I think the subject of group selection is super interesting, and I try to follow what the researchers write on the subjects these days.
On one side we have the majority of evolutionary biologists who think kin selection and inclusive fitness theory as described by Hamilton and Price explain a lot of phenomena in biology, notably eusociality. Some of the more famous people squarely in this group are Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and Stuart West, but there are many more (at least 137*).
Then there are those who think eusociality does not need kin selection, and that selection can work on groups even when members of the group are not related (kin). This would include David Sloan wilson, Edward O. Wilson, and Martin Nowak.
Having said that, it might well be that not all these people are equally adamant that there can be no exceptions to their view, and that group selection and eusociality can sometimes best be explained by kin selection and determined by calculating inclusive fitness. So, apologies if anyone feels misrepresented (not that any of these people frequent this blog). Samir Okasha, who is one of the 137©, is also a proponent of multilevel selection, for example.
At this point in time, I am totally agnostic myself.
I really don't know, because of several problems. First, I am not capable (or willing) to rigorously go through the mathematical proofs that Nowak, Tarnitas, and Wilson claim to have given last year that "inclusive fitness theory is not a general description of natural selection", and other things related. Second, I have seen in simulations with my own damn eyes that group selection works, and I can intuitively understand and argue why groups can evolve without necessarily consisting of kin. But on the other hand, even though I suspect that kinship isn't necessarily always a necessary factor in explaining social behavior, I am not sure I can see how groups and kin can be separated. In very hypothetical cases they can, but in biology in any sort of general way...? I personally have a hunch that the crux of the matter of group selection is about communication or signaling, which in principle can be separated from kinship.
So, in response to the paper by Nowak et al. claiming that kin selection and inclusive fitness are insufficient and irrelevant for explaining eusociality, no less than five separate replies were published this morning in Nature all claiming that the three authors completely missed the point and totally failed to properly review the indeed very extensive literature on the subject. Nowak et al. have replied, and they don't budge an inch - it's more like a counterattack. As I read their reply, some of it does resonate with me, but I honestly can't say much more than that.
I could now close saying that it will be an interesting show, so bring the popcorn and sit back and enjoy it - light will be shed on the subject eventually, I presume, with clarity to follow. But I just have one more thing to say that taints the whole spectacle in a bad way.
A couple of days ago I learned that Martin Nowak is funded in a big way by the Templeton Foundation. To me, that in itself is not a bad thing, because I was personally supported by them through part of my PhD studies via a grant to my advisor, Chris Adami, who in no way shares their fascination with theology. However, as one can read right on this website about the ‘Evolution and Theology of Cooperation’ research project at Harvard University (man, the title alone!), Nowak is clearly in the camp of the infamous accommodationists who believe science and religion can get along without any kind either invalidating the other. Phrases like these just gives me hives:
We propose to study the emergence of altruistic behavior, forgiveness and unselfish love in the context of biological, ethical and theological considerations.Such total nonsense doesn't look good on any body who wants to be taken seriously in science, in my opinion. I could never bear to work with Nowak after that garbage.
This research represents a newly-conceived attempt to understand the evolutionary biology of a world created by God.
We propose to explore how additional concepts of theology might arise in the game theoretic approach. These concepts include love, wisdom, hope, dignity and sanctity.
Moving from these initial starting points and items for discussion, we shall go on to study which fundamental principles of evolutionary systems can support the emergence of true unselfish love as promoted by Christianity and other religions.
Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2010). The evolution of eusociality Nature, 466 (7310), 1057-1062 DOI: 10.1038/nature09205
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Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2011). Nowak et al. reply Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09836
* One for each year since Harry Houdini was born, maybe?