Friday, November 30, 2007

Group selection! - maybe not so blasphemous after all

Group selection has long been a taboo topic just like the study of biological or genetic differences between human "races" had been a taboo topic. Several papers that have come out recently have acknowledged that group selection likely plays at least some kind of role in the process of natural selection.(here, here, here, here, here, here)
But finally, D.S. Wilson and E.O. Wilson have written up a paper that attempts to breathe even more life into this unjustly ignored and ridiculed idea.
I had read it a few months ago and was meaning to blog on it, but never got around to it, but I just saw a story about the paper which is supposed to be out now, but I couldn't find it on the website. It's available online from D.S. Wilson's website (link on title below). See further below abstract for a few more comments, and a great quote at the very end of this post.

Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology

The Quarterly Review of Biology
December 2007 v.82, no.4
Abstract: Current sociobiology is in theoretical disarray, with a diversity of frameworks that are poorly related to each other. Part of the problem is a reluctance to revisit the pivotal events that took place during the 1960s, including the rejection of group selection and the development of alternative theoretical frame- works to explain the evolution of cooperative and altruistic behaviors. In this article, we take a “back to basics” approach, explaining what group selection is, why its rejection was regarded as so important, and how it has been revived based on a more careful formulation and subsequent research. Multilevel selection theory (including group selection) provides an elegant theoretical foundation for sociobiology in the future, once its turbulent past is appropriately understood
This paper goes through the arguments behind the battering and quasi-elimination of group selection as a viable possibility, and then they go through the evidence for instances of group selection. I don't have time to go into all the arguments now but I highly recommend this paper to anyone interested in this topic. I'll just put the last witty paragraph here:
When Rabbi Hillel was asked to explain the Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot, he famously replied: “Do not do unto others that which is repugnant to you. Everything else is commentary.” Darwin’s original insight and the developments reviewed in this article enable us to offer the following one foot summary of sociobiology’s new theoretical foundation: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary."

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