Posted by jlwile on January 26, 2011
Some of the most successful animals in creation have complex social structures. Consider the picture above. The queen ant (the large one in the picture) is the only one that can reproduce. The worker ants that tend the queen, care for her young, gather food, clean the nest, and protect the nest are sterile. They typically live short, dangerous lives so that the queen can live a long, safe life and produce many offspring.
When you look at the world through the simplistic lens of evolution, one obvious question is, “How could such social structures evolve?” If evolution is based on the idea of the survival of the fittest, why would individuals evolve to protect and care for some other individual? Worse yet, why would they evolve to become sterile, so that only the individual they are protecting and caring for can reproduce? Darwin tried to answer these questions with the concept of “group selection.” He thought that under certain circumstances, natural selection could work on a group of organisms instead of just on individuals. Evolutionists pursued this idea for quite a while, but then a more fashionable idea came along.
In 1963, W.D. Hamilton published a paper that explained the evolution of these kinds of social structures (and altruistic behavior in general) by focusing on individual genes.1 In his work, he proposed that natural selection works on individual genes, and if a given behavior leads to the perpetuation of a given gene, it will be adopted. In a much more detailed paper, he proposed Hamilton’s Rule2
(Genetic relationship) x (Benefit) > Cost
The equation basically says that altruistic behavior can evolve, as long as the cost to the individual is less than the benefit to the gene. So the closer another organism is to you genetically, and the more beneficial your action to that organism is, the more cost you as an individual can bear, because the more likely it becomes for the genes governing your actions to be perpetuated.
So in the end, evolution isn’t about perpetuating an individual. It is about perpetuating genes. So now you can see why ant colonies supposedly evolved. The ants in a colony are all closely-related, so their genetic relationship is high. The benefit to the queen is also very high, so in the end, the cost to the rest of the colony members can be high. It doesn’t matter that they live a short, dangerous life and cannot reproduce. Their genes will be perpetuated by the colony, and that’s all natural selection really “cares” about. Richard Dawkins popularized this view back in 1976 with his book The Selfish Gene, and it has been the dominant view of evolution for quite some time. Indeed, when I was in university, this was taught to me as absolute fact. We know why ants live in colonies and mothers are willing to die for their children. It’s because of Hamilton’s rule. Period.
Well, as is the case with most fashionable trends in evolution, detailed analysis has finally gotten in the way of this cherished rule. Two world-renowned evolutionists (Martin A. Nowak and Edward O. Wilson) have teamed up with Corina E. Tarnita to publish a paper that claims Hamilton’s rule almost never holds, and when it does, it is indistinguishable from standard natural selection.3
I read this paper sometime last year and found it interesting, and then I didn’t think much more about it. While the authors do make a case for how standard natural selection can explain social structures like those found in ant colonies and bee hives, I find the design explanation to be much more straightforward and scientifically enlightening. Complex social behaviors exist because of genes and biological structures that are designed for them to exist. Trying to tease out what those genes and biological structures are and how they contribute to the overall design of the organism is much more scientifically valuable that trying to concoct silly “just so” stories about how they might have evolved.
My interest was rekindled, however, when I saw what Dr. Jerry Coyne and Dr. Richard Dawkins wrote about the paper. I first ran across Dr. Coyne’s rant, which said (in part):
I don’t know what’s gotten into E. O. Wilson. He’s certainly the world’s most famous evolutionary biologist, and has gone from strength to strength over the years, winning two Pulitzer Prizes, writing great general books on not only ants but conservation and social behavior…But now Wilson, along with some collaborators like David Sloan Wilson and Martin Nowak, is definitely heading off on the wrong track. They’re attacking kin selection, not only maintaining that it has nothing to do with the evolution of social insects, but is a misguided way to look at evolution in general. And they’re wrong—dead wrong.
He also gives the journal Nature a “big raspberry” for publishing the article. He claims that good reviewers would never have allowed the paper to see the light of day. Coyne’s rant led me to another rant by Dawkins, which claims that Wilson never really understood this topic and that Nowack is irritating.
Now as I said, I think that both Hamilton’s rule and the arguments of Nowack, Tarnita, and Wilson are incorrect. What I find interesting about this situation, however, is how Coyne and Dawkins reacted to the new paper. What they have written about Nowack, Tarnita, and Wilson is quite similar to what they have written about creationists. We don’t understand evolution, we are irritating, we are dead wrong, etc., etc.
The real key seems to be that these two “high priests” of evolution just don’t want any dissent. They don’t want it from creationists; they don’t want it from intelligent design advocates; and they don’t want it from fellow evolutionists. They just don’t want anyone to question the evolutionary dogma.
That’s unfortunate, but not at all surprising.
1. Hamilton, W. D., “The evolution of altruistic behavior,” American Naturalist 97:354-356, 1963
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2. Hamilton, W. D., “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 7:1-52, 1964
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3. Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita and Edward O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Eusociality,” Nature 466:1057-1062, 2010
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