Wednesday, April 20, 2011

E.O. Wilson's War

I'm a fan of E. O. Wilson, and I find myself -- quite by accident -- in an evolutionary game theory class right now. So this article caught my eye.

What Wilson is trying to do, late in his influential career, is nothing less than overturn a central plank of established evolutionary theory: the origins of altruism. His position is provoking ferocious criticism from other scientists. Last month, the leading scientific journal Nature published five strongly worded letters saying, more or less, that Wilson has misunderstood the theory of evolution and generally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One of these carried the signatures of an eye-popping 137 scientists, including two of Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard.
For those of you with access to Nature, the actual paper is here.

They are basically arguing about the extent to which altruistic behavior is driven by individual selection versus group selection. The mainstream stance (as I understand it) is that individual selection is the primary driver of most everything, while Wilson is now saying it doesn't seem to add up. Which has a lot of people angry:
“It’s almost universally regarded as a disgrace that Nature published it,” Dawkins said. “Most people feel the reason they published it was the eminence of Wilson and Nowak, not the quality of the paper.”
As an outsider, I can't speak to the quality of the paper, and I'm not here to take sides on the actual issue. But I do want to take a stand on the meta-issue of whether it's good or bad that Nature published this paper. The question is whether this paper helps or hurts the rate of progress of science (in expectation).

First of all, let's be clear that even if our attempts at science have us converging asymptotically to true understanding of the universe, that doesn't say we're getting there nearly as fast as we could be. The current approach has a lot going for it, but it's hardly optimal and sacred and immune to criticism; to the contrary it seems pretty biased towards the status quo and hence slowness. The basic problem is that entrenched academics are both quite attached to the status quo (since they built it) and the ones who set the rewards for research on the various topics a researcher could choose to pursue. Academic rewards are heavily influenced by what sorts of topics are currently fashionable/approved of by mainstream academics. In the long run we're all dead, but the long run is a long time from now, which is to say: science marches on, but slowly.

By contrast, what Wilson has demonstrated is a willingness to change his mind about an issue he has already spent many decades thinking about. Pretty darn rare, wouldn't you say? His many detractors are basically saying he has changed his mind too easily, but note that even if this is true in isolation, it could easily be the optimal response to a field that is too resistant to change on average. In theory it could be optimal to release this paper even if Wilson himself suspected it was wrong.

Here, let me wave my hands a little. We could think of science as a machine that (a) generates a lot of theories, (b) evaluates those theories, and (c) ultimately keeps the good ones and discards the bad ones. And when we get to keep the good and throw away the bad, we want high variance. So I find it somewhat refreshing when entrenched academics shake things up, because they usually have the most power but least willingness to do so.

On the other hand, here's another sort of argument, in favor of the current scientific consensus.

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What happens now? People will talk about this. Wilson will be right, or he will be wrong. If he's right, science jumps forward. But even if he's wrong, science comes away with more confidence in its conclusions than it had before, by virtue of successfully countering a new sort of negative argument (which can be a lot more productive than continuing to find new positive arguments). Whatever the case, you have to admire his willingness to be the target of so much outrage when he could just rest on his (substantial) laurels.
“All new ideas go through three phases,” Wilson said, with some happy mischief in his voice. “They’re first ridiculed or ignored. Then they meet outrage. Then they are said to have been obvious all along.”
Of course, that's not quite true. Most new ideas are first ridiculed or ignored, and then forgotten completely. After all, most new ideas are bad! But if all ideas are first met with ridicule, then what can we outsiders infer about the quality of this idea from the fact that it's ridiculed?



Q-tip: MR

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