Posted by: Jeremy Fox | June 25, 2012

Yet more on the inclusive fitness – kin selection – group selection kerfuffle

If you can’t get enough of heavyweight intellectuals arguing about how to think about group selection, Steven Pinker has a lengthy post at The Edge, which has drawn responses from Dan Dennett and David Queller, among others (Queller’s response is particularly on point, I think).

HT Joan Strassman




  1. I had read the material over at the Edge; and find two things striking. First, there is a huge assumption by Pinker et al in opposing group selection, I think, that the important arguments are about big, furry and feathered things. Meanwhile, Queller cites Leo Buss, who studies the transition between single cells, colonies of single cells, and multi-cellular life. These are, quite simply, very different situations. The mathematics works out differently because the effective population sizes are off by many orders of magnitude, the time scales are off by several orders of magnitude, and so on. So many arguments aren’t just ‘different languages’ – they are people arguing about a phenomena across completely different scales, such that negligible forces become dominant, and vice versa.

    Second, so much of the language at the Edge is about enemies, religion, and so on. Ugh. I do not enjoy the neo-atheists.

    • I have mixed feelings about The Edge. I’ve plugged one of their discussions here before, but a lot of it is just a forum for famous people whose views are already well-known to keep saying the same things they’ve already said elsewhere (insert your own joke about pots, kettles and blackness here). 😉

      And yes, there is a relatively large contingent of neo-atheists, which I don’t find very enlightening either.

  2. There’s no doubt that Pinker’s post is intellectually weighty, but in the end I don’t find myself convinced by his arguments. Mostly because they seem so anthropocentric. Much of his line of reasoning against group selection is based on “Can group selection explain morality, altruism, (some other human character).” I think this is certainly interesting as sort of a philosophical exercise. But there’s no real tests of any of what Pinker says, and much of it seems just like a criticism of spurious lines of argument in evolutionary psychology and it’s adaptive story telling. Do we really want to base support for group selection or inclusive fitness based on how well they may or may not explain slippery concept like morality in humans?

    • Just to clarify, in calling Pinker and the various commenters on his post heavyweights, I merely meant to comment on the sorts of folks who were writing. I didn’t mean to comment, except in the most oblique way, on whether the arguments were convincing or not. I admit I only skimmed them, and basically thought they were fine but that they didn’t really say much that was new. I liked Queller’s comments best, but even he is basically saying things that Maynard Smith said in the 1980s, and many others have said as well.

      I figured I’d been posting a bit on this stuff so ought to keep readers up to date, especially as I’ve been a bit light on posting lately. But yeah, it’s not like I was blown away by anything Pinker or his commenters had to say.

      Perhaps at some point I should do a post with some pointers to what I think is more interesting recent work in this area.

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