Wilson vs. Dawkins - Selfish Gene vs. Group Selection

Discuss the February 2015 philosophy book of the month, The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson.
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Wilson vs. Dawkins - Selfish Gene vs. Group Selection

Post by Scott »

[This topic is about the February 2015 philosophy book of the month, "The Meaning of Human Existence" by Edward O. Wilson. Please refrain from participating until you have read the book.]

To me, the most interesting arguments in the book were about the unit of selection.

I really enjoyed the examples Wilson gave from his work with ant colonies. What do you think of that?

It seems like a highly technical difference in evolutionary theory, but it has significant implications for the meaning of human existence (using meaning in the second, scientific usage as described by Wilson at the beginning of the book). This is because it is so crucial to understanding the development of so-called altruism in the individual, especially in the complex way that well-observed trait relates conflictingly with other observed traits such as self-preservation, personal reproduction and selfishness in the individual.

Many people are familiar with the idea epitomized by Dawkins' famous work, The Selfish Gene. However, I think Wilson provides a more accurate description. The concept of the selfish gene really helps explain in a basic way how the basic cutthroat formula of competitive natural selection in evolution leads to altruistic-like behavior. However, it's overly basic. Wilson does not not deny that the unit of selection is the gene. The difference I think is simply a more complex understanding of the various ways that complex social interactions, societies and cultures create environments that do not make a simple formula like calculating one's genetic similarity to someone else and the reproductive benefits of saving that person work. Rather those simple formulas provide a rough estimate of what we will often see. The idea of the group also being a target of selection is a more powerful explanation, in my opinion, because it does not deny the role of the individual also being a target or of the selfish gene (and thus direct altruism to genetically similar individuals in proportion to genetic similarity weighted by likelihood to reproduce). The 'selfish gene' position held by the likes of Dawkins' in contrast denies the obvious reality of group selection, which makes it false. The explanation that cascades these differing observable factors is more complete and accurate.

What do you think?
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Re: Wilson vs. Dawkins - Selfish Gene vs. Group Selection

Post by Alias »

This selection came up just as I was reading Erich Hoyt's The Earth Dwellers - a remarkable book about the life of ants, with an affectionate glance at entomologists, particularly Wilson. Thus, with my new understanding, I find Wilson's argument both convincing on a common-sense level and compelling philosophically.

I enjoyed the Wilson book and it did have one or two valuable insights, but I wish he had made it longer, developed the argument more fully.
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Re: Wilson vs. Dawkins - Selfish Gene vs. Group Selection

Post by Alan Jones »

I'm disappointed that Richard Dawkins would appeal to authority, and that E.O. Wilson would react with an inappropriate characterization of Dawkins.

According to David Sloan Wilson, the understandings of both Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson are flawed: "I also have claimed that there is a zone of consensus of the many and that both Dawkins and Wilson are outliers who fail to recognize that the days of pitting kin selection against group selection are over." Read his review of their dispute: https://evolution-institute.org/article ... -the-many/
"Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them." - Peter Ustinov "Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority." - Thomas Huxley
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