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The discovery of altruism,
This review is from: The Social Conquest of Earth (Hardcover)
E. O. Wilson has ignited a valuable debate about how altruism evolved in humans. As an insect specialist he more or less put 'inclusive fitness' or 'Hamilton's rule' on the map as natural selection's preferred mechanism for the evolution of altruism. Then in a famous 2010 article in Nature, and now in The Social Conquest of Earth he says that he was completely wrong and that 'group selection' is how altruism evolved in both eusocial insects and humanity. By group selection Wilson means war to the death between groups - 'total war'. This idea has been around a long time; Darwin believed it, talking off the top of his head without any archaeological evidence about what happened during the two million years of humanity's evolution, and misled by an idea ('Pangenesis') that learned experience was passed down from generation to generation. Recently Samuel Bowles published a paper in Science showing mathematically that warfare could preserve a fragile form of altruism if a mutation for it occurred. Wilson now makes the startling claim that because Bowles's archaeological data shows warfare 'from the beginning of Neolithic times', therefore 'tribal aggressiveness thus goes back well beyond Neolithic times, but no one as yet can say exactly how far'. He then goes on to speculate that because the common chimpanzee is warlike 'there is a good chance' that tribal aggressiveness goes back six million years. The reality is that once you look beyond inclusive fitness (which is one way that altruism can evolve in some creatures) there are many ways that altruism can evolve in humans. People love the idea that warfare delivers benefits, possibly because it reassuringly exorcises war's horrors and apparent inevitability in the modern world. A careful reading of the Bowles paper shows that he has proved that a supposed altruistic gene could be preserved by group selection without warfare, simply because of the climate. His model also describes a population with a small minority of Ned Flanders types with this altruistic gene, whereas real research shows that altruism is universal and not binary. Wilson's mathematical colleague Martin Nowak and the behavioural ecologists use 'multilevel selection' in a much more subtle sense than Wilson's old fashioned 'total war between groups'. It is from them that we are finding out the truth about our altruism, and the controversy ignited by Wilson's book will end up by proving him wrong again.
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Initial post: Apr 14, 2012 6:30:38 AM PDT
Lost in Siberia says:
Thank you for this fine, well-written update.
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