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E.O. Wilson Disavows His Own Kin Selection

Casey Luskin

Modern Darwinism claims that it wasn’t just the human body and DNA that evolved, but also our brains and behavior. But if human behavior evolved, why have humans essentially adopted virtually universal ethical systems that teach it’s better to love your neighbor than to rape her? The field of sociobiology promise to answer such questions–and these days, much, much more.

The demands of Darwinian evolution are simple: survive and spread your genes. As a result, under Darwinian evolution, there’s no such thing as truly selfless love. Instead, humans are said to exhibit “altruism”–seemingly unselfish behavior that is actually programmed to give kickbacks to your selfish genes. For example:

  • If I neglect my own reproductive success to help my sister raise her kids, some of my genes will still be passed on. This is called kin selection.
  • Similarly, if I share food with my neighbor, perhaps later he’ll return the favor. This amazing insight is called reciprocal altruism.
  • Sometimes people even do charitable acts in public simply to earn the praise and respect of others, bolstering reproductive success. This incredible behavior is called competitive altruism.

In recent years, such riveting insights have captured the minds of science journalists in the media. However, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe, one of the most (now-former) ardent proponents of ideas like “kin selection,” E.O. Wilson, now says, “Kin selection is wrong… That’s it. It’s wrong.” The article elaborates on how Wilson, once one of the most ardent proponents of kin selection, has betrayed his own kin on the topic:

Wilson’s recent about-face on kin selection has stunned the scientific world in part because Wilson was personally responsible for the almost universal embrace of the idea in the first place. While he didn’t come up with the theory, he is often credited with discovering William Hamilton, the graduate student who did, and convincing the scientific community that the young man was onto something big.

His reasons for rejecting kin selection are described in The Globe as follows:

But over the course of subsequent decades, Wilson came across evidence that made him doubt the connection between genetic relatedness and altruism. Researchers were finding species of insects that shared a lot of genetic material with each other but didn’t behave altruistically, and other species that shared little and did. “Nothing we were finding connected with kin selection,” Wilson said. “I knew that something was going wrong — there was a smell to it.”

Wilson said he first gave voice to his doubts in 2004, by which point kin selection theory had been widely accepted as the explanation for the evolution of altruism. “I pointed out that there were a lot of problems with the kin selection hypothesis, with the original Hamilton formulation, and with the way it had been elaborated mathematically by a very visible group of enthusiasts,” Wilson said. “So I suggested an alternative theory.”

The alternative theory holds that the origins of altruism and teamwork have nothing to do with kinship or the degree of relatedness between individuals. The key, Wilson said, is the group: Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations. This so-called group selection, Wilson insists, is what forms the evolutionary basis for a variety of advanced social behaviors linked to altruism, teamwork, and tribalism — a position that other scientists have taken over the years, but which historically has been considered, in Wilson’s own word, “heresy.”

Of course, ideas like kin selection are very important to evolutionary biologists. For one, it purports to solve what for many years was an enigma–why organisms would exhibit behavior that helps others rather than themselves. For two, it’s great public relations for Darwinism, as it purports to show that Darwinian evolution can lead to altruistic behavior instead of just “selfish” behavior. This gives Darwinism a happier, shinier veneer, making it easier for the public to swallow, which is

But there’s another reason why evolutionary biologists don’t like Wilson’s recent criticisms of kin selection. Wilson’s alternative explanation, which involves group selection, is bitterly opposed by many evolutionary biologists who argue that natural selection acts on the individual (or at least the individual’s genes). As Richard Dawkins argues, “Kin selection is not a subset of group selection, it is a logical consequence of gene selection.”

Thus, as Denyse O’Leary reports, Wilson and his colleagues have been hit by a barrage of opposition to his opposition to kin selection:

Online today in Nature, nearly 150 evolutionary biologists challenge Harvard University’s Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s most preeminent scientists, and two colleagues. At issue is the usefulness of a 50-year-old theory about the role of relatedness in the evolution of complex social systems like those of ants, bees, and humans. Wilson, along with Harvard mathematicians Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita argue that the theory, called inclusive fitness, does not explain how these complex societies arose; in a rebuttal today in Nature and in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, their critics say that the Harvard trio have misrepresented the literature and are simply wrong.

(Elizabeth Pennisi, “Researchers Challenge E. O. Wilson Over Evolutionary Theory,” Science Insider (March 23, 2011).)

One vocal critic was Jerry Coyne, who couldn’t help but claim that Nature should not even publish papers that criticize ideas that are sacred to modern evolutionary biology: “a big raspberry to the folks at Nature who decided to publish such a strange paper in the interest of stirring up controversy. If they’d gotten decent reviewers, and followed their advice, it never would have seen print.”

And the Boston Globe reports that Richard Dawkins of course feels much the same way: “‘It’s almost universally regarded as a disgrace that Nature published it,’ Dawkins said. ‘Most people feel the reason they published it was the eminence of Wilson and Nowak, not the quality of the paper.'” The Globe further reports:

For Wilson to reject kin selection this late in his career has bewildered his many admirers. “It’s sad — he’s already an enormously famous and respected scientist, and it just sort of tarnishes him in people’s eyes,” said Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago biologist who has written disapprovingly of Wilson’s latest work on his blog. Yet Wilson said he doesn’t have a choice in the matter. “I think that’d be a pretty poor scientist, who couldn’t reverse his view from new evidence,” he said.

Of course, Wilson and his coauthors have shot back: “Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson have responded that their paper has been misunderstood. ‘Very few people have really taken the time to work through our arguments’.” As The Globe put it:

That’s exactly the problem, according to Nowak, whose new book, “SuperCooperators,” co-written with Roger Highfield, summarizes his work as a mathematician on the origins of advanced social behavior. “They don’t know what they’re arguing against,” Nowak said recently at his office, where an oversize print of the Nature cover hangs on the wall. Specifically, Nowak explained, the critics don’t understand the math, and moreover, they don’t realize that the math is the most important part.

Wilson and Nowak’s original Nature paper that caused the stir last summer points out that a lot of field data does not fit with the predictions of kin selection theory. In short, (1) cooperation is found among many species where individuals would not, genetically speaking, be expected to cooperate, and (2) there are many instances where cooperation is not found within species, even though the mathematics of kin selection theory would predict it. The Globe explains that the theory simply hasn’t predicted the data:

Wilson is not arguing that members of certain species don’t sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their relatives. They do. But it’s his position that kinship and relatedness aren’t essential in causing the development of advanced social behaviors like altruism — that the reason such behaviors catch on is that they’re evolutionarily advantageous on a group level. That socially advanced organisms end up favoring their kin, Wilson argues, is a byproduct of their group membership, not the cause.

“It’s a question of which is the cart and which is the horse,” said Peter Nonacs, a UCLA biologist who shares Wilson’s sense that relatedness and advanced social behavior are not as intimately linked as most scientists think.

So in the end, it seems that this is another instance where the field data is not bearing out the mathematical predictions of evolutionary biology. Perhaps that’s why die-hard defenders of Darwinism like Coyne, Dawkins, and so many others are so upset with Wilson for pointing that out.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



E.O. Wilsonevolutionary psychology