Martin Nowak has written a peculiar paper, recently published in Nature, in which he basically dismisses the entire concept of inclusive fitness and instead promotes a kind of group selectionist model. It’s an “analysis” paper, and so it’s rather weak on the evidence, but it also seems mostly committed to trashing the idea that inclusive fitness models are the whole of selection theory, which is a bit weird since no one argues that.
I would like to draw your attention to a different kind of critique, though. Nowak is also a fellow of the Templeton Foundation, and he’s been using his work on the biology of cooperation to promote Jesus…
Let’s nip this speculation in the bud. The group selection/kin selection argument may be many things, but it is not a theological debate. The disagreement is a legitimate academic dispute over whether game-theory approaches or population genetic approaches are more appropriate for modeling the evolution of cooperation. That’s the heart of it. It’s not atheists vs. theists. No one is trying to smuggle Jesus into the lab by pretending to be a Group Selectionist.
Instead, we should recognize Myers’ post for what it is: poisoning the well.
Myers apparently favors the genetic perspective. As do I. But the game-theoretic, group-selection approach is serious, and it is worthy of considering on the empirical merits. Implying that group selectionists are tied to a particular religious perspective is not only untrue, but an underhanded way of stacking the deck in public debate.
***update: Jerry Coyne’s take is worth reading, as it focuses more on the science. Potential conflicts of interest in Nowak’s research funding are interesting but ultimately a side show, I think, and not really relevant to the game-theoretic approach to social evolution.