Reconsiderations: Richard Dawkins and His Selfish Meme

From The New York Sun:

Dawkinsdm0903_400x432 Proclaimed brilliant for its portrayal of the “gene’s-eye view” of evolution, Mr. Dawkins’s book inverted the focus of natural selection, from Darwin’s weight on species to Mr. Dawkins’s emphasis on the lowly gene itself: Simply put, Mr. Dawkins’s argument is that the crux of natural selection is whether a particular gene — not an individual or a group of individuals — replicates itself in future generations. Those genes that are not replicated into the future have failed at evolution, and those that produce many copies of themselves have succeeded. In Mr. Dawkins’s view, the organisms containing those genes are merely “lumbering robots” or “survival machines” that house and carry genetic information. The implication is that, in these terms, selfishness, even ruthless selfishness, pays off, and altruism does not. Some predicted that this book would be the death knell of the idea of group selection. No longer would evolutionary biologists suggest that natural selection worked to promote the good of the species (group selection) or even the individual and his close relatives who share many of his genes (kin selection, a type of group selection).

But prediction is difficult in a contingent world such as ours, where life is complex and accidents and coincidences wield so much power. Has “The Selfish Gene” in fact killed off group selection ideas? Why not? And what effect has the book had instead? Though selfish genes are still fashionable among evolutionary biologists, group selection and kin selection, its subset, are not dead. In 2007, David Sloan Wilson, professor at Binghampton University, and E.O. Wilson (no relation), a professor emeritus at Harvard University and a Pulitzer Prize winner, proclaimed that Mr. Dawkins had celebrated the death of group selection prematurely. The pair asserted persuasively that altruism and cooperation can be adaptive if they are directed toward relatives who share a suite of one’s genes (kin selection) or if relationships can be established within a group in which cooperation is rewarded with future reciprocity.

More here.