Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wilson profile

The New York Times has a pretty interesting profile of E. O. Wilson, the grand-daddy of evolutionary psychology (and daddy of sociobiology), one of the most influential biologists of the latter half of the 20th century and one of the best science writers I've come across. A teaser:
The new fight is one Dr. Wilson has picked. It concerns a central feature of evolution, one with considerable bearing on human social behaviors. The issue is the level at which evolution operates. Many evolutionary biologists have been persuaded, by works like “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, that the gene is the only level at which natural selection acts. Dr. Wilson, changing his mind because of new data about the genetics of ant colonies, now believes that natural selection operates at many levels, including at the level of a social group.

It is through multilevel or group-level selection — favoring the survival of one group of organisms over another — that evolution has in Dr. Wilson’s view brought into being the many essential genes that benefit the group at the individual’s expense. In humans, these may include genes that underlie generosity, moral constraints, even religious behavior. Such traits are difficult to account for, though not impossible, on the view that natural selection favors only behaviors that help the individual to survive and leave more children.
An interesting titbit is that Wilson is apparently working on a novel involving ants - I'm skeptical, but his prose is so good that he might just pull it off. Oh, and when the journalist refers to an updated edition of a book called "The Superorganism", I strongly suspect he means The Ants.

(Hat tip: John Hawks).


  1. Wilson'theory is flawed, because he does not indicate what makes one group of animals behave differently than another. Could the differences in group behavior be due to genetics? If so, then all Wilson has done is move Darwinian genetic selection from the individual animal to groups of animals that have genes that promote group survival-enhancing interactions. He has not proved that behavior itself can be passed on to future generations as a survival trait.

  2. Thanks for the comment Dr. T... I'm not a fan of Wilson's group selection stuff either. However, it's been pretty well established even back in Darwin's day that behavior evolves. Indeed, the entire discipline of behavioral genetics is based on that supposition...