Price of Misunderstanding?

Miriam Markowitz has a piece in The Nation about George Price and the Price equation, a significant advance in mathematics for population biology. Along the way, she discusses this as resolving a problem left by Charles Darwin.

This conclusion left a paradox unresolved in Darwin’s otherwise elegant theory. He insisted that natural selection acts on the individual, that it “tends only to make each organic being as perfect as, or slightly more perfect than” its competitors; it would “never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each.” Yet his only explanation for the evolution of sterile insects was the good of the group.

The quotes used by Markowitz to substantiate her claim that Darwin had an insistence that natural selection acts on individuals do no such thing. Both quotes are found in the context of a passage where Darwin is trying to explain what natural selection does. I’m going to quote much more of the passage to make it clear how those parts lifted by Markowitz don’t support her argument.

The foregoing remarks lead me to say a few words on the protest lately made by some naturalists, against the utilitarian doctrine that every detail of structure has been produced for the good of its possessor. They believe that very many structures have been created for beauty in the eyes of man, or for mere variety. This doctrine, if true, would be absolutely fatal to my theory. Yet I fully admit that many structures are of no direct use to their possessors. Physical conditions probably have had some little effect on structure, quite independently of any good thus gained. Correlation of growth has no doubt played a most important part, and a useful modification of one part will often have entailed on other parts diversified changes of no direct use. So again characters which formerly were useful, or which formerly had arisen from correlation of growth, or from other unknown cause, may reappear from the law of reversion, though now of no direct use. The effects of sexual selection, when displayed in beauty to charm the females, can be called useful only in rather a forced sense. But by far the most important consideration is that the chief part of the organisation of every being is simply due to inheritance; and consequently, though each being assuredly is well fitted for its place in nature, many structures now have no direct relation to the habits of life of each species. Thus, we can hardly believe that the webbed feet of the upland goose or of the frigate-bird are of special use to these birds; we cannot believe that the same bones in the arm of the monkey, in the fore leg of the horse, in the wing of the bat, and in the flipper of the seal, are of special use to these animals. We may safely attribute these structures to inheritance. But to the progenitor of the upland goose and of the frigate-bird, webbed feet no doubt were as useful as they now are to the most aquatic of existing birds. So we may believe that the progenitor of the seal had not a flipper, but a foot with five toes fitted for walking or grasping; and we may further venture to believe that the several bones in the limbs of the monkey, horse, and bat, which have been inherited from a common progenitor, were formerly of more special use to that progenitor, or its progenitors, than they now are to these animals having such widely diversified habits. Therefore we may infer that these several bones might have been acquired through natural selection, subjected formerly, as now, to the several laws of inheritance, reversion, correlation of growth, etc. Hence every detail of structure in every living creature (making some little allowance for the direct action of physical conditions) may be viewed, either as having been of special use to some ancestral form, or as being now of special use to the descendants of this form–either directly, or indirectly through the complex laws of growth.

Natural selection cannot possibly produce any modification in any one species exclusively for the good of another species; though throughout nature one species incessantly takes advantage of, and profits by, the structure of another. But natural selection can and does often produce structures for the direct injury of other species, as we see in the fang of the adder, and in the ovipositor of the ichneumon, by which its eggs are deposited in the living bodies of other insects. If it could be proved that any part of the structure of any one species had been formed for the exclusive good of another species, it would annihilate my theory, for such could not have been produced through natural selection. Although many statements may be found in works on natural history to this effect, I cannot find even one which seems to me of any weight. It is admitted that the rattlesnake has a poison-fang for its own defence and for the destruction of its prey; but some authors suppose that at the same time this snake is furnished with a rattle for its own injury, namely, to warn its prey to escape. I would almost as soon believe that the cat curls the end of its tail when preparing to spring, in order to warn the doomed mouse. But I have not space here to enter on this and other such cases.

Natural selection will never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each. No organ will be formed, as Paley has remarked, for the purpose of causing pain or for doing an injury to its possessor. If a fair balance be struck between the good and evil caused by each part, each will be found on the whole advantageous. After the lapse of time, under changing conditions of life, if any part comes to be injurious, it will be modified; or if it be not so, the being will become extinct, as myriads have become extinct.

Natural selection tends only to make each organic being as perfect as, or slightly more perfect than, the other inhabitants of the same country with which it has to struggle for existence. And we see that this is the degree of perfection attained under nature. The endemic productions of New Zealand, for instance, are perfect one compared with another; but they are now rapidly yielding before the advancing legions of plants and animals introduced from Europe. Natural selection will not produce absolute perfection, nor do we always meet, as far as we can judge, with this high standard under nature. The correction for the aberration of light is said, on high authority, not to be perfect even in that most perfect organ, the eye. If our reason leads us to admire with enthusiasm a multitude of inimitable contrivances in nature, this same reason tells us, though we may easily err on both sides, that some other contrivances are less perfect. Can we consider the sting of the wasp or of the bee as perfect, which, when used against many attacking animals, cannot be withdrawn, owing to the backward serratures, and so inevitably causes the death of the insect by tearing out its viscera?

The context shows that “being” in the above passage refers not to each individual in a population, but rather to species. I’ve bolded the original snippets quoted by Markowitz and italicized the further context that is either incongruous with or contradictory to the notion that what is under discussion is a property of an individual. One doesn’t usually talk of individuals going extinct, nor of individuals “rapidly yielding” to introduced species.

Of course, Markowitz is not alone in making the mistake of taking the quoted parts as referring to individuals. She also quotes Richard Dawkins to that effect, and it isn’t difficult to find Stephen Jay Gould using one of the same snippets to the same end in his book, The Structure of Evolutionary Biology. But common error is still error, and it is worth pointing out that the original source, when read for comprehension, is not making the claim of level of action of natural selection that some of Darwin’s readers insist it does.

But, you might say, what about Markowitz’s claim concerning Darwin and social insects? Does it show Darwin arguing the group selection line of “for the good of the species”. Let’s look at Darwin summarizing his response to the problem of “neuter insects” from the first edition of Origin of Species:

With these facts before me, I believe that natural selection, by acting on the fertile parents, could form a species which should regularly produce neuters, either all of large size with one form of jaw, or all of small size with jaws having a widely different structure; or lastly, and this is our climax of difficulty, one set of workers of one size and structure, and simultaneously another set of workers of a different size and structure;–a graduated series having been first formed, as in the case of the driver ant, and then the extreme forms, from being the most useful to the community, having been produced in greater and greater numbers through the natural selection of the parents which generated them; until none with an intermediate structure were produced.

Thus, as I believe, the wonderful fact of two distinctly defined castes of sterile workers existing in the same nest, both widely different from each other and from their parents, has originated. We can see how useful their production may have been to a social community of insects, on the same principle that the division of labour is useful to civilised man. As ants work by inherited instincts and by inherited tools or weapons, and not by acquired knowledge and manufactured instruments, a perfect division of labour could be effected with them only by the workers being sterile; for had they been fertile, they would have intercrossed, and their instincts and structure would have become blended. And nature has, as I believe, effected this admirable division of labour in the communities of ants, by the means of natural selection. But I am bound to confess, that, with all my faith in this principle, I should never have anticipated that natural selection could have been efficient in so high a degree, had not the case of these neuter insects convinced me of the fact. I have, therefore, discussed this case, at some little but wholly insufficient length, in order to show the power of natural selection, and likewise because this is by far the most serious special difficulty, which my theory has encountered. The case, also, is very interesting, as it proves that with animals, as with plants, any amount of modification in structure can be effected by the accumulation of numerous, slight, and as we must call them accidental, variations, which are in any manner profitable, without exercise or habit having come into play. For no amount of exercise, or habit, or volition, in the utterly sterile members of a community could possibly have affected the structure or instincts of the fertile members, which alone leave descendants. I am surprised that no one has advanced this demonstrative case of neuter insects, against the well-known doctrine of Lamarck.

Darwin’s explanation of the problem of neuter insect castes was not, as Markowitz asserts, just “the good of the group”, for if one reads the passage carefully, “community” in Darwin’s passage is a reference to the fertile parents, and not just a fuzzy “group”.

The “paradox” of individual action versus group selection attributed to Darwin is not supported by the examples purportedly showing such. One could charge Darwin justly with being somewhat imprecise for our modern tastes and reliance on jargon, but if one carefully reads what Darwin wrote, the concepts are clear enough.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

2 thoughts on “Price of Misunderstanding?

  • Pingback:The Link in Red | Evolving Thoughts

  • 2011/07/03 at 10:07 am
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    good article, austringer, but you did not get the best quotation from darwin; please see the reader letter below which The Nation refused to publish neither in print nor online; tell me about esprit du corps.
    ====================
    Miriam Markowitz did not do her home work for an article that contains way too many platitudes imported from secondary sources. Just two examples.

    A) Markowitz writes that Darwin’s “only explanation for the evolution of sterile insects was the good of the group.” This is a lie long peddled by Hamilton and his sycophants. In the The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote clearly that “This difficulty, though appearing insuperable, is lessened, or, as I believe, disappears, when it is remembered that selection may be applied to the family, as well as to the individual, and may thus gain the desired end. Breeders of cattle wish the flesh and fat to be well marbled together. An animal thus characterized has been slaughtered, but the breeder has gone with confidence to the same stock and has succeeded” [www.classicreader.com/book/107/59/]. Here “the family” does not stand for the mafia and “stock” does stands for a kin group. These passages and others by Darwin about “kin selection” are highlighted and justly celebrated in DJ Futuyma’s textbook of reference Evolutionary Biology and in EO WIlson’s Sociobiology. This intellectual heist by the late Hamilton and his sycophants is perhaps the most brazen ever, since it’s literally Darwin whom they insist(ed) in trying to rob!

    B) Markowitz treats Dawkins as a scientist but he is not. In the said “Evolutionary Biology” textbook, e.g., Dawkins’ popular-science books are cited for the metaphoric syllogism about genes with intentionality; otherwise there is only a citation for a paper with trivial applied-math. Dawkins indeed has never made a discovery. Had Markowitz talked to say E.Sober or even Futuyma, she would have written a much better article.

    Given the above and much much more, Nation readers stand warned that almost nothing in Markowitz article has any depth, especially her cheapo-melodramatic pieties towards the end (albeit certainly not because Dawkins and Co. are right about anything).

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