Video: a snarky take on the kin selection debate

I’m very late on this, but it might be new to some readers, so here goes. Back in 2010 prominent evolutionary theorist Martin Nowak and two of his Harvard colleagues (one of whom is the even more prominent E. O. Wilson) published a lengthy and quite strident Nature paper attacking kin selection and inclusive fitness theory as an explanation for eusociality. They drew some equally strident replies (one of which had 137 signatures!), which you can find at the above link. For commentary on what became a major and ongoing fight, see here, here, here, and here (and probably lots of other places).

Or, just watch this Xtranormal video, from evolutionary biologist, evolutionary cartoonist (Darwin Eats Cake), and poet Jon F. Wilkins:

I think the video actually works very well as a concise summary of the replies to Nowak et al. And I find the snark both pretty funny and arguably justified as a response to the stridency of Nowak et al. But I can definitely see where some folks would disagree with me on both counts, particularly as some of the snark is directed at the authors of Nowak et al. rather than the content. So if you’re the sort of person who dislikes heated debates, or thinks that humor and satire have no place in scientific discourse, you’re probably better off not watching the video. But if you’re the sort of person whose reaction to heated debates is to grab some popcorn, you’ll love it.

Some astute commentary and background from Wilkins on the science and politics of this debate, and why he made the video, is here.

Do I dare make an Xtranormal video about the IDH? I’ve already got some dialogue written

p.s. Full disclosure: while I can’t claim to be an expert on this debate, I do know more about it than the average bear from my work on the Price equation. I pretty much agree with the opponents of Nowak et al. on the substantive issues.

5 thoughts on “Video: a snarky take on the kin selection debate

    • No, hadn’t seen it yet, will have a look. The authors say in the abstract that they do some new modeling, which would be my primary interest.

      In the abstract, they also make a big deal of how different diversity indices can give you different answers. But that’s obvious (different indices are different; of course they’ll behave differently), and not important anyway. If you’re doing things right and being rigorous, your chosen diversity index will be whichever one your theoretical model actually makes predictions about. Otherwise you’re not actually testing the model you think you’re testing. And if existing theory doesn’t dictate your choice, then that theory isn’t ready for primetime and isn’t really testable.

    • Ok, a quick skim reveals that one of their models is a cellular automata model, which is fine if that’s your thing, but you’d have to redo their simulations to actually figure out (in terms of modern coexistence theory) why it behaves the way it does. The other model is just simulations of the model of Kondoh 2003, which as far as I can recall is mathematically valid, although it’s just one of various possible ways in which one might model effects of disturbance. And since Kondoh already analyzed his model, I take it that the only reason they needed to simulate it is to extract its predictions for various diversity metrics. Basically, their paper isn’t about why any model behaves the way it does–they just wanted a couple of models they could use to spit out predictions about the behavior of various diversity indices.

      Their meta-analysis is weird–they only include studies that support the IDH (i.e. find a peak in some measure of diversity at intermediate disturbance levels), in order to focus on how effects of disturbance on species richness vs. evenness differ. Given that they care about richness vs. evenness, I have no idea why they don’t care about how results of other studies would be affected by the choice of richness vs. evenness.

      Bottom line: I personally don’t really see what the paper adds to our understanding of the IDH, either conceptually or empirically. It’s not that they’ve made any mistakes. I just don’t see why we should be surprised, or even care, that different diversity indices behave differently.

  1. “If there were an important scientist who had written important science that was this important, that important scientist would have been at Harvard.”

    That was pretty funny I must say.

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