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.