The inclusive fitness warriors dig in

In case you’ve been following this issue, the controversy over Nowak, Tarnita & Wilson’s Nature paper continues today with the journal’s publication of 5 rebuttal letters (sorry, they’re behind a subscription barrier), signed by an astounding 150 scientists. These include some of the biggest names in evolutionary biology.

I remain unimpressed with the debate. As best as I can tell- this is not my area of research- the fight does not concern anything that actually happens out in the real world. Instead, the bickering boils down to disagreements over which sorts of evolutionary questions are the more interesting ones, and about which body of mathematics is more pleasant to use. These are both matters of subjective opinion. I’ve not seen any demonstration that the competing approaches make different enough predictions to test with empirical data.

As long as the partisans keep insulting each other in print, though, we’ll see enough bruised egos to prolong the entertainment.


some reactions in the science media:

18 thoughts on “The inclusive fitness warriors dig in”

  1. I’m going to be writing a short paper for class discussing this issue, and deciding if a real issue even exists. Would you be able to direct me to some other papers that discuss this topic?

    1. Have a look at the references listed in the rebuttal letters submitted to Nature- most of the major sources across the history of the debate are there.

  2. Possibly another example of:

    “Sayre’s Law”: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue—that is why academic politics are so bitter.”

  3. I thought this paraphrase from the Pennisi article in Science was interesting:

    “West said he and his colleagues reacted so strongly because they worried that, given Wilson and Nowak’s fame and Nature’s prestige, others will take notice.”

    Is it just me, or is “science” becoming all dogma and beliefs?

    I know I’m not being very Kuhnian and I’m probably just wallowing in a Golden Age Fallacy, but really, science should be about testing ideas, not clinging to models. Anyone who thinks a paper is clearly wrong, but feels they have to get 130 colleagues to sign the rebuttal seems more like someone defending an establishment than trying to understand nature.

    1. Having been party to some of the conversations behind the 137-author letter, I will attest that a great many of those people were ready to write their own letters, or had already written their own. The group letter wasn’t a recruitment of names so much as an effort in redundancy reduction.

      Nowak et al’s major error, in my opinion, is not their model but the fact that they rolled it out by crapping all over the work of hundreds of their colleagues.

      1. Do you mean Nature that asked these authors to come up with a single response? Or was this an ‘Army of David’ self assemblage? If so, then I suppose that would be sociologically interesting.

        I read Coyne’s blog and he certainly was crapping back. As I recall, he tended to defend the Biological Species Concept in a similar vein a decade or two ago (pre-blogs). Coyne’s reply to one commentator compares Nowak et al. to creationists! I suppose a corollary to your opinion might be that Nowak et al. are reaping what they have sown.

  4. By the way Alex – thanks for posting on this. I’ve more or less given up on Nature and similar journals, so I might otherwise have missed this interesting brouhaha. I got sidetracked on the way to the Nature letters by the horror of increased sneezing due to global warming and then another 100 scientist letter (this time against cattle grazing in the Victorian alps), but finally got to them. I’m not sure that I am at all impressed, but since I see a couple of friends names among the outraged, I’ll assume this is due to my ignorance. The Boomsma et al. response seemed a bit of a house of cards, but I’d missed the interesting Hughes et al. (2008) Science paper they cited – it has a short discussion of EO Wilson’s early theories that set him on the road to ruin. This does make me wonder about the relatedness of ant queens that assemble into multigyne colonies.

    1. Well. Thanks for dropping in and sharing your own perspective, Dave!

      The polygyne issue is an interesting one, but it helps to remember that ants are themselves 120 or so million years past their origin. Evolutionary processes acting now may be rather different than the ones at work in the proto-ants, so we need to be extra cautious about making historical inferences based only on modern ants. I think ants are a horrible model for studying the origins of sociality, for that reason. Best to stick with halictids, and maybe polistines.

      1. I wonder about the relationship of the the diplodiploidy of termites and the haplodiploidy of anta (and its relation to kin selection) to virtual lack of primary polygyny in termites vs. its frequency in ants.

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