Group Selection as a Theological Trojan Horse?

P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula weighs in on last year’s Nowak et al Nature paper with a rather odd angle:

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.

13 thoughts on “Group Selection as a Theological Trojan Horse?”

    1. I hadn’t seen it- it looks highly relevant.

      I feel like someone needs to write the converse paper, arguments against kin selection that no one should make. There are a fair pile of those, too.

      1. In a fairly long paper about cooperation in humans, West et al. create a converse list (sort of): doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.08.001 (Misconceptions 9-13).

    1. Yes, but calling it colony selection doesn’t scare the crap out people like saying group selection. Kind of like a specific example of group selection i .e. the colony is the group.

  1. Well, perhaps not a theological debate, but for people who treat their theories as belief systems, I doubt they can tell the difference. Pharyngula always lives down to his embryonic nomen.

        1. I disagree. Beliefs change over time. Do you believe in the same things you did as a child? I would assume no. And I’m sure some of those changes in belief come from challenging them. 🙂

        2. I believed in gravity as a child, and I still do as I can see its effects every day. Beliefs are something you hold because you think they are true, not something you question without reason. They may change over time, but not because you want them to.

          If I wanted to understand how gravity works, though, I would need some hypotheses that I could test. Hypotheses are meant to be tested and to change. They should not be held as beliefs.

  2. Pingback: Kith and Kin Selection « Formicidae Fantasy

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