Another of those convergences: I just joined the Richard Dawkins group on Facebook, and discovered that today is his birthday. (Happy birthday sir!) It’s a convergence because over the last week I’ve been horribly dismayed. After decades of near hero-worship on my part, I’ve discovered that he is not acting as the man I’ve always believed him to be.
The issue is his position on group selection. (Don’t go away: it matters.) The way he has defended that position seems contrary to everything I have always so admired about him.
And I have so admired him, for so long. I have to watch myself constantly to avoid the kind of wild-eyed evangelism that serves only to give aid and comfort to the creationist enemy. The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype provided (some of) the fundamental underpinnings for my understanding of (human) existence, and the belief and value system that’s built on that understanding.
I didn’t really need to read The God Delusion — preaching to the choir — but I did so and greatly enjoyed it purely for the joy of his arguments — the lucidity, the cogency, the logical and rhetorical coherence.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve recounted his anecdote about an aging professor who changes his mind. (“My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” . . . “We clapped our hands red.”) It still brings tears to my eyes when I read it, and epitomizes how science, for all its real-world failings, is fundamentally different from faith. (Here. Start with “It does happen.”)
So, again, I’m nearly teary-eyed at the stance he has taken, and the rhetoric he’s deployed, in response to a body of thinking that has grown over decades and came to something of a culmination in 2007. (I’m late to the party on this one.) That body of evidence and theory contradicts one of his longest- and strongest-held beliefs: that group selection is hooey, that it could not have had any role in the evolution of human altruism.
Remember the stated goal of Dawkins’ seminal book: “My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism.”
His basic theory: genes are the units of selection, and organisms are the vehicles of that selection. If a gene causes organisms to have more grandchildren, the gene’s frequency expands in the population.
Based on this, he rightly pooh-poohed warm, mushy, poorly-reasoned notions about genes contributing to “social cohesion” and the like. No altruistic gene could survive in a group if it didn’t provide net benefit for the individual containing that gene — either by helping the individual, helping kin who have the same gene, or through reciprocal payback from other individuals.
But what about the success of groups? Could groups with more altruistic genes have more grandchildren than groups with more purely self-serving genes? Could that group selection effect predominate over individual selection within the group?
It seems plausible, and from the first time I encountered the conundrum, it has always seemed to me to be a purely statistical question.
And that’s how (a damned impressive set of) mid-20th-century evolutionists went at it. They built models, ran the numbers, and determined that no: group selection could not overwhelm the forces of individual selection. If a gene isn’t good for an individual (and/or his kin), it will die out.
That belief achieved an orthodoxy in the political ecology of scientific academe that largely prevented later scientists from even raising the question, and successfully crushed most of the few efforts to re-examine it. It’s agonizingly similar to the despicable response that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology themselves encountered over those same decades, from the likes of Lewontin, Gould, and the “Theory” humanists.
As a result, both professionals and amateurs — including reasonably diligent amateurs like me — have been unthinkingly chanting along with that orthodoxy for years, decades. I don’t know how many times I’ve discredited thinking that seemed rooted in group-selectionist thinking.
And I was wrong. At least, I was too categorical. So I was sometimes/often wrong.
Here’s what makes me so sad: Richard Dawkins has been perhaps the most powerful voice for that orthodoxy, and he seems to be clinging to that idol even when its feet — his feet — are looking resoundingly clay-like.
Cutting to the meat, simplified:
In 2007, David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson (the founder of sociobiology and one of the most brilliant, diligent, and sober evolutionary biologists to ever live, as Dawkins certainly agrees) published a paper (PDF) laying out the cogent, lucid, and compelling case that group selection can indeed predominate over individual selection in the evolution of altruistic genes — that the group can be a vehicle of selection, just as the individual can. (They talk about “multilevel selection.”)
In other words, genes that benefit the group can proliferate in the larger population, even if those genes are disadvantaged within the group. Again, it’s all a matter of models and statistics, and the Wilsons (no relation) deployed and cited damned convincing models and statistics showing that the earlier evolutionists probably got it wrong.
Now if Dawkins had cogent takedowns of those models and statistics, there is nobody I would rather hear them from. But his counterarguments have all been from principles, even when those principles are not thrown into question by Wilson and Wilson — their arguments are based on those principles.
What’s more dismaying is that Dawkins’ few dozen paragraphs in reply (remember, it’s been three years since then) bear all the hallmarks of a religionist who has not a leg to stand on, lashing out in frantic, desperate defense with red herrings, tangents, inapplicable arguments, dodges, weaves, and personal invective. (I’m not a professional in the field, but I know good and bad arguments when I hear them.)
This post is already too long, so I won’t detail everything here. You can see one of Dawkins’ replies here (PDF), and you can read the whole story from D. S. Wilson — including much of Dawkins’ response — here. Wilson’s 19-post blog thread is here in a one PDF.
I’ll just quote one passage from Dawkins to give the flavor of those replies:
…as far as I am concerned, the statement is false: not a semantic confusion; not an exaggeration of a half-truth; not a distortion of a quarter truth; but a total, unmitigated, barefaced lie.
This is not the Richard Dawkins I’ve known and (intellectually) loved for lo these many decades. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of that Richard Dawkins.
I can only quote D.S. Wilson’s words, which precisely echo my most heartfelt feelings:
In my dreams, I imagine him reading my modified haystack model and saying “Well done, David! I have been wrong all these years.”
Richard Dawkins won’t you please come home?