Evolution and the Levels of Selection

After I’d read the book I googled the author and I came across this lecture, which is actually a really nice lecture about many of the ideas also included in the book:

The stuff covered during the last five minutes or so of the talk is not in the book – there’s no political theory or similar in there – but most of the other stuff is. The book is somewhat more theoretical than the lecture; there’s no stuff about vampire bats in there. It probably also goes without saying that the coverage in the book provides a lot more detail than does the lecture, which only really scratches the surface; the analytical level is quite a bit higher in the book.

The book is in my opinion an example of really good philosophy of science. I liked the book a lot, it’s really nicely written and the author seems to be a very precise and careful writer and thinker. There are pretty much no superfluous pages in the book, which also means that I’ve actually been a bit conflicted about how to blog it, because it seemed impossible to go over all those ideas in just a blog post or two. I suggest you watch the lecture; if you like the lecture and/or want to know more about the ideas presented there, you’ll want to read this book.

The book includes some equations here and there, but nothing you shouldn’t be able to handle. Some really important ideas in the book are not mentioned in the lecture, but this is natural given the format – there’s only so much stuff you can pack into one lecture. For example in any two-level setting including ‘particles’ and ‘collectives’, the question arises of how to even define collective (/’group’) fitness. One might define it as “the average or total fitness of its constituent particles; so the fittest collective is the one that contributes most offspring particles to future generations of particles.” Or one might define it as “the number of offspring collectives it leaves; so the fittest collective is the one that contributes the most offspring collectives to future generations of collectives.” The distinction between these two conceptualizations of collective fitness actually is really important in some analytical contexts, and this is definitely a distinction worth keeping in mind.

I may cover the book in more detail later, but for now I’ll limit coverage to the comments above and to the lecture. In my opinion it’s a really nice book, I gave it five stars on goodreads.


August 9, 2014 - Posted by | Biology, Books, Evolutionary biology, Genetics, Lectures


  1. “The book is in my opinion an example of really good philosophy of science.” — I am really delighted to know that you had an enjoyable experience! Few things cheer me up more than knowing that others had positive encounters with the much-maligned field of philosophy of science. 🙂

    Comment by Maxwell B. | August 9, 2014 | Reply

    • As I believe I have pointed to you before, philosophers of science are generally formally educated (either through studies or through professional training — or both) in the fields of inquiry with which they are concerned. As a happy consequence, they tend to be far less insular than philosophers in most other subfields. Their extensive exposure to disciplines outside of philosophy also makes them better appreciate the pitfalls of armchair thinking (unlike, say, philosophers who write about theories of ethics), and they are therefore generally less likely to talk out of their behinds. One could say that philosophers of science come closest to qualifying as competent generalists in today’s era of increasing specialisation — they are familiar with at least one scientific subject; they tend to write very clearly and precisely; and they know a lot about the history of ideas.

      Comment by Maxwell B. | August 9, 2014 | Reply

      • I wasn’t aware of this, but the book “was awarded the 2009 Lakatos Prize for an outstanding contribution to philosophy of science” (link), so apparently I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a good book.

        Okasha seems to only have philosophy degrees, but he’s clearly specialized in this stuff and has been working on these topics for years. It’s very clear from the coverage in the book that he has a lot of knowledge about the topics about which he writes.

        Comment by US | August 9, 2014

      • I have found that philosophers of science/mathematics tend to produce works that are more consistent in quality — because their works are more likely to be subjected to scrutiny by actual scientists/mathematicians.

        Okasha has written very fine works in the philosophy of statistics as well.

        Comment by Maxwell B. | August 9, 2014

      • On a related note it’s actually occasionally quite easy to forget that the book you’re reading is a philosophy of science book, instead of ‘just’ a science book. Here are some instructive chapter subtitles from the book which I think may illustrate this point:

        “Price’s equation and the Lewontin conditions”
        “Price’s equation in a hierarchical setting”
        “Selection on correlated characters”
        “Heritability in MLS1 Revisited” [MLS1: Multi-Level Selection, subtype 1]
        “Cross-level By-Products in MLS1”
        “Sober and Lewontin’s Heterosis Argument”
        “Random Versus Assortative Grouping, Strong Versus Weak Altruism”
        “Group Selection and the MLS1/MLS2 Distinction”.

        If all I was told about a book were that it contained these chapter subtitles, I’d probably bet money against that book being a philosophy of science book if I were given any semi-plausible alternatives. It is a philosophy of science book, no doubt about that. But Okasha does not exactly go out of his way to remind you that the author of the book is not a trained scientist.

        Comment by US | August 9, 2014

      • Hm… On Okasha’s academic page, it is written that he holds the following degrees: “MA, BPhil, DPhil(Oxon)”. “DPhil” is the British way of writing “PhD”; it does not mean that the degree itself is necessarily earned in the field of philosophy. E.g., on this page, you can see that it is possible to earn DPhil degrees in diverse subjects from Condensed Matter Physics to Plant Sciences.

        Okasha demonstrates such a deep command of biology and statistics that it is very difficult for me to imagine that he has never had any extensive formal exposure to these subjects, and that he is entirely self-taught.

        Comment by Maxwell B. | August 10, 2014

      • Additionally, I also found out that MA degrees are also awarded outside of arts/humanities in many schools. E.g., Berkeley and Columia offer MA programmes in Statistics. So it is actually very hard to tell what fields he studied for his Master’s and DPhil.

        Comment by Maxwell B. | August 10, 2014

      • ““DPhil” is the British way of writing “PhD”” – I did not know this.

        I agree that his level of understanding is such that it seems unlikely he’s not had formal training in science. If he hasn’t had formal training, the work he has done is very impressive, and a more likely explanation is probably that he’s taken an MA in biology or some related topic and that his PhD was science-related, in one way or another, as well.

        I actually knew that MA degrees are awarded to people in fields outside of the arts/humanities, but I hadn’t really given that idea any thought in this context. I should note however that it is my impression that MA degrees outside the arts/humanities are less demanding to obtain than the corresponding M.S./M.Sc. degree, and that this is the point of distinguishing between them in such contexts. I may be wrong as I’m judging from personal experience, but it is certainly the motivation for distinguishing between them in my little brother’s case. He’s starting on a one-year master’s degree in economics in Switzerland in September – and he gets an MA. A two-year programme would be required for him to earn the corresponding ‘master of science in economics’ degree.

        Comment by US | August 10, 2014

      • “It is a philosophy of science book, no doubt about that. But Okasha does not exactly go out of his way to remind you that the author of the book is not a trained scientist.” By the way, this reminds me of a comment I once made to you before. I remember mentioning that a lot of philosophers of science would very probably have been equally at home in science departments. A lot of the stuff done in philosophy of science/mathematics/social sciences is actually not so clearly distinguishable from the stuff done in actual sciences/mathematics/social sciences…

        Comment by Maxwell B. | August 12, 2014

  2. I have already decided to check out some more of his stuff later – I have already picked up Evolution and Rationality – Decisions, Cooperation and Strategic Behaviour. He’s ‘only’ an editor of that one, but good editors are occasionally hard to come by and it seemed interesting. Because I’m curious to explore his stuff in more detail, this sentence:

    “Okasha has written very fine works in the philosophy of statistics as well.”

    of course made me wonder if you have read some of that stuff yourself? If so, have you read anything specific of his in that field which you’d consider recommending?

    Comment by US | August 10, 2014 | Reply

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