Friday Roundup

  • “…I find this story distressing…”  Me too.
  • For television, Mad Men was genius—a work of art.  I will miss it. (Spoilers)
  • Rene Girard on desire and consumerism…
  • I stand with Dean…I stand with his right to speak and not be silenced even though I disagree with his atheism.
  • Interesting discussion here and here on altruism and group selection…
  • Another reason the recent pew research findings probably don’t mean what some people think…
  • Girard on myth



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18 Responses to Friday Roundup

  1. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Thanks for the Connor Wood links.. so far a very good and accurate article. I wonder what you make of it.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    I don't really know at this point. As an untrained observer, I always get the sense that the two sides in these sorts of scientific or debates over biology and evolution are concerned about what their findings might mean outside biology and science. In other words, what does group selection or inclusive fitness mean if applied to life in general, economics, law, war and peace, and so on. I'm looking forward to his other essays, but I do not know enough here to comment in depth.

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  3. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Yes, there is some wider concern and interest, but I think the primary concern remains whether one or the other theory can be properly formulated to explain the proximal topics- evolution in the various organisms that biologists study. I'm on the group selection side.. the elegance of individual-only selection seems belied by a great deal of activity at the level of groups, like genocide, war, social traits, etc. So the sort of absolutism pushed by the individual-only camp seems quite problematic.. it is mostly true, but not always and only true. Anyhow, it will be interesting to read where he goes with this.

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  4. Darrell says:

    Interesting indeed. Thanks for the snap-shot of what is sort of involved in the differences.

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  5. Hi Burk

    I was interested in what your take on this would be. I've not attempted to look at the maths on this, but have a prejudice towards the selection at the level of the gene approach, at least when it comes to the slow accumulation of apparent design over time.

    Dawkins, in his review of the Wilson book, uses the example of Red and Grey squirrels. While the Grey squirrel, when introduced, drives out the Red squirrel population, and so its numbers, and the frequency of its trademark gene combinations, spreads, it's not immediately clear to me in what sense we could say adaptation has occurred. The question of how the Grey squirrel acquired the characteristics that led to it having a survival edge in the new environment seems to me to be best answered by thinking in terms of how various mutations have over time spread through the Grey squirrel population, so altering its phenotype.

    I'm not sure anyone would argue we don't see groups displacing one another, but can this process of displacement of itself contribute to the spread of novel characteristics? That's the bit I don't understand about group selection theory, anyway, but I say that from a position of relative ignorance. If you have a link or quick explanation, that'd be of real interest to me.

    Bernard

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  6. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard-

    Let me start with a reductio on the gene-centered view. Genes are not really fundamental, since they have pieces and many moving parts- enhancers, promoters, UTR's, etc., etc. They are built up out of nucleotides that can get shuffled around by recombination, and each of which have distinct phenotypic profiles. Cutting edge medicine is busy compiling all the various mutations/variations that have medical effects, of which there can be a large variety even from individual nucleotides in the same gene.

    So is the nucleotide the “unit of selection”? It is sort of the unit of heritability, ultimately. But there is really no way to interpret it as a unit of selection, typically. The question of the unit or level of selection is a very tricky one, almost theological in its convolutions. But my view is that of multi-level selection, where whatever is visible to natural selection is the level being selected, whatever one considers the heritable unit. So the individual is frequently the unit of selection, as the individual either has offspring or not, in binary way, or lives or dies, etc. The individual is made up of traits, and selection sort of acts on those traits, but those traits are yoked together into an individual, just as nucleotides are typically yoked together into a gene to make up that unit of selection.

    Which is to say that, while recombination can shuffle things around over the long run, there are a lot of other genes that get dragged down when one or a few genes cause the host organism to be selected against. This creates an incentive for those genes to cooperate, most of the time. For this reason, genes tend to modular, able to work in any genetic environment. You do not have the liver detox enzymes refusing to work if the host has blue eyes, for instance.. that would be counter-productive. So there is an extensive amount of cooperation on this (gene and cellular) level, due to the effetive level of selection being very often at the individual organism.

    Likewise at the higher group levels. We form social groups, and we, historically and evidently prehistorically, have succeeded or died on the basis of the competence and coherence of those groups. So they form a level of selection- group selection. I think this means that we are genetically adapted to have a variety of psychological traits that enable such groups to be effective, for clear selective reasons, as argument that applies to our propensity for religion- for binding ourselves into groups based on tribalistic narratives and ideologies, particularly those with authority figures to which we submit.

    Mechanistically, the tendency of one group to kill other groups seems to me a strong argument for group selection in our case. Game theory has shown pretty well that if you add in propensity to punish cheaters to the various pro-social tendencies, (killing heretics and apostates, for example, not just cowards and criminals), one gets coherent groups that beat out other groups and thus rationalize the evolution of such traits in the group's individuals, all due to their selection at the level of the group.

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  7. Thanks Burk

    Interesting. This would be the wrong forum for an extended discussion. My question remains regarding the mechanism by which a particularly propensity, which ultimately useful for the group, first spreads through the group. Because there is no foresight involved, must not there be an advantage to the individual initially, in order for that propensity to take hold within the group? That, as best as I cna tell, is the objection made against group selection as a force for design.

    Bernard

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  8. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard-

    Well, I think this forum would be elevated, if anything!

    But briefly, the mechanism is death. If organisms/genes/nucleotides are killed for lack of some trait that others have, whether relevant on the cellular, individual, or group level, selection is taking place. As for how such traits might arise, there are lots of lower-order social properties that are helpful to organisms, which can be built upon. Like simple herding, communal nesting, etc. Like other complex properties, if you think about it, and observe other species, you can see plausible or actual routes from the simple to the complex.

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  9. Darrell says:

    Oh, you two are elevating alright. I can barely stand the heights they are so great. (smiley face)

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  10. Hi Burk

    I wonder if this isn't, at least in part, one of those issues where some of the heat is created by both sides assuming the other to be making greater claims than they are. The 'lower order social properties that are helpful to organisms' may well be all those opposing group selection are referring to, that design can't get to the group stage unless it first exhibits these benefits at the lower level. Equally, it may be that proponents levels of selection may wish only to make the point that once these benefits spread within a group, this group's comparative advantage can in turn ramp up the spreading as one group outcompetes the other.

    Or, it may be there is a much more fundamental difference, and the hint of mathematicians at dawn rather suggests this may be the case. If so, I'm not sufficiently acquainted with the mathematics in this case to hold an opinion, but I'll be interested to read more as this unfolds.

    Bernard

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  11. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard-

    As a general proposition, I think mathematical logic is trumped by evolutionary and biological logic.. math is descriptive, and its premises are all imported from domain knowledge, which is as yet far from complete in biology. So unlike more complete systems like physics, the math seems to me a sort of a secondary method of description. Which is not to say that evolutionary biologists are not completely serious about their use of math, but it is a bit similar (and even less secure) than its use by economists, where we are finding increasingly that “mathiness” does not resolve or even illuminate issues with the underlying premises and political context.

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  12. Darrell says:

    “…where we are finding increasingly that “mathiness” does not resolve or even illuminate issues with the underlying premises and political context.”

    So not everything can be reduced to math? And there are underlying philosophical presuppositions involved (narratives), which touch other areas of life?

    My goodness, you're beginning to sound like me Burk…

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  13. Hi Burk

    One thing maths can do, I think, is test the feasibility of biological propositions. I think this has been particularly true in terms of testing models for mutation rates and so forth I'm doubtless a little biased in this area having worked a year at The Alan Wilson Centre).

    If there are problems with the mathematical assumptions underlying the kin selection model, that should at least give pause for thought, I'd imagine. That said, I'm not familiar with what the maths are in this case, so it would be foolish to prejudge the importance of maths here (there are some areas in Economics where maths is vital, just as there are areas where it leads to hopeless naivety).

    Bernard

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  14. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard-

    Well, congratulations.. that is excellent experience. I don't think that there is anything wrong with the kin selection math, per se. The problem is that our social capacities seem to far outstrip what it can justify by itself. Am I going to give large amounts of money to my cousins? No. But I may volunteer enormous amounts of time to help strangers, or lay down my life for my country, etc. Perhaps all this can be justified by a sort of fake-out selection where what was selected in the very small group setting, where everyone was related, now expresses itself as the same instincts directed on a wider social horizon. That is not implausible, but it still seems incomplete.

    For example, there are great advantages that accrue, sexually and materially, to leaders of groups. Every public official scandal reminds us of it, not to mention history- Genghis khan, etc. This is not captured very well by kin selection, (I think), but is a force that is likely to have selected for social skills that have general power, not confined to relatives.

    A good link..
    http://blog.oup.com/2015/01/kin-group-selection-controversy/

    To take the Dawkins example on step further, if the red squirrels were to form armies and kill off the gray squirrels one by one, would you call the resulting reversal of fortune (& gene frequencies) group selection?

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  15. Burk

    I'm sure there's also a tendency to want to over-explain, in that we wonder how every behavioural tendency we identify came to be selected for. Whereas, as you know, when it comes to something as complex as social interaction, one selected behaviour can both bring along an awful lot of other tendencies, and a selected behaviour can manifest itself in novel ways when the background environment changes. So, for example, a combination of the capacity to behave with automatic courage, and an ability to absorb and adhere to the narratives of one's tribe (which both have clear individual survival benefits) might, in a certain context, lead to a patriotic willingness to die for country. I'm not for one moment suggesting this is the solution, all is necessarily speculative at this level, but we're perhaps too quick to find puzzles where there are none.

    As for the red squirrels, the question would become, how did the ability to organise into armies arise in this population. Was it enabled by a genetic trait that therefore spread by differences in individual survival rates?

    Bernard

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  16. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard.. absolutely…

    With the squirrels, perhaps we can take army-making as a given, due to some genetic event.. an army gene, if you will. Given that, will it succeed or not succeed, and if it does, does that represent group selection?

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  17. Hi Burk

    Yes, I'd have no problem referring to this sort of spread of traits as group selection and it is, I suspect, exactly the kind of group selection both sides accept as occurring. The argument, as I read it, lies more in the relative power of the various selection levels, particularly with regards to design.

    Thanks for discussing this. A happy diversion form matter theological.

    Bernard

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  18. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard-

    But what I understand as the proposition from the “other”, Dawkins side is that there is no such thing as group selection, no levels at all other than the .. gene, individual.. take your pick. The multilevel crowd doesn't posit that group selection is everything by any means, only that it exists and can account for maintenance of traits that appear to have a group-level rationale.

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