David Sloan Wilson is doing a great job in his blog at The Huffington Post, exposing the contradictions that lie at the heart of selfish gene theory.

He’s run a series of articles under the umbrella title of Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection, singling out Richard Dawkins as a target for some pretty heavy broadsides. Like this; “Richard has become unaccountable, in part by becoming a public icon. That disqualifies him as a spokesperson for science.” And this; “when it comes to semantic confusion, you can't beat selfish gene theory.”

It just makes me feel warm and tingly all over.

But like most critics of the gene-centric view of evolution, DS Wilson has somehow fallen into the trap of accepting some of the assumptions and rhetoric that underpin the gene-only view. An example can be seen in the following passage; “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.” This was the conclusion that David Sloan Wilson and EO Wilson reached in their paper Rethinking The Theoretical Foundations of Sociobiology, but David Wilson is repeating it so frequently, (albeit in the very good cause of undermining selfish gene theory) that it’s becoming a mantra. The problem with this particular mantra is that the proposition contains a flaw.

That flaw flows from the acceptance of the validity of the Hamiltonian interpretation of altruism, whereby an altruistic act decreases the fitness of the altruist and increases the fitness of the receiver. (That acceptance was not just implied, but actually stated in one of the series articles.) But acts that decrease biological fitness are rare in nature, because such acts present a significant risk to the survival of the altruist. Where such acts occur, it’s highly likely that the altruist makes a mental note to avoid a similar situation in future or to approach it differently.

How many of us help others to the point where our personal well-being is at risk? It just does not happen often enough to be a factor in evolution. So what form of altruism is it that is well known, accepted, even admired? It’s that form of giving in which the giver has no expectation of receiving in return. And in most of these acts, altruists give that which they have in excess, whether that be an excess of goods, time, labour, or in the case of humans, money. Because they give what they have in excess, their fitness is not affected.

But we still help others; our daily lives are an endless round of helping. How do we achieve that without adversely affecting our fitness? By constantly receiving help from others. While we are giving, we’re receiving. It’s that cycle of mutual aid that defines social life. It is therefore the quality of the system of mutual aid, and the quality of the commitment to mutual aid, that determines the fitness of particular groups. And of course that fact applies at all levels of selection. For example, it’s the quality of the system of cooperation between cells, between organs, and other physiological features such as the immune system, that determines the fitness of individual organisms.

This matter of mutual aid was recognized by the Wilsons in their paper, but misinterpreted; “It is simply a fact of social life that individuals must do things for each other to function successfully as a group, and that these actions usually do not maximize their relative fitness within the group.” They overlooked the important point that givers are also receivers. They again came close to solving what they referred to as “the fundamental problem of social life” with this; “Traits that are “for the good of the group” are seldom selectively advantageous within groups.  At worst, they are highly self-sacrificial. At best, they provide public goods at little cost to the actor, making them close to selectively neutral, or they constitute a stable local equilibrium.”

Their “at best-at worst” comparison is the problem here. It seems to imply a balance or equality of frequency and value between the differing forms of altruism, but if it was possible to draw a graph there would be no horizontal line or bell curve, it would show a curve or straight line heading up towards neutral with highly self-sacrificial hovering just above zero.

So unfortunately David Sloan Wilson, for whom I have the greatest respect, in his noble quest to analyse group selection in a big-picture manner, has been diverted from the big picture. He has focused his attention on a perverted and irrelevant version of altruism when the principal element in group fitness, and hence group selection, is clearly cooperation in all its forms, of which altruism is but a part.

Let’s alter his proposition to see how it reads in light of those facts. We now have; “Selfishness beats cooperation within groups. Cooperative groups beat selfish groups.”

The second sentence is obviously true, and actually summarises a well-known yet much neglected passage from Darwin’s "The Descent of Man", as the Wilsons acknowledged. The first sentence is too concise to be meaningful. It could refer to selfishness, or cooperation, as a single act or as a concept, a way of life, or a state of mind. But importantly, it brings into focus the inconsistency contained in the original proposition. If selfishness beats cooperation within groups then there is little likelihood of the development of group cooperation to a level that is effective. Likewise for the original proposition. If selfishness beats altruism within groups, then altruistic groups are unlikely to develop. It’s doubtful that a split personality makes for biological fitness.

So it’s time for David to ditch the mantra. It’s served its purpose. It’s shown a lot of people that selfish gene theory is not the only game in town. Now he should concentrate on cooperation as the principal factor in evolution.

Cooperation is the principal factor in evolution? Now that’s a mantra! And here’s a challenge to all the gene-centrics out there: Find a flaw in it!