October 10, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Altruism Researchers Could Use a Little

Hidden from public view, there’s a fight going on between evolutionists trying to explain the origin of altruism (unselfish behavior) by natural selection.  This problem that bothered Darwin 150 years ago appears to be heating up.  Last month, 30 evolutionists squared off in Amsterdam and apparently made little progress, because Nature published an article trying to make peace between the rival groups.
    Samir Okasha wrote “Altruism researchers must cooperate” in Nature,1 contending that there’s nothing worth fighting about.  The irony was apparently lost on him.  It appears everyone at Amsterdam was acting a little selfish, yet here was Okasha presenting almost a moral sermon trying to get them to love one another.  Believers in kin selection (inclusive fitness), he said, are just arguing the same point as believers in multi-level selection or group selection, but from another angle.  What’s the fuss?

Rival camps have emerged, each endorsing a different approach to social evolution.  Heated exchanges have occurred at conferences, on blogs and in journals, and have even been reported in The New York Times.  Biologists have accused each other of misunderstanding, of failing to cite previous studies appropriately, of making unwarranted claims to novelty and of perpetuating confusions.  Yet I contend that there is little to argue about.
    Much of the current antagonism stems from the fact that different researchers are focusing on different aspects of the same phenomenon, and are using different methods.  In allowing a plurality of approaches – a healthy thing in science – to descend into tribalism, biologists risk causing serious damage to the field of social evolution, and potentially to evolutionary biology in general.

The bulk of his paper was trying to prove that the competing theories are really different sides of the same coin.  But he also demanded that researchers on both sides stop “flouting basic practice” as citing references, using consistent terminology, and “avoiding unjustified claims of novelty or of the superiority of one perspective over another.”  He used an analogy from quantum mechanics: the wave and matrix formulations are different but equivalent.  So, Okasha contends, are the different explanations for altruism.
    If the last thing in a paper is any clue to the prime motivation for writing it, Okasha may actually be most concerned about money, or what the creationists will do, or both:

Researchers should take stock before another overblown dispute does serious damage to the field.  Up-and-coming researchers are unlikely to be attracted to a discipline plagued by controversy.  Moreover, if the experts cannot agree about what theoretical framework works best, the supply of research funding may eventually be threatened.  Also worrying is the possibility that onlookers perceive the central question of social evolution theory – how altruism can evolve – as unresolved, even though it was answered decades ago.  During the ‘sociobiology wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s, creationists proved adept at seizing on and exaggerating the differences in opinion between biologists for their own ends.  It would be a disaster if the same were to happen again.

Update 10/21/2010: In a letter to Nature,2 Karl Sigmund responded to Okasha, saying, “his concerns that it could threaten research funding and provide ammunition for creationists should not be allowed to mute scientific debate.”  The debate is real, he argued: inclusive fitness theory is “full of pitfalls.  This is not just the view of a handful of rebels.”


1.  Samir Okasha, “Altruism researchers must cooperate,” Nature 467, 653-655 (7 October 2010) | doi:10.1038/467653a.
2.  Karl Sigmund, “Let’s keep the debate focused,” Nature 467, p. 920, 21 October 2010, doi:10.1038/467920e.

This is rich.  So creationists have their own ends, but these pure-minded Darwinists have none of their own.  So it would be a disaster if creationists pointed out this controversy and commented on it, but not if evolutionists gave them occasion for it.  Social evolution theory is plagued by controversy, he admits, but we’re not supposed to teach the controversy.  Why?  Because there is none.  It may look like a controversy – evolutionists behaving badly, making accusations, flouting “basic scientific practice,” misunderstanding one another, making unwarranted claims, unable to come to terms, but they all really agree deep down.  Controversy?  I don’t see any controversy, do you?  This was all solved decades ago.  “All this disagreement creates the impression of a field in massive disarray,” he said.  It’s just an impression, not a reality.  Can’t we see that both sides are just looking at the same solution from different angles?  Can’t we just get along?  Maybe the 30 at Amsterdam know more than Okasha does.
    The really funny thing about this article is that Okasha is treating his fellow evolutionists as rational beings capable of moral behavior.  By speaking of altruism as a moral capacity that can be strengthened by reason and appeals to unselfishness and integrity, he has just undermined all views of the evolution of altruism by natural selection, because natural selection by definition is mindless, purposeless, directionless and amoral.  He’s too busy to shoot the creationists, because he just shot his own views on social evolution in the foot.  They’re laughing hysterically, but are willing to come over and explain a thing or two about the origin of altruism, and even share some, if permitted.

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