Tag Archives: evolutionary biology

Winter 2020 discussion prompts

  • What is humanity’s situation with respect to surviving long-term with a good quality of life? (Frame the core opportunities and obstacles.)
  • What attributes of our evolved, experientially programmed brains contribute to this situation? (What are the potential leverage points for positive change within our body-brain-mind system?)
  • What courses of research and action (including currently available systems, tools, and practices and current and possible lines of R&D) have the potential to improve our (and the planetary life system’s) near- and long-term prospects?

Following is a list of (only some!) of the resources some of us have consumed and discussed online, in emails, or face-to-face in 2019. Sample a few to jog your thoughts and provoke deeper dives. Please add your own additional references in the comments below this post. For each, give a short (one line is fine) description, if possible.

Kin and multilevel selection in social evolution

In the “development and evolution” thread on Thompson, Paul dismissed and contrasted him with “people who actually study organisms.”  Hence my latest referenced articles are by exactly those people that do. And even among the experts in the know there are differences and disagreements. Another such article confirming this is “Kin and multilevel selection in social evolution: A never ending controversy?” (The abstract is below.) Some adamantly choose one side of the debate, others like this article seeks some semblance of rapprochement. As to the debate, Pinker wrote a piece that explicitly shows on which side he butters his evolution: “The false allure of group selection.” In the comments section there is some good debate by those in the know on both sides. One of the most amusing is Dawkin’s reply titled: “Group selection is a cumbersome, time-wasting distraction.”

“Kin selection and multilevel selection are two major frameworks in evolutionary biology that aim at explaining the evolution of social behaviors. However, the relationship between these two theories has been plagued by controversy for almost half a century and debates about their relevance and usefulness in explaining social evolution seem to rekindle at regular intervals. Here, we first provide a concise introduction into the kin selection and multilevel selection theories and shed light onto the roots of the controversy surrounding them. We then review two major aspects of the current debate: the presumed formal equivalency of the two theories and the question whether group selection can lead to group adaptation. We conclude by arguing that the two theories can offer complementary approaches to the study of social evolution: kin selection approaches usually focus on the identification of optimal phenotypes and thus on the endresult of a selection process, whereas multilevel selection approaches focus on the ongoing selection process itself. The two theories thus provide different perspectives that might be fruitfully combined to promote our understanding of the evolution in group-structured populations.”

Multilevel selection theory and economics

Article by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. Some excerpts:

“Evolutionary theory’s individualistic turn coincided with individualistic turns in other areas of thought. Economics in the postwar decades was dominated by rational choice theory, which used individual self-interest as a grand explanatory principle. The social sciences were dominated by a position known as methodological individualism, which treated all social phenomena as reducible to individual-level phenomena, as if groups were not legitimate units of analysis in their own right (Campbell 1990). And UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became notorious for saying during a speech in 1987 that ‘there is no such thing as society; only individuals and families.’ It was as if the entire culture had become individualistic and the formal scientific theories were obediently following suit.”

‘Unbeknownst to me, another heretic named Elinor Ostrom was also challenging the received wisdom in her field of political science. Starting with her thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles: 1) Clearly defined boundaries; 2) Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; 3) Collective choice arrangements; 4) Monitoring; 5) Graduated sanctions; 6) Fast and fair conflict resolution; 7) Local autonomy; 8) Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance). This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.”

“Multilevel selection theory, which envisions natural selection operating on a multi-tier hierarchy of units, had become more widely accepted. […] Lin’s [Ostrom’s] core design principle approach dovetailed with multilevel selection theory, which my fellow-heretics and I had worked so hard to revive. Her approach is especially pertinent to the concept of major evolutionary transitions, whereby members of groups become so cooperative that the group becomes a higher-level organism in its own right. This idea was first proposed by cell biologist Lynn Margulis (1970) to explain how nucleated cells evolved from symbiotic associations of bacteria. It was then generalized during the 1990s to explain other major transitions, such as the rise of the first bacterial cells, multicellular organisms, eusocial insect colonies and human evolution (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995, 1999).”

“Lin’s design principles (DP) had ‘major evolutionary transition’ written all over them. Clearly defined boundaries (DP1) meant that members knew they were part of a group and what the group was about (e.g., fisherman with access to a bay or farmers managing an irrigation system). Proportional equivalence of costs and benefits (DP2) meant that members had to earn their benefits and couldn’t just appropriate them. Collective choice arrangements (DP3) meant that group members had to agree upon decisions so nobody could be bossed around. Monitoring (DP4) and graduated sanctions (DP5) meant that disruptive self-serving behaviors could be detected and punished. Fast and fair conflict resolution (DP6) meant that the group would not be torn apart by internal conflicts of interest. Local autonomy (DP7) meant that the group had the elbow room to manage its own affairs. Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule making authority (DP8) meant that everything regulating the conduct of individuals within a given group also was needed to regulate conduct among groups in a multi group population.”