In a recent BBC radio interview, Richard Dawkins questioned the religiosity of Brits who consider themselves Christians but can’t name the first book of the New Testament. He was challenged to recall the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species and failed, even uttering “Oh, God!” as he ransacked his memory.

Does this mean that Dawkins fails to qualify as an evolutionist? Of course not. But Dawkins might fail to qualify for other reasons. Before getting to Dawkins, let’s think about how anyone qualifies as an evolutionist, which entails also functioning as a scientist. It’s not a matter of one’s training and certainly not a matter of remembering titles. It’s not a property of a person at all, but rather how a person goes about studying a particular subject. A person can easily qualify as an evolutionist on topic X but not topic Y. On this basis, I will state the bold hypothesis that Dawkins fails to qualify as an evolutionist on two topics for which he is well known: religion and selfish genes in relation to group selection. Here is some of the evidence.

Dawkins on religion: Two questions about religion concern: 1) the evidence for supernatural agents that actively intervene in physical processes and the affairs of people; and 2) the nature of religion as a human construction and its effects on human welfare. The concept of an actively intervening agent is a testable hypothesis that has been rejected again and again, starting long before Darwin. The Anglican priest William Whewell acknowledged as much in 1833, in a passage that Darwin quoted on the frontispiece of the Origin of Species. “But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this-we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.” Today, virtually all scientists and scholars avoid interventionist explanations for the topics that they study, regardless of their personal religious beliefs, a position called methodological naturalism. Dawkins is on firm scientific ground when he rejects the intervening agent hypothesis, for anyone who still needs to be told.

How Dawkins addresses the second question is another matter. In my review of The God Delusion published in Skeptic magazine, I criticized him at length for misrepresenting the nature of religion and ignoring the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction from an evolutionary perspective. In his reply, Dawkins said that he didn’t need to base his critique on evolution any more than Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks, because he was only addressing question one and not question two. That’s bogus. Dawkins holds forth on question two all the time, and when he does he’s not functioning as an evolutionist–by his own account. Atheists can depart from factual reality in their own way, and so it is for Dawkins on the subject of religion as a human construction.

Dawkins on selfish genes in relation to group selection: Dawkins first achieved fame for his book The Selfish Gene (1976), which portrays genes as “replicators” that typically survive by forming individual-level “vehicles” but can also survive in other ways, such as at the expense of other genes within the same individual or by benefitting copies of themselves in other individuals. A major objective of The Selfish Gene was to argue against a theory known as group selection, whereby traits such as altruism evolve “for the good of the group”, despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups. Dawkins and others at the time regarded the replicator concept as a drop-dead argument against group selection, but it soon proved to be nothing of the sort. In a genetic group selection model, the altruistic trait has a genetic basis, just like any other trait; the genes merely require a process of between-group selection to evolve when they are selectively neutral or disadvantageous within groups. When this happens, the genes for the altruistic trait are more fit than the genes for the selfish trait, all things considered, and therefore quality as selfish at the genetic level, as Dawkins defines selfish genes. Put another way, an argument against group selection framed in terms of selfish gene theory doesn’t depend upon the status of genes as replicators (which is always the case) but upon whether groups can qualify as vehicles of selection.

This is ancient history for just about everyone except Dawkins. He’s still claiming that the replicator concept counts as an argument against group selection, as if he can do so merely by decree. See these three posts on my Evolution for Everyone blog (I,II,III) for more.

This reveals another reason why Dawkins is not functioning as an evolutionist or a scientist on these subjects. Science is not just about how an individual goes about studying something; it is a social process. Individuals are expected to be as objective as possible, but it’s only human nature to become wedded to one’s own hypothesis. That’s why a peer review process is required for scientists to hold each other accountable. Yet, few evolutionists are willing to hold Dawkins accountable for what he says about religion or group selection on the public stage, even when his utterances would never survive the peer review process. Dawkins is not an evolutionist in part because no one is keeping him within bounds.

One objective of THIS VIEW OF LIFE is to set a new standard for science journalism that brings it closer to the standard of the scientific peer review process. The RELIGION section will report the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction and its impacts upon human welfare from an evolutionary perspective. Multilevel selection will make its appearance in numerous sections, since it is fundamental to the evolution of all social processes in humans and nonhuman species. A person doesn’t qualify as an evolutionist on subject X just because they have their PhD in evolution and earned a distinguished reputation by studying subject Y, or even subject X for that matter. It depends upon what they are saying about subject X now and on how accountable they are being held by their scientific peers. That goes for everyone—including Richard Dawkins.

Published On: March 5, 2012

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.


  • Sam says:

    What does “fails to quality” mean”

  • rkadar says:

    Sam- Thanks for spotting this! smile The word was “qualify”.

  • MythicMeats.com says:

    @Patrik Lindenfors – How is a reasoned, evidenced based argument a ‘caricature’? I would imagine Dawkins is more than invited to respond smile

  • Patrik Lindenfors says:

    Well, regarding the first point (about religion) Dawkins has already answered – an answer here dismissed as “bogus”. Regarding the second question (about selfish genes) what Dawkins dismissed (old-fashioned group selection where one actually died or did not reproduce for the good of the group) and what DS Wilsom advocates (multilevel selection, where selection acts on many levels) are not the same thing. On both these accounts, DS Wilson’s description are a caricature, not “a reasoned, evidenced based argument.”

    I hope caricature is not what is referred to by “One objective of THIS VIEW OF LIFE is to set a new standard for science journalism.”

  • Patrik Lindenfors says:

    Is this magazine really to be the vehicle for D.S. Wilson’s muddling of the group selection issue or will you allow real discussion on these pages? Let Dawkins answer and write what he really stands for instead of letting this caricature stand.

  • evolutionist1 says:

    It seems disingenuous to deny the label “evolutionist” to someone on the grounds that you disagree with them, even when your disagreement is based on logic and evidence, and even if you happen to be right.  There will always be disagreement in science, and, regarding the status of “truth,” someone at least some of the time, must be wrong.  Does this mean that “scientists” are those who get it right, while those who get it wrong are not scientists?  In addition to the question of “who gets it right” is the question of “how do we know who is right?”  Because the quest for knowledge is never over, we are never justified in determining that others are fully wrong or that we are fully right.  As you acknowledge, science is a social process, and it is a process that continually unfolds. 

    What is an evolutionist anyway?  Merriam-Webster defines it as “a student of or adherent to a theory of evolution.”  Do you happen to have privileged information indicating that this does not apply to Dawkins?  Because all of his writings seem to indicate that the label is appropriate.  It is all too evident that science IS a social process, and this comes with the positives AND negatives of social processes, such as categorization of others and in-group/out-group behavior.  Ironically, your out-group derogation of Dawkins and his ilk only mirrors their own towards you and your colleagues.  They’ve worked hard to keep you out of the journals, now you want to deny them the label of evolutionist.  Social process indeed.

    You claim that being an evolutionist “depends upon what they are saying about subject X, and on how accountable they are being held by their scientific peers.”  Dawkins has published widely on genetic level selection, and you have published widely on group-selection.  What does this tell us?  It tells me that the issue for you is not about peer-review, but about your disagreement with “what [Dawkins is] saying about subject X.”  Well then, since you want to define an “evolutionist” as critically dependent upon what someone is saying about subject X, you next task is to set the allowable parameters for what evolutionists can and cannot say.  My guess is that you would (wisely) prefer to let this be shaped by the peer-review process, but if we come back to this, then I’m afraid all the evidence suggests that this post is just the most recent jab between two evolutionists [you and Dawkins] who just really don’t like each other.  can we get on with the science now?

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks for the comments so far. All of us should be able to recognize claims that are scientifically invalid. Examples include young earth creationism, belief in a flat earth, and denial of continental drift. An invalid claim about group selection is that traits evolve “for the good of the group” without requiring special conditions. We call this “naïve group selection”, we say that it is wrong, and we flunk our students when they get it wrong on their tests.

    Another invalid claim is that selfish genes count as an argument against group selection. That was an honest mistake 50 years ago, just as naïve group selection was an honest mistake 70 years ago, but science has progressed and now both claims are naïve.  A competent teacher would flunk a student who said that group selection doesn’t work because genes are replicators. If Dawkins claims to reject group selection because “genes are still central”, then he flunks too.

    People find it hard to believe that someone as prestigious as Dawkins can say something so wrong. They assume that his position must be legitimate and that I must therefore be disingenuous to call him scientifically invalid on this particular topic. I invite readers to consult the work of evolutionists currently publishing on the subject of group selection, including critics such as Stuart West or Andy Gardner, to see if they agree with Dawkins on this point.  They don’t, although they are reluctant to say so in print. Hence the need for my article.

  • David Greene says:

    As Dr. Wilson says, many scientists may be reluctant to say things in print because the issue in question, while being debated as a matter of how to conceptualize group selection, is an instance of a broader issue, a commitment to a reductionist perspective toward science. When I was first taught about science in the 1950s, reductionism was literally equated with the enterprise of science. Just as the worldview of evolution has been fighting an uphill battle against prior beliefs since the mid-19th century, the metaphysics of multiple levels of reality seems invisible or intractable to reductionists. To those of us who view the natural world through the lenses of evolution and ecology, reductionism is “the enemy” in the battle to re-educate old-school thinkers. This is not the kind of discussion that will advance any scientist’s career within “normal science” publishing discourse.

    I don’t know how or where on this site a topic like reductionism is most appropriately discussed. Any suggestions?

  • David Pinsof says:

    Dr. Wilson,

    If Dawkins did say something along the lines of “group selection doesn’t work because genes are replicators,” then I agree, he would be mistaken. But since you do not pin a quotation on him in which he expounds this mistaken view, it is not unreasonable for a reader to assume that this is a caricature. Indeed, I cannot remember any passage in The Selfish Gene where he says that selfish gene theory refutes group selection (though perhaps I might have missed something). If I remember correctly, his argument was not “genes are selected, therefore group selection doesn’t work”; but rather it was “any group of altruistic individuals is vulnerable to being overrun by selfish exploiters, both within the group, and via migration from outside the group.” Whether or not you agree with this argument, it is a far more reasonable challenge to the theory of group selection than the mistaken view you attack. So until you present some evidence that Dawkins holds this mistaken view, I will agree with the previous commenter that you are doing nothing but attacking a caricature.

  • Gerstle says:


    As another commenter has already suggested, arguing that Richard Dawkins is not functioning as an ‘evolutionist’ is unreasonable. That is an identity that you claim for him (and yourself), but that he does not. Considering the “bounds” of that identity are so poorly defined, I wouldn’t either.

    As for his failure to function as a scientist, he has been explicit (and you note the same thing here) that his antagonism toward religion is a personal conviction, not a scientific claim. He is an influential person, but entitled to his own perspective, regardless of whether or not you agree. You need to recognize that people simultaneously hold professional and non-professional convictions, especially since you so frequently straddle that line in your own arguments.

    I do not understand how (or why) scientific journalism could (or should) be subject to a peer review process. You’ve already argued that the peer review process is biased (against group selection, etc) – it would seem that scientific journalism is a way of pointing out such biases, and should not be roped-in by experts concerned about their professions and reputations.

    Finally, you respond to the comments above by foregrounding Dawkins’ skepticism about group selection, but ignoring the fact that you have presented him as deserting his professional responsibilities and misinforming the public. If you are (as it would seem) throwing down the gauntlet so that Dawkins comes to his own defense – you had better come up with a better backup plan than this, which is a pretty tired song and dance anyway.

  • evolutionist1 says:

    Regarding previous commenter, Dawkins does NOT make this claim in the chapter on Immortal Coils.  I am still waiting for a definitive quotation from Dawkins in which he says that group selection cannot occur *because* genes are stable units of selection.  Why can’t anyone just provide a quotation of Dawkins saying something like, “group-selection cannot occur because genes are the unit of selection.”  That’s all you have to do!  Please!  then we will be done with all of this!!  I would actually really appreciate this because it’s an important question, but I don’t see it anywhere and no one here has provided any evidence of it.  Am I the only one here interested in directly and accurately quoting the people to whom I refer?

    -Dawkins, from the chapter on Immortal Coils: “Some people object to what they see as an excessively gene-centred view of evolution. After all, they argue, it is whole individuals with all their genes who actually live or die. I hope I have said enough in this chapter to show that there is really no disagreement here” (45). This last sentence is important because the same logic applies, by extension, to groups as just-larger vehicles than individuals.  And to repeat the quotation from my previous post, from Dawkins ch. 1: “…whether or not a group goes extinct may be influenced by the behavior of the individuals in that group.” “But group extinction is a slow process…”  Now, I KNOW that group selectionists do not hold that group “extinction” is a necessary condition for group selection to take place, but this is not the issue here.  The point is that Dawkins on more than one occasion recognizes that:
    1) selection pressures DO exist at higher levels (e.g. the individual-level and group level);
    2) selection pressures at lower levels TEND to undermine pressures at higher levels;
    3) AND ultimately all of these dynamics can be explained (as both Wilson and Dawkins agree) as “the process by which some genes become more numerous and others less numerous in the gene pool (Immortal Coils, 45).”

  • Notanevolutionist says:

    Dawkins makes the following argument in the third chapter of The Selfish Gene titled Immortal Coils:
    P1: Genes are stable units of inheritance
    P2: Groups are not stable units of inheritance
    C: Therefore selection for a trait at the group level is close to impossible

    Dr. Wilson’s critique of Dawkin’s replicators appears correct. That is, units of inheritance, whether it be genes, individuals or groups, are not consequential for determining if a trait evolves by within group selection or between group selection – An ‘altruistic’ gene (replicator) still requires between group selection to ‘outcompete’ within group selection for it to evolve.
    What a blunder by Dawkins!

  • evolutionist1 says:

    I decided to go back and check The Selfish Gene, and in that volume I was unable to find evidence of Dawkins rejecting group selection directly and exclusively as a consequence of the fact that natural selection operates at the level of the gene. Actually, it was surprisingly hard to come by a discussion of group selection at all in The Selfish Gene. Out of 332 pages, I found only 10 pages on which group selection is explicitly discussed at all. For example, Dawkins says: “The individual-selectionist would admit that groups do indeed die out, and that whether or not a group goes extinct may be influenced by the behavior of the individuals in that group…But group extinction is a slow process compared with the rapid cut and thrust of individual competition” (8). In other words, in Dawkins’ view, within-group selection often trumps between-group selection. Dawkins felt genetic selection more useful as a consequence of such dynamics, but he still recognized that the balance of selection pressures between the two levels is what matters.  He never says in The Selfish Gene that group selection cannot happen *because* genes are the unit of selection. This is a simplification, and indeed it makes no sense. In ‘Truth and Reconciliation X’ You have said: “Williams didn’t reject group selection because only genes are replicators, but because (according to his assessment) within-group selection invariably trumps between-group selection. Genes are the replicators regardless of which level of selection prevails!” Dawkins does not contravene this in The Selfish Gene. Dawkins believes that within-group selection almost invariably trumps between-group selection, while you believe that the conditions under which between-group selection can favor altruism are more plausible. That’s all there is to it. No need to revoke anyone’s “evolutionist” card here.

    In ‘Truth and Reconciliation XI’ you argue that Dawkins provides no proof that between-group selection is no match for within-group selection. You are absolutely correct. The contribution of Williams (1966) and Maynard Smith (1976) in this regard was to outline the conditions that must hold for between-group selection to trump within-group selection. Since then, these conditions have been updated and refined, but it remains an empirical question, without a doubt. HOWEVER, back in T&R X, you said: “If multilevel selection theory tells us anything, it is that adaptations at level X of the biological hierarchy require a corresponding process of natural selection at the same level and TEND TO BE undermined by selection at lower levels” [emphasis added]. This is essentially the same argument that Dawkins makes (selection at lower levels tend to undermine selection at higher levels), but in T&R XI you attack Dawkins for not having proof! So which is it? Does selection at higher levels TEND to be undermined by selection at lower levels, or is it an empirical question? The answer of course is that both are correct. One is a valid generalization, the other speaks to the validity of particular cases. Again, independent of whoever is “right” here (rarely in science are we so privileged as to hold such a position), I see no evidence that either you or Dawkins is not an evolutionist.

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks for the latest round of comments—which are very civil and “above the belt”, by the way smile

    For me, the use of selfish genes to argue against group selection is established at the very beginning of The Selfish Gene” in this passage:

    “This book will show how both individual selfishness and individual altruism are explained by the fundamental law that I am calling gene selfishness. But first I must deal with a particular erroneous explanation for altruism, because it is widely known, and even widely taught in schools. This explanation is based on the misconception that I have already mentioned, that living creatures evolve to do things ‘for the good of the species’ or ‘for the good of the group’.”

    Dawkins clearly believes in this passage that “the fundamental law of gene selfishness” offers an explanation of altruism that does not invoke group selection. He rejects group selection for the standard reasons, but he doesn’t realize that whenever altruism evolves in a selfish gene model, the logic of within- and between-group selection is being invoked. “The fundamental law of gene selfishness has nothing to do with it”.

    Dawkins was merely reporting the received wisdom in The Selfish Gene. Everyone was trying to explain altruism “without invoking group selection” which was almost a mandatory phrase at the time. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that people began to realize that all evolutionary theories of social behavior invoke the logic of multilevel selection: Multiple groups, altruism selectively disadvantageous within groups, and the need for group-level selection for altruism to evolve in the total population. The “gene as the fundamental unit of selection” has no bearing upon multilevel selection. Neither does inclusive fitness theory or evolutionary game theory, which all correctly predict what evolves in the total population but make you have to dig a little to see the selective disadvantage of altruism within groups. People who made this discovery independently included George Price, William Hamilton, Richard Michod (for kin selection as a form of group selection) and myself.

    Oren Harman’s highly praised book “The Price of Altruism” tells the story of Price and Hamilton’s discovery and notes Dawkins’ inability to accept kin selection as a form of group selection, which he also continues to maintain along with his “genes still central” stance.


  • Tim Tyler says:

    David Sloan Wilson, kin selection is not necessarily a form of group selection – IF you use the definitions of J. Maynard Smith (1964) where he originally coined the phrase “kin selection”.

    Maynard Smith wrote: “The distinction between kin selection and group selection as here defined is that for kin selection the division of the population into partially isolated breeding groups is a favourable but not an essential condition, whereas it is an essential condition for group selection’.”

    Of course, you may redefine these terms, but it is best to be clear about doing that – so as to avoid confusion.

  • evolutionist1 says:

    You misunderstand me. Let me repeat myself, from above: “I decided to go back and check The Selfish Gene, and in that volume I was unable to find evidence of Dawkins rejecting group selection directly and exclusively as a consequence of the fact that natural selection operates at the level of the gene.”
    Pay attention to the last 22 words of that sentence, because this is the heart of the matter.
    Here and there you offer examples of Dawkins refuting group selection as a significant evolutionary force.
    However, *it is not disputed* that Dawkins rejects the prevalence and significance of group selection; the issue is whether he rejects group selection *directly* as a consequence of the fact that genes are the only true replicators and units of selection. He does not. I see no evidence otherwise in The Selfish Gene or The Extended Phenotype, which have been the main texts accused of making this claim.
    Again, you say, “Allow me to quote a couple of other passages from ‘The Selfish Gene’ in case you are still in doubt about Dawkins’ unequivocal rejection of group selection in that book”
    Again, I say: whether Dawkins rejects group selection as a significant and prevalent evolutionary force is not in question. Indeed he does, but not *because* genes are the unit of selection.
    Dawkins rejects that groups can be replicators; instead, they are vehicles. This is plain as day in The Extended Phenotype, and even Wilson has acknowledged this. Vehicles can be targets of selection, and dynamics at the inter-group level can influence the directional change of gene frequencies. Groups can be such vehicles, and as vehicles, the dynamics between groups would therefore influence the directional change in the frequencies of genes (as the undeniable units of selection). This is just a jargony way of saying group selection is possible under certain conditions. Dawkins would butt in here and say, ‘yes but within-group selection is usually faster and more powerful,’ then group selectionists would say, ‘not always or necessarily!’ and so on and so forth. this is a debate about the conditions under which group selection is possible, NOT a debate about whether the gene as the unit of selection somehow nullifies group selection as an evolutionary process.

  • evolutionist1 says:

    Doug, thank you for reminding us that Dawkins rejects group selection. No one disagrees that he rejects group selection. The question is not WHETHER he does, but HOW he does.

    Wilson, from original post: “Put another way, an argument against group selection framed in terms of selfish gene theory doesn’t depend upon the status of genes as replicators (which is always the case) but upon whether groups can qualify as vehicles of selection.”
    “[Dawkins is] still claiming that the replicator concept counts as an argument against group selection…”
    My view: Dawkins does not make the argument that group selection cannot operate *because* genes are replicators.

    You seem to agree with me that Dawkins makes no references to the 22 words or their spirit. so I’m glad, because that’s exactly my point.

    Wilson, from Pugilistic Science: “Dawkins did acknowledge that group selection is a matter of vehicles, not replicators, in The Extended Phenotype, published in 1982. That’s why I was surprised when he took it back in 2007”
    My view: I agree completely! everything seems to come back to this little paragraph dawkins wrote in one of his heated shoot-backs. I would be the first to agree that Dawkins is wrong here if this is what he meant. the problem is it’s not in any of his other publications.

  • Doug Drake says:

    “You misunderstand me…Pay attention to the last 22 words of that sentence, because this is the heart of the matter.”
    I fail to see how you divined that I misunderstood the 22 words in question when I didn’t refer to or comment on them at all.  Let me remind you of the part of your comment that I did address, and I quote, “Actually, it was surprisingly hard to come by a discussion of group selection at all in The Selfish Gene.”  Here I can only wonder which version of the book you were referring to.  There are numerous references to group selection in the index of my copy, and all the quotes I mentioned in my earlier reply were taken from the very first chapter, consisting of a grand total of 11 pages.  I assume that the comments here relate to Prof. Wilson’s original post.  Again, your 22 words are not relevant to that post.  Prof. Wilson said, “A major objective of The Selfish Gene was to argue against a theory known as group selection.”  He did not say, “A major objective of The Selfish Gene was to argue against a theory known as group selection directly and exclusively as a consequence of the fact that natural selection operates at the level of the gene.”  Again, referring to his original post, I agreed with with his statement as he actually made it, and demonstrated why it is true.  If Dawkins said, as he indeed did say, that several of the most significant scientists and writers on the subject of innate human nature of the time were “totally and utterly wrong” because they believed in group selection, period, without any reference whatsoever to your famous 22 words, and if he said, as he indeed did say, that believers in the theory of group selection “got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works,” period, again with no elaboration regarding the 22 words, it seems to me that Prof. Wilson, and any other fair minded reader, for that matter, is justified in concluding that Dawkins “argued against a theory known as group selection.” 
    I don’t doubt for a moment that Dawkins’ latter day apologists can find some straw in the book to grasp at in support of their claim that he really didn’t mean all that stuff he said in chapter one, and that he accepted group selection, albeit grudgingly and in limited circumstances, after all.  In reply I can only say that the words he wrote on the subject are quite clear and unqualified, and they speak for themselves. 
    Other than that (pace Prof. Wilson), I must admit I agree with Jerry Coyne’s rebuttal for the most part.  Dawkins was under no obligation to take up Prof. Wilson’s favorite ideas on religion in “The God Delusion.”  My main problem with the book was that it was blemished with the crude anti-Americanism prevalent among European intellectuals at the time.  He even went so far as to swallow a silly urban legend about former Secretary of the Interior James Watt that was palpably bogus, and tried to retail it as the truth, referring to “the famous environmental policy of Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior: ‘We don’t have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand.’”  I’m surprised anyone claiming to be a scientist could pass on such “famous” stuff as the truth without fact checking it.  It would have taken him all of a few seconds on Google.

  • Doug Drake says:

    “I decided to go back and check The Selfish Gene, and in that volume I was unable to find evidence of Dawkins rejecting group selection directly and exclusively as a consequence of the fact that natural selection operates at the level of the gene. Actually, it was surprisingly hard to come by a discussion of group selection at all in The Selfish Gene.” 

    Evidently you weren’t reading too closely, or cognitive dissidence set in when you ran across the key passages.  For example, from “The Selfish Gene,” in a discussion of the importance of selfishness and altruism,

    “These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s “On Aggression,” Ardrey’s “The Social Contract,” and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s “Love and Hate.”  The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong.  They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works.  They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).”

    I really don’t see how this bald statement that the theory of group selection is “totally and utterly wrong” can leave much wiggle room as far as Dawkins opinion on the matter is concerned.  This particular quote has an interesting history, by the way.  It was used by Pinker in his book, “The Blank Slate,” to dismiss the entire intellectual legacy of Robert Ardrey root and branch, in a single sentence, even though group selection was never more than a sidelight in his work.  In other words, Pinker was capable of writing a thick tome purporting to be about the Blank Slate while managing to ignore the role of the most significant opponent of Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday in all but a single sentence.  Certainly a virtuoso performance. 

    And how do I know that Ardrey was the Blank Slate’s most significant opponent?  You certainly don’t have to take my word for it.  It’s all nicely documented in an invaluable little book by the Blank Slaters themselves, edited by Ashley Montagu, and still available at Amazon for about a buck.  For example, from an essay in the book by Geoffrey Gorer,
    “Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser or the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.”

    Of course, today Ardrey, is an unperson, thanks in part, as noted above, to Dawkins’ hard over position on group selection.  After all, Ardrey was a mere playwright, and to admit the crucial role he played would be to offend the academic gravitas of any number of worthy professors emeritus who really had been “totally and utterly wrong” about human nature when Ardrey was right. 

    But I digress.  Allow me to quote a couple of other passages from “The Selfish Gene” in case you are still in doubt about Dawkins’ unequivocal rejection of group selection in that book.  Speaking of the theories of his opponents, he writes,

    “To put it in a slightly more respectable way, a group, such as a species or a population within a species, whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first.  Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals.  This is the theory of ‘group selection’, long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open in a famous book by V. C. Wynne-Edwards, and popularized by Robert Ardrey in the Social Contract.”

    Not much wiggle room there, either, is there, unless Dawkins meant to inform his readers that he is not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory?  Here’s another remarkable example:

    “Robert Ardrey, in ‘The Social Contract,’ used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general.  He clearly sees man as a species that has strayed from the path of animal righteousness.  Ardrey at least did his homework.  His decision to disagree with orthodox theory was a conscious one, and for this he deserves credit.”

    Here I really don’t know what on earth Dawkins was talking about.  He was either deliberately lying, or he never actually read “The Social Contract.”  The idea that Ardrey used that book, “to account for the whole of social order in general” is the purest fantasy.

    In a word, evolutionist1, while I disagree with Prof. Wilson’s claims that Dawkins is occasionally not an evolutionist for my own reasons, I must insist that he is on very firm ground when he claims that, ” A major objective of The Selfish Gene was to argue against a theory known as group selection.”

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments, which partially inspired my newest article titled “Why is everyone still so muddled about selfish genes?” Let’s move the conversation over there—and hit above the belt :}

  • Tim Tyler says:

    Dawkins said: “On The Origin Of Species. There is a subtitle with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

    Close enough for government work.

  • Tim Tyler says:

    Dawkins said: ‘On The Origin Of Species. There is a subtitle with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.’

    Close enough for government work.

  • RoY Niles says:

    Dawkins once wrote:
    “There are causal arrows leading from genes to body. But there is no causal arrow leading from body to genes.”
    He may be an evolutionist, but if the requirement is to be a good one, he isn’t.

  • Barin Pike says:

    Dawkins wrote:
    “There are causal arrows leading from genes to body. But there is no causal arrow leading from body to genes.”

    Not an old fashion religionist, just an old fashioned evolutionist.

  • Roy Niles says:

    Dawkins: “There are causal arrows leading from genes to body. But there is no causal arrow leading from body to genes.”

    ‘Nuff said.


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  • Shona Graham says:

    Neither of you are scientists. Scienc e sticks to what is provable, God is not provable in scientific terms no mention of God or religion as something falsifiable is scientific. Science is no more the toy of atheists than it is the toy of creationists.

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