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Naming Error

Posted by Hedgefox on 16 Sep 2010 at 05:36 GMT

The authors use the word "selfishness" and reference the social science literature yet their experimental subject is yeast. Social science deals with intentional behavior. That's what rational maximizer means. The authors do not (thankfully) suggest that the yeast has any rational thought or intentional behavior yet they attribute the term selfishness and cheats to them and purport to make a finding that selfishness may actually benefit society.

Surely the reason why some yeast cells do not expend the energy to produce the protein has nothing to do with any intentions or on the yeast cell's part. Consequently, any reference to selfishness or cheating is at best misleading and at worst, simply confused.

No competing interests declared.

RE: Naming Error

LaurenceDHurst replied to Hedgefox on 16 Sep 2010 at 12:07 GMT

We strongly agree that the language of "cheats" and "co-operators" can often mislead or confuse. This was, indeed, one of the points of our paper. In the last paragraph we stated this explicitly:

"Indeed, in our example and perhaps in others, the language of ‘‘cheat’’ and ‘‘co-operator’’ obscures the reality."

It is also why we preferred to refer to "producers" and "non-producers" and why the terms "cheat" and "co-operator" were consistently treated in quotation marks (e.g. as above).

We fail to see, however, how our usage of the term, even couched in quotation marks, could confuse readers into thinking that we are talking about "intentional behaviour". More generally, while we may not like the terms very much, we disagree with the narrow supposition that, because social scientists have one usage of these terms, that this is the only valid usage. The terms "selfish", "cheat" and "co-operator" have regularly been used in the evolutionary sciences, being applied to all life forms, no matter how simple.

As for benefitting "society", yeast have a society as well. What else do social organisms live in, if not societies? Whether what we have found, that presence of some things sometimes considered to be "cheats" benefits the group, has relevance to societies beyond yeast, be that of bacteria, ants or humans, remains an open issue. We see no reason to suppose, however, that what one may learn from one species cannot be helpful in understanding other species, even if in one case the behaviour is genetically determined (our engineered yeast) and in others "intentional".

RCM,AFH, DG, LDH, IG (the authors)

No competing interests declared.

RE: Naming Error Comment Errors

pwestep replied to Hedgefox on 29 Sep 2010 at 02:43 GMT

Despite its placement in quotes the authors do not use the word "selfishness." Not once. They do use the word "selfish," but contrary to Hedgefox's comment, they do not reference the social science literature following this usage. Instead, they reference two publications by themselves and another from Alex van Oudenaarden's lab at MIT. These three publications are much more representative of a literature that might be termed evolutionary dynamics; referring to them as social science is a stretch. As the author's references make clear, their usage of the term selfish is backed by decades of precedent. Lastly, social science deals with social behavior. If social science is going to mature into a real science then determining which behaviors are intentional should be regarded as a goal, not a given.

No competing interests declared.