Contrasting views of kin selection assessed

December 17, 2014, American Institute of Biological Sciences

In an article to be published in the January issue of BioScience, two philosophers tackle one of the most divisive arguments in modern biology: the value of the theory of "kin selection."

Kin selection is the idea that because genes influence behavior, and because an animal that helps its relatives helps to spread genes likely identical to its own, animals will evolve to favor kin. Researchers have spent decades testing this explanation for apparent animal altruism, but in recent years, critics, notably Martin Nowak of Harvard University and the famous naturalist and writer Edward O. Wilson, have argued that the theory's successes are mostly illusory. The dissidents maintain that social behavior is properly understood by studying how evolution works in groups of individuals that may be unrelated. The critique provoked a strong backlash.

According to the authors of the BioScience article, Jonathan Birch and Samir Okasha, the disagreements can be traced in large part to loose use of some key terms as well as to differing ideas about what sort of account can provide an adequate explanation. Biologists have linked their mathematical models to the central formula of kin selection, known as Hamilton's rule, in different ways. Some models are greatly limited by assumptions that are not realistic. Others can always be made to fit the facts of a population, but have a limited ability to generate predictions, as opposed to after-the-fact rationalizations. And some fall between these extremes.

Some of the criticism of kin selection applies only to the most limited models, Birch and Okasha judge. On the other hand, they suggest that defenders of kin selection should recognize limitations of the approach that may prevent researchers from extending it, as an explanation of , as far as its proponents might hope. The BioScience authors suggest that consideration of "causal aptness" might help in deciding when kin selection is a useful theory, and when alternatives might be preferable—although they acknowledge that "causal aptness" is an idea that needs further development.

Both sides in the kin selection debate and related arguments in social evolution have got some things right, Birch and Okasha write, but they have sometimes talked past each other. Still, Birch and Okasha assert that "progress on these issues is achievable if rival camps of researchers are able to communicate and cooperate, rather than pursuing divergent research programs."

Explore further: Insects' 'giant leap' reconstructed by founder of sociobiology

Related Stories

Altruism in social insects is a family affair

May 29, 2008

The contentious debate about why insects evolved to put the interests of the colony over the individual has been reignited by new research from the University of Leeds, showing that they do so to increase the chances that ...

Two theories on why we're nice

June 4, 2012

It's nearly impossible to write objectively about the science of human kindness, cooperation and altruism if you are, in fact a human being. That's especially true now that there's a rift going on in the evolution community ...

'Nature' Paper Refigures the Evolution of Altruism

February 26, 2010

( -- In 1871, Charles Darwin puzzled over the evolution of altruism. "He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been," he wrote in The Descent of Man, "rather than betray his comrades, would ...

The science of selflessness

April 16, 2012

In a talk at the Geological Lecture Hall on Thursday, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson outlined new thinking on how human social behavior evolved, saying that it was competition among groups of humans — made up of both ...

Recommended for you

Not all stem cells are created equal, study reveals

March 22, 2019

Researchers from the University of Toronto's Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) and the Donnelly Centre have discovered a population of cells – dubbed to be "elite" – that play a key role in ...

Ancient birds out of the egg running

March 22, 2019

The ~125 million-year-old Early Cretaceous fossil beds of Los Hoyas, Spain, have long been known for producing thousands of petrified fish and reptiles (Fig. 1). However, researchers have uncovered an extremely rare, nearly ...

Making solar cells is like buttering bread

March 22, 2019

Formamidinium lead iodide is a very good material for photovoltaic cells, but getting the correct stable crystal structure is a challenge. The techniques developed so far have produced poor results. However, University of ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Dec 19, 2014
It's hard to understand how two people gave this article five stars. What exactly was understood after reading it? Anything concrete? Not enough details! Not enough extension of the debate into practicalities, if any, which I am certain there are.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.