Are deans committing the same error as hen breeders? (UPDATED)

Jeremy’s link on group-level selection at Sears reminded me of a wonderful analogy I heard. It is not mine, and I wish I could remember whose it was to properly attribute it, but it was two sentences in a conversation 10+ years ago. The details I’ve filled in since with my own research. As I recall it was a fairly big name in group selection, maybe David Sloan Wilson but I’m not at all sure of that. If you know please let me know so I can post the original inventor of this idea.  But its too good not to pass on. UPDATE: Joachim provides a link below to a video where David Sloan Wilson goes through the hen study in some detail (pretty vivid pictures – check it out) and mentions that somebody suggested the analogy to faculty to him. So while I won’t leave him on the hook for the links to faculty that I’ve made here, he deserves credit for identifying the intuitiveness of the hen experiment and reporting that people have made the analogy to faculty.*

So in the late 70s and early 80s there were active breeding programs to produce hens who laid more eggs. Classic breeding approaches follow the breeders equation. Take the highest egg layers in each generation and let them be the only ones that breed to produce the next generation. Classic quantitative genetics predicts that without knowing the exact genetic or phenotypic structure, so long as egg laying rate is a heritable trait, you will show an overall increase in the mean performance (egg laying rate) in the next generation. Hen generations are short – should be simple, right?

Only one problem. High productivity egg-laying is associated with aggression – indeed the highest egg layers are basically the ones that beat up the other hens in the coop with them and capture the most resources. This led to a choice between two routes. If nothing was done, total egg-laying went down as there were too many injuries and too much mortality. The alternative was to continue the selection process but to supplement it by engaging in what many would regard as barbaric practices – beak trimming, declawing etc to prevent injuries from the aggression.

Then in the 1980s people got the idea to use group selection. Instead of picking individuals that were most productive, they selected entire hen houses that were most productive to produce the next generation. At first these experiments showed no benefit, because the birds were still beak-clipped and declawed, thereby not producing a selection penalty for bird-on-bird aggression. However, this was soon rectified and hen-house level selection was quite successful. This is all nicely documented in a review paper by Muir and Craig 1998 Improving animal well-being through genetic selection (if you google the title you’ll find freely available pdfs as of this writing).

Now, when I tell fellow faculty this story, many immediately respond all on their own “that’s like the selection being imposed for high-performing individual faculty members at the cost of their departments and the larger mission”, which is exactly where I’m heading and where whoever told me this was heading. It kind of jumps out at anybody living and working in a university. So, I pose you the question, are Dean’s and higher ups committing the same error as hen breeders and relying too much on a one-dimensional individual level selection that results in destroying overall productivity? Are we producing professors who need to be declawed and have their beaks trimmed to maintain productivity (or less figuratively is departmental collegiality suffering as a result)? How would you implement group level selection for faculty? Or is this analogy for the birds?

While there is obviously a humorous aspect to this post (come on admit it, you can think of a colleague in your field who you would like to see beak clipped 🙂 ), I am actually quite serious. It is worth thinking about.


** Further update – I now think it likely that this story was relayed to me by Judie Bronstein who in turn probably got it from Wayne Madison. I was lucky to have both of these people as mentors during graduate school.

25 thoughts on “Are deans committing the same error as hen breeders? (UPDATED)

    • Hi Blake – that is indeed a (the?) classic reference on group level selection, which I think is now a very clearly laid out, well accepted idea (and which has been applied to humans many times, see e.g. several of DS Wilson’s books). Thanks for providing the link. However, I didn’t see any mention of faculty or hens as group selection in the paper

      • Yeah, I’ve heard the hen example in various places but can’t recall where I first heard it or the original references…

  1. Obviously, the validity of this analogy depends on the extent to which productive individual faculty also tend to have traits that reduce the productivity of their colleagues. In my own experience, I don’t know that there’s much correlation. I can think of many faculty who get lots of grants and papers, but who are also really good departmental citizens. And conversely, we’ve probably all heard of “deadwood” faculty who aren’t very productive as researchers at all, but who aren’t great departmental citizens either.

    Of course, there are other ways your analogy could work. For instance, does it help the department’s productivity as a whole to throw a lot of resources (overhead money, teaching relief, service relief, etc.) at the star researchers, thereby obliging others to pick up the slack, perhaps at some cost to their own research programs? I don’t know the answer, maybe sometimes the answer is “yes” and sometimes it’s “no”. In this case, it’s not that the star researchers themselves are acting like the human equivalent of aggressive hens. Rather, the incentive/reward system in the department creates a similar sort of effect. Thinking about this issue from this angle kind of gets back to my post on “shopkeeper science”:

    I don’t know how you impose group selection on entire departments. Not unless you’re thinking at the level of competition among departments within the university for access to university resources. If you’re just thinking in terms of improving the performance of a single department in absolute terms, I guess you have to think of it more in terms of what’s sometimes called “contextual analysis” in the multi-level selection literature. You can’t select among different groups of hens, since all you have is one group. All you can do is choose which hens you add to your group, and impose appropriate rules or incentives on them, in order to ensure that you end up with productive group. Which is basically what departments currently try to do, I guess, for instance when they think about how a new hire will “fit in” with the department.

    • You put your finger on the key point – whether research productivity reduces other contributions and vice versa. In my experience I’ve heard stories of but never actually had a colleague who wast true deadwood. Everybody I actually know fits on a trade-off surface where they do more teaching or departmental service when they do less research. This kind of diversity is clearly important and useful. Similarly, all the “big name ecologists” I have been in departments with have been very decent, generous people. However, in a world of finite time, there are trade-offs on time allocation. Flying off to give talks all the time and managing large grants unavoidably leaves less time to represent the department at college meetings, etc. Nobodies fault, and again diversity on this axis is useful to the department.

      Curious what others think. Does the analogy rest on a false trade-off?

  2. Remember that hen breeding example from a talk by DS Wilson called Evolution for Everyone seen at youtube [minutes 26:30 onwards here: Also remember being irritated by how he links group selection to moral goodness. IMHO, neither the within group selection enforcing cooperation is necessarily good nor the interaction between groups. Hamilton, in fact, related the latter to genocide, racism and other bad things.

    • Thanks for pinning down the origin of the analogy!

      I completely agree that, group selection, like all selection and evolution, is not morally good or bad. Indeed group selection is a major force for evolution of moral norms which has led to everything from altruism to tribalism/racism.

  3. One mismatch in your analogy is potential lack of “common currency” among departments under a single dean, or even at a single university. They’re not all producing the same eggs! Comparing a mathematics vs biology department, they typically have vastly different numbers of students, different funding needs (i.e. pull in different levels of external grant money), and may serve the university in different ways (i.e. one may have a grad programs while the other does not).

    The clear match would be equating hen houses with a single department (e.g. biology) across a number of more or less equal satellite campus’s where, additionally, administration has the ability to propagate something from one campus to another. Whether the eggs are money or well-qualified graduates likely depends a lot on the institution.

  4. Jeremy’s link on group-level selection at Sears actually reminded me more of how (some) British universities are currently managed (though perhaps it applies to North America too?). In brief, academic departments across the university compete with one another for central funding and also have targets for raising funding from student fees, grants, consultancy, etc. They also pay into a central fund that supports libraries, estates, etc. If they fail to meet targets they can be sanctioned in various ways. This can lead to the “selfish” behaviour that Jeremy described for Sears, in which the various academic and non-academic departments compete with one another rather than collaborate. Collaboration does sometimes occur (e.g. joint degree programmes across broad fields) but is less common than it might be under a different model of university funding which emphasised competition less. But then I study mutualisms, so I would say that 🙂

    • Hi Jeff – interesting to get the cross-border perspective. I would say the US is not as explicit about a competition as the UK. But all universities I have been at compete at the departmental level for new hires – retirements aren’t automatically filled within the department where they occur – there is a between department within college competition.

      At my last university the higher ups made it very clear through repeatedly saying there were 3 types of departments – those growing, those who would be kept around as teaching necessary service courses, and those that were shrinking. It was a pretty explicit competition, and I have to say the cooperation was much lesser as a result. This was their way of dealing with massive cuts in funding – trying not to just bleed all departments equally.

  5. Awarding grants based on past productivity, rather than productivity per dollar of past support, also rewards a form of “aggression.” Defining “aggression” more broadly, much of our progress in plant breeding comes from less-aggressive plants: shorter, less prone to branch into their neighbors’ space, etc. See my book on Darwinian Agriculture.

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  7. Interesting,
    Not long ago I’ve read that to maximize the efficiency of a public agency, it is often better to reward single branches rather than single individuals. One of the reasons is that by rewarding individuals, you risk undermining the sense of belonging of other individuals in the branch.

    This is not directly related to the topic of this post, but indirectly. It suggest that the importance of group vs. individual selection is recognized in the scientific literature on public policy. Unfortunately I can’t get to the relevant scientific literature.

    • One’s point of view may determine whether this is fortunate or unfortunate, but, one of the primary disconnects in the analogies is that individuals in departments or agencies, aren’t captive members of that community like chickens are of their coops.

      As a result, the trend of “rewarding the branch rather than the individual”, often results in the individuals who are responsible for that branch’s success, deciding that they’re tired of carrying the dead weight of the under-performing members who are getting equal rewards, and those over-productive individuals “fly the coop”.

      We see this happen continuously in the microcosm of student team-projects, when the students are allowed the freedom to negotiate their own team membership. It takes a truly rare, altruistic high-performer to be willing to remain in and subsidize the outcomes of a group that’s entirely depending on that performer to remain afloat, rather than leaving and joining forces with other high-performers where they all feel that they’re contributing equally to the team’s success.

      • Good point re: non-captive individuals. The analogous sort of process has been considered in evolutionary multi-level selection models.

        Re: student teams, just attended a seminar today on team-based approaches to undergraduate teaching. Much of the time was spent on issues of how to determine team membership, and how to create a situation in which everyone is glad to be part of the team. With no one exploiting or being exploited by other team members. It seems to be possible, but it’s not easy.

      • In student teams, and I think there’s good evidence that this is true in other team situations as well, it seems pretty clear that there is only a mediocre correlation between the reward or productivity calculation, and the personal satisfaction calculation for many, if not most individuals.

        Much organizational strategizing seems to be directed at maximizing the productivity or reward function, with the assumption that if people are forced to be more rewarded, or more productive (and therefore more rewarded), then they’ll be more satisfied. This strategy often seems to produce short term gains, but then long-term losses, as the dissatisfied higher-performers either drop out, or turn off, due to seemingly paradoxical (from the point of view of whoever organized the system) dissatisfaction.

        Sometimes this takes even more bizarre twists. In an upper-level honors graduate microbiology course, I had one student team oust their /highest/ performing member, who actually was one of the ridiculously altruistic variety of people who was completely happy to be doing 90% of the work, with no special recognition. Despite the fact that the teams were only given whole-team grades, the rest of her team kicked her out because they said she was making them look bad for not working harder themselves. While that was true, the reward function was giving them As regardless.

        The young lady who was ejected went on to team up with a pair of complete misfits who were utterly unprepared for the class and failing – and dragged them up to an A average, while actually teaching them enough microbiology that they ended up turning out ok in the end. Pretty good for a first-semester Biophysicist fresh from a pure physics background with no previous Micro experience. The team that kicked her out was at least initially happier with the idea of eking out Cs on their own (which they barely did without her), than getting easy As with someone whose skills embarrassed them.

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  13. The problem is that what academic departments should be graded on isn’t as clear cut as number of eggs produced in a henhouse. I’d guess that lack of clarity over goals is the problem, universities are trying to do three things badly instead of one thing well. I’d suggest that the first thing to do is separate the functions of research and teaching–researchers removed to ‘research institutes’, where they concentrate on their true love, research. Those institutes will live and die based on donor perceptions of value, and production of patents with enough value added to be a revenue source. Then the Universities can concentrate on the core function of education.
    The idea of rewarding departments with additional faculty based on the number of students actually enrollment in their classes, mentioned above, seems inspired. A bit of much needed market discipline. I’d suggest also eliminating almost all ‘distribution’ requirements for graduation. This would allow students to express their true preferences about the value they place on those classes. One of the University’s core function seems to be providing a ‘good housekeeping seal of approval’ to future employers, but few employers want or need ‘well rounded employees’, they want an employee that has successfully completed the required classes in their major, so it is hard to see how employers would object to making ‘distribution’ requirements optional– this would probably allow most students to graduate a year earlier as well, so a win win for everyone (well everyone except those teaching classes not in demand, but the solution for them is to start teaching classes that are in demand, not force students to take classes they do not actually find useful, at eye watering prices…)

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