The Darwinian Heritage and Sociobiology

By Johan M. G. Van Der Dennen; David Smillie et al. | Go to book overview

I
Group Selection and the Selfish Gene: The Units-of-Selection Problem Revisited

Michael J. C. Waller


THE DAWKINS/SOBER DEBATE

Elliott Sober has taken Richard Dawkins to task as a primary contributor to a "gaggle of sloppy arguments against group selection" ( Sober, 1993, p. 106). Although he does not entirely dismiss Dawkins's theory of the selfish gene, he suggests that it is of limited value because it cannot deal with traits arising from organismic adaptation and group adaptation. If this proposition is true, it presents a profound challenge to the thesis upon which Dawkins has built his professional reputation. As Sober points out, Dawkins is aware of these two potential sources of difficulty and has sought to dispose of them separately. The obvious reality of organismic adaptation cannot be ignored. Instead, Dawkins claims that it can readily be incorporated within the genic pale: "There are two ways of looking at natural selection, the gene's angle and that of the individual. If properly understood they are equivalent" ( Dawkins, 1989, pp. viii-ix). With group adaptation Dawkins takes a very different approach. In Sober's colorful words, "Much of the effect of Williams's ( 1966) book and Dawkins's ( 1976) popularisation has been to cast the concept of group adaption into the outer darkness" ( 1993, p. 106). Given that in the 1989 edition of The Selfish Gene Dawkins describes V. C. Wynne-Edwards as an "academic heretic" who is "wrong in an unequivocal way" (p. 297) for no greater offense than sticking tenaciously to a group-selectionist viewpoint, Sober's use of language does not seem unfair.

Although Sober finds fault with both of these arguments, he is prepared to accept that at one level, genic selectionism does meet the all-encompassing claims Dawkins and Williams make for it. He acknowledges the special property

-3-

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