Sunday, January 25, 2009

Aren't We There Yet?

I did end up in an exchange with Dr. Wilson, but not the one I had expected.

Posted 05:51 PM on 01/13/2009
- royniles
If groups such as superorganisms contribute to evolution, supposedly in addition to or separately from individual adaptations, it's likely that the "experience" of individuals within the group caused strategies to be developed that various individuals were able to pass on, just as we have always known that there were one or more mechanisms that had to be facilitating this. So it could be that in groups such as social insects, the strategies were passed on in some ways as individual traits combined with physical characteristics, while in some animals and especially humans, there were multiple strategies that were passed on, not necessarily in conjunction with physical differences in individuals.

Posted 11:37 PM on 01/25/2009
- David Sloan Wilson - Huffpost Blogger

Thanks for this comment. I want to emphasize that what I call "the original problem" in T&R II must be kept in mind to make sense of the group selection controversy. The central issue concerns how traits such as altruism can evolve when they are selectively disadvantageous within groups. These traits can appear "individual" in other respects. For example, altruism can be expressed by a single individual, can be coded by a single gene, its effect on the group can be additive without any non-linearities and when it evolves, the average altruist is more fit than the average non-altruist in the total population. Despite these elements of individuality, the evolution of altruism requires a process of group-level selection to overcome its selective disadvantage within groups. Discussions of group selection frequently lose sight of this elementary fact by focusing on other criteria for individuality. In this comment, for example, it is difficult to tell what traits are being identified, how the term "individual adaptations" is being used and distinguished from something that counts as "superorganisms," and so on.

Posted 01:03 PM on 01/25/2009
- royniles
The key to understanding how this works is to identify and understand the strategies themselves - a complicated process since without the understanding, the identification itself will be difficult. You almost have to go back to the beginning and look at the strategies that have allowed life to survive from the outset. You have to acknowledge, and perhaps you do, that strategies become experience and experience IS heritable. We are just beginning to fully realize that and understand something of the process.
When I speak of individual adaptations, I'm referring to the accepted view (and perhaps the one you are rightfully questioning) that evolution in effect involves accidental mutations that by a series of magical strokes of luck turn into genetic material that contains these exact strategies, therefor allowing the equivalent of these experiences to be passed on and become instinctive systems.
But if in fact we are simply (or not so simply) passing on the results of our various experiences, then that would include passing on our experiences within a particular group, and passing on the effects of those group dynamics on the individual members in turn. Because in the end the group can only be reborn through the rebirth of its individual members.

Groups where there is a "supreme" individual through which these strategies are, it seems, relegated to individuals whose forms are made to best apply them, will evolve in a different fashion from groups that are a collective of basically similar individuals and no "queen" is involved to determine their complete nature. And then we have to consider that there may be groups that use a queenlike process in ways we have yet to identify. But it still comes down to the necessity for one or more individuals to facilitate group selection.
As to the nature of these strategies, I'm working on it. And in a way, I've picked you to help me in that endeavor.

Posted 04:13 PM on 01/25/2009
- royniles
And if you offer a counter argument that groups could be reborn by a reconstitution of their individual memberships, that is of course a form of group selection if there are specific membership requirements within which the evolution took place. But I don't think that's what you will be proposing.