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Evolutionary Restraints

The Contentious History of Group Selection

Much of the evolutionary debate since Darwin has focused on the level at which natural selection occurs. Most biologists acknowledge multiple levels of selection—from the gene to the species. The debate about group selection, however, is the focus of Mark E. Borrello’s Evolutionary Restraints.
            Tracing the history of biological attempts to determine whether selection leads to the evolution of fitter groups, Borrello takes as his focus the British naturalist V. C. Wynne-Edwards, who proposed that animals could regulate their own populations and thus avoid overexploitation of their resources. By the mid-twentieth century, Wynne-Edwards became an advocate for group selection theory and led a debate that engaged the most significant evolutionary biologists of his time, including Ernst Mayr, G. C. Williams, and Richard Dawkins. This important dialogue bled out into broader conversations about population regulation, environmental crises, and the evolution of human social behavior. By examining a single facet in the long debate about evolution, Borrello provides powerful insight into an intellectual quandary that remains relevant and alive to this day.

228 pages | 1 line drawing, 16 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

History: History of Ideas

History of Science


“This superb book traces the history of the debate over the levels at which natural selection operates. Evolutionists, knowing that the secrets of the present are to be explained by the past, will welcome this work for the great insights that it throws on contemporary debates.”

Michael Ruse, Florida State University

“Few issues in biological theory have excited political commentators and the educated public as much as group selection. Whether nature teaches a liberal or a conservative view of human society once seemed to turn on this question. This readable but scholarly history of the debate debunks some myths and reveals how biologists at the center of the controversy were influenced by their fieldwork, by the developing theoretical context, and by the social issues of the day. It will be fascinating reading for biologists, as well as historians of science and a wide audience in the humanities and social sciences.”

Paul E. Griffiths, University of Sydney

“Mark Borrello has filled a much-needed gap in the literature on the issue of group selection, by focusing on one of the subject’s earliest and most vociferous advocates, V. C. Wynne-Edwards. A philosopher of science who writes good history, and a historian of science who writes clear and comprehensible philosophy, Borrello takes the reader carefully through the history of group selectionist ideas, starting with Darwin, through Wynne-Edwards’s formulation of the idea, especially in his 1962 book, Animal Dispersion, and reactions to it. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of a highly controversial, and little studied, aspect of the evolutionary synthesis.”

Garland E. Allen, Washington University in St. Louis

“Philosophers have expended tremendous energy immersed in controversies about the levels at which natural selection acts, often acting as if this were a theoretical problem to be solved philosophically. In this delightfully accessible volume, Borrello very effectively places in clear historical context the contributions of the leading group selectionist Wynne-Edwards and his interactions with contemporaries. Borrello makes an important contribution to the ongoing discussions about selection, and provides an outstanding example of what is gained by joining first-rate history and philosophy of science.”

Jane Maienschein, Arizona State University

“A fascinating study. . . . Recommended.”

J. S. Schwartz | Choice

“This excellent new book on the history of the debate over group selection is part of an ongoing effort by historians and philosophers to give a more nuanced accounting of the complicated historical and conceptual development of modern evolutionary thought than has been offered in the past. . . . [Borrello’s] account gives us more than just a genealogy of a particular scientific idea: the history of group selection is a case study that illuminates how scientific consensus is negotiated, and how orthodoxies are defended and maintained. . . . [Evolutionary Restraints] will be read with profit both by observers of and active participants in current debates about the nature and scope of selection.”

David Sepkoski | Quarterly Review of Biology

Table of Contents



Chapter 1. Charles Darwin and Natural Selection

Chapter 2. Social Insects, Superorganisms, and Mutual Aid

Chapter 3. Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards

Chapter 4. Theory Development

Chapter 5. Animal Dispersion

Chapter 6. Critique of Wynne-Edwards

Chapter 7. The New Paradigm of the Gene

Chapter 8. The Death of Wynne-Edwards and the Life of an Idea




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