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On inclusive fitness

Last updated on 18 Sep 2017

Right now I am busy writing the grant application that determines the next ten years of my life, so excuse my absence. But instead of John Wilkins, let me point you to Jon Wilkins of Lost in Transcription. Jon has a cool web comic “Darwin Eats Cake” which discusses stuff I like, but recently he did one of those animated conversation movies on the recent challenge to the concept of inclusive fitness. He just now posted the background to this. Basically Martin Nowack, Carina Tarnita, and Edward O. Wilson of Harvard have attacked the notion as a mistake. Jon shows why it isn’t.

My reading of it is that Wilson, who in collaboration with David Sloan Wilson has tried to reinstate group selection, is deprecating the obvious competitor to proper group selection, inclusive fitness. It is a wrong headed attack, and the appropriate response is Multilevel Selection – or one of them at any rate – rather than abandoning one of the most successful and elegant mathematical models in biology.

If not for his unaccountable lack of the proper number of the letter “h” in his name, Jon Wilkins would be perfect.


  1. Has anyone investigated the other kind of group selection, as in “selection by the group” rather than “selection of the group.” It would be somewhat analogous to sexual selection, and could perhaps act as an amplifier of inclusive fitness.

  2. Good luck on that grant, sah!

  3. It’s grant season here as well. All the best to you. (If you need an inexpert but enthusiastic proofreader, give me a shout.)


  4. John Harshman John Harshman

    A ten-year grant? Wowsers!

    • No, I wish. A three year grant that determines whether I stay an academic for the next ten years.

  5. Sam C Sam C

    Isn’t the reification (if that’s the appropriate term to use) of “fitness” a large part of the problem in discussing these issues? Fitness is not a trait, unlike say body weight, thickness of fur, size of litter, but it gets discussed as if it is a heritable trait which all replicators have.

    Rather, fitness is a portmanteau way of summarising the effectiveness of entities in replicating or reproducing themselves. Of course group selection will appear if a researcher focuses on groups. And gene selection will appear when focusing on genes. But that doesn’t mean that those are the loci of “fitness”. D.S. Wilson has a group selection hammer, and he only sees group selection nails with the blind fervour of a true believer.

  6. Bob O'H Bob O'H

    I’ve read Nowak’s new book (a review copy appeared in our letterbox, and I got to it first). It’s basically a shaggy dog story: the chapter on kin selection is there to set up the punchline at the end.

  7. Christopher Gan Christopher Gan

    I have come across documentary evidence that a Chinese science writer plagiarized your essay “Spontaneous Generation and the Origin of Life.” His plagiarized piece is available at

    At least two Chinese scholars in the United States have published their reviews of this case of plagiarism. Their articles are available at

    If you need further information on this case, I shall promptly oblige.

    • I think you are right from the machine translation I saw. But I don’t know what to do. Chinese plagiarism laws are weak at best.

  8. Ben Breuer Ben Breuer

    Good luck on that grant! I’ll be an enthusiastic and (mostly) engaged proofreader as well, if you you really need an outside person (musicology! what could be more outside?). Should I slack, blame it on getting my thesis corrected. ๐Ÿ™‚

    (Oh, I see you’re having an instant proofreading thingamabob. Awesome!!)

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