The Good Fight | The Primate Diaries, Scientific American Blog Network


Prominent scientists are in a bitter struggle over the origins of kindness. But the root of this conflict may be the most ironic part of all. 

What would it take for you to give your life to save another? The answer of course is two siblings or eight cousins, that is, if you’re thinking like a geneticist. This famous quip, attributed to the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane, is based on the premise that you share on average 50% of your genes with a brother or sister and 12.5% with a cousin. For altruism to be worth the cost it should ensure that you break even, genetically speaking.

This basic idea was later formalized by the evolutionary theorist William Hamilton as “inclusive fitness theory” that extended Darwin’s definition of fitness–the total number of offspring produced–to also include the offspring of close relatives. Hamilton’s model has been highly influential, particularly for Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who spent considerable time discussing its implications in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. But in the last few years an academic turf war has developed pitting the supporters of inclusive fitness theory (better known as kin selection) against a handful of upstarts advocating what is known as group selection, the idea that evolutionary pressures act not only on individual organisms but also at the level of the social group.

The latest row was sparked by the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, which followed up on his 2010 paper in the journal Nature written with theoretical biologists Martin Nowak and Corina Tarniţă. In both cases Wilson opposes kin selection theory in favor of the group selection model. For a revered scientist like Wilson–a Harvard biologist, recipient of the Crafoord Prize (the Nobel of the biosciences) and two-time Pulitzer prizewinner–to adopt a marginal and widely disputed concept has received a lot of attention and caused other prominent scientists to step forward and defend the mainstream point of view.

For example, writing at The Prospect magazine, in what The Guardian newspaper called “a searingly critical review,” Dawkins argued that the proposal in Wilson’s book was based on “erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory.” Joining him at the website Edge was Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker who wrote that group selection was a “false allure” and “a loose metaphor, more like the struggle among kinds of tires or telephones.” Likewise, University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne dismissed group selection on his blog as “a fuzzy and nebulous concept” and one that merely “has an innate appeal to those with a penchant for the religious and the spiritual.” It should go without saying that online commenters were considerably less kind (a notable exception being at Edge, where scholars were invited to comment independently).

Taken together, along with the 137 scientists who signed a letter to Nature in 2010 supporting kin selection, this would seem to be the coup de grâce effectively sending group selection the way of the dodo. But, at the same time, it seems odd that so many prominent scientists would feel the need to forcefully defend what they all maintain is an irrefutable, textbook understanding of evolutionary biology. After all, science advances based on empirical evidence, not rhetoric (“An ounce of algebra is worth a ton of verbal argument,” as Haldane noted). Shouldn’t it therefore be an easy task to simply examine the evidence for group selection and leave it at that? Yes, it should in theory. But this is where things get complicated.

Written By: Eric Michael Johnson
continue to source article at


  1. I always find these debates frustratingly elusive:

    1) In part due the levels of academia they stray into absenting the majority of us from accessibility to what they are saying ( may as well  be preaching from a lectern); 

    2) In part due their rallying betwixt mechanisms for survival and weightings for emotional dominance ( as if love conquers all );

    3) Due the lacks in consideration of non linear correlations, both of the mechanical and the emotional correspondence that together enhance the survival of one species due this variegation within species. 

    I see it more like global climate: many of us will get rained on tomorrow, but unlikelier if we live in sunnier locations per se. In spite of this, there are limiters at work to prevent all of us moving to sunnier locations per se and so many of us get adjusted to being pissed wet through for most of our lives! Due the sum total, we as a species remain dominant and the “new evolution” becomes, “Who can secure the sunniest life.” due the emotional bias now advancing its cause further than the previously “mechanical survival” dominance – although in many locations this still is the prime mover!

    Please, someone, make this stuff accessible so that we can all be bothered even to take more notice than we do of Yaweh? 

  2. Interesting article. It explained the arguments for group selection in a way that I grasped more clearly than other recent articles. But the tone of the article seemed a bit odd. If I’m understanding what he said correctly there may be a few species such as bees where the evidence for kin selection isn’t as strong as we thought and group selection may be a better explanation. But he seems to ignore or at least very much downplay the fact that there is overwhelming evidence for kin selection and not group selection in all other animals. The fact that group selection may be a good explanation for bees and termites hardly means we should throw out kin selection for everything else. My knowledge of all this is very shallow though, just books by Dawkins and a few others. I would be interested to hear from others with deeper knowledge, if I’m grasping it correctly.

  3. Me too , on this whole idea there is one feature effecting all else. I wonder whether both are no, in different bias, influencing various populations simultaneously. I can see how smaller populations may seem to fit one model more closely than urban populations for example. When I try to imagine contexts in real life, I soon wonder whether I am thinking along the same lines as those who write that math on these things.

    For my mind I selected a Judo Christian population merging with a Muslim population. Too simple really since far more appear in reality. However even this is complex since it mixes up gender bias within two frameworks based upon god delusions: two delusional (myth based) orders of gender ranking for humans per se, going head to head.

    Some interesting features emerge. Consider the next generation youth. One culture has reproduction age set much lower, but also males can potentially exploit the feminine of the opposing culture due their god delusion sanctioning this ( See Jack Straw on female exploitation of white females). The white male might seem disadvantaged for reproduction in this context since he has no access to muslim females per se , must limit himself to higher age reproduction limits in his own culture and is , to boot, being competed with for white females by opposing culture males at much younger ages than he can permit himself the confidence to consider. The odds seem to be stacked due group selection psychologies, which seems at odds with purely genetic behaviors. One psychology seems self protective plus exploitative of out cultures, whereas the other seems convergent upon more equal status for each gender and multi-cultures to boot. 

    I’ll not labour this controversy further, but think it suggests at least some of the complexities that influence populations everywhere due prime mover memes being evolved due large groups selection criteria.

    I don’t know how my example can be explained by ‘inclusive fitness theory’ and I’d appreciate someone telling me how.

  4. I thought I’d chime in on a few of the issues raised about my piece:

    @rdfrs-9a8da838c2aed234ae0ca57d74f2ab9c:disqus – I made an effort to use everyday language to make this discussion as accessible as possible and to also give general explanations about the background issues. This debate often hinges on very technical aspects of evolutionary theory, so writing something in a way that is interesting for both the general reader as well as the expert is a difficult line to tow. I did my best.

    I thought your metaphor about the constraints involved in moving to “sunnier locations” isn’t quite accurate in this case but does address one of the important points I was trying to discuss. E.O Wilson and D.S. Wilson in their 2007 paper for Quarterly Review of Biology talk about the evolutionary constraints between selfishness and groupishness. Living in groups has been demonstrated to offer reproductive success for species in certain environments (but different environments promote solitary living in other species). Once individuals do better because of their colony, troop, or herd the group itself can be thought of as an evolutionary pressure itself. Certain behaviors will be more adaptive, like grooming in most primate species, that aren’t adaptive for solitary living animals (for example, lemurs and lorises). In extreme cases, Wilson and Wilson argue, this constraint between selfishness and groupishness can lead to extreme forms of group-oriented behavior like that seen in eusocial species.

    I find that this debate often gets muddled when terms and concepts are translated directly from non-human research to the human realm. Our species is a much more complex system and culture is a powerful influence that makes the simplistic mathematical models break down. I remain agnostic about whether or not group selection has had a role in human altruism. The point of my article was to examine the history of this debate about the origin of altruism to try and find some common ground.

    @rdfrs-e9b12266fbcd4cb0aba357533a2b1dc5:disqus – It is true that I didn’t emphasize the studies supporting kin selection, but these have been adequately addressed in many of the critical online and academic sources I linked to. My personal opinion is that kin selection has been very successful in explaining altruistic behavior in a large number of mammalian species (especially primates). I suspect that E.O. Wilson overreached in his claim that kin selection is a failed model. However, this doesn’t mean that group selection can’t be a valuable model for certain behaviors. In many mammalian species (such as monkeys and meerkats) individuals will give alarm calls when they see a predator. This puts the individual who makes the call in danger but allows their group members to escape. There remains debate about how to explain this behavior since neither kin selection nor reciprocal altruism has had much empirical success. I don’t know if group selection would offer better results, but I see no reason why researchers shouldn’t use all methods available to them to answer this scientific question.

    Thank you both for your thoughtful questions and commentary.


    Eric Michael Johnson (@ericmjohnson)

Leave a Reply