Bickering theorists: opinions about selfish genes and group selection

By: James V. Kohl | Published on: May 26, 2012

The Descent of Edward Wilson by Richard Dawkins / May 24, 2012
A new book on evolution by a great biologist makes a slew of mistakes
Book review: The Social Conquest of Earth
By Edward O Wilson
(WW Norton, £18.99, May)


My comment:
Last month (see below) I responded to a request for information about The Social Conquest of Earth. I think Dawkins’ review and Wilson’s book are like cries for help in the wilderness of evolutionary theory.
When these prominent theorists bicker, it can only mean good things for those with a better understanding of adaptive evolution/natural selection/sexual selection, via the basic principles of biology and levels of biological organization that link sensory cause directly to hormones and their affects on mammals, like us.
Wilson says we evolved via group selection. Dawkins, as always, posits the primary role of genes as replicators, as if epigenetic effects of the sensory environment are not responsible for their stochastic expression (e.g., in cells).
On 4/11/2012 8:05 PM, I wrote:
His [Wilson’s] focus is somewhat on eusociality in insects and humans. He drops kin selection and inclusive fitness for humans, but acknowledges the Westermarck effect; drops effects of mammalian pheromones on hormones / neurotransmitters while accepting concealed ovulation and the ever-present but altogether unsubstantiated claim that humans have reduced olfactory acuity and specificity compared to other animals. (If true = no Westermarck effect, for example). Auditory stimuli and faces are causal for the mother-infant bond et al.
Suddenly, “epigenetic rules” offer explanatory power about half-way through the book, which allows him to link everything except olfactory/pheromonal input to group selection and an attack in the last chapters on religious beliefs.
Overall, I think he’s been somewhat forced to acknowledge epigenetic/regulatory influences on the genome, since the sequencing of the human genome made it clear that our environment directly (e.g., epigenetically) alters the proteome involved in development of the body and brain. I am, however, confounded that his invertebrate expertise seems to have left him relatively clueless about the cause and effect of eusocial behavior. He seems not to realize that it is the diet of the queen bee, for example, that epigenetically determines her pheromone production and everything about the interaction of the colony including the epigenetically-determined neuroanatomy of the worker bees brains, and that this olfactory/pheromonal concept is the binding concept across evolution, not just in eusocial insects and eusocial humans. (In other mammals, for example, we have the epigenetic effects of nutrient chemicals and pheromones on luteinizing hormone (LH): the link between sex and the sense of smell — as also seen in brain imaging studies)
To him, epigenetic rules are rules of gene-culture co-evolution and group selection, I think, but maybe I missed something since I’m not a good listener. I only had time for the audiobook, not a more thorough read. I encourage those less biased by molecular biology to see if what he’s saying makes more sense to them than it does to me. Overall, I think many sex researchers will be happy to see his careless disregard of the concept of human pheromones, for example, and be better able to link what he’s saying about ‘epigenetic rules” to some other model for the development of sexual preferences.

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Stuart Mathieson

I think your criticism is astray. You are describing the proximal mechanism. There could have been any number of ways a mechanism may have evolved or mutated which produced characteristics that contributed in subtle ways to promote eusocial behaviour where the serious selection may have been significant.

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