Dawkins vs Wilson, Nothing to See Here

Hostilities between EO Wilson and Richard Dawkins have heated back up with Dawkins’ scathing review of Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. People seem to be laboring under the delusion that the current spat between EO Wilson and Richard Dawkins reflects a throwback to a traditional academic cage match between intellectual giants defending their theories with acerbic rhetoric.

In now thoroughly refuted 2010 paper in Nature, Wilson and colleagues attempted to overturn much of the modern understanding of natural selection theory and altruism, known as inclusive fitness theory. Wilson’s new book (apparently, I have not been graced with a copy) continues this line of argument. Dawkins got testy with Wilson then and now:

. . .unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory.
-Richard Dawkins

The problem is, as David Sloan Wilson pointed out in 2010, the debate isn’t about the evolutionary theory that experts currently recognize. This debate has less similarity to a rigorous debate between the intellectual giants of their field and more to a couple of old guys arguing whether the Yankees or the Mets are better based on their vague memories of the 1972 season.

EO Wilson is an entomologist. He has used evolutionary theory as a paradigm for explaining the behavior of social insects, especially ants. He has not contributed to the development of evolutionary theory.

Richard Dawkins was trained as an animal behaviorist (properly an ethologist) before moving into professional science communication. He has not contributed to the development of evolutionary theory.

Neither man is an expert in evolutionary biology.

Most of the public arguments around evolutionary theory involve outdated understandings of the theory. Based on the rhetoric, you might be surprised to learn that evolutionary theory has changed quite a bit since Darwin, Fisher, Wright, and Haldane‘s day. Evolutionary theory is still a dynamic field. I look forward to getting old enough that my understanding of the theory is also decades out of date.

Incidentally, the propagation of comments following Dawkins’ review is itself a strong refutation of Dawkins’ conception of memetic evolution by natural selection.

Author: Josh Witten


2 thoughts on “Dawkins vs Wilson, Nothing to See Here”

  1. Neither have contributed to “evolutionary theory”? Either you have an agenda, or you’re effectively completely ignorant of the contributions each have made to our modern understanding of evolution (“Sociobiology” and “The Extended Phenotype”, to scratch the surface). This was indeed an academically pointless debate, not because it was a rabblerousing squabble between two proud old men, but because Wilson is so obviously wrong on this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: