Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Liberals – Philosophy XVIII 124

The Modern Left Faces off Against Good Science

Today's story is about a real scientist, E.O. Wilson, who throws out his own 1975 concept, eusociality, because he has revisited the issue to realize, along with his associates, that he reversed cause and effect. His honesty in correcting himself matches the great standard of the scientific method – yet – has made modern liberals furious.

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“Eusociality, in which some individuals reduce their own lifetime reproductive potential to raise the offspring of others, underlies the most advanced forms of social organization and the ecologically dominant role of social insects and humans. For the past four decades kin selection theory, based on the concept of inclusive fitness, has been the major theoretical attempt to explain the evolution of eusociality. Here we show the limitations of this approach. We argue that standard natural selection theory in the context of precise models of population structure represents a simpler and superior approach, allows the evaluation of multiple competing hypotheses, and provides an exact framework for interpreting empirical observations.”

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Discover magazine called this one of the 100 most important scientific breakthroughs in 2010 and ran an article and interview of Wilson that began with this introduction:
“In 1975 Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson published Sociobiology, perhaps the most powerful refinement of evolutionary theory since On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s theory of natural selection postulated a brutal world in which individuals vied for dominance. Wilson promoted a new perspective: Social behaviors were often genetically programmed into species to help them survive, he said, with altruism—
self-destructive behavior performed for the benefit of others—bred into their bones.
“In the context of Darwinian selection, such selflessness hardly made sense. If you sacrificed your life for another and extinguished your genes, wouldn’t the engine of evolution simply pass you by? Wilson resolved the paradox by drawing on the theory of kin selection. According to this way of thinking, “altruistic” individuals could emerge victorious because the genes that they share with kin would be passed on. Since the whole clan is included in the genetic victory of a few, the phenomenon of beneficial altruism came to be known as “inclusive fitness.” By the 1990s it had become a core concept of biology, sociology, even pop psychology.
“So the scientific world quaked last August when Wilson renounced the theory that he had made famous. He and two Harvard colleagues, Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, reported in Nature that the mathematical construct on which inclusive fitness was based crumbles under closer scrutiny. The new work indicates that self-sacrifice to protect a relation’s genes does not drive evolution. In human terms, family is not so important after all; altruism emerges to protect social groups whether they are kin or not. When people compete against each other they are selfish, but when group selection becomes important, then the altruism characteristic of human societies kicks in, Wilson says. We may be the only species intelligent enough to strike a balance between individual and group-level selection, but we are far from perfect at it. The conflict between the different levels may produce the great dramas of our species: the alliances, the love affairs, and the wars.

“When you published Sociobiology in 1975, you faced enormous resistance, especially to the implication that human nature was genetically based. Now your colleagues are defending one of key tenets in your book—kin selection—while you try to dismantle it. What do you make of the shifting attitudes in your field?

“Interesting, isn’t it? But I’m not so sure I pivoted that much on kin selection in Sociobiology. If you look at the opening pages, I had a diagram showing how a future science of sociobiology would be built. Kin selection was a nice little part of it in 1975, but Sociobiology went way beyond that. It goes into demography: how groups are formed, how they compete, how communication evolves. Together with ecology and population genetics, it all formed a framework to help explain the origin of social behavior.”
Discover link (99 cents needed to access the entire article) is at

Wilson points out in the Discover interview that there is only one condition “causing eusociality to emerge: A mother or father must raise their young within reach of adequate resources at a defensible nest.” Wilson points out that “One gene change” can cause this development. This means that the gene change and the social behavior came first and then kinship appeared (the opposite of what was theorized in 1975).

Wilson notes in Discover that “One letter to Nature is signed by 144 people...but nothing in the letter addresses the challenges we raised: that the mathematical ground of inclusive fitness theory is unsound and that, when you compare competing hypotheses, outcomes are much more directly and convincingly explained by mainstream natural selection.”

But sociologists and other advocates of the natural existence of altruism are furious. Their feelings are hurt, but their campaign to maintain eusociality and their letter with 144 signatures aren't scientific.

This placing of ideology above the scientific method is akin to the acceptance by the far Left that Hitler's Nazi party was fascist instead of socialist, mimicking a self-serving line of propaganda from Moscow (even decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union!). It is similar to the editors who accepted Imogen Clark's Saving Jessie manuscript while ignoring the shrill cruelty of the woman as if she were a saint. It is akin to the Honolulu Symphony insisting on playing discordant,unpopular music and then still wondering why it went broke.  Global warming is another idealistic and magnetically attractive idea that ignores the bad science and contradictory on-going trends, including the existence of a model (published with peer review only two years after IPCC 2007) that follows the data much more closely.

The ideology is much different, but the mistake of the Christian right in promoting rapture over and over has the same epistemic divorce from reality. The Christian right also devoutly hoped that military involvement in the Middle East would trigger the Second Coming.

The libertarians, confronted with fraud and irregularity in derivatives trading of the 1990s, nonetheless argued to grossly deregulate the activities and expand their scope, leading to a multi-year international crisis that is still on-going.

This is what happens across ideologies when the ideals are disconnected from reality, ignore feedback, and fail to recalculate based on changes and new data. This blog will discuss the identical methodological failures of these ideologies once we are done uncovering the modern liberals' civil religion.

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