Monday, May 9, 2011

The controversy over kin selection in the evolution of eusociality

In our next lab-meeting, we will dive in to the recent controversy over kin selection and its utility in explaining the evolution of eusociality in social insects. This controversy started with a provocative paper in "Nature" by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O. Wilson, which you can download here. Basically, these three authors argue that kin selection is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the evolution of eusociality, but that standard natural selection theory is sufficient. It is not surprising that this paper has been met by an outcry from many researchers in social evolution, and they have got a severe criticism in this paper, with a lot of different co-authors. Nowak et al. defend themselves against the many critics here.

Who is right? Well, it is up to us to make up our own opinion, after we have read these three papers! We will meet on Friday May 13 at 10.30 in "Argumentet" to discuss these three rather short papers.

For those of you who are interested more in this debate and want some different viewpoints, I can recommend this blogpost by Jerry Coyne who, not surprisingly, is very critical of Nowak et al. So is Richard Dawkins. For a counterpoint and an interesting perspective from a classical proponent of group selection, I can recommend this blogpost by David Sloan Wilson, who criticizes both camps, i. e. both Nowak et al. and their critics, and suggest that both have misunderstood the real issues at stake! David Sloan Wilsons blogpost has the challenging and provocative title: "137 Co-authors Can't Be Wrong - and That's The Problem". 

It is certainly a sign of a healthy research field that things like these are intensively debated, and shows that evolutionary biology is as vibrant and exciting as ever, with some fundamentally important controversies that needs to be discussed.


  1. Want a summary of criticism and the author's replies?
    Watch this:

  2. It is a pity I can't come and discuss. Here is my penny's worth on the issue.
    In short I mostly agree with the Nowak camp. That spatial dynamics and ecological factors is much more important in the evolution of eusociality than the standard interpretation of Hamilton's rule imply. Simply due to the fact that I see no reason that variation in genome wide relatedness (r) can be the critical factor for the evolution of altruistic behaviours. The interesting stuff is going on in b and c. Hence, the cost and benefit of a certain strategy is dependent on environmental factors and of course on the interaction of specific genes and ecology and behaviours of members of the groups and other groups. I also agree with Nowak et al. that the practical application of Hamilton's rule leads to a complicated book-keeping.

  3. Mats!

    You are most welcome the next time! I completely agree with you that the evolution of altruism and eusociality is more an ecological issue than something that can be reduced to haplodiploidy and kin coefficients. I believe this is an emerging consensus, even before Nowak et al. came out with their article. Whether there is something more (or not), I guess we will find out on the discussion on Friday.