E. O. Wilson on Kin Selection, Eusociality, and Implications for Us

First at the Independent (UK) (via richarddawkins.net):

An internationally renowned biologist has shocked colleagues by abandoning the established explanation for why insects appear to display altruistic behaviour.

For the last 40 years researchers have more or less agreed that most ants, bees and wasps forego reproduction to help raise another’s offspring in order to help spread the genes they share.

The theory, known as “kin selection”, was first proposed in 1955 by biologist J. B. S. Haldane, and more famously expressed in Richard Dawkin’s 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

Now however Prof Edward O. Wilson, of Harvard University, the renowned father of the field of socio-biology and a world expert on social insects, has amazed colleagues by renouncing it.

Wilson suggests something else at play, (Brandon Keim in Wired):

Only by conceiving of evolution as acting upon entire populations rather than individual organisms can we understand eusociality — the mysterious, seemingly “altruistic” behaviors exhibited by insects who forego reproduction in order to care for a colony’s young.

So says Edward O. Wilson, the legendary sociobiologist, environmentalist and entomologist, in an article published in the January issue of Bioscience. Wilson doesn’t extrapolate from bugs to people, but his conclusions raise fascinating questions about the evolutionary aspects of non-reproducing humans.

Dawkins responds:

EDWARD WILSON has given us a characteristically fascinating account of the evolution of social insects (see page 6 and BioScience, vol 58, p 17). But his “group selection” terminology is misleading, and his distinction between “kin selection” and “individual direct selection” is empty. What matters is gene selection.

All we need ask of a purportedly adaptive trait is, “What makes a gene for that trait increase in frequency?” Wilson wrongly implies that explanations should resort to kin selection only when “direct” selection fails. Here he falls for the first of my “12 misunderstandings of kin selection (pdf)“, that is, he thinks it is a special, complex kind of natural selection, which it is not (Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, vol 51, p 184).