The Selfless Gene: Evolutionary Theory Reconsidered

Harvard University myrmecologist—that’s right, he studies ants—Edward O. Wilson has created a deep schism in the field of evolutionary biology. His latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth [1], released this April, advances a theory of group selection, at odds with the field’s former consensus and, indeed, Wilson’s own fifty-year corpus of Pulitzer Prize-winning books and groundbreaking research. Opposing Wilson stands Oxford University evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, famous (before his radical atheist days) for his theory of “inclusive fitness,” also known as kin selection, which he proposed in his landmark 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Now, the two are duking it out in an article war that started with Dawkins’s biting review of Wilson’s recent traitorous book.

After thirty years of relative unanimity, the field of sociobiology is split between its two fathers, and the resulting debate has profound implications for our understanding of human nature. From Dawkins’s perspective, human society is nothing more than an accumulation of selfish individuals. From Wilson’s, it’s a sea of ambivalent individuals perpetually torn between serving self and society. I daresay we hope the latter to be the case.

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