Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Meaning of Human Existence

The Great Man is back in town, promoting his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence.

I hadn't pegged E. O. Wilson for a liberal - anyone who nailed Marxism so solidly ("Wonderful theory; wrong species.") must surely be better than that. Yet he digs the hole deeper. Apparently he doesn't want to debate with his tormentor, Richard Dawkins, on the grounds that Dawkins is a journalist, not a scientist. Withering. But in science it's not who you are, it's whether you're right that counts. On group (or multi-level) selection, Edward O. Wilson has consistently fought on the wrong side of the barricades.

Dawkins reviewed Wilson's earlier book, The Social Conquest of Earth, in characteristically elegant and stiletto-tipped prose:
"When he received the manuscript of The Origin of Species, John Murray, the publisher, sent it to a referee who suggested that Darwin should jettison all that evolution stuff and concentrate on pigeons. It’s funny in the same way as the spoof review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which praised its interesting “passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways of controlling vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper” but added:

“Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book can not take the place of JR Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”

"I am not being funny when I say of Edward Wilson’s latest book that there are interesting and informative chapters on human evolution, and on the ways of social insects (which he knows better than any man alive), and it was a good idea to write a book comparing these two pinnacles of social evolution, but unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. In particular, Wilson now rejects “kin selection” (I shall explain this below) and replaces it with a revival of “group selection”—the poorly defined and incoherent view that evolution is driven by the differential survival of whole groups of organisms."
The key conceptual idea that it is genes which are selected in natural selection is spelled out by Dawkins thus:
"At stake is the level at which Darwinian selection acts: “survival of the fittest” but, to quote Wilson’s fellow entomologist-turned-anthropologist RD Alexander, the fittest what? The fittest gene, individual, group, species, ecosystem?

"Just as a child may enjoy addressing an envelope: Oxford, England, Europe, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, Local Group, Universe, so biologists with non-analytical minds warm to multi-level selection: a bland, unfocussed ecumenicalism of the sort promoted by (the association may not delight Wilson) the late Stephen Jay Gould. Let a thousand flowers bloom and let Darwinian selection choose among all levels in the hierarchy of life. But it doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Darwinian selection is a very particular process, which demands rigorous understanding.

The essential point to grasp is that the gene doesn't belong in the hierarchy I listed. It is on its own as a “replicator,” with its own unique status as a unit of Darwinian selection. Genes, but no other units in life’s hierarchy, make exact copies of themselves in a pool of such copies. It therefore makes a long-term difference which genes are good at surviving and which ones bad. You cannot say the same of individual organisms (they die after passing on their genes and never make copies of themselves). Nor does it apply to groups or species or ecosystems. None make copies of themselves. None are replicators. Genes have that unique status.

"Evolution, then, results from the differential survival of genes in gene pools. “Good” genes become numerous at the expense of “bad.” But what is a gene “good” at? Here’s where the organism enters the stage. Genes flourish or fail in gene pools, but they don’t float freely in the pool like molecules of water. They are locked up in the bodies of individual organisms. The pool is stirred by the process of sexual reproduction, which changes a gene’s partners in every generation. A gene’s success depends on the survival and reproduction of the bodies in which it sits, and which it influences via “phenotypic” effects. This is why I have called the organism a “survival machine” or “vehicle” for the genes that ride inside it. "
I doubt that Wilson doesn't intellectually understand this argument, or even the not-very-hard mathematics of Hamilton's notion of inclusive fitness. Wilson is, I suspect, simply indifferent to analytical, mathematical argumentation which he probably dismisses as simplistic model-building. No, group selection just feels emotionally right, and congruent to his optimistic, liberal outlook on life.

Another fine writer, Stephen Pinker, wrote an essay at Edge which elegantly demolishes the 'theory' of group selection. Here's an excerpt.
"Nepotistic altruism in humans consists of feelings of warmth, solidarity, and tolerance toward those who are likely to be one's kin. It evolved because any genes that encouraged such feelings toward genetic relatives would be benefiting copies of themselves inside those relatives. (This does not, contrary to a common understanding, mean that people love their relatives because of an unconscious desire to perpetuate their genes.) A vast amount of human altruism can be explained in this way. Compared to the way people treat non-relatives, they are far more likely to feed their relatives, nurture them, do them favors, live near them, take risks to protect them, avoid hurting them, back away from fights with them, donate organs to them, and leave them inheritances.

"The cognitive twist is that the recognition of kin among humans depends on environmental cues that other humans can manipulate.Thus people are also altruistic toward their adoptive relatives, and toward a variety of fictive kin such as brothers in arms, fraternities and sororities, occupational and religious brotherhoods, crime families, fatherlands, and mother countries. These faux-families may be created by metaphors, simulacra of family experiences, myths of common descent or common flesh, and other illusions of kinship. None of this wasteful ritualizing and mythologizing would be necessary if "the group" were an elementary cognitive intuition which triggered instinctive loyalty.  Instead that loyalty is instinctively triggered by those with whom we are likely to share genes, and extended to others through various manipulations."
Read the whole rather wonderful piece here.

In the end there are only gene pools and allele frequencies. That is the bleak truth underlying modern biology. Those alleles reside in bodies like yours and mine; those alleles which survived to this point did so by making us what we are. As humans we individually survive and reproduce better by being somewhat pro-social (there is, of course, genetic variation in degree). Our feelings mediate between our genetic interests and our bodily actions, helped along by our intellectual competencies. We search for meaning in our lives because that's what we do - and and reject the answer because propagating our own genes seems .. somehow beneath us, and curiously inadequate.*

How speciesist! It works for the housefly.


* Read Stephen Pinker's essay to be persuaded that the propagation of one's genes is a more-than-sufficient scientific explanation for the most rarefied human achievements in arts, sciences and general good works. Reputation management (q. v.) is a good part of it.