Journal Article

Why Won't the Group Selection Controversy Go Away?

Samir Okasha

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 52, issue 1, pages 25-50
Published in print March 2001 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online March 2001 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/bjps/52.1.25
Why Won't the Group Selection Controversy Go Away?

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The group selection controversy is about whether natural selection ever operates at the level of groups, rather than at the level of individual organisms. Traditionally, group selection has been invoked to explain the existence of altruistic behaviour in nature. However, most contemporary evolutionary biologists are highly sceptical of the hypothesis of group selection, which they regard as biologically implausible and not needed to explain the evolution of altruism anyway. But in their recent book, Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson [1998] argue that the widespread opposition to group selection is founded on conceptual confusion. The theories that have been propounded as alternatives to group selection are actually group selection in disguise, they maintain. I examine their arguments for this claim, and John Maynard Smith's arguments against it. I argue that Sober and Wilson arrive at a correct position by faulty reasoning. In the final section, I examine the issue of how to apply the principle of natural selection at different levels of the biological hierarchy, which underlies the dispute between Sober and Wilson and Maynard Smith.

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Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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