Science advances by deeper mathematical and conceptual understandingby Nicholas Beale / August 23, 2012 / Leave a comment
We’d like to suggest an idea, which we might call the “Complexity Principle”: Biological systems are almost always more complex than you think – even when you allow for the fact that they are more complex than you think. They operate at many levels: molecule, gene, cell, organism, population, ecosystem and often others. And in most cases the flows of information are at least as important as the flows of matter and energy. Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of human behaviour. Neither electrons nor genes can be selfish, altruistic, rational or emotional: humans certainly can even when discussing science, and some of this was evident in the recent strongly critical review by Richard Dawkins of EO Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, which includes phrases such as ‘erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory’.
Wilson indeed goes against some of the certainties of the evolutionary theory that was current when Dawkins was a working scientist. But real scientists understand that theory advances with new discoveries, and great scientists sometimes find results that are wholly against current scientific consensus. Even in physics our basic understanding of the composition of the universe has been transformed in the last 40 years.
In his books, Dawkins places heavy emphasis on the gene being the primary element upon which natural selection operates. The gene tends to act in a way that promotes its survival, whence the idea of the selfish gene. The fact that organisms often act unselfishly is explained by the fact that helping relatives at the expense of oneself may promote the survival of one’s genes, because there is a tendency to share genes with one’s relatives. This was informally characterised as “I will risk my life to save two of my brothers or four cousins” and in the 1960s WD Hamilton expressed this idea more formally in terms of the “inclusive fitness” defined by rB – C, where B is the benefit, C the cost, and r is the Relatedness between the individuals involved. This quantity is called “Inclusive Fitness” because it includes the fitness of other related individuals, and the process is referred to as “kin selection” because it does not just depend on the evolutionary fitness of one individual but on the “fitness” of others who are likely to…