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Eliezer_Yudkowsky comments on The Tragedy of Group Selectionism - Less Wrong

36 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 November 2007 07:47AM

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Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 November 2007 11:53:10PM 3 points [-]

Barkley: The mathematical population geneticists were defending multi-level evolution, at least in principle under the right conditions.

How on earth could a mathematical population geneticist do anything else? In principle under the right conditions, you can create group selection in a laboratory and observe the results. Price's Equation in its various forms is a logical tautology. The question is whether the tautology has nontrivial empirical content: are group selection pressures tiny trivial things easily overwhelmed by individual selection pressures, or are they strong enough that evolutionary reasoning must routinely take them into account, or are they strong enough and persistent enough to create their own complex adaptations, over million-year timescales, involving significant organismal sacrifices of fitness; without any adapted enforcement mechanisms such as reciprocal altruism which make the behavior individually reproductively advantageous; without any adapted group boundaries such as cell walls; and without any enforcement of genetic identity such as in multicellular organisms?

It's the last part that is, to put it mildly, controversial; and it's what I've been referring to as "original" or "old-style" group-selectionist thinking.

It is a good rule of thumb that an amateur should never postulate group selection. Never ever never ever for never, as McCabe says. Somehow it's always an altruistic sacrifice to achieve some aesthetically beautiful consequence, rather than, say, cannibalism. And somehow they never do any math.

Professionals calculating whether spatial structure among self-replicating chemical hypercycles in tide pools could support adaptations leading up to the emergence of cell boundaries is a whole 'nother story.

Recovering: roughly how long did it take to write, how long do you think it would have taken a year ago

Probably at least eight hours. The publication time, just before midnight in California, should be a clue.

A year ago it would have taken months because it would have been part of a much huger document which included all the evolutionary posts into one giant blob, and I would have gone back and tweaked all the pieces instead of writing anything new.

The original plan was for this post on the tragedy of group selectionism to come directly after the post on Fake Justification. Then, when I tried to write the post, I found that I had to explain a whole lot of material on basic principles of reasoning about evolution, which detracted from the main point; so I split that off into "An Alien God". Then I noticed that "The Wonder of Evolution" could be taken out of "An Alien God" and make that post at least a little shorter. Then I figured I might as well do "Evolutions Are Stupid" and "Speed Limit and Complexity Bound" while I was on the topic, because I often have cause to refer to those equations. Then the "Gould" post because I often encounter people whom Gould has misled, and the complexity bound made a good illustrative case (though I'm presently in a state of mistrusting my math, if not Williams's heuristic argument and the observed number of human genes). Then I could finally get back to the original post on group selectionism...