Before I share with you what’s probably my most unpleasant experience this year, let’s have some background setting info. This was during a (yearly) national application campaign to fill up full-time research positions. Basically you come up with your own research plan and a lab willing to defend your application. You have 10 minutes to convincingly present yourself and argue* about your outstanding research project and (best) your 10-year (pun intended) perspective in science. Every applicant is interviewed (though this rule will probably change in the next future, because this results into a time-costly and administratively procedural application round). In the session I was applying to, we were 80 candidates to 4 opening positions. Not a bad ratio, quite the contrary. But statistics show that your odds ending up with a position only become slightly greater than zero when you’ve published over 10 papers (the unofficial minima required), if possible all in the top 5 journals of your field. My application was thus slightly borderline of course, therefore I wasn’t expecting much beyond a “see what happens“. A lot of people encourage you to do so (“scientific tourism“), so that at least you’ve already experienced the bitterness when your time comes up, and you can withstand the harshest criticisms. As a consequence, I was ready for a cold shower. I hadn’t prepared myself for the interview instant killer though…I won’t go much through details, it’s worthless. I went through my small talk. Jury told me my time had flown. I was wondering how this could possibly be, since I always trained as a shorter, but so be it. I thus made a quick summary and waited for the questions. Questions are my favourite part of the game. So here we were. I couldn’t say it was too bad, up to this. Sure, it wasn’t good enough, but it clearly wasn’t bad. I had expected a great deal of technical questions, since this is probably were there’s a lot to say with my project. Eventually, I got one or two about this or that…
… but then came the disastrous question. It was departing from my research plan, and frankly I didn’t think much about it (more below). When I made an answer, Mr Big Wise Professor, next to my right, noded his head and said “I would have bet! Group selection“. OMG WTF! This is the kind of commentary you make to undergrads so this was really really not good, since usually a mashing down follows. I kept cool and answered quietly “Sire, I don’t think I made any claim advocating group selection…” and I was about to elaborate while trying to understand where the issue rooted (before it all rotted). But Mr Big Wise Professor wouldn’t let me further: “yes you did.” Notice the period. It was so strongly claimed that I finally gave up an embarrassed smile (still trying to go back to where I could possibly have indulged in assumed group selection of some sort). Done. Instant killer. Good bye…
When I closed the door out of the room, and I eventually realised what happened. Maybe I’m wrong, but I wouldn’t be writing this post if so. This is unfortunately the time I have to go into fiction. Imagine I was proposing to do research on aggressiveness in ants. This is not the best analogy to the actual research plan, but since I’ll recycle it next year, I certainly do not want to tell too much about it, Okay? Ants. Wants to see.
So ants species differ in aggressiveness. You’d like to investigate whether this translates into differences in species coexistence: is aggressiveness driving ant species distribution within communities? Of course, an hypothesis behind the research is that more aggressive species would benefit freed space and resources compared to less aggressive ones, but also which species are tolerant of which species they can coexist with. For example, you’d expect species competing for the same resources to interact in stronger ways than those which don’t, and so on. Let’s say this was basically my research plan:
– some ants are aggressive toward other ant species (fact). What is the consequence of this on ant community composition? Does aggressiveness affect the abundance and distribution of co-occuring species?
So when a jury member tunes in “I don’t quite understand. How would aggressiveness evolve in the first place? “. I didn’t think a lot about it, I’m certainly guilty to not indulging into such other aspects of the research plan. On the other hand, aggressivity exists, so that studying its consequences is a scientifically legitimate prospect. Community ecology does not necessarily completely intersect with evolutionary ecology. I answered I didn’t know, but that it might well be by the same process: more aggressive ant lineages may be better competitors for resources or space compared to those who aren’t, be they from the same species or not. Then you know what happened. Mr Big Wise Professor told the truth. Or is it?
If I were proposing to explain the origin and maintenance of aggressiveness in ants in terms of advantages at the species level (between species within communities), then yep. This would have been advocating group selection. And indeed, wondering about species characteristics and trying to explain them is an important pursuit of many evolutionary scientists. “What is the reason for X? ” is the trigger of many a study. It doesn’t mean that all evolutionists are doing that, though. So tell me if I’m wrong, but I’m quite sure I wasn’t damn advocating group selection anywhere. I wasn’t actually interested in explaining aggressiveness at all. Rather, I was proposing to study its impact on species diversity in communities. Definitely not the same thing.
So it’s a bit frustrating to be left without any consideration other than doing a fairly basic mistake in evolutionary biology. This is even more frustrating that Mr Big Wise Professor has apparently been unable to grasp the difference. And this is just because most people are used to think and manage experiment at a species level, not a community one. If it is what happened, then basically Mr Big Wise Professor was arguing something that can be put as follows: “Interspecific competition cannot possibly occur because of infraspecific competition“. I don’t want to be condescending here, but I felt very stupid at that moment (that’s what happens when somebody accuses me of group selectionism), but when you put things this way, you’re left wondering who was idiotic of some sort. The difference is that I was running for food (hey I have a family to sustain)**, and Mr Big Wise Professor was not even running for fame (he’s got it already).
So… The point of this long post is all about your own reasoning habits. Given one works in specific fields, one eventually becomes so used to the specific ways of understanding methods and aims that we cannot acknowledge when we get outside of our daily (turned yearly and lifelong) routines. Frankly, is it possible that because of the debate on levels of selection, one cannot investigate processes above the species level? This would be a quite weird consequence of short sighting… Most strikingly, I’ve been discussing this with mentors colleagues — people that are proponents of a rather strong ultradarwinian approach to biology, and both confirmed me with the view that, anyway, the real issue of group selection is that it cannot oppose selection at lower levels, and is thus expected to be weak in these conditions. Not completely impossible (as meant by Mr Big Wise Professor), as long as selection isn’t counterbalancing the whole thing.
Furthermore, it seems it has become rather fashionable to go witch hunting accusing others of indulging into group selection these days. But have biologists of the twentieth twenty first century ever been confronted to the naively stereotypical version of Wynne-Edwards group selectionism? I never did. And it’s not because I didn’t try.
* The meaning of arguing is limited to exchanging arguments in a rather civilised manner in French (the word is thus a ‘false’ friend). But the English meaning would not be so far away from what the issue actually is about in here.
** I certainly wouldn’t have got such a position this year (and I may not in my life). But then, what was the point of this free humiliation?