U prof’s book examines controversial issues

The book explores the history of group selection theory and scientific process.

Ashley Bray

Group selection theory is an idea that has been characterized by some as innovative and ingenious, and by others as ill-conceived and impractical.
The once-forgotten theory — that natural selection sometimes favors groups over individuals — has been brought back to the table in a new book by University of Minnesota professor Mark Borrello.
The idea of group selection was first proposed in the 1960s by zoologist V.C. Wynne Edwards in an attempt to answer why animals are often cooperative and altruistic. It has been a controversial topic from the start because it is somewhat at odds with Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution through natural selection.
“If natural selection is working, it should, in the roughest sense, always make you do what’s right for you,” Borrello said. “We should always be doing more selfish things to increase our own fitness.”
Group selection has been a perennial topic and the source of numerous arguments, said Michael Travisano, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior.
“There is almost disdain quite often from one side to the other [when discussing it].”
The theory makes inroads in explaining how the scientific process can often be messy, Borrello said. Group selection runs contrary to natural selection, which suggests that individual genes are refined over generations to best fit their environment.
The theory is challenged when humans and other organisms exhibit altruistic behaviors.
The idea of organisms working toward the betterment of the species is something that was “a bit of a flash in the pan,” Scott Lanyon, head of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, said.
Lanyon said he disagrees with the theory of group selection.
“I don’t think there is any validity to any group selection argument,” he said. “You can explain most or all observations that have been examined experimentally by individual selection.”
Borrello’s forthcoming book on the topic, “Evolutionary Restraints: the Contentious History of Group Selection,” is set to be released at the end of September. It uses the theory of group selection to bring to light a second central theme: the process in which science and its discoveries advance.
Borrello uses the controversy surrounding the topic and the initial rejection of the theory to explain how the scientific process does not usually progress in a straight line, possibly for good reason.
“Basically, we have this idea that science cleanly moves from Copernicus to Isaac Newton, from Isaac Newton to Galileo to Kepler and that it’s all smooth and good,” Borrello said. “What happens, and what’s interesting to me about the history of science, is when you look at each stage, almost always there’s a fight.”
However, it is this competitive nature of science that generates new ideas, Borrello said.
By looking at the controversial issue of group selection, Borrello said he hopes to show how productive the controversy can be and how important failed ideas may become.
Lanyon agrees that generally unaccepted ideas can be productive.
“The fact that [Borrello talks about group selection] is a really good thing,” he said.
“It’s a good reminder to scientists that just because we don’t study it and don’t think that group selection is a good explanation for the natural world, [it] doesn’t mean there isn’t something valuable to be learned from it,” Lanyon said.
“Group selection can absolutely happen in principle, but the importance of it in nature remains unclear,” Travisano said, “I have no doubt that we are going to be arguing about this for decades.”