27 August 2010

Please explain the end of kin selection

ResearchBlogging.orgAs an evolutionary biologist, I’m very familiar with the idea of kin selection. When I saw a paper titled “The evolution of eusociality” in the table of contents of Nature, and read the abstract saying, “Kin selection? Don’t need it,” I thought to myself, “Ooooh, this is big.”

I’ve read blog posts about it on Plektix and Wired. I listened to first author Martin Nowak being interviewed on the Nature podcast.

Novak does a good job of explaining why kin selection is invoked to invoke the evolution of sterile castes. I’ll also buy his argument that kin selection needs special conditions to work. But I have yet to read or hear a decent summary for how natural selection can pull off this feat. Novak seems to be saying that mathematically, they are the same.

The Wired article suggests that they are resorting to revived form of group selection. Third author, E.O. Wilson, has certainly been suggesting that group selection should be revived for some time (his co-author on that piece, David Sloan Wilson, is quoted in the Wired article.)

I understand that it can be hard to convey mathematical propositions verbally. But I am currently very unsatisfied with the explanations I’ve heard so far. I may not be along in this.

I am not going to have a chance to read the full paper for a while yet. The first day of our fall semester is Monday, and our library only has a subscription to the print edition of Nature.

So here is a challenge to you, fellow science bloggers! Can anyone explain the gist of this paper and how it shows natural selection explains eusociality – and do it without resorting to equations?

Additional: The Ecographica blog has critiqued the paper.

Yet more additional: Jerry Coyne tips his hand. Carl Zimmer tries to explain the fuss.


Nowak M, Tarnita C, Wilson E. 2010. The evolution of eusociality Nature 466(7310): 1057-1062. DOI: 10.1038/nature09205


Brad Walters said...

I read the paper and was very much left wanting. They make reasonable arguments that suggest that kin selection only fits the data for a small proportion of eusocial species. However, their invocation of group selection (by considering individuals to be like cells in a "superorganism") seems to be completely speculative, with no convincing data to back up the claim, merely the false dualism of: "kin selection can't explain eusociality, therefore, group selection must be the right answer." You'd think whoever reviewed this over at Nature would have really laid into a paper on Evolution that uses the same faulty logic as the ID creationists. I guess when you have a big name attached, you get a free pass.

Bjørn Østman said...

I honestly don't understand both of your criticisms here. You are not alone in the negativity, as you remark, but the criticisms that it shouldn't have gotten into Nature are weak. The paper is a fascinating read, and it does too contain pretty detailed explanations of how they propose eusociality to evolve via group selection (if you care to take another look, look for the 5 major points).

For the record, I think their explanation is interesting (as kin selection is), but my hunch is that signaling is the real requirement, not kinship nor nests, even though both of those help.