You would think after thirty years of numerous critics exposing the shortcomings of the selfish gene hypothesis, that its proponents would have become a little more circumspect, a little more nuanced in their promotion of the fallacy. But you’d be wrong.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

About a year ago that old gene-warrior Jerry Coyne went in boots-and-all on his blog against DS Wilson, and all because Wilson took Richard Dawkins to task over group selection.

Coyne gave a portion of Wilson’s article, and followed it with this;

“This is sheer madness – an almost incoherent rant...Yes, genes are replicators, but Dawkins never claimed that their status as selfish replicators somehow rules out group selection.”

That is not correct. The Selfish Gene was written to undermine group selection, as Dawkins made clear from the beginning. He began his attack on page 2 and devoted most of the first chapter to outlining his case against group selection.

“Dawkins argument against group selection was that this form of selection is usually unsuccessful because groups are vulnerable to subversion from within by those selfish replicators...That’s the classical argument against group selection.”

With that comment Coyne has clearly become confused between replicators and organisms. And the statement is false. Cheaters are punished, and not only human groups engage in such punishment.

 “...there’s virtually no evidence that this form of selection has been important in nature.”

Let’s consider the evidence.

Here’s an explanation of group selection.

Bill and Bob meet in a pub, strike up a conversation, and discover that they both love fishing.

They decide to go fishing together the next day – Bill will supply the boat, Bob will bring the bait and the beer. A group has formed. How do we know that? Because they are cooperating for a mutual goal.

Is this particular group subject to natural selection? Certainly!

They could go out next day and fill the boat with fish, and so the group remains with plans for future trips, or during the night a storm could topple a tree onto the boat which is on a trailer in Bill’s yard, putting an end to further fishing trips. The group would then be selected out. A thousand other possibilities could also end its existence.

How would we know when a group has been selected out? When cooperation ceases.  It’s cooperation that defines a group, not altruism as gene-centrics would have you believe.

This little example shows that group selection does not require the activity of genes, or replicators, or copying fidelity or any other red herring.

Of course, gene-centrics will argue that this scenario has nothing to do with evolution. They have to say that because for a gene-centric, genes are, well, central!

But they are wrong; it has everything to do with evolution.

Just take the recreational fishing out of the scenario and replace it with hunting for food, or building an irrigation canal, or defending against predators, or any number of cooperative ventures, and we have encapsulated the evolution of humanity, and to only  a slightly lesser extent, all social animals. Because it has been cooperation of this kind that has made it possible for social animals to survive until they can reproduce. (And still not an altruistic act or a gene to be seen.)

Is that really so difficult to accept? Survival, and reproduction with the possibility of variation is surely the basis of evolution.

But how silly of me, I forgot! Because gene-centrics cannot accept that definition of evolution, they came up with their own – the differential survival of alternative replicators. It’s nonsense of course, but even when applying that definition, group selection in the manner that I have described it, still occurs, and is compatible with their fanciful definition of evolution because it has an influence on the survival of individual organisms, and therefore on the survival of any ill-defined sub-section of organisms.

But gene-centrics are nothing if not determined. Not only did they redefine evolution to make genes central, they redefined groups to force groups out of the discussion. Groups could not be important in evolution, they said, because they do not produce daughter groups, do not reproduce.

That would be laughable if not so serious.

First, groups do produce offspring. Mass migrations during times of famine or over-population are a common occurrence in nature. Separate groups are formed from an original group, and the two groups can, over time, develop variations in traits. Bee colonies producing new queens in times of plenty, and half the colony leaving with the new queen to start a new colony, are examples of this.

Secondly, as we’ve seen, groups do not have to reproduce in order to influence evolution. They work by affecting the capacity of individuals to survive, reproduce, and perpetuate variations.

So clearly, groups and group selection are not only factors in evolution, they play a substantial role. The arguments against group selection are, to borrow the eloquent phraseology of Jerry Coyne, “sheer madness – an almost incoherent rant.”

The term “naive group selection” has been used to describe the belief that traits evolve for the benefit of the group, in particular the species, and in one sense that view can be naive. (After all, individual traits and selection are clearly significant. Gene selection on the other hand, is of secondary importance.)
But before discussing that, let’s look at the gene-centric belief that any and all acceptance of group selection is naive. They maintain that traits that appear to be beneficial to the group are in reality beneficial to the individual, that group traits are an illusion. That was the basis of the argument Richard Dawkins put in The Selfish Gene. So poor was his argument that he conceded (pages 115, 122) that he had not demolished group selection at all, that he had merely presented a plausible alternative explanation for certain behaviours.

We’ve already seen that groups can be subject to natural selection in practice, but why does that apply in theory?

Natural selection applies to groups because entity, any entity, that is alive is subject to natural selection. Groups are alive. How do we know that a group is alive? Because it’s constituent parts (members) are cooperating, just as the constituent parts of a cell or organism are cooperating. The common phrase “the life of the group” is not a metaphor; it’s a description of reality. The higher the level of cooperation, the more lively the group.

And an entity, any entity, that is subject to natural selection can, if circumstances permit, develop traits that are beneficial to the entity. If the entity is a group then we will see traits that are good for the group.

Do we see this in the natural world? Do we see traits that are good for the group? Undoubtedly.

It’s a common occurrence in all groups for specialisation to develop. It’s also referred to as division of labour, and we see it in groups ranging from eusocial insects through to lion prides to humans. The fitness of groups is enhanced by specialisation, as individuals with particular skills devote their energy to particular roles. And specialisation does not apply only to groups of organisms. It applies within each organism as the cells of the organism, all containing identical DNA, develop into vastly different organs, tissues and bones.

The most worrying naivety that is seen in these discussions about selection is the almost universal assumption that a casual vagueness about the nature of life itself is not an impediment to understanding. Those of this view can see that cells are alive, that organisms are alive, but cannot see that groups also are alive and therefore must be subject to natural selection. These matters lose their mystery once the realisation hits home that life itself is simply cooperation within groups.

So the early assumptions about group selection that traits are selected for the good of the species did not tell the whole story, but the basic idea was correct. Group selection dominates, and therefore in most cases individual selection will ultimately be for the good of the group.