Is E O Wilson Senile, Narcissistic, or Just an Asshole?

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Last weekend, renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson was interviewed by BBC Newsnight. In the course of the interview, he continued his public feud with Richard Dawkins. Like most feuds, this one probably can be attributed to multiple causes, but it centers primarily around Wilson’s disavowal of kin selection.

The bit of the interview that has received the most attention is where Wilson calls Dawkins a “journalist”:

There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found, and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research.

This is pretty Oh-Snap! in the world of science, which is full of polite trash-talk centered on establishing who is more of a real scientist. Just like how you can insult a physicist by calling them an engineer, or how you can insult an economist by emphasizing “Memorial” in “Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences”.

The thing that struck me, though, was this bit, quoted in the Guardian’s coverage:

Wilson was asked about his current views on the concept of a selfish gene, to which he replied: “I have abandoned it and I think most serious scientists working on it have abandoned it. Some defenders may be out there, but they have been relatively or almost totally silenced since our major paper came out.”

The paper Wilson is referring to is his 2010 Nature paper co-authored with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita. This is a paper that prompted a condemnation signed by 137 prominent population geneticists. (That’s about 130 more than the number of population geneticists who could legitimately be considered “prominent”.)

Now, it’s one thing for Wilson to continue to defend the paper. That would just make him wrong. But to claim that it silenced everyone who disagrees with him comes off as profoundly disingenuous.

Disingenuousness, by the way, is exactly what was wrong with the paper in the first place. The mathematical model it presented (mostly in the Appendix) was fine. However, the main text was filled with misrepresentations of other people’s work. The point of the paper was to show that everyone in the field was wrong, because they had neglected factors X, Y, and Z. Of course, it’s not hard to prove people wrong when you lie about the work they’ve done.

It’s basically like if you reformatted Fox News as a Nature paper.

If you’re interested, I’ve written about this paper and the controversy surrounding it on a number of occasions (here, here, here, and here), and even made a little video dramatizing some of the criticisms of the paper.

But here’s today’s question: What is Wilson thinking? Is he starting to lose it? Or is he so arrogant that he feels comfortable dismissing any criticisms of his ideas, even to the point of denying their existence? Or has he constructed a bubble for himself, where he no longer encounters critical voices?

Or is he is so hell-bent on building a legacy as The Guy Who Proved Everyone Wrong that he does not really care whether or not anything he says is actually true?

I’m honestly puzzled. Wilson is a giant in the field. He’s a smart guy who presumably knows what it means to be a scientist. And he doesn’t (or at least didn’t) have a reputation for being a horrible person — a reputation that is common among people of his stature.

The one explanation that is off the table at this point (as far as I’m concerned) is that he is a gifted scientist trying in good faith to pursue the truth, and that this is some sort of legitimate scientific disagreement.

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4 thoughts on “Is E O Wilson Senile, Narcissistic, or Just an Asshole?”

  1. So, what is the current thinking on the selfish gene theory? I read the book several years ago and felt like the ideas made sense to me, however, I’m not an evolutionary biologist/population geneticist. In a quick google search what comes up seems to be people saying it can’t really account much for epigentic changes that precede genetic changes, is this right? I’d love to hear your thoughts about the theory and it’s application in today’s scientific environment.

    1. Well, my read is that the ideas described in the Selfish Gene are still completely valid, in the following sense. An kin-selection/inclusive-fitness perspective does a nice job of shedding light on a lot of phenomena. And, it is completely mathematically valid. The question, as always, is how closely your system conforms to the assumptions of your model. For some traits, reality conforms pretty well to the assumptions underlying a relatively simple selfish-gene model. For other traits, a simple model might leave out the most important parts of the biology.

      Epigenetics is a good example. Assuming that any epigenetic change depends on some combination of genetic and environmental factors (perhaps via other epigenetic intermediates), it is probably possible, in principle, to model it using standard selfish-gene-type models. However, those models would presumably have to incorporate interactions among multiple genes in a changing environment, and even writing down a valid model might be intractable. In that case, those theories would not be “wrong” per se, but they might not be very useful.

      So, I guess I would say that the simple types of applications of inclusive fitness that Dawkins describes in the Selfish Gene are still powerful and useful, but there are plenty of phenomena out there for which a different approach might yield more satisfactory explanations.

  2. Scientists engage in political disputes all the time; and always have, and they use the rhetorical devices of science just as much and as wells in any other human profession. What Wilson is doing is trying to get his view on group selection accepted by Other Means, which is, to my mind, pretty much what Dawkins did with the Selfish Gene. The fact is, neither a strict group selectionism works (it is basically just aggregations of kin selection in my view) nor a strict selfish genism works (as genes are subject to drift, contingency of other kinds, and linkages that come and go, and in nay case there are other types of entities than genes that are subjected to selection). These two represent an old argument that began in earnest with Wynne Edwards and George Williams. It doesn’t surprise me that there is, nor does it validate the opponents of those who use, political rhetoric in science.

    1. I agree that group selection is basically aggregation of kin selection (although I would be more inclined to say that kin selection and group selection are two ways of thinking about positive assortment). Similarly, kin-selection models can be reformulated in group-selection terms, at least some of them.

      I would be inclined to state the limitations differently, though. Strict selfish genism is not incompatible with drift, linkage, etc. It is just that the simplest models tend to be game-theoretic, one-locus models that ignore those things. And yes, there is a lot that those simple models don’t account for. Whether they are good models or not depends on the system and the questions you’re asking. There is nothing preventing analysis of a more complex model — more a question of which complex model is the right one and is it worth the effort. This was the main flaw with the 2010 Nature paper, which attacked the limitations of simple kin-selection models while ignoring any more complex work.

      Political rhetoric is definitely common in scientific disputes, and, of course, rarely are the disputes ONLY scientific. Often they are battles over status and allocation of future funds as much as over scientific content. The thing that annoys me is the hybridization of the two, where people will be basically having a political fight, but cynically use scientific language in appeals to authority. Typically it involves distortions and oversimplifications that are presented as scientific Truth.

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