Monday, January 07, 2008

Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology

Sociobiology is the study of biological (especially evolutionary and ecological) influences on social behavior in humans.

1975. E.O. Wilson. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.
1976. Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene.

Fitness: measured by the number of offspring produced by an individual that survive and reproduce themselves. For humans there is direct fitness--successful mating--and indirect fitness--helping relatives (with whom one shares genes) to reproduce. Inclusive fitness = direct fitness + indirect fitness

* helping relatives: the biological basis for altruism
* reciprocity can also enhace inclusive fitness

E.O. Wilson has changed his mind. Which leads us to the reality of Group Selection and revisions to the prevailing "wisdom" in that area of inquiry.

One-sentence summary: Multilevel selection needs to become the theoretical foundation of sociobiology, despite the widespread rejection of group selection since the 1960s.

The current foundation of sociobiology is based upon the rejection of group selection in the 1960s and the acceptance thereafter of alternative theories to explain the evolution of cooperative and altruistic behaviors. These events need to be reconsidered in the light of subsequent research. Group selection has become both theoretically plausible and empirically well supported. Moreover, the so-called alternative theories include the logic of multilevel selection within their own frameworks. We review the history and conceptual basis of sociobiology to show why a new consensus regarding group selection is needed and how multilevel selection theory can provide a more solid foundation for sociobiology in the future.

Wilson's new paper concludes;
When Rabbi Hillel was asked to explain the Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot, he famously replied “Do not do unto others that which is repugnant to you. Everything else is commentary.” Darwin’s original insight and the developments reviewed in this article enable us to offer the following one-foot summary of sociobiology’s new theoretical foundation: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”
I read this paper a few weeks ago in the context of the eugenics flap. I've been waiting for a timely opportunity to submit it for your consideration. In the context of the stellar political discourse that bubbled up in the comments yesterday on Obama - I think I've spotted a good juncture at which to inject it. We shall see....,