From: Keith Henson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Fri 27 Feb 2004 - 05:37:41 GMT
At 08:10 PM 26/02/04 -0500, frankie wrote:
>>At 01:08 PM 20/02/04 -0500, frankie wrote:
>>>But in social animals, competition occurs *between groups* as well as
>>>between individuals. Prides of lions and troops of monkeys compete for
>>>territory much like individual birds do. And in the example of ants,
>>>the concept of individuals being the unit of selection is a bit of a stretch.
>>You really need to read Hamilton who worked out how it works at the level
>>of shared genes.
>I'll look into it, but I don't know that it will change my contention - if
>you have a bunch of genetically identical individuals running around (as
>in ants) then they are pretty expendable as individual units.
Worker ants are not identical, just related. Because of the odd way sex is
determined in bees, ants and wasps, ants share 3/4 of their genes with
sisters rather than the mammal norm of 1/2. Thus from the viewpoint of
their genes, the genes are better off (more copies in future generations)
if the worker ants raise sister reproductives rather than their own
offspring. (Bees share less because of the way the mate.) So you won't
have to hunt, here is a taste.
"There were other strands in Wilson's synthesis, like new ideas on
aggression, but the most important was British evolutionary biologist
William Hamilton's explanation of kin selection. Darwin had spotted that
ant castes threatened his idea of natural selection; here was a group of
animals that apart from the queens didn't reproduce but worked
cooperatively for the good of the colony. How to explain such altruism in
Darwinian terms of natural selection? Hamilton's answer was that siblings
will sacrifice themselves for the propagation of the genes they share. The
idea had been suggested before, but Hamilton dressed it in calculus and
made it demonstrable."
>An ant can't live/reproduce without it's colony, but the colony can absorb
>the loss of quite a few of it's ants. It's almost as if the anthill
>itself is the organism (didn't Dennett write something like that in Mind's
Not sure, but Hofstadter (who was the other author of Mind's I) did write
about the anthill as an organism in Godel, Escher, Bach.
>My understanding is that there is a high correlation between genetic
>relatedness and the degree of social cohesion in a group.
That's the origin of the genetic traits in humans for social cohesion, but
it quit being true when tribes merged into larger groups. The size of the
interbreeding groups has been too large for there to be significant
relatedness in most socially cohesive groups. Language and religion, that
is memetic similarities, have been more significant than genetic ones in
western society for a considerable time.
>Which explains racism,
>but makes me wonder what we will do if the Global Village becomes a big
>"melting pot" and as a species we become more genetically similar (lose
Humans have gone through some really narrow genetic bottlenecks. There is
more genetic diversity in a tribe of chimps than all of humanity. We just
don't have much biodiversity.
>>Lion prides are
>I was thinking more along the lines of a genetically primo male in a pride
>with a really poor territory - he may end up failing on the basis of
>*pride's* fitness or lack there of.
The way lion prides work, it is his fault (and ultimately the genes that
built him) if he and typically one or two closely related males took over a
really poor territory. Lion prides consist of resident related females and
transient groups of closely related males. A younger group of males will
kill or push out an aging group. They then kill all the nursing cubs to
get their own line established as quickly as possible so they can protect
their cubs long enough for them to grow up. (If the new males get pushed
out too soon, that's the end of the line for their genes.)
Male lions don't usually do much hunting, but they do protect and enlarge
the territory of the pride and protect their cubs from being killed by
other males. This is not unusual behavior.
"The earliest documented report of infanticide among langurs dates back to
the 1960s when Japanese scientists doing research in India witnessed for
the first time an outsider successfully overthrowing a leader. Afterward,
the victorious male bit six of the troop's infants to death. The account
shocked many scientists because it defied the accepted wisdom of the day:
Only humans routinely murdered members of their own species.
"Primatologists floundered for an explanation of the langur's macabre
behavior until the early 1970s when Sarah Hrdy suggested the episode and
others like it were linked to Darwin's theory of sexual selection, which
states that males will compete for access to fertile females with the
females choosing the best male. "Only in this instance," Hrdy explains,
"infanticidal males were canceling the female's last 'choice' and forcing her to choose him instead. The mother whose unweaned infant is killed becomes fertile again sooner than if she continues to nurse, increasing the new male's chances of breeding with her. His attack on the infant is purposeful and goal orientated, as organized and focused as a shark's."
"In recent years, infanticide has been documented in a wide range of
primate species, from baboons, macaques and howler monkeys to some of man's
closest relatives: chimpanzees and mountain gorillas."
>And of course the reverse is possible as well: genetically compromised
>individuals who survive because of their group.
>So the fitness of the group trumps the genetic fitness of an individual.
Just surviving doesn't do it for genes. Successful genes have to build
animals that are reproductively successful. If a twitching, half blind
wreck of a d00d has what it takes to leave lots of kids and grand kids,
then by definitions he *is* a genetically fit individual.
PS. While looking for the above Hrdy material, I found this which is a
good listing of materials you should read if you want to get a grip on this
And to continue from the excellent Guardian Profile of Edward O Wilson at
Like Wilson, Hamilton was also attacked - the anthropologist SL Washburn
dismissed his ideas on human sociobiology as "reductionist, racist and
ridiculous" - but Wilson was far more visible, publishing three books in
the 1970s on the subject, starting with The Insect Societies in 1971.
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, the title echoing Wilson's heroes of the
1930s, was published in 1975.
Had it dealt only with animals it would have been accepted as a major work
with many important ideas crystallised - in 1989, fellows of the Animal
Behaviour Society voted it the most influential book on animal behaviour of
all time. But by including a final chapter, 30 pages out of almost 600, on
the ultimate social animal, homo sapiens, Wilson was lighting the blue
touch-paper. Because while the world was content to allow evolution to
explain why and how another species is created and how it might behave, the
human mind remained off-limits, the preserve of social scientists and
theologians, philosophers and novelists. Anyone, it seemed, but biologists.
Old scientific controversies are often unpalatable when reheated, but the
furore generated by Sociobiology rumbles on. Nor did Wilson duck the
opportunity to flag his theories. "Let us now consider man in the free
spirit of natural history," the chapter begins, echoing the Psalms Wilson
read as a boy. People are animals, their behaviour has evolved just like
that of the animals, and our culture has a biological component, he
announced. Human sexuality has evolved in certain ways for specific
reasons, all through natural selection. It seemed to some that he was
undermining human dignity. Others bristled at an intellectual threat.
"Tactically he was unwise," says Richard Dawkins, "because it appeared to
sociologists and anthropologists that he was empire-building. It sounded
threatening, as though here was a biologist trying to move in on their
territory. That caused a lot of ruffled feathers which may not have helped
By talking so starkly in terms of the genetic foundation of human
behaviour, Wilson offered himself up to more political minds who had much
to lose intellectually if his ideas were right. Opposition emerged at
several levels, the most conspicuous from radical students who denounced
him publicly at his lectures and on campus. At the height of the
controversy, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement
of Science, a debate he joined on sociobiology was interrupted by
demonstrators who poured a pitcher of water over his head; psychologically
bewildering for a gentle man more used to debate than demonstration.
But the real opposition to Wilson's ideas, the attacks that hurt, came from
within his own department, from the Marxist biologists Stephen Jay Gould
and Richard Lewontin. The two camps crystallised two views of humanity: the
first, that our psychology and social behaviour have evolved along with the
rest of us and that every facet of human behaviour, even, say,
homosexuality, is influenced by our genetic inheritance; and the second,
that the human mind somehow escapes natural selection and answers to
another, higher epistemology.
Gould and Lewontin believed that "the purpose of critical science is to
promote socialism, which is the only just form of government", and they saw
sociobiology, erroneously as it turns out, as an inherently right-wing,
individualistic philosophy. They accused Wilson of sending human nature
back to the concentration camps. Wilson isn't a determinist who believes
that life is purely mechanistic, and he isn't right-wing - he remains a
Democrat and fears the environmental worst from the George Bush presidency.
Although Wilson argued that homosexuality might have a genetic element, he
also argued that it was therefore natural and should be tolerated. But
Gould was good-humoured and discursive, taking an apparently compassionate
view of human nature, and Lewontin, a population geneticist who could show
that racial differences are genetically tiny, added credence to charges of
racism, even though Wilson hadn't brought the subject up.
Did he think that his opponents were themselves guilty of prejudice? "They
were, although they never admitted it," Wilson says slowly, reaching for
the words. "I came from the Old South, I was raised as a racist. I mean, we
all were. It was only in my teens that I began to change. But here, if you
were called racist - well, in the 70s it was like a death sentence."
The wounds from this fight seem fresh even now, probably because, as
Dawkins suggests, the assault came from so close to home and without
warning: "They did this thing in print without giving him the slightest
inkling what was going on," he says. "The first Wilson knew about it was
when he saw their really very vicious tirade in the New York Review of
Books, and I think he felt keenly the discourtesy of them not popping down
the hall to talk to him about it." "That was excruciating," Wilson agrees,
but if the argument was wearying, Wilson's intellectual steel glints when
he summarises the current position.
"I think the sociobiology controversy is essentially over. The contraries
are ageing. No young scientists are joining. They are not handing on the
torch but passing it around a smaller and smaller circle."
He acknowledges one charge as having validity, the accusation from more
thoughtful feminists that he had over-simplified the role of women. "As
time has gone on two things have happened," he says. "One is that we are
vastly better informed about gender differences, their genetic and
physiological bases, right down to fine- tuning of hormonal regulation of
behaviour. Another thing is that scientists like Sarah Hardy have been able
to demonstrate a far greater richness of female flexibility in reproductive
strategies. It's far more subtle and sophisticated than we anticipated. The
theory in the 70s was that women were more passive, judging between male
capacities, but now we know that women are vastly more powerful than that
in establishing relationships."
With sociobiology prospering, Wilson has carried his research into the full
arena of human knowledge, publishing the hugely ambitious Consilience in
1998, in which he developed his ideas about gene-culture co-evolution
further and resurrected CP Snow's efforts to conjoin the "two cultures". In
fact, Wilson's arguments are more fundamental and persuasive than Snow's;
works on evolution, like Sociobiology and Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, have
been absorbed into western cultural life as neatly as any neo-Darwinist
could have predicted.
"He is," says Ian McEwan, "a scientific materialist who warmly embraces the
diversity of human achievement - including religion and art, which he sees
in evolutionary terms. One of his tasks has been to further the
Enlightenment project of absorbing the social sciences into science proper;
another has been to find a sound ethical basis for ecological thinking. He
is fundamentally a rational optimist who shows us the beauty of the
narrative of life on earth. He is living proof that materialism need not be
a bleak world view."
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