During the 1960s, the long-standing idea that traits or behaviors could be
explained by natural selection acting on traits that persisted "for the good of the group" prompted a series of debates about group-level selection and the effectiveness with which natural selection could act at or across multiple levels of biological organization. For some this topic remains contentious, while others consider the debate settled, even while disagreeing about when and how resolution occurred, raising the question: "Why have these debates continued?"
Here I explore the biology, history, and philosophy of the possibility of natural selection operating at levels of biological organization other than the organism by focusing on debates about group-level selection that have occurred since the 1960s. In particular, I use experimental, historical, and synthetic methods to review how the debates have changed, and whether different uses of the same words and concepts can lead to different interpretations of the same experimental data.
I begin with the results of a group-selection experiment I conducted using the parasitoid wasp Nasonia, and discuss how the interpretation depends on how one conceives of and defines a "group." Then I review the history of the group selection controversy and argue that this history is best interpreted as multiple, interrelated debates rather than a single continuous debate. Furthermore, I show how the aspects of these debates that have changed the most are related to theoretical content and empirical data, while disputes related to methods remain largely unchanged. Synthesizing this material, I distinguish four different "approaches" to the study of multilevel selection based on the questions and methods used by researchers, and I use the results of the Nasonia experiment to discuss how each approach can lead to different interpretations of the same experimental data. I argue that this realization can help to explain why debates about group and multilevel selection have persisted for nearly sixty years. Finally, the conclusions of this dissertation apply beyond evolutionary biology by providing an illustration of how key concepts can change over time, and how failing to appreciate this fact can lead to ongoing controversy within a scientific field.