Nowak et al. take it on the chin.
At the end of September last year, I was attending the opening of the ISBE conference (International Society for Behavioral Ecology) in Perth, Australia when Stuart West got up to give a keynote address. One of the first things he said was something along the lines of “I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this, but I’m not going to address the eusociality paper”, which was met by a chorus of hoots and cries from the audience. It was a great first-hand experience of the kind of reaction that the paper by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and E. O. Wilson, published in Nature last summer, was getting at the time. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Carl Zimmer has a good write-up about it). I’d read the paper at the time and dismissed it for largely (as far as I can tell) the same reasons as everyone else did: it stinks. And then, I forgot about it.
I was recently reminded, however, by the buzz that is going around right now about the responses to this paper that have just been published by Nature, some seven(!) months later. Jerry Coyne has blogged about it, and it’s a good read for many reasons not least of which is that he’s an author on one of the critiques along with 136 people, among them some of the biggest names in evolutionary biology and social evolution. I’d point out some of the people on that list and their accomplishments, but I’d get the same result if I wrote a book on the subject of Nowak et al.’s paper – they’d all be in it. Honestly, the only question I have about that is how did they organize it? The critique itself is worth reading as well, if only for the concise beat-down that they apply to the subjects of their wrath. (D. S. Wilson disagrees, but I think that he’s managed to completely miss the point. Read and decide for yourself, though. Full disclosure: I don’t agree with much of what D. S. Wilson says.)
And the icing on the cake has to be this video, from Jon Wilkins. I’d love to embed it, but it’s on Xtranormal and WordPress.com apparently doesn’t support embedding from there, so click through and have a good gander. If you have any interest in this issue, it’s a great video.
Do I have anything to add to this? Honestly, only a vague sorrow, especially about Nowak. When I was starting my master’s, I came across the work his lab was doing on evolutionary graph theory and loved it; it was a great inspiration to me at the time, and it remains so to this day. But when I read things like this eusociality paper, I see another Nowak, and it’s not a Nowak that I’m particularly enamored of.