Friday, 7 December 2012

Group Selection? No way in Biological Hell!

Only recently I became aware of the fight that occurred earlier this year between two of my heroes: Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. Wilson at 84 (!) years published yet another book entitled "The Social Conquest of Earth" that, besides the sociobiology of ants, bees and termites, deals with the sociobiology of man. Wilson used to be an advocate of kin selection whereas Dawkins is the advocate of gene selection. According to the review that Dawkins wrote in Prospect (See here), Wilson finally has agreed kin selection can be explained by gene selection and now steps into the trap of Richards enemy number one: group selection. Now that is interesting to me since Dawkins refutes group selection religiously and I want to at least study what group selection might have to offer for what I refer to as "Darwinian Ascension". Maybe Dawkins would initially see this as a kick in his crotch so let me be clarify a bit: My interest in group selection regards Cultural rather than Biological Evolution. Can we ascend the power of our genes by using our memes? I believe Dawkins might share my interest.
So what is this row about? Pwf, that is not so easy to explain since it involves a lot of detail. See also the seemingly endless discussion that follows Dawkins' review and Wilsons' reply. It has some interesting details but it quickly ends in a discussion regarding memes rather than group selection in Biological Evolution, the point Wilson wants to make in his book. Unfortunately it does mean that this particular blog contains a lot of jargon, which I would normally explain but which in this case would interfere with the blog itself. I will however put some links for background information.
Basically, Dawkins, although in my opinion correct, has put himself in an awkward situation with his book "The Selfish Gene". There he lay the basis for his theory that, to put it simply, states that the only real unit of selection is the gene since the gene is the only entity that really replicates itself. Why does that put Dawkins in an awkward situation? Because it is a very reductionist position and most people hate reductionism since they do not clearly understand it and there is still a lot of Greedy Reductionism. It is easy just to skip a few facts. Furthermore the fact that a reduccionist believes he can reduce everything does not mean he can do it today. It is just a "belief" that in the end there is no real reason to come up with something additional, a Deus ex Machina or a Skyhook. And that is exactly the point of Dawkins. Gene selection CAN explain for all other apparent levels of selection such as the individual, the family (kin) and the group. So why come up with a Skyhook such as Groups Selection? You might argue that asexual organisms also replicate itself, hence reduction to the gene is not always feasible. Here I argue that sex, although extremely costly (you need to maintain half of your genetic material apparently for no reason), is the winning emergent property of evolution that allows for flexibility. Please do take into account that it is not the strongest, fastest or tallest organism that wins the struggle for existence, it is the one that can adapt. For this reason we have sex. Asexual organisms likely obtain certain levels to adapt by allowing for high levels of horizontal gene transfer and higher rates of mutation. Recent molecular evolution theories regarding early evolution describe a communal evolution of genes. Microorganims (read asexual organisms) share their genes by means of horizontal gene transfer, a mode of living guided by the optimization of the genetic code (See for instance PNAS 103:10696 or or TIBS 24:241). Hence, again the only entity that really replicates itself is the gene so only the gene can be subject of selection.
In "The Selfish Gene" and some of his follow-up books such as "The Extended Phenotype", Richard makes really clear that his theory is conceptually very strong. To me it is all just so obvious that I do not easily understand why people do not see the point, which unfortunately happens too often. The point is: You can explain ALL aspects of Evolution with a gene centered view but not the other way around. So why stick to other theories? I do not state we should discard them, it is just that there is no evidence NOR are there indications. But I do keep it in mind. Look at what happened to Lamarcks' theory of inheritance of acquired characters. Until a number of years ago the theory was seen as utterly ridiculous but has clearly revived on the basis op epigenetics.
The only answer I have in order to explain the resilience of many scientists against the gene-centered vision, is that there has to be something else that makes life. Where does the spark of life come from? Obviously not just a valid question, no I would concur with Shakespeare, albeit with a slight twist: "To be or not to be, that is the question". I say: Somehow complexity makes the Spark of Life and it is the job of Scientists to find out how. Others say it is God and the majority of people with a proper education in Science will say "We will, most likely, never find out". So in the end this is about where do you stand in life: Are you religious, agnostic or atheist. Needless to say that Dawkins is an Atheist and Wilson an Agnostic. Just to clarify: I do not mean to reduce any argument or discussion to the indicated level of "Where do you stand in life", I only want to indicate that it might very well have a strong influence in the way people, among which you and me, think. Are these Memes?
Back to the battlefield. Basically, it deals with the apparent incapacity of Hamiltons' rule in explaining a number of aspects in Evolution. Wilson, backed up by two very capable biological Mathematicians, explained in a Nature paper in 2010 (Free access paper provided by NIH), that Hamiltons' rule CANnot explain for it all. Not being a Mathematician, I understood the paper such as in "Math can only give you the correct answer as far as the model is correct but on the other hand the model can only give you the correct answer as far as the data are correct". Problem here is likely our understanding of the term "fitness". Can we really calculate the fitness a gene has for an individual, or worse for a group? Most certainly not. Hence I always understood Hamiltons' rule as a conceptual one rather than believing I can use the formula with accuracy. A similar thing has happened to Wrights' connected theories of fitness landscapes and shifting balance. Fisher always came with calculations and claimed that populations were actually quite big. But that is so beside the point Wright wanted to make: Wright made it conceptually plausible to arrive at a higher fitness peak, even when that means passing through a fitness valley. He even clarified that effective population size determines whether the process will actually occur or not. But as fitness, effective population size is virtually impossible to calculate. The same goes for Hamiltons' rule. It is very unlikely that math will really demonstrate who is right since calculating fitness is a sheer impossibility. Moreover, what really strikes me most is that people that fear reductionism, have such problems with conceptual explanations and go for a kill by means of mathematics, reductionism to the max. Group selection as an independent mechanism does not make any biological sense since there will always be one to exploit the situation rendering the "evolutionary strategy" instable. And I still have not heard one decent argument against gene selection. And NO, too reductionist is a terrible argument, gene selection is not gene centered: As if the theory does not take the environment into account. A good gene does well in a certain environment, that is actually the core of Dawkins' thinking.
Then am I sure there is no thing such as group Selection? That is like asking: Are you sure there is no teapot orbiting the sun somewhere (Russell)? Of course I am not sure but providing "mathematical evidence" for your belief that there is more than just gene selection is simply not the scientific way. Explain me why, how and what is the reason for the phenomenon. Let's put it differently. The concept of a meme is derived from a gene. Memes are subject to group selection, although it is often broken. The difference here is that it will not have a large impact on fitness. Hence, actually we all know that group selection is likely to occur also at a biological level BUT that the impact on an evolutionary timescale will be very limited. My belief is that group selection requires a force or reason to become established. In cultural evolution that would be intellect and free will. So show me the force that might drive group selection at a biological level and I will take it seriously.

May the force be with you!

Thursday, 15 November 2012


What a strange title for a first blog in Darwinian Ascension. Or not? Obviously I want to stress just a little bit more than that this is the beginning of a new blog. I think "Genesis" contrasts well with "Darwinian Ascension", well enough to give you an idea about what I will be blogging. It will be about Evolution, but not as much about the latest scientific findings than about what Evolution actually means, It will deal about how it applies in non-biological matters such as human society.
    Dobzhansky was right, Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of Evolution. Better to say: Nothing makes sense except in the light of Evolution. Now that is a statement, but I think it will hold. Beware: I do not claim everything should make sense. Sometimes on a Friday night I drink too much and spent my Saturday morning trying to get my head clear. How do we explain this by Evolution? We don't because that really doesn't make sense. But strangely enough for a large number of subjects, key to understanding can be Evolution. But I am not that ignorant to fall into the trap of parsimonious oversimplification of things that are just there to enjoy, like a good bottle of wine that accompanies late night star-watching. The basic idea that everything might or could be explained by Evolution theory does always not mean we should.
   Physics? Of course there are laws and constants, but these work only in our Universe since..... no better Universe is competing with it (at least not that I am aware of but maybe we are losing the survival of the fittest Universe. Any Physicist/Astronomer to comment on that? Carl Sagan might have....). From a scientific point of view, the existence of this Universe is explained by the weak anthropological principal: We are here so apparently the combination of physical laws and constants did work out to yield a Universe that contains life (as we know it!). But if you put Evolution on top of that, it really starts to make sense. Many alternative Universes might have existed that simply vanished since they were not stable, they appeared not to be a "Physically Stable Strategy", where of course I do refer to Maynard-Smith' "Evolutionary Stable Strategies". We do not have a clue about other putative universes in the multiverse, not in the past and also not now. But thinking about Evolution as we understand it from biology can very well help us understand other intriguing aspects.
    Religion? Apparently this forms an attractive meme, even given the knowledge that we have and which shows what religion is. I guess we do not always reason rationally and I wonder why is that? Fashion? Can we explain trends with Evolution? Sure we can. Evolution can explain everything simply since the principle is so simple, strong, obvious and undeniable. This does not mean it is always easy to explain stuff. This is maybe the pitfall of Evolution. The theory is so darn simple, why is it that studying or working in Evolution is such a challenge? In short because the functional constraints act on different levels, I will get back to "functional constraint" in the very near future since this is something were we can learn from Evolution in biology.
    Memes and Genes. I could also have called this blog Dawkinian Ascension. If Dawkins is the pit bull of Darwin, I might be Dawkins pit bull. Dawkins best known work: "The Selfish Gene" nicely describes memes. I will go into it in some of my blogs later on, for now let's just call the meme the cultural equivalent of the gene. So what do I mean with Darwinian Ascension? I hope, believe or somewhere in between, that Homo sapiens will in the end -or actually before it- be capable of really ascending above the influence of his genes (which should show I am not a greedy reductionist, Ha!). Meaning no religion, making rational decisions that go against our genes, all to benefit the greater good. What is the greater good? Well, we can talk about that can't we? Gaia, -just a name, no Zen here- is one for sure. Example: For my genes it would be really good if I would leave a lot of offspring. I can afford it. Darwinian Ascension however requires me to say: No more than two kiddos, better stick to one. Why? Because there are too many human beings. But there is a conflict. Mormons and other religious zealouts are breeding like mice. You wonder why? I do not, because they, or at least their $piritual leader$, believe this is a way to increment the % of Mormons. What a nice way to increment your power. Yes, religion can be a danger to Gaia.
    Let me be honest, obviously I am atheist but moreover, I see religion as a real thread to our world. That is another stark statement that I might explain a bit. Religion puts humans of the real track. For the sake of the argument: Imagine I am right, there is no God, Satan nor Heaven or Hell. Then, what are we doing? We base ourselves and our morals, we judge others all on the idea that we should behave such and such just you can fill in a number of options. What they all have in common is that they are NOT based on reason ONLY. Always, one moment or another, it will pop up. Yes, but the lord is merciful (shame on the creature, why can't he be righteous?), but it is written (by whom?), God told me (yeah but not to me so that is not a reasonable argument, other people with imaginary friends are locked up). Whatever. Religion has the function to take you away from the life that you have, all because of the afterlife. That is why churches do so well with the poor and why they are full during war and other periods of misery. It takes you away from the life that you can live, from responsibilities. All in duty of God, Allah, Yahweh, Sheevah or whatever the non-existing super-being is called, at least it is not you in the end. It can also explain why you are wealthy and why he is poor. If this super-creature exists, he should be held responsible for all his deeds. If he exists, he truly is Satan and I dare him. God works in mysterious ways, son. Yeah right, why not say that you also don't have a clue about life sometimes. But the blog is not about atheism, it is just that I am an atheist and I hate religion (yes not only the institution). Religion is the thing that really screws up our lovely existence. I do realize that that might be prejudice, now you know I know. I will write about religion but am open to arguments, as long as they are not from a holy book. All this not mean that everything religion puts forward is wrong, I just want to point at the fact that principally there is something really wrong with it.
   Obviously I will react on Discovery Institute and other IDiot excrements of bovine, rather than divine, nature. That goes beyond my atheism, it has to do with the main drive for writing this blog. Why do we need a Deus ex machina to understand things if there is a perfectly reasonable explanation? DI and other IDiots say: "But you can't." Yes we can, maybe not now but in the end we will, but keep it real yeah. Ask me to explain why there are 11 or more different "designs" of the eye -this proves Evolution and disproves ID- but don't ask me to explain every little advantage there was at every step. So far Evolution theory has successfully shown that it can explain it all. Now show me an example where Evolution cannot explain or better disprove one single aspect of Evolution..
    The IDiot way of "thinking" seriously affects the world. The mightiest power in he world is still the US of A which is screwing the world because of their poor education on the only thing that really matters: Evolution. About half of the population of the USA believes in ID rather than Evolution. Can you imagine how being an IDiot or an Evolutionut -that would be me- changes your view of the world? Can somebody explain to the US what Malthus' idea really is about? Darwin understood, Marx did but the US?
   The blog will be on free will. Free will you will have when you accept that you are responsible, and bloody no one else. That you can act not in name of your genes but in name of memes that, in all good reason, appear to you as the best memes and are therefore selected as your memes.
   Are we capable of ascending, ascending towards a higher level of existence, conscience? I honestly do not know but find it worthwhile exploring. THE problem is that at least in Biology Group Selection has never been shown, not even by Edward O Wilson.
    One last remark: there are some spiritual blogs out there that are also based on/or deal about Evolution, I ran into one recently. These are likely rather different since they are spiritual in nature and typically claim Evolution has a direction. Darwin is turning in its grave for sure! Food for thought! Things to ponder and Blogs to counter!

Viva la EvoluciĆ³n