Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Grandiose theories about group selection

The book is out; the buzz is out. Here's National Public Radio, The New York Times, and Nature, all fawning over David Sloan Wilson and his The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.

Only a few weeks after all this do we get the critical review--and it is one of the most devastating New York Times Book Reviews I've seen, especially given the reviewer's credentials. He is Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago.

First, Coyne argues, Wilson's basic premise is flawed:

Wilson is well known for his controversial work on evolution via “group selection.” While modern evolutionary theory emphasizes natural selection acting on genes and individuals, Wilson sees an important role for selection acting on entire social groups, particularly in the evolution of “prosociality”: that complex of behaviors, including altruism and compassion, that underlies human cooperation.


Group selection isn’t widely accepted by evolutionists for several reasons. First, it’s not an efficient way to select for traits, like altruistic behavior, that are supposed to be detrimental to the individual but good for the group. Groups divide to form other groups much less often than organisms reproduce to form other organisms, so group selection for altruism would be unlikely to override the tendency of each group to quickly lose its altruists through natural selection favoring cheaters. Further, we simply have little evidence that selection on groups has promoted the evolution of any trait. Finally, other, more plausible evolutionary forces, like direct selection on individuals for reciprocal support, could have made us prosocial.
Second, Wilson's data is flawed. It consists of  surveys of children in different neighborhoods that are supposed to measure (a) how "prosocial" they are and (b) how "supportive" their neighborhoods are:
Prosociality is determined by the level of agreement with statements like “I am trying to help solve social problems.” At the same time, support from their environment is measured by students’ agreement with questions like “I have a family that gives love and support” or “I have good neighbors that help me succeed.”
As Coyne points out, "both statistics derive... from self-report, so there is no independent evaluation of students’ environments." Nonetheless:
Wilson makes much of the correlation between prosociality and a supportive environment, arguing that prosocial nature comes from prosocial nurture.
This flawed conclusion then leads to a half-baked strategy that thus far has yielded no results:
After using the survey to identify neighborhoods with higher or lower degrees of prosociality, Wilson’s strategy is to improve the city by having them compete. This involves neighborhood contests to design city parks, studies of churches to determine why some are better able to recruit and retain members...


Five years into the Neighborhood Project, it has apparently yielded only one published paper, which gives the results of the prosociality survey. The Binghamton parks contest went belly-up, as people weren’t interested in competing according to Wilson’s schedule.
A flawed premise, flawed data; and no results: why, then, is anyone paying attention? Perhaps it's the way Wilson carries on about how many other areas his theory extends into, from economics to education, and because we love grandiose theories more than data and analysis. Or perhaps it's what Wilson has to say about schools in particular, and how this resonates with right-brained educational Romanticism:
Education, for instance, will be transformed by going back to the ways of our distant ancestors, who gave their children no formal instruction but let them learn from unstructured play and interaction with older kids.
Or perhaps what recent research has concluded about narcissistic leaders applies to narcisstic public figures in general:
Wilson’s enthusiasm has a way of shading into hubris, as when he proclaims: “Now that my intellectual life and my everyday life have been thrown together, I can almost feel the connections taking place inside my head. Like a Shakespearean play, the length and breadth of human nature are being enacted in front of me on a local stage.”
As an aside, I've often wondered how truly cooperative humans really are. As far as I can tell, the supposed mystery of our supposed cooperativity has been one of the main reasons why some evolutionary biologists (however much in the minority they are) have invoked group-level selection in the first place. But are we really as cooperative (and as altruistic) as we'd like to think? Sure, we're great at pretending we are; after all, we all depend on reciprocal support, and we zealously keep tabs on, and zealously gossip about, one another's behavior. But what about gossip's greatest thrill: revelations of all the backstabbing and cheating and pettiness that occur whenever people (especially those who try hardest to seem noble and cooperative and above it all) think they can get away with it.


Deirdre Mundy said...

It seems like "pro-social" skills come more from transmission of the CULTURE than from a pure genetic basis. After all, if you take a baby from a "pro-social" group and have him raised by a gang of criminals, he's going to grow up to be a criminal.

Meanwhile, the things he's looking for as signs of a healthy neighborhood (parks, mutual support organizations, etc.) are all a product of a culture that values leisure (in the Roman sense), hard work, helpfulness, etc. So it would seem the best way to create "pro-social" groups would be to implicitly and explicitly teach social skills and moral values.

Also, where did he get the idea that primative societies taught their children by letting them run wild with other kids? In general, it's only developed societies that allow for extensive roaming and free time. In a hunter-gatherer society, kids are working at the side of the adults and learning from them from the moment they can walk!

So, in fact, our society relies more on being inculturated by peer groups (with age-segregated classrooms, daycares, etc.) than past societies did.

If he really wanted to reproduce his ideal society, he'd need to argue that kids should be educated by their parents and other family and community elders through work and apprenticeship so that they could learn the community's skills and values.

Honestly, I think the reason it took so long for someone to critique this premise is that it's so laughable it took a while for anyone to realize that some people are taking it seriously--- in the snippets above he seems to betray a total ignorance of history, anthropology, or real life.

Lindsey said...

Hey Katharine,

Sorry to leave an unrelated comment, but I couldn't find any other way to reach you through the blog, and I wanted to ask about the possibility of a guest post. Please drop me an e-mail!



momof4 said...

Not only did kids work with adults in hunter-gatherer societies, they did so all the way through our Colonial period and much of the 19th century (depending on social class). The age-segregation of children and adolescents is a recent phenomenon, as is the entire Western concept of adolescence. The norm for most of human history was that full adult responsibilities (wife and mother)began at sexual maturity for women and were likely only slightly delayed beyond that for men (to develop skills - hunting or a trade - enabling support of a wife). This format still exists in the Third World.

My own kids had much more contact than usual with unrelated adults and older children and have benefited significantly from that.

Amy P said...

This is a good one.

“I am trying to help solve social problems.”

Oh my goodness. If you asked my kids (9 and 6) that question, they'd want to know "what is a social problem?", and yes, they are growing up in a very supportive social environment.

I suspect there is not a lot of overlap between how much talk of "social problems" goes on in a neighborhood and how much support there is for kids.

I was in the hospital recently and one of my neighbors sent us a couple of yummy meals. I bet the word "social problem" never crossed her mind as she was throwing together a stew for my family.

"Also, where did he get the idea that primative societies taught their children by letting them run wild with other kids?"

Yeah. I have four words for Wilson: Lord of the Flies.

"If he really wanted to reproduce his ideal society, he'd need to argue that kids should be educated by their parents and other family and community elders through work and apprenticeship so that they could learn the community's skills and values."


This thing is like a big pinata--the more you whack it, the more candy flies out.