A new edge-essay by Steven Pinker is bound to lead to vehement reactions: The False Allure of Group Selection. It is worth a read – Pinker is a clear writer and so his position is easy to locate, however, I get the feeling that his position is to smooth talk whatever a certain establishment likes to hear being defended. The last time I listened, he told modern society that it is the most peaceful ever (an amazing feat of cherry picking data and re-interpretation). Now it seems he simply roots for the more well established guys in a heated turf battle: who may talk about evolution.
There is a lot I could nitpick, for example that he mentions Lee Smolin’s cosmological natural selection (CNS) of universes although one of Pinker’s most important criteria for natural selection is that success is strictly the number of copies in a finite population. There is no such finite number or even any good measure, that is precisely one of the two main problems with CNS. In other words: Don’t support your stuff with other stuff that you do not understand – it always backfires.
But let us leave the nitpicking and go straight to the core. This is basically his whole essay boiled down to fit into a nutshell:
Now, no one "owns" the concept of natural selection, nor can anyone police the use of the term. … But unless the traits arose from multiple iterations of copying of random errors in a finite pool of replicators, the theory of natural selection adds nothing to ordinary cause and effect.
He wants to police the use of “natural selection” to exclude anything that so called “multilevel selection” or similar more advanced concepts can draw on, so that in the end we are bound to yesterday's status quo of evolution: Naïve gene centrism. He fails via two main mistakes:
One is to think that modern design for example, he mentions touch-tone phones, is not largely very random. Note well, it is Pinker himself who defines ‘"random"in the sense that they do not anticipate their effects in the current environment’, which is a very good definition. Success, especially defined in the way he does, namely only counting how many of the same systems there happen to be, such success of technological advancements is mostly random, so is the design phase itself. Very few successful designs got successful the way the designers thought it should play out when designing.
The second and much graver mistake: He seems to be unaware of that already on the level of bacteria, evolution is not so much driven by random errors as by there being already evolved mechanisms in place that modify the genome in quite deliberate ways in targeted areas, mechanisms that we only just start to grasp. The mutation rate itself for example is adjusted as a response to stress. James Shapiro writes some interesting articles on that topic.
Stevens second error is deadly, as it not just inexcusable for a researcher who claims to be and stay informed about the cutting edge research in traditionally, narrowly defined evolution as biological evolution, but if we were to go along with what Steven Pinker writes about what is “natural selection” and especially what is not, almost the whole of biological evolution would no longer fall under the heading of natural selection!
Evolution is not just biological evolution, where stuff has to divide and die and all of that, and evolution is definitively not just the mere evolution of molecules, where nothing yet developed that tames the utter randomness of chemistry. Evolution is emergence via natural selection; something natural is there and it selects. Arguing what is natural, explicitly or implicitly, may defend your turf, but it is not providing any novel, useful distinction.