Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

May 4, 2011

We, Robot & Hamilton’s Rule


The original robots

We are haunted by Hamilton. William D. Hamilton specifically, an evolutionary biologist who died before his time in 2000. We are haunted because debates about his ideas are still roiling the intellectual world over a decade after his passing. Last summer there was an enormous controversy over a paper which purported to refute the relevance of standard kin selection theory. You can find out more about the debate in this Boston Globe article, Where does good come from? If you peruse the blogosphere you’ll get a more one-sided treatment. So fair warning (I probably agree more with the loud side which dominates the blogosphere for what it’s worth on the science).

What was Hamilton’s big idea? In short he proposed to tackle the problem of altruism in social organisms. The biographical back story here is very rich. You can hear that story from the “horse’s mouth” in the autobiographical sketches which Hamilton wrote up for his series of books of collected papers, Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Social Behaviour and Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Sex. ...

August 25, 2010

E. O. Wilson against Hamiltonian inclusive fitness

There is a new paper in Nature which is a full frontal attack on the utility of William D. Hamilton’s inclusive fitness framework in explaining eusociality. Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita, & Edward O. Wilson are the authors. Wilson is famous in large part for his authorship of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and is arguably the doyen of American organismic biology. He is both an active scientist, and, a premier public intellectual. So with that in mind, I notice that Dienekes Pontikos alludes to “E.O. Wilson’s change of mind about group selection.” This is conventional wisdom, but it is I think wrong (though from what I can tell Wilson has not done much to disabuse the press of the notion). In Defenders of the Truth Ullica Segerstrale notes that Wilson did not expunge group selection thinking even in Sociobiology. In Evolution for Everyone David Sloan Wilson recounts that it was in fact E. O. Wilson who pointed out a group selective interpretation of data he was presenting at a conference, helping to push him early on in a rather unfashionable direction. From what I have heard Wilson always believed that the empirical data was not adequately explained by a pure inclusive fitness model, and simply waited until things shook out before pushing back with more theoretically trained colleagues who had the same skepticism.

From page 30 of Sociobiology:

…….Nevertheless, Williams’ distaste for group-selection hypotheses wrongly lead him to urge the loading of the dice in favor of individual selection. As we shall see in chapter 5, group selection and higher levels of organization, however intuitively improbable they may seem, are at least theoretically possible under a wide range of conditions. The goal of the investigation should not be to advocate the simplest explanation, but rather to enumerate all of the possible explanations, improbable as well as likely, and then to devise tests to eliminate some of them.

And page 129, the last paragraph in the chapter on group selection (quoted in full so there’ll be no confusions as to whether I’m pulling it out of context):

In conclusion, although the theory of group selection is still rudimentary, it has already providd insights into some of the least understood and most disturbing qualities of social behavior. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forcd to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties-between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubbon. I think it is no more aesily to be controlled than is the wind.” And Krishna replied, “For one who is uncontrolled, I agree the Rule is hard to attain, but by the obedient spirits who will strive for it, it may be won by following the proper way.” In the opening chapter of this book, I suggested that the science of sociobiology, if coupled with neurophysiology, might transform the insights of ancient religions into a precise account of the evolutionary origin of ethics and hence explain the reasons why we make certain moral choices instead of others at particlar times. Whether such understanding will then produce the Rule remains to be seen. For the moment, perhaps it is enough to establish that a single strong thread does indeed run from the conduct of terminte colonies and turkey brotherhoods to the social behavior of man.

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