Who Cares About The Data? Don’t Question the Dogma!

Sterile worker ants tend their queen (the large one), her eggs, and her developing young
(Click image for credit)

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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9 thoughts on “Who Cares About The Data? Don’t Question the Dogma!”

  1. Normally this would fall under the “too science-y” for me to want to comment on, but two things struck me. 1. I’m amused that you refer to anything science related as “fashionable.” No matter what you think, science isn’t sexy. 2. This reminded me of an episode of “Pitbulls and Parolees” (certainly the authority on any topic!) where the shelter had been infested by bees. One of the daughters decided that the bees shouldn’t be killed, but removed humanely. They called a beekeeper out who removed all the bees, including the queen. He then said they would take them back to their bee farm and if the bees seemed like angry bees, they would put them with a new queen to try to change their temperament. I don’t know if there is any truth in that, but it was interesting none the less.

    1. Black Sheep, (1) you obviously don’t know what is sexy. (2) Different queens do produce different temperaments in their colonies. When beekeepers notice that a hive gets more aggressive, they conclude that the old queen has been superseded by a new, more aggressive queen. If the bees are far too aggressive, they will sometimes replace the queen to change the hive’s temperament.

  2. It sounds like Dawkin’s and Coyne have a mindset of defending their particular denomination tooth and nail, similar to hearing theologians argue about predestination versus free will. “I’m right and if you disagree with me then you must be both wrong and incapable of reason!!!” “No, I’m of course right because I say so and therefore you’re a heretic!”.

    1. Ben, you are right. They think that they are the official spokespersons for biological science, and if you disagree with them on any substantive issue, you are not being scientific.

  3. @The Black Sheep.
    I disagree. In fact I would assert that calling science “sexy” is fundamentally insulting to the discipline. It has and is its own geeky beauty too mystical to be described with that carnal word. Whether you recognize that beauty is irrelevant.

    The main point however is that Dr Wile didn’t refer to science as fashionable on a party sphere, but to a scientific idea within academia. Here fashionable refers to whether a concept fits within the current popular way of thinking. The concepts under discussion may send a normal person to sleep, but they are nevertheless in fashion because they are the in thing to believe for the scientific community. There are many other issues for which it is fashionable within the scientific community to reside in one camp rather than the other.

    Fashionable: Characteristic of, influenced by, or representing a current popular trend.

  4. Josiah,

    I always appreciate reading your comments. Clearly science is a passion for you, which is fantastic. If you’ve read many of my comments, you are probably aware that science is decidedly NOT a passion for me. However, I still read this blog because Dr. Wile and I are dear friends, I respect him very much, and every once in a while he actually discusses things I’m interested in here. You may have also noticed that I like to give Dr. Wile a hard time, call him geeky and nerdy and joke with him etc. This is simply the nature of our friendship. I’m sorry if you found my comment crude, crass, or inappropriate, but I assure it was a joke, and meant as nothing but fun.

    I look forward to continuing to read your rather insightful comments on this blog.

  5. “In fact I would assert that calling science “sexy” is fundamentally insulting to the discipline. It has and is its own geeky beauty too mystical to be described with that carnal word. Whether you recognize that beauty is irrelevant.” – Josiah

    Whoa, that was an EPIC laugh line for me! Why don’t all guys talk that way?

    ~ Amanda

  6. Dr. Wile,

    Nice job on the article. I have always found the study of these insect colonies interesting. No matter what the scientific explanation is, it is simply amazing how the do everything with such coordination. If you made a proportionate sized ant mound for humans and place the same number in it, the result be be absolute chaos!
    I’ve also always wondered if there could be another explanation for this “swarm” intelligence of a mound. Is there any scientific evidence that you know of to support the idea of some kind of inter-organism communication system that operates a collective consciousness?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Enoch. I don’t know of any scientific evidence for some sort of “collective consciousness” among colonial insects. Most of the biologists who study these animals think that they can understand the behavior of such colonies based on the instinctual behavior of individuals based on the “caste” to which they belong. I personally agree with that, but it is more of a gut-level reaction to the data than an exhaustive analysis of the data.

      I will say this: the reason a scaled-up ant mound would be chaos if it were filled with humans is because we don’t do well following a precise set of instructions over our entire lifespan. We tend to do eventually stray from our “assignments” and do what we want to do. Animals, however, are rather strongly directed by their instincts. As a result, there is less tendency towards chaos in animal societies.

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