‘The Superorganism’ is Back in Fashion

A New E. O. Wilson Book About Group Selection


The great biologist E. O. Wilson is releasing a new book call The Superorganism in which he is develops the group selection argument to posit the existence of higher level evolutionary units. An idea that has already been eloquently proposed by the other great Wilson (David Sloane Wilson) in Unto Others. This is going to be very interesting for us on two completely different levels…

Firstly it’s going to be interesting to see how he develops the group selection argument and whether any of it will be applicable to language evolution. Humans seem uniquely altruistic amongst species in that we seem to frequently transcend the two biological mechanisms for altruism: the genetically selfish, but phenotypically altruistic mechanisms of kin selection and reciprocal altruism. The apparent implausibility of genuine altruism has always been a difficult subject to explain and several unsuccessful attempts have been made to place our linguistic ability at the heart of our higher-level altruistic behavior.

The second reason that this is going to be interesting is that this is probably the most controversial topic in modern biology. The very idea of superorganisms and higher level selection are also excitingly radical enough to appeal to cyber culture and have begun to poke their heads out into pop psychology accounts of society. All of which really annoys the selfish gene biologists with their patient mathematics. The inheritors of the modern synthesis seemed to have dusted their hands of the subject after they made such convincing arguments for the ultimate genetic selfishness of all animal behavior. Wilson and Sober’s original book opened a can of worms for biology and I sincerely hope that Dawkins is not too busy being an evangelical atheist to have a good, old fashioned academic ding-dong with Wilson. If anything, just to remind the evolutionary biology community that this issue has neither been properly resolved, nor gone away.

For more on this see this post on Zooillogix and this great New Scientist article about the superorganism controversy

3 Responses to “‘The Superorganism’ is Back in Fashion”

  1. 1 Bruce Waldman January 13, 2008 at 1:19 am

    E.O. Wilson is not D.S. Wilson, coauthor of Unto Others – they are two different people! And kin selection theory must be attributed to W.D. Hamilton. Talk about getting things wrong!

  2. 2 languageevolution January 14, 2008 at 12:05 am

    Agreed, I was getting my Wilsons confused. That’ll teach me to blog late at night. The post has been corrected accordingly. Although I certainly wasn’t trying to pin kin selection theory on Haldane, just saying that the modern synthesis lead to a position that traditionally oposes group level selection.

  3. 3 Cave Robot March 20, 2008 at 2:27 am

    A discussion between Wilson and Dawkins on this subject would indeed be fascinating. I can think of a few ways in which the gene-centric and superorganism theories could be compatible. I look forward to seeing Wilson’s arguments.

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