Watch a real scientific controversy

It is fun to watch an actual scientific controversy unfold. The fake ones like climate change denial or intelligent design, which are orchestrated for political purposes or reasons of ideology, draw scientists in because the public has been cajoled into buying bad (or non-) science by modern hucksters and charlatans. Not really fun or interesting, but necessary I suppose. No, the real deal, the full blown genuine real scientific argument is so much more exciting. Not only do you get the full of drama of the faked stuff: personality, egos, careers be made and broken, insults, posturing, and all the accoutrements of human disagreement. But you get the stuff of science: data analysis and reanalysis, experiments and field studies, new theory and new looks at old theory, and battles fought where science is done—in the peer reviewed literature. And you don’t know how its going to end! It’s not clear who is going to win. And what the outcome will hinge on is not who pays for the most advertising, or which side owns a news corp. But on the facts mam’ nothing but the facts.

E.O. Wilson might arguably be the world’s greatest biologist. He is the Einstein of contemporary evolutionary studies. He has been involved in some of the biggest paradigm shifts around. He was involved in theoretical ecology in the study of Island biography, instituted the Sociobiology era, and has been active in understanding the world’s biodiversity in ways both scientific and popular. He’s twice won the Pulitzer Prize and published hundreds and hundreds of papers on ants. (He also wrote a novel that quite frankly is not all that great so let’s ignore that). He’s the hero of every myrmecologist both budding and ancient. I’ve read his biography and to my great joy had lunch with him once at the National Ecological Society of America meetings. He was as nice to that young graduate student as anyone has ever been with a gentlemanly Southern charm that endeared him to me forever. In short, he is someone whose science and insights have both defined and challenged many areas of biology.

Yet many people think he’s gone off his rocker because he is attacking one of the great sacred cows of modern evolutionary biology: Kin Selection. Ken Selection is used to explain aspects of altruism. The idea that if we share genes, and genes determine much of behavior, then if one of my compatriots needs saving, the risk I put into saving her, ought to be proportional to our relatedness. As early evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane quipped, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.”

It’s used in explaining the evolution of social hymenoptera (bees, certain wasps, ants and such). Because they came from unfertilized eggs, the worker ants within a colony are related to each sister in the colony by 75%. Which means according to Haldane they ought to be willing to lay down their life for a sister and a half. This gets complicated, and if you want more just google haplodiploidy. On to the controversy.

Last year three Harvard big wigs, Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and Edward O. Wilson, published a scathing broadside on kin selection. Nowak is a well-known powerhouse evolutionary mathematician whose work is widely respected (and by me also, I’ve used his work in my own theoretical work on selection in spatial contexts). However, the paper caused such a stir that an attack/rebuttal was published by . . . wait for it . . . 137 authors defending kin selection countering Nowak et al.’s paper.

All their criticisms will be addressed, Wilson claimed recently in the Atlantic Monthly, in his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. I’m currently reading it and so far it’s a thought provoking book, exploring the communalities among all the species in which sociality has developed. Amazing reading. I’ll review it here in the near future.

But here’s the important thing. This is real science in action. One of the leading lights of evolutionary theory is staking out a new position. A very controversial one and vastly unpopular. What will happen? Watch the scientific literature. It’s playing out where all science is done. Not in the arena of popular opinion. But in the place where scientific discourse is done: The peer reviewed literature. This is how science works. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s not an ideology. It’s a method for uncovering material truths. Follow along and enjoy! It’s likely to be an exciting ride.

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7 Responses to Watch a real scientific controversy

  1. Jared* says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Steve. It’s not a topic I have any strong feelings about because it’s a level or two deeper than my interest–and probably several more levels than that beyond my understanding–but I’ve seen the controversy breaking out on some of the blogs I read, with a critique by Dawkins leading the way. I’ll be watching for your follow-up comments.

    Evolutionary biology is converged upon by many biological disciplines, which I’m sure must be the reason for some of the real controversies. It wouldn’t surprise me if paleontologists, geneticists, biochemists, ecologists, etc, all see things somewhat differently because they come from different backgrounds. Is this a case of ecologists seeing something differently than the rest, or is this an issue where the fault lines don’t correlate well with discipline?

  2. Rich says:

    Listening to Dr. Wilson on NPR’s Science Friday, (IIRC, he was also a guest on Radio West?), I have great admiration for him as a person and for his work and mission. I loved his book ‘The Creation’. This will be very interesting to see how it plays out. Thanks for bringing this to our attention Steve.

  3. CEF says:

    Amazon just sent me an email suggesting I might like and want to buy “The Social Conquest of Earth.” I guess I will go ahead and order it. Thanks Steve. I will also look forward to more about this.

  4. S.Faux says:

    I have read both books: Martin Nowak (“SuperCooperators”) and E. O. Wilson (“The Social Conquest of Earth”). In the mid-1960s, Wilson was one of the earliest proponents of W.D. Hamilton’s kin selection. It is now very fun to see him do a complete reversal.

    People need to remember that these controversies are battles over theory, NOT data. The basic data inform us that dramatic evolution has occurred over millions and millions of years. Evolution is NOT a controversy within science. But, we do argue about process, all the time.

    I am still intrigued by those non-scientists who resist evolution. It is a tough position to deny two major independent and intersecting lines of data: 1) the fossil record, and 2) the history of life written in our DNA. These basic facts will NOT change. However, we will be arguing for years to come whether “natural selection” needs “kin selection” or not to produce social organisms.

  5. Bradley says:

    That time you had lunch with him, were ants on the menu?

  6. Brad W. says:

    It’s interesting that you call intelligent design a fake scientific controversy because it is entirely possible to study organisms scientifically on the premise that they were all created by God, just as scientists study airplanes and even works of art without denying that these objects are intelligently designed. The problem with allowing God a role in the history of life is not that science would cease but rather that scientists would have to acknowledge the existence of something important that is outside the boundaries of natural science. For scientists who want to be able to explain everything–and “theories of everything” are now openly anticipated in the scientific literature–this is an intolerable possibility.

  7. BHodges says:

    Fun stuff, Steve. Let us know when the final verdict is in over the next few decades, 😀

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