The Guardian has a stimulating interview with David Sloan Wilson, author of the book Darwin’s Cathedral:
David Sloan Wilson’s career as a biologist started with zooplankton in the depths of the ocean and has ascended to God. He is convinced the same theoretical tools can be used to analyse the patterns of animal behaviour and human belief; and that the kinds of equations that tell you whether fish will be brightly or dully coloured, depending on the part of a river they live in, will also tell you why Calvinism thrived in 16th-century Geneva but the church of England is in decline today.
This ambition may smack of standard sociobiological imperialism – the belief that the other ways of looking at the world should defer to evolutionary biology. But Wilson’s version has two twists. First, he does not believe biological understandings could or should replace the methods of the social sciences…. Secondly, he believes an essential tool for understanding social life is group selection….: “The fundamental problem of social life is that selfishness beats altruism within a group. But altruistic groups trump selfish groups. It’s amazing that you can take such a controversial theory and describe it in two sentences.”
He really did start by looking at cooperative behavior in plankton:
Because of the way they are broken up by currents, they naturally form patches or groups, on which selection can operate. He was interested in the way clumps of plankton move from the sunlit regions where they can feed, into the darker, safer depths. When he started to model this, he came up with a set of equations that showed how group selection could work in general and not just for plankton.
It’s worth reading in full.
[thanks to Howard Rheingold]