theories about co-operation and free-riders (scroll down). I hope to post more on that anon. These ideas might also have some bearing on theories of sociopathy we've discussed before, here, here, here and here, in particular Martha Stout's ideas:

Stout makes the observation that a society entirely composed of sociopaths would collapse under the weight of its own irresponsibility. Sociopaths are incapable of cooperation with others beyond short-term exploitation, and a society in which everyone exploits everyone else would result in social suicide. For this reason, she says, the evolutionary explanation for sociopathic behaviour requires some explanation, because it is difficult to see how it can be selected for. Her conclusion is that society has a whole can tolerate a small amount of sociopathy; sociopathic behaviour is effectively parasitic on the co-operative behaviour exhibited by the majority. The evolutionary unit of selection, she says, cannot be the individual in this regard, precisely because it is not in the interest of individuals to be sociopathic. Were we all so, the species would be extinct. But at the level of the species, such behaviour is tolerable, because most of us are not sociopaths. Sociopathic behaviour has not disappeared, either because it can serve some social function . . . or because, at such a low level (whether or not 4 percent is low enough, I leave for you to decide) it is selection-neutral; it neither damages nor enhances the species’ survival chances, despite the damage done to individuals who encounter sociopaths. Indeed, it is possible that sociopaths do us a favour, serving as a salutary lesson about trust and accountability.

Sociopath as free-rider. Now there's a thought.


Anonymous said...

I might be wrong, but I think the New York Times is wrong to say that EO Wilson has changed his mind about group selection. I think he's always considered group selection to be part of sociobiology because he included it in his Sociobiology book. Dawkins had a dig at him for doing so and not making more of the work of Hamilton, Trivers, et al.

I wonder why Stout thinks it hard to explain sociopathic behaviour in evolutionary terms? Explaining non-sociopathic behaviour would seem to present more of a problem!


John said...

Hi Stuart--

I think, but I'd have to check, that Stout was arguing that for sociopaths to succeed as parasites, they need to have generous, social individuals to live off. You can't have a parasite without a host.

Haven't read the Sociobiology book: Like most Lefties, I was put off by Rose and his crowd. I think when a bunch of right-wingers claim a theory as their own, it's tempting to imagine there can't be anything in it of any value. It's only in recent times, thanks to you fellas at D2W?, that I'd even bother to read this sort of stuff.

Carlton B Morgan said...

I don't think Dawkins said teh genre was the only level, the prime level perhaps...

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see, very interesting point!

Like you, I was put off it all too but put onto it by the likes of Chris Knight. Glad to have spread the good news!