Forty years ago, biologist E.O. Wilson helped to champion kin selection theory, the idea that an organism trying to pass its genes down to future generations can do so indirectly, by helping a relative to survive and procreate. Now he’s changed his mind. “Kin selection is wrong,” Wilson said. “That’s it. It’s wrong.”
Naturally, his fellow evolutionary biologists are ready to lynch him:
What Wilson is trying to do, late in his influential career, is nothing less than overturn a central plank of established evolutionary theory: the origins of altruism. His position is provoking ferocious criticism from other scientists. Last month, the leading scientific journal Nature published five strongly worded letters saying, more or less, that Wilson has misunderstood the theory of evolution and generally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One of these carried the signatures of an eye-popping 137 scientists, including two of Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard.
His new argument, in a nutshell, amounts to a frontal attack on long-accepted ideas about one of the great mysteries of evolution: why one creature would ever help another at its own expense. Natural selection means that the fittest pass down their genes to the next generation, and every organism would seem to have an overwhelming incentive to survive and reproduce. Yet, strangely, self-sacrifice exists in the natural world, even though it would seem to put individual organisms at an evolutionary disadvantage: The squirrel that lets out a cry to warn of a nearby predator is necessarily putting itself in danger. How could genes that lead to such behavior persist in a population over time? It’s a question that bedeviled even Charles Darwin, who considered altruism a serious challenge to his theory of evolution.
Wilson’s co-author on the Nature paper claims that the people who signed letters disputing his paper don’t understand the mathematical argument. (Not surprisingly, really. If biologists knew how to do math they would have become physicists.)
Whether Wilson will eventually be vindicated remains to be seen. But in the meantime it’s fun watching the spat.
Related: Tom Bethel, Against Sociobiology (Jan. 2001)