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Frans de Waal, David Sloan Wilson and Group Selection

September 28, 2009

SUNY-Binghampton evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson currently has a response to my review “Survival of the Kindest” up at In his response he suggests that Dawkinsian critics such as Frans de Waal and Joan Roughgarden have adopted a group selection perspective in all but name:

Rejecting group selection was wrong.
The rejection of group selection as an important evolutionary force in the 1960s was one of the biggest blunders in the history of evolutionary thought. The extremely simple idea–I was just able to describe in just a few lines–was branded as so wrong that it became deeply heretical. Ever since, most evolutionists have scrupulously avoided using the “G-word” rather than facing the fact that all evolutionary theories of social behavior obey the logic of multilevel selection, including the scenarios invoked by Frans de Waal, Joan Roughgarden, and many others.
Now scientists are afraid of it.
It’s easy to appreciate the short-term benefit to the individual scientist of avoiding the “G-word,” but this is a form of selfishness because the long-term cost to the field as a whole is huge. My lengthy review article with E.O. Wilson titled “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology” can be summarized as follows: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, maybe it’s a duck. Let’s go back to the beginning and build a new field-wide consensus based on the fact that selfishness beats altruism within groups, altruistic groups beat selfish groups, and everything else is commentary.

While I wholeheartedly agree that group selection deserves greater attention and needs to be considered as a factor in evolution, I don’t think it’s fair to conclude that any scientist who doesn’t use this explanation is therefore “afraid” or is engaging in “a form of selfishness.”
I asked Frans de Waal about this and why he didn’t choose to highlight multilevel selection when his argument that there is “a ‘social motive’ in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole” seems to be making a very similar claim. His response was revealing.

I don’t believe much in group selection except as a variation on kin selection. Reason (many times given to DS Wilson) is that in all of the primates there is plenty of outflow of genes. Half the group migrates at puberty, either males or females. I have trouble seeing how group selection could work under such circumstances, so stick with individual selection and inclusive fitness most of the time. This issue was not central to my book, I believe, which mostly considers the proximate level.

I also remain skeptical when there are such high levels of exogamy. In both chimpanzees and bonobos, for example, all females migrate to other troops at around puberty. In chimpanzees, these rival groups are fiercely competitive but with bonobos their interactions are largely peaceful. It’s difficult to understand how group selection would function under these circumstances and how it could explain the different outcomes in two closely related species.
However, I think the central point is that I don’t know. It’s never been studied. I think Wilson has made a strong case, both in his books and on his blog at The Huffington Post, that multilevel selection theory needs to be reexamined. Such a “truth and reconciliation” would be an important step in developing new hypotheses to explain such differences in behavior and may reveal a previously unknown variable that would only be realized by returning to the drawing board.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2009 12:56 pm

    I don’t think it’s fair to conclude that any scientist who doesn’t use this explanation is therefore “afraid”

    Perhaps things are different in different fields, but I’ve talked to people about their work, when there is clearly group level selection, and they’ve said they can’t call it group selection because everyone will leap on them. So based on my experience, Sloan Wilson’s comment is fair.
    It’s really curious to me why this is still the case. Back in the 70s I can understand it: people had realised that the old group selection was incoherent. But Sloan Wilson, Hamilton and co. worked out a different concept of group selection. I guess part of the problem is that Sloan Wilson is happy to confuse the two, e.g.

    The rejection of group selection as an important evolutionary force in the 1960s was one of the biggest blunders in the history of evolutionary thought.

    (I’ve seen this criticism of him quite frequently) If nothing else, this is bad framing: why tie your theory one that is discredited? New and shiny is more likely to be looked upon favourably, I think.

  2. veniorogo permalink
    September 30, 2009 12:20 pm

    I’ve just read your article, and I’m curious about whether you’ve misrepresented Dawkins on purpose, or whether you simply have not read his books. He often addresses how his concept of the ‘selfish’ gene can actually PROMOTE behaviour that looks like group selection.
    It’s not that I’m a rabid Dawkins fan, I’m just always a bit intrigued by how often he is not treated fairly, be that treatment overly positive or overly negative.

  3. EMJ permalink*
    September 30, 2009 9:15 pm

    @Veniorogo: Please see my post entitled Misunderstanding Dawkins: The Role of Metaphor in Science.

  4. IanW permalink
    October 2, 2009 4:30 am

    “Rejecting group selection was wrong.”
    Wasn’t that what they told Dick Rowe at Decca when he turned down The Beatles in 1962?!

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