More heat than light

Last summer, Nowak and colleagues published a perspective in Nature arguing against both the factual correctness and the scientific usefulness of kin selection theory.  It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.  The paper has a lot of problems, but I’ll leave most of that argument to others.  Instead, here’s some correspondence I sent to Nature that they declined to publish:

Nowak and coauthors (Nature 466, 1057-1062; 2010) claim that kin selection theory is limited by its inability to describe evolutionary dynamics and its requirement for weak selection, pairwise interactions, additive fitness effects, and specific kinds of population structure. Shortly before this article was published, my colleagues and I published an extension of kin selection theory that overcomes all of these issues (Science 328, 1700-1703; 2010). We agreed with Nowak and colleagues that many kin selection models are hard to apply to real data, but we took a different approach. Identifying and solving problems is a productive strategy of scientific inquiry; wholesale dismissal of an active research program is likely to generate more heat than light.

jeff smith

I think there are issues with kin selection theory very much along the lines that Nowak and company point out. But it’s not so much that they make the theory measurably wrong (on this point I disagree with the Nowak paper), but that they make it less useful, hard to apply, and easy to get wrong.

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