Selfish gene theory was so successful in being accepted by the scientific community that even those who now dispute its significance and actively promote alternative views are held captive by its underlying themes. D.S. Wilson is a case in point. At The Huffington Post he has presented a great series of articles titled Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection which undermine the gene-only view of evolution (in quite provocative style at times) and present the argument for multi-level selection. Here’s an extract from his latest (15th) article. See if you can spot the influence of selfish gene theory.
In Truth and Reconciliation XIV, I showed that prejudice against group selection is impervious to evidence from laboratory experiments. It is also impervious to evidence from the wild. (The prejudice against group selection shows us that selfish gene theory is a classic meme, as it prevents consideration of alternative positions. SD) He continued;
I will focus on one of many examples that can be provided. In 1995, Robert Heinsohn and Craig Packer published an important paper on territorial defense in lions in the journal Science. As good experimental field biologists, they had played recordings of lions from neighboring territories to observe how females of the focal territory responded. They discovered that the same individuals consistently arrived first at the scene while others consistently lagged behind. There seemed to be bravehearts and cowardly lions within the same pride.
Heinsohn and Packer looked for an advantage to counteract the cost of territorial defense for the bravehearts within their own pride and couldn't find it. The bravehearts weren't socially dominant, they didn't have more offspring, and they didn't punish the cowardly lions, who simply seemed to be cheating and getting away with it. The bravehearts were providing a public good at their own expense, an animal version of the tragedy of the commons made famous by Garrett Hardin in the 1960's. Here is how Heinsohn and Packer described the situation to the best of their knowledge:
"Female lions share a common resource, the territory; but only a proportion of females pay the full costs of territorial defense. If too few females accept the responsibilities of leadership, the territory will be lost. If enough females cooperate to defend the range, their territory is maintained, but their collective effort is vulnerable to abuse by their companions. Leaders do not gain "additional benefits" from leading, but they do provide an opportunity for laggards to gain a free ride…..”
Wilson responded to this by revisiting the conclusions that he and EO Wilson reached in their joint paper Rethinking the Theoretical Foundations of Sociobiology; “The counterbalance for cheating does not reside within the group; it resides in the process of more cooperative groups outcompeting less cooperative groups.” There it is again. Did you catch it? Cheating? On what grounds has the word “cheating” been introduced? Wilson later correctly criticised Heinsohn and Packer for not considering group selection as a possible answer to the behaviour of the lions, but he showed us the insidious effect of selfish gene theory on his own thinking by accepting their “free ride” assumptions. Cheating, the most highly refined form of selfishness, (because it is hidden and therefore unlikely to be punished) is a much-favored concept among the gene-only theorists. It crops up repeatedly in their fanciful imagined scenarios, so we should not be surprised to see it rear its head in the treatment by Heinsohn and Packer of a real life study. What is surprising is that Wilson, a worthy adversary of selfish gene theory, accepts it without question.
The fact is; there is no cheating, or none of any consequence. Lions are intelligent animals and lion society is correspondingly complex. In complex societies we see division of labour and specialisation in regard to certain skills. Heinsohn and Packer’s “bravehearts” are not the pride leaders at all; they are the young, the reckless, and sometimes the stupid members of the pride, just as we send our young, reckless and sometimes stupid members off to fight. (You don’t see generals in bayonet charges or throwing hand grenades.) The “laggards” they refer to were in all likelihood the “bravehearts” in days gone by, and now have a different role to play, a different contribution to the pride. They might specialise in protecting the cubs or in using their wits and experience to catch prey, rather than speed and strength. There’s any number of explanations for their actions, but as far as the gene meme is concerned, they’re cheating.
Wilson’s acceptance of the cheating assumption was not an isolated case of carelessness; it is part and parcel of his interpretation of the selfishness versus unselfishness debate. For example, in this article he states at one point; “…the last word has not been written on lion social behavior. Perhaps they or someone else will find a within-group advantage for bravehearts in the future.” It’s really not that difficult. The within-group advantage for the defenders of the pride is that they will be able to take it a little easier as they grow older. His inability to see this glaringly obvious truth speaks volumes about the capacity for bad ideas to paralyse the analytical skills of our most able thinkers. Wilson himself made some good points on this matter with the closing lines from his article;
“One reason that I am writing this series of blogs is because I am an idealist about science. I regard it as the best cultural system we have for holding people accountable for what they say. Scientists have a responsibility to keep track of the history of their ideas and to acknowledge mistakes from the past, no matter how large. Unfortunately, like religion, science as practiced often falls short of science as idealized. The group selection controversy is an embarrassment for science and the sooner its shortcomings are corrected, the better.” Unfortunately those shortcomings will not be corrected until it’s universally recognised that selfish gene theory is not just a little bit wrong, it’s not something that can be tinkered and prodded into acceptability, it is a destructive concept with no redeeming features.