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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Future of Sociobiology

Posted by on Tue, Mar 13, 2012 at 1:49 PM

I almost never read The New Yorker, but this week Bethany Clement highly recommend an article in the current issue, "Kin and Kind," by Johan Lehrer (whose book Proust Was a Neuroscientist I reviewed, kind of, four years ago) and concerns the father of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson. I read it this morning and end up agreeing with Bethany: it's a great story.

Apparently, the founder of all that is evolutionary psychology is in the process of dismantling a key hypothesis for genetic determinism—William Hamilton's inclusive fitness. This hypothesis places altruism, the cement of animal (and bacterial) sociality, firmly on the grund of genes—an ant, for example, is altruistic (acts in ways that benefit others in its colony more than itself) because it shares genes with the beneficiaries of its kindness and sacrifices. In short, the more related you are, the kinder you are. Wilson now believes that altrurism precedes inclusive fitness; meaning, inclusive fitness is a consequence of altruism rather than the other way around. This radical shift has caused big waves. Genetic determinists are all deeply upset that a scientist of his stature could even for a moment believe, let alone state in public, that there just might be more to life and evolution than the transmission of genes.

Wilson might be one of those rare thinkers who gets smarter as he/she gets older. And, indeed, this is the only kind of thinker one should all strive to be.

  • The view from my bed.


Comments (11) RSS

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I like that you managed grund but followed it with "alturism", closing with a blurry photo of your bedside heap. One of your classics.
Posted by gloomy gus on March 13, 2012 at 1:55 PM · Report this
Urgutha Forka 2
You mean altruism, right?

Interesting notion. A lot of cognitive psychologists have been playing around with the idea that action precedes intention; that is, that instead of thinking to yourself "I'm going to move my arm" and subsequently moving it, that instead you move your arm first and then have the thought that you want to move it. Sort of an elementary-level self justification effect.
Posted by Urgutha Forka on March 13, 2012 at 1:57 PM · Report this
Danger 3
Wilson is smart, I don't know about smarter.
Also, remember what happened to Lynn Margulis...
Posted by Danger on March 13, 2012 at 2:04 PM · Report this
Vince 4
You give people too much credit. An ant, for example, doesn't take a machine gun and murder innocent people. And while there are those that cooperate and even care, it hardly accounts for all those that don't. Some people don't even care about their own children.
Posted by Vince on March 13, 2012 at 2:06 PM · Report this
"acts in ways that benefit others in its colony more than itself"

How can you tell? Would the ant make it without a colony?
Posted by anon1256 on March 13, 2012 at 2:42 PM · Report this
Cynic Romantic 6
@1 And precedes it with "altrurism".
Posted by Cynic Romantic on March 13, 2012 at 3:00 PM · Report this
Thanks for the tip on a fascinating story Paul.
Posted by cracked on March 13, 2012 at 3:03 PM · Report this
Ummm I think Wilson's critics on his stance on this have more substantive concerns, such as a) Wilson's willingness to disregard kin selections' successes rather than expanding or modifying the theory to include the phenomena it does not explain, and b) Wilson's failure to adequately respond to critiques of his latest paper.

Check out this for more from a peer of Wilson's:…
Posted by CNA on March 13, 2012 at 3:29 PM · Report this
By which I mean: This link here.
Posted by CNA on March 13, 2012 at 3:31 PM · Report this
BetarayBilly! Slog's cheerleader!

I still remember that time you told that depressed case in the Savage Love Letter of the Day to quit being a burden on society and kill himself already. That was a classic.
Posted by floater on March 14, 2012 at 12:43 AM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 12
There may be more to life than the transmission of genes, but there is really not more to evolution I am afraid. One would have to argue how altruism could survive the constant genetic winnowing if it did not have an immediate and real survival value.

One has to ask how this one thing that is so important to humanity's need to see itself as completely detached from other animals is somehow the only adaptation that could exist without initial survival value. Seems like the hypothesis is more hopeful than factual.

I also just have to ask Charles, how does a photo of all the books you have on your bed inform or improve your post here? We already know you read a lot my friend, we do not need photographic evidence.
Posted by Theodore Gorath on March 14, 2012 at 8:13 AM · Report this

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