Wednesday, March 23, 2011

NTW vindicated against all comers

 Well the counterblasts to NTW are up and as expected they are pretty feeble.
  • Abbot et 136 als (lead-authored by Stewart West) boils down to saying that relatedness is often very important  and can sometimes explain a lot (which no-one denies). The references are mainly 3 books, one by West himself.  It's not clear how many of the co-authors has a strong mathematical background: there is at least one very good scientist (Tim Clutton-Brock FRS, but he is no mathematician, quite old school) and one very bad one (Jerry Coyne).  It's also amazing that anyone can be so naive and dogmatic as to write "Natural selection explains the appearance of design in the living world, and inclusive fitness theory explains what this design is for" (! my italics)
  • Boomsma et al make the specific point that all hymenopteran clades that fit the standard definition of eusociality evolved from life-time monogamous ancestors (I blogged about this paper when it came out I think).  Again this misses the point that NTW are not saying relatedness is irrelevant, merely that it is not all-important as inclusive fitness fanatics (eg Abbot et al!) claim.
  • Strassman et al again absurdly over-claims that "Organisms overwhelmingly direct costly assistance, and all true altruism, towards kin" - citing a paper in Science by Griffin and West which shows nothing of the kind - merely that there is a statistically significant correlation.
  • Fig 2 from Griffin and West - only a moderate correlation
  • Ferriere and Michod recognise the point that whereas inclusive fitness has generated many valuable insights it is a very incomplete description of evolutionary processes (esp it gives no insights into evolutionary dynamics) and suggest that it needs to be replaced by the concept of Invasion Fitness. They are thus effectively supporting the key point of NTW - Inclusive Fitness is a rule of thumb, it is not a fundamental principle (still less the dogmatic absurdity of "what this design is for").  It will be interesting to see how far and under what conditions "Invasion Fitness" tracks proper and careful Evolutionary Dynamic calculations.
NTW respond by saying that "The authors of the five comments offer the usual defence of inclusive fitness theory, but do not take into account our new results" and making some helpful detailed points - conceding only a minor re-wording of one claim. They don't discuss Ferriere and Michod who seem to me in fact to be largely agreeing with NTW.

PS Coyne comments on the fact that Dawkins wasn't asked to sign any of the letters. Coyne says "I think this was simply an oversight, because all of us simply assumed that Richard would be penning his own criticism" - nothing to do with the fact that Dawkins stopped contributing to the primary science literature in 1980 then!  Coyne then posts Dawkin's attempt to rebut NTW which boils down to: "rB > C: ...If you think, as Nowak et al. do, that ‘Hamilton’s rule almost never holds’, that simply means you haven’t been measuring B and C carefully enough." A splendid example of blind faith.  Basically, poor Dr Dawkins is stuck in a 1970s time-warp and new developments in science and mathematics in this area seem to have passed him by.

I also note that Coyne in his previous post permitted himself to "feel sorry for co-author Corina Tarita, a young scientist with splendid qualifications, for this paper will always cast a shadow over her career."  This sounds really nasty - as though Coyne and his powerful friends, who cannot touch Nowak and Wilson, will try to block Corina's.  Fortunately Corina is well beyond the reach of mediocrities like Coyne - elected to the Harvard Society of Fellows and publishing her first paper in Nature in her mid 20s - Coyne managed his at 43. Unless and until someone finds a major flaw in Corina's mathematics, her reputation is perfectly safe. No-one has, and Coyne and his motley crew are incapable of doing so.

Despairing, cursing rage, attends their rapid fall

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Our lovely friend Q

Our lovely friend Q died on Thurs - at home in her husband's arms surrounded by her family and her priest, with prayers and love.  She was 33. God seems to have a soft spot for people who die at that age.  She was a wonderful woman who touched many people's lives and hearts.

There is of course a deep paradox at the heart of a Christian attitude to death. Shakespeare puts it like this:

Clown: "Good madonna, give me leave to prove you a fool."
Olivia: "Can you do it?"
C: "Dexterously, good madonna."
O: "Make your proof."
C: "I must catechise you for it, madonna: good my mouse of virtue, answer me."
O: "Well, sir, for want of other idleness, I'll bide your proof."
C: "Good madonna, why mournest thou?"
O: "Good fool, for my brother's death."
C: "I think his soul is in hell, madonna."
O: "I know his soul is in heaven, fool."
C: "The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen."

Yet Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, even though he knew he would raise him back to life.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mechanisms for evolution

Good review of Supercooperators  in Nature by Milinski.  He discusses the NTW paper and says
I anticipate that a better mathematical formulation of social evolution theory will be found that includes relatedness, is compatible with existing evidence and includes Hamilton’s rule as a rule of thumb.”  
This seems reasonable, although we must bear in mind what Pauli used to say: “no credits for the future”and should be something around which NTW and their less unreasonable critics can unite.

Someone claims that "there is a big article coming out in Nature which firmly disagrees with [NTW]... jointly authored by more than 100 biologists, who have all signed on to the paper in order to show how firmly their field rejects the conclusions" (my italics).  We'll see whether this is really an article/paper or just a normal piece of scientific correspondence with some reporting.  And whether they have actually found any flaws in the mathematics or reasoning. I suspect not, and I doubt whether many of them are good mathematicians. But we shall see.  Notable that the only other person I know of who is a Prof of Mathematics and Biology (Doebeli) has written:
“[NTW] makes it clear what inclusive fitness theory really is: an accounting method, not a biological mechanism.

Champions of inclusive fitness often refer to the underlying mechanism as kin selection, but this just restates the fact that the benefit a particular gene generates at a cost to its carrier must preferentially go to the gene's other carriers (kin). The real biological problem is to understand mechanisms that lead to such assortment between helper and help. For eusocial insects, [NTW] convincingly argue that the basic mechanism of assortment is the formation of groups owing to ecological pressures, such as the need for nest defence.

Despite the indignant response of the inclusive-fitness crowd, there can be no doubt about the fundamental tenet that, with or without the concept of inclusive fitness, in principle we have access to exactly the same amount of evolutionary knowledge. Personal modelling preferences may vary, but there is nothing magic about bookkeeping techniques.” Nature 467 661
Meanwhile my assiduous e-correspondent proposes a Thought experiment.
"Imagine an animal that slept soundly enough to be predated upon in the dark. The predators only kill the young. The adults can defend the young if they wake up.  Now consider a point mutation with no effect in the young, but which made the adults easy to wake so they can defend the young. This mutation will spread through kin selection. The young who have the gene are more likely to survive if their parents have such a gene.

Such a gene would become universal (fixed) in a population if it made the survival of the young even a few percent more likely when their parents had the gene. If the young were much more likely to survive, it would spread rapidly and become fixed in a relatively small number of generations."
 This is a nice illustration of what is wrong with inclusive fitness.
  1. (as Noble points out) Genes and organisms simply don't work like that. No point mutation could have such a specific effect on behaviour without many other effects - apart from anything else there are only 23k genes and 1010 Neurons each with vastly complex interconnections to thousands of others. And if there were an heritable effect like that it would be more likely to be epigenetic or cultural/behavioural.
  2. (per NTW) Even if such a mutation were possible, it would only spread if this contribution to fitness were separable from all others (weak selection), mating were randomised (so eg no sexual selection against insomniacs) and these environmental/selection conditions persisted for long enough with no ecological complications. In reality these assumptions would almost never happen ITRW.
  3. (per NTW) Even if all these implausible conditions were met, this would be purely natural selection and not kin selection. Fitness is (roughly) the number of surviving grandchildren you have. So when kin selection works, it adds nothing. And it usually doesn't.
Undeterred by e-correspondent says: "There are many point mutations with specific effects on behavior known, and most of them cause no noticeable other effects. Dancing mice and rats are a specific example".  But of course the dancing mice have genetic mutations that cause malformation of the inner ear and indeed they have played an important role in elucidating the mechanisms of human deafness (see this review for some details).  It is also interesting that they are known to be poor breeders, and it's perfectly clear (at least to me) that there will be plenty of other subtle effects of this mutation.  There always are.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Just back from another really useful session at Harvard.  Martin gave me a copy of his new book Supercooperators and I'm now 75% of the way through it. Much of the matetrial is of course familiar to me but it's still fascinating, and for someone who doesn't know this extraordinary branch of science it would be entirely amazing.

There has been much email traffic on the Lifeboat foundation egroup - and I don't think I should blog about most of it, but there has been a sub-thread about the mechanisms for evolution.

An e-correspondent who has now retired and hasn't studied the latest literature asks "So the observed association of highly related haploid/diploid species with eusociality is just happenstance?" The answer is yes - to quote NTW
"the association between haplodiploidy and eusociality [is] below statistical significance...Vast numbers of living species, spread across the major taxonomic groups, use either haplodiploid sex determination or clonal reproduction, with the latter yielding the highest possible degree of pedigree relatedness, yet with only one major group, the gall-making aphids, known to have achieved eusociality. For example, among the 70,000 or so known parasitoid and other apocritan Hymenoptera, all of which are haplodiploid, no eusocial species has been found. Nor has a single example come to light from among the 4,000 known hymenopteran sawflies and horntails, even though their larvae often form dense, cooperative aggregations."
Another nail is driven in the kin selection nonsense by this perspective and paper in Science, which shows that the relatedness of human social groups is not particularly high, compared to chimanzees for example, and that "multilevel, nested structures of alliances" are the distinctive feature.

PS I see that on p286 Martin says "Over the years I was fortunate enough to cooperate with a great number of impressive scientists. Here I can only name a few of them ..." and then gives an alphabetical list. It is quite a long one, but I am humbled and honored to be included. To be mentioned even vaguely in the same breath as Yoh Iwasa, Simon Levin, Bob May, Peter Schuster, Karl Sigmund, Robert Trivers, Bert Vogelstein and EO Wilson is amazing.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rosemary Joshua with the Aurora Orchestra

On Weds saw Rosy Joshua in a Mozart concert at Kings Place, with the Aurora Orchestra.  This was originally to have been conducted by Sir Colin Davis but he wasn't well enough so we had the young and dynamic Nicholas Collon.  The orchestra, perhaps especially under Collon, is very exciting and makes the Mozart quite explosive at times.  Always an interesting take though occasionally slightly perverse.

We started with the Figaro overture and then had 'Bella mia fiamma, addio... Resta, o cara', K528.  This was composed in 1787 a few days after the first performance of Don Giovanni when Mozart was staying near Prague with his friends Franz and Josepha Duschek. Josepha, a noted Soprano, locked Mozart him in the pavilion of her garden with a supply of writing materials, refusing to release him until he had writed her an aria. Mozart produced this gem but said he would destroy the MS unless Josepha could sing it perfectly at sight. Ceres has decreed that Proserpina's mortal lover Titano must die and he sings this moving lamenting scena.  The first half conluded with Symphony No. 27 in G, K199.

After the interval, another rarity, the Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546.  This was written after Mozart was studying the music of Bach and Handel.  Being Mozart it's wonderful stuff, and the Aurora again played it in interesting ways, with much gusto.  Though of course compared to Bach, Mozart doesn't really have a mastery of the fugue form - but then who does (Beethoven, in his own inimitable way, but very different).

Rosy was back for a wonderful rendition of 'Non piĆ¹. Tutto ascoltai...', K490 which is a substitute aria in Idomineo - a dialogue between Idamante and his lover Ilia, in which she purports to release him to marry Electra but he replies with declarations of undying love.  We concluded with an explosive performance of the Paris Symphony K297.

Saw Rosy backstage, and reflecting afterwards with another very musical friend of hers I realised the fundamental reason why the performances with Rosy were so much better than those without.  Accompanying a great singer forces the orchestra to breathe and take a long view of the music, whereas without her the performances, though still exciting, were rather breathless.  But a very fine evening I would not have missed for worlds, and the orchestra and conductor are well worth hearing and will go far.  But especially go when they have a great and highly musical soliost.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Healing for our friend

A lovely friend from church in her 30s is gravely ill with cancer. Humanly speaking she has only weeks to live. She was allowed out for 3 hours from the Marsden to go to church, with her husband, and we all prayed for her.  In Christ we know that she will be healed, and the only area of uncertainty is whether she will be healed in this life as well as the next. 

An impressive African pastor now working in Switzerland led some prayers afterwards. He said he had been "dead" for 3 days as a child and had been raised back to life, and now has a ministry of healing. Every time he had visited London for the last 9 years he felt God had called him to come to our church, sit at the back and pray, without making himself known. Then today he felt God telling him to come forward. He prayed in French and his wife translated to English.  He was praying very powerfully that our friend should be resussicte - which of course can mean resurrected as well as simply healed.  I opened the Bible at random (though I knew it was in the NT) and read this passage:

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Lk 22:39-45 NIV)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Atatcks on Christians, and a dialogue re Abelard and the Multiverse

Terrible goings on in Pakistan with the assassination of the Christian Minister for Minorities. And in the UK the scandalous attempt by unelected judges to change the constitution to make the clear and evident Christian basis of the law and the constitution into "mere rhetoric".  The Queen is Queen "by the grace of God" and all acts of parliament are enacted "by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons"  This travesty must be challenged.

Fascinating email exchange about the multiverse around the suggestion that 'Just having a single universe seems to run into the Abelard objection that "if God failed to create some things worthy of  being created, who would not say that He was jealous or unjust?"'

This seems to me to be based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the creative process (we don't say Bach is a lesser composer because he didn't write opera) and an absurd idea that we can second-guess God. Also I don't think Abelard understood that Existence is not a predicate like other predicates, but we do. Philosophy does advance at least a bit!

It would be ridiculous to complain, of a Bach fugue, that Bach could have put more entries, counterpoint or notes in. Even if some pedantic theorist could "demonstrate" that there was another inversion available (or something) the answer would be "don't be ridiculous, this is Bach, you simply cannot hope to second guess his creative judgement". And what applies to Bach applies to an infinite degree to God.