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E. O. Wilson

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E. O. Wilson has a op-ed in WSJ which I find quite interesting, Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math:

For many young people who aspire to be scientists, the great bugbear is mathematics. Without advanced math, how can you do serious work in the sciences? Well, I have a professional secret to share: Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.

This imbalance is especially the case in biology, where factors in a real-life phenomenon are often misunderstood or never noticed in the first place. The annals of theoretical biology are clogged with mathematical models that either can be safely ignored or, when tested, fail. Possibly no more than 10% have any lasting value. Only those linked solidly to knowledge of real living systems have much chance of being used.

Wilson has been on this for a bit now, to the bewilderment of some of the scientists I follow on Twitter (granted, the people I follow tend to be quantitative genomics types whose backgrounds may have been in math, physics, or statistics). Two immediate things come to mind reading this. First, a disproportionate number of the famous and successful scientists alive today are old, like E. O. Wilson. Just because you could get by with a certain level of mathematical fluency as an enfant terrible in the 1970s does not mean that that will cut it in the 2010s. Great scientists who are mathematically weak often have collaborators, post-docs, and graduate students, who do their bidding. It might be a different matter if you aren’t one of the Great Ones of the earth. From what I can tell scientists who are doing the hiring who don’t have mathematical skills prefer candidates who do have mathematical skills.

Second, a 10% success rate for formal mathematical models seems quite high to me! The vast majority of conjectures in science turn out to be garbage. If Wilson stands by the 10% figure, then that’s an argument for attaching greater value to mathematical abilities. But I suspect there is a real issue with theoretical models which haven’t been tested, or are there to simply bolster someone’s publication list (see: Journal of Theoretical Biology). In Robert Trivers’ Natural Selection and Social Theory he recounts that he was told by someone that his thinking was like that of an economist. Curiously in the same volume W. D. Hamilton advised the young Trivers to not attempt to “math up” his original ideas on reciprocal altruism so much (Trivers ignored this advice, though in hindsight he grants its wisdom). I relate this because contemporary economics does seem to have a problem where extremely powerful quantitative methods have become somewhat decoupled from the empirical questions at hand. But I don’t see that these issues are so much a problem in biology. Rather than too little formal precision, much of evolutionary biology could benefit from greater crispness.

At this point I have to offer that I’ve never talked to a geneticist (the people I know, who tend to be evolutionarily oriented) who has complained they took too much math. Rather, the opposite. Apparently when Theodosius Dobzhansky read papers by individuals such as Sewall Wright he would “hum” through the formal sections. Since Wilson admits up front that his math skills are not strong I feel comfortable in relaying what I’ve heard from several people associated with Harvard’s biology department: the controversial Nowak et. al. paper which Wilson put his name to was problematic in part because Wilson likely does not grasp the formal details of the argument that he is supporting. More concretely, E. O. Wilson has long had particular intuitions about the nature of social behavior, and he has sought out formalists who could provide him with a mathematical supporting argument. This is often how science is done, but it doesn’t seem like an optimal situation. Also, I would add that though Wilson puts the emphasis on math, perhaps just as important today is the ability to write and implement some code. Though math and programming are often connected, the rough and ready scripting which is the bread and butter of many biologists today isn’t really mathematical at all.

Of course all of this is conditional on the domain of biology one is interested in. A theoretical ecologist is going to need a lot more math than a field ecologist. Many molecular biomedical geneticists don’t have to worry about much more than standard statistical tests. And so on. But E. O. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist. Charles Darwin had great insights, and he was not a mathematical scientist. But it is striking that a disproportionate number of Darwin’s 20th century heirs had strong mathematical orientations. Fluency in math is not a necessary or sufficient condition for being a great evolutionary scientist. But it certainly increases the probability that you’ll have great insights which might forward the field.

Addednum: W. D. Hamilton was to a great extent self-taught as a population geneticist. In Nature’s Oracle Ullica Segerstrale relates that classically trained theoreticians were initially very skeptical of Hamilton’s models because they seemed rather slapdash and ad hoc. The reason Segerstrale explains is that Hamilton operated like an engineer, synthesizing his deep biological intuitions with a series of models, fine tuning the framework so that the theoretical superstructure was appropriately scaffolded upon the biological problem. This seems like an invitation to produce models which are not robust, but Nowak et. al. notwithstanding Hamilton’s achievements have stood the test of time.

• Category: Science • Tags: E. O. Wilson, Evolution, Evolutionary Genetics, Math 
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The Atlantic has a huge profile of E. O. Wilson up. The main course is his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. It seems to be an elaboration of some of the ideas in the infamous Martin Nowak paper which resulted in a huge counter-response from biologists. But this part was kind of fun:

Wilson defined sociobiology for me as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in all organisms.” Gould savagely mocked both Wilson’s ideas and his supposed hubris in a 1986 essay titled “Cardboard Darwinism,” in The New York Review of Books, for seeking “to achieve the greatest reform in human thinking about human nature since Freud,” and Wilson still clearly bears a grudge.

“I believe Gould was a charlatan,” he told me. “I believe that he was … seeking reputation and credibility as a scientist and writer, and he did it consistently by distorting what other scientists were saying and devising arguments based upon that distortion.” It is easy to imagine Wilson privately resenting Gould for another reason, as well—namely, for choosing Freud as a point of comparison rather than his own idol, Darwin, whom he calls “the greatest man in the world.”

If you read much of my stuff you know that I don’t think much of Gould, but I have to air stuff like this so that readers won’t keep citing the man as an authority. Though perhaps it is ironic that in the case of the evolution of sociality Wilson and Gould probably share more in common in their final conclusion than they do with the evolutionary mainstream.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: E. O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould 
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There is a new paper in Nature which is a full frontal attack on the utility of William D. Hamilton’s inclusive fitness framework in explaining eusociality. Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita, & Edward O. Wilson are the authors. Wilson is famous in large part for his authorship of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and is arguably the doyen of American organismic biology. He is both an active scientist, and, a premier public intellectual. So with that in mind, I notice that Dienekes Pontikos alludes to “E.O. Wilson’s change of mind about group selection.” This is conventional wisdom, but it is I think wrong (though from what I can tell Wilson has not done much to disabuse the press of the notion). In Defenders of the Truth Ullica Segerstrale notes that Wilson did not expunge group selection thinking even in Sociobiology. In Evolution for Everyone David Sloan Wilson recounts that it was in fact E. O. Wilson who pointed out a group selective interpretation of data he was presenting at a conference, helping to push him early on in a rather unfashionable direction. From what I have heard Wilson always believed that the empirical data was not adequately explained by a pure inclusive fitness model, and simply waited until things shook out before pushing back with more theoretically trained colleagues who had the same skepticism.

From page 30 of Sociobiology:

…….Nevertheless, Williams’ distaste for group-selection hypotheses wrongly lead him to urge the loading of the dice in favor of individual selection. As we shall see in chapter 5, group selection and higher levels of organization, however intuitively improbable they may seem, are at least theoretically possible under a wide range of conditions. The goal of the investigation should not be to advocate the simplest explanation, but rather to enumerate all of the possible explanations, improbable as well as likely, and then to devise tests to eliminate some of them.

And page 129, the last paragraph in the chapter on group selection (quoted in full so there’ll be no confusions as to whether I’m pulling it out of context):

In conclusion, although the theory of group selection is still rudimentary, it has already providd insights into some of the least understood and most disturbing qualities of social behavior. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forcd to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties-between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubbon. I think it is no more aesily to be controlled than is the wind.” And Krishna replied, “For one who is uncontrolled, I agree the Rule is hard to attain, but by the obedient spirits who will strive for it, it may be won by following the proper way.” In the opening chapter of this book, I suggested that the science of sociobiology, if coupled with neurophysiology, might transform the insights of ancient religions into a precise account of the evolutionary origin of ethics and hence explain the reasons why we make certain moral choices instead of others at particlar times. Whether such understanding will then produce the Rule remains to be seen. For the moment, perhaps it is enough to establish that a single strong thread does indeed run from the conduct of terminte colonies and turkey brotherhoods to the social behavior of man.

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Steve points me to an except from E. O. Wilson’s new ant novel in The New Yorker. In the late 1990s I read Empire of the Ants, which had a significant ant-centric aspect. A friend who later went on to do graduate work in entemology borrowed it from me, and she must have liked it because I never did get it back. I have a feeling that Wilson’s Anthill isn’t going to become a classic like Watership Down, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong….

• Category: Science • Tags: E. O. Wilson 
Razib Khan
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