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Gender and Politics Among Anthropologists in the Units of Selection Debate


In recent years evolutionary theorists have been engaged in a protracted and bitter disagreement concerning how natural selection affects units such as genes, individuals, kin groups, and groups. Central to this debate has been whether selective pressures affecting group success can trump the selective pressures that confer advantage at the individual level. In short, there has been a debate about the utility of group selection, with noted theorist Steven Pinker calling the concept useless for the social sciences. We surveyed 175 evolutionary anthropologists to ascertain where they stood in the debate. We found that most were receptive to group selection, especially in the case of cultural group selection. The survey also revealed that liberals and conservatives, and males and females, all displayed significant differences of opinion concerning which selective forces were important in humanity’s prehistory. We conclude by interpreting these findings in the context of recent research in political psychology.

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  1. Note that E. O. Wilson and his collaborators envision early stages of individual selection followed by a later stage of multilevel selection as being instrumental in the genesis of eusociality.

  2. Dawkins (2012) includes in his critique a list of 141 evolutionary scientists who share his rejection of group selection. E. O. Wilson (cited in Dawkins 2012) responded briefly by noting that if science “depended on rhetoric and polls, we would still be burning objects with phlogiston and navigating with geocentric maps.” Wilson (2012b) would later state in an interview with Charlie Rose that Dawkins is a “good man,” though “confused” and “does not publish in peer-reviewed journals.”

  3. Coyne (2011) goes on to suggest crasser, self-promoting motives: “[W]hile group selection is moribund among evolutionary biologists … its vocal proponents write best-selling books.” Both D. S. Wilson and Nowak are “heavily funded” by “the insidious Templeton Foundation,” and Haidt received “two Templeton grants … [and] a sabbatical semester” to write his book.

  4. Nowak (2011) lists reciprocal altruism, indirect reciprocity, and the effects of population structure.

  5. Dugatkin (2006) notes that Haldane was quite good at partitioning his thoughts so that political sympathies tended to not ruin his analyses of evolution. Haldane, incidentally, was a combat veteran in the First World War who enjoyed the opportunity for killing, calling violence “a respectable relic of early man,” and took pride in being “the only officer to complete a scientific paper from a forward position of the Black Watch.” His coauthor on the paper was killed in action (Dugatkin 2006).

  6. “Even without its producing biotic adaptation, group selection can still have an important role in the evolution of the Earth’s biota. The most credible example is the prevalence of sexual reproduction in all the major groups of eukaryote organisms” (Williams 1996, p. xii). Some of our respondents made similar observations in their written commentaries.

  7. One respondent commented “I’ve started reading some of DSW’s papers and wasn’t clear on what they contributed beyond Maynard Smith.”

  8. Other theorists noted that in bacteria that replicate clonally, the cell, and not the gene, is most properly conceived of as the unit of selection (Lane 2005, pp. 193–196). Facts like this led some theorists to question whether we should privilege one level (the genic) as the fundamental level of selection.

  9. Note that the data reported in the paper may leave out an incidental number of missing cases.

  10. Some respondents felt that we had set up an artificial dichotomy by opposing kin selection to group selection. We did so in light of how Nowak et al. (2010) framed the issue in the original paper. As for suggestions by some respondents that we should have framed the study in terms of group selection versus gene selection, we considered that also, but ultimately followed Jablonka and Lamb’s appraisal that “today’s theories of group selection are as gene-centered as any other models of natural selection, including Hamilton’s explanation of altruistic traits” (Jablonka and Lamb 2005, p. 37).

  11. Some respondents in the survey also wondered about this in their written comments. As one put it, “There does seem to be a perception that group selection is a more liberal (leftist) view, but this is baffling to me given that the primary mechanism of group selection in humans is generally thought to be warfare—whereas the position that warfare was rare in prehistory is also perceived as a left-leaning view.” Perhaps those with gentler views of cultural group selection envision predator avoidance, communal breeding, or self-domestication scenarios.

  12. Critics might prefer to call them “just-so stories.”

  13. One approach that received some positive reviews in the commentary section was the one developed by George Price (1970, 1972). One respondent put it this way: “The formalism of the Price equation lends itself to a hierarchal expansion that provides a principled framework for studying ‘group selection.’ The Price equation is also easily modified to create the essential features of Hamilton’s law, as laid out by Hamilton (1975). I don´t care what you call it. It’s about positive covariance between fitness and phenotype and this can arise through a variety of mechanisms. Do I think that the conditions for evolution by group selection are likely to be common in nature? Probably not, but I am open to the idea.”

  14. One respondent left the following comment about the math behind the models that readers may find of interest: “This would be much less controversial if the people who claim to be evolutionary biologists actually understood the mathematics and population biology that underlies evolutionary theory. I am continually shocked at how little understanding there is out there. Everyone cites Hamilton (1964) but no one reads it. No one in my cohort of evolutionary anthropologists appears to realize that Hamilton’s rule is based on Hardy–Weinberg ratios and thus does not apply to alleles under selection. He supported Price and in a little cited paper (Hamilton 1975) he noted that the Price equation was the way to deal with the problem of altruism.”

  15. One respondent to our survey framed it more colorfully: “Lot’s of … self important cultural anthropologists will argue that natural selection is a neoliberal logic of production (blah, blah, blah).”

  16. Haidt (2012b) would like to substitute “intuitional” for “emotional” in the title of his own, earlier Haidt (2001) paper, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail.”

  17. Haidt (2001) stresses the role of social persuasion as a key link in his model.


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We thank Catherine Amy Frazier and Karen Pimentel for their research assistance and help in preparing this manuscript.

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Correspondence to William Yaworsky.

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Yaworsky, W., Horowitz, M. & Kickham, K. Gender and Politics Among Anthropologists in the Units of Selection Debate. Biol Theory 10, 145–155 (2015).

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  • Evolutionary anthropology
  • Gender
  • Politics
  • Units of selection