The role of chance in evolution

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Over a pint of beer, the great biologist, polymath and pub-lover J B S Haldane was asked if he would give his life to save his drowning brother. He is supposed to have said: ‘No, but I would to save two brothers, or eight cousins.’ He was referring to one of evolution’s puzzles: why animals (including humans) help one another. Under Darwinian natural selection, shouldn’t individuals always behave selfishly in order to maximise their chances for reproduction? Starting in the 1930s, Haldane was one of the first biologists to explain altruism by what we now call ‘kin selection’. An individual who is inclined to help family members is acting selfishly, from the point of view of their genes, as they are helping to ensure the reproductive success of their shared genetic material. You share, on average, half of your genes with your brother and an eighth of your genes with your cousin, hence Haldane’s nerdy joke.


Although Haldane apparently understood the principle of kin selection, it was a further 30 years before another English evolutionary biologist, W D Hamilton, nailed the mathematics of the theory in The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour (1964), one of the most important works in the field of evolution since its inception. The Selfish Gene (1976) by Richard Dawkins, and many other popular science books, were based on kin selection theory, which exposed the selfish machinations and calculations inherent in apparently altruistic behaviour.

So why hadn’t Haldane — a brilliant and inventive biologist ­— taken the idea of kin selection to its natural conclusion? In a startlingly honest interview for the Web of Stories website in 1997, the eminent evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith, a former student of Haldane’s, said that this failure was partly political:

I have to put it down, to some extent, to political and ideological commitment… We were, I think, very reluctant, as Marxists would be, to admit that anything genetic might influence human behaviour. And I think that we didn’t say consciously to ourselves that this would be un-Marxist so we won’t do it, that’s not the way that the mind works; but it was a path that our minds were not, so to speak, prepared to go down, in quite an unconscious sense, whereas Bill [Hamilton] was very prepared to go down it… to make big breaks in science, which Hamilton did, it’s not enough to have the technical understanding of some technical point, it’s got to fit in with your world view that you should pursue this road.

Written By: Lewis Spurgin
continue to source article at aeonmagazine.com

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  1. Well, could it be that all extreme or dogmatic views cloud the individual’s thinking? I’m astonished to learn that J B S Haldane allowed his political views to colour scienctific findings; you might not like what you discover but if it’s true you’re bound to accept it.

    Dawkins sticks strictly to science, and gives little or nothing away about his political views.

  2. I happen to be rereading J.B.S. Haldane’s “The Inequality of Man” ( written in 1932). I honestly don’t see any evidence of Marxist dogma in it ( he dismisses materialism as a philosophy) ,or any unwillingness to attribute differences in behavior to genetic causes. There mainly seems to be a critique of herediterian and simplistic explanations of class inequalities of the kind that were fashionable with non scientifically trained eugenecists at the time and a prudent admiration of the then Soviet government for its promotion of science, Vavilov’s studies on plant genetics, and it’s lack of cant on the study of sexual behavior.

    Either Haldane changed later or John Maynard Smith may be talking of his own subjective recollections

  3. I found the article to be kind of interesting but at times I found the tone, the “gee whiz, my politics and science conflict what should I do?” kind of annoying. What you should do is just pay attention to the science and forget the political issues. And I don’t think the author gets that. At the very end he says:

    :So maybe radical scientists are not such a bad thing after all. Perhaps the likes of Gould and Lewontin, who are able to take a step back and look critically at their whole field, play an essential role in keeping science in check, and therefore in moving it forward.

    But what he described Gould doing wasn’t keeping science in check it was, at least this was my interpretation, bringing political arguments into scientific debates and that is never a good thing.

    • In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

      But what he described Gould doing wasn’t keeping science in check it was, at least this was my interpretation, bringing political arguments into scientific debates and that is never a good thing.

      Bingo! Wilson was oblivious to politics. Gould and Lewontin’s politics were at the core of their science. Read Wilson’s autobiography to get the full grasp of the verbal and physical threats leveled by Gould and Lewontin’s followers to try to destroy Wilson and his ‘dangerous’ ideas.

      • In reply to #5 by Skeptic:

        In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

        But what he described Gould doing wasn’t keeping science in check it was, at least this was my interpretation, bringing political arguments into scientific debates and that is never a good thing.

        Bingo! Wilson was oblivious to politics. Gould and Lewontin’s politics we…

        I knew Wilson received a lot of unjust grief from the PC police but I had no idea Gould was one of them. That gives me two reasons not to like him (non overlapping magisteria being the other).

  4. It make sense to give your life for your children. You are going to die sooner than they are. This is even more true for grandparents.

    Whether you should give your life for a single child depends on your odds of having N more. You see African sacrificing children in famines.

  5. In reply to #3 by rjohn19:

    So who out there with a calculator can tell me the number of chimpanzees needed to be in mortal peril before Haldane takes the plunge?

    No number would be sufficient because, since chimpanzees are a different species and hence occupy a different gene pool, natural selection does not act on a group including both chimpanzees and Haldane, so his genes are not favoured by natural selection for helping chimpanzees. (At least, not by also being in chimpanzees’ bodies. Animals do sometimes cooperate with other species for other reasons, such as reciprocal altruism. But usually that’s a 1-on-1 interaction.)

  6. Thanks for your comments. I don’t buy that Wilson and Dawkins “stick strictly to science” and Gould and Lewontin are simply bringing politics into it (although they were much more up-front about it). Of course we all try to be objective, but politics is in science whether you like it or not. Consider EO Wilson’s denial of kin selection in recent years. All the evidence is against him, yet he touts group selection. I’m no psychologist but I’d put a few quid on ideology having something to do with it.

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