Sunday, March 15, 2015

H.Allen Orr reviews David Sloan Wilson's new book

in New York Book Review of Books (via 3quarksdaily) The biology of being good to others. One of the best reviewers of science books writes a relatively gentle review and along the way explains group selection , Hamilton's kin selection etc.
"It’s also true that many evolutionary theorists now argue that multilevel selection and kin selection are generally equivalent mathematically and they yield the same numerical predictions about the extent of genetic change from one generation to the next. Though this view is not universal, the long and fierce debate over the proper way to frame social evolution shows at least some signs of simmering down.
Wilson’s more philosophical discussion of equivalence among scientific theories generally is also strong. The fact that a process occurs in some singular way in nature doesn’t mean that there is only one legitimate way to think about it as a scientist. So long as different perspectives on a process make the same predictions and, ideally, can be translated from the language of one theory to another, it would seem absurd to argue that scientists must choose among them.
Wilson comes up short, however, in not emphasizing forcefully enough that just because different perspectives might be equivalent formally, they aren’t necessarily equivalent in the actual practice of science. Some perspectives might well be more natural, more productive, or simply easier to use than others. Indeed in evolutionary biology, it’s often easier to think about evolution in terms of the relatedness of individuals (as in kin selection) than in terms of group structure (as in multilevel selection), particularly in species where the sharp demarcation of groups is less than obvious. And it would be hard to deny that many more insights into biology—some deeply surprising—have followed from gene-level thinking than from multilevel selection thinking. Wilson doesn’t quite deny all this but I doubt that the average reader of Does Altruism Exist? would guess it.
But it’s when Wilson turns to the social lives of human beings that his views become more problematic. There are several difficulties.
One is that Wilson’s multilevel selection theory is so broad, so causally inclusive, that it may well be able to explain nearly anything about people. When a theory allows genetic selection to act at any level in the biological hierarchy and cultural selection to act at any level in the social hierarchy, it’s hard to imagine many facts about people that might remain refractory to “explanation” by it. In science, a theory can be a little too pliant for its own good and Wilson may have found one. It would have been helpful had he listed some imaginable observations about people that would force him to seriously question his theory. "

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