An intellectual war of words has broken out between two of the world’s leading evolutionists. Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins and Harvard’s Edward Wilson have gone head to head over the evolution of altruism in the animal kingdom, and whether it can have come about as a result of something called group selection.
The subject matter of their dispute is social insects, particularly ants, which display a supreme form of altruism in that sterile workers lay down their lives for the benefit of their fertile colleagues in the colony.
Conventional Darwinian theory could not really explain why one individual should sacrifice its own life, and its precious genes, for the benefit of another individual, unless it could be viewed in terms of group selection, when indi-viduals do it for the benefit of the colony or the species.
But nearly half a century ago, scientists punched intellectual holes in the theory of group selection and pointed instead to something called kin selection, when altruism in social communities evolves as a result of one individual being closely related to a member of the same colony.
Social insects such as ants display unusual degrees of relatedness within the colony, with sister workers being more closely related to one another than to the offspring they may have. It was therefore seen as beneficial for individual sisters to sacrifice their fertility for their sister queen because of the genes they had in common.
Mathematical models supported kin selection which rose to prominence because it appeared to explain the evolution of altruism in ants and many other species. Group selection was dead in the water. But now Professor Wilson has brought it back to life in a book on ants to be published this year, and in an interview this week with New Scientist magazine.