In Defense of Group Selection

All my life I’ve been fascinated by unfamiliar lands and peoples; the mosaic of human cultures for me is the most fascinating subject in the universe. I have spent half my life abroad and almost all of it dealing in one way or another with what works in different cultural environments, and what happens when cultures collide. I’ve gotten to know my subject the way Mark Twain’s riverboat pilot got to know the Mississippi.

Recently I have become involved with the why issues, the theories that at least try to explain the what phenomena I have observed–but I’ve backed into the theoretical stuff, rather than starting out life with it as my prime purpose. I’ve become curious as to what kind of theoretical framework is being constructed to explain all that I have observed– put it into orderly piles so to speak, and illuminate the whole mess in ways that allow me to understand interrelationships that I’ve previously missed.

And what do I find? A midden of conflicting theories, signifying almost nothing. Scientists have gone a long way to agree on conceptual frameworks that are actually useful in other fields, like chemistry and physics, biology and zoology, and geology and climatology. When it comes to understanding our own species, they have been like a bunch of lemmings, except that they usually march in different directions.

Where to start? My experience tells me that everything in the vast tapestry of human history and prehistory revolves around individuals coalescing into groups, and how the groups then develop a persona of their own. How do these groups start, how do they evolve, how do they compete, and how do they die? Culture is a part of this picture, a large part. You want to understand an individual? Check out his ethnicity, and his culture’s origin myths and history. Look into vernacular novels, music, and what makes people in that culture laugh. You may still not know just how to deal with that person but you’re off to a good start. You want to understand how a whole nation will react to a given set of circumstances? The more you understand the nation’s history and culture, the better your prognosis.

I was shocked when I retired out of diplomacy, where my more successful peers operated on much the same assumptions as mine, and stuck my nose into my father’s old bailiwick, anthropology. When I drew on my experience with competition between groups to help analyze complex situations, I was instructed that group selection was not generally accepted by the brahmins of the profession as a valid principle. Perhaps I should have genuflected, but recalling my childhood exposure to a passel of these authorities, I said what the hell, either my lifetime experiences count for something or they don’t. If they do, these self-appointed guardians of the truth must be operating on more than pure science. What has gone wrong with them?

Well, this was back in the ’80’s and early ’90’s, and as I read into the available literature a pattern began to emerge. The great majority of the academic community dealing with the social sciences was suffering from what you might call post-Holocaust syndrome. A substantial portion of that community had experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, either directly or through family connections, which understandably left them with a powerful visceral sense of “never again”. Their cleansing operation knew no limits; in the social sciences, more than one discipline suffered guilt by association, and the baby got chucked out with its dirty bathwater.

Now, a couple of generations removed, we are still struggling to get beyond the excesses of obsessive anti-anti-semitism. No serious scholar these days is foolish enough to compare human societies on the basis of relative superiority (shades of the Herrenvolk!), and even talking about relative fitness between groups, in terms of specific environmental constraints, is a minefield. Race is still a no-no (except in medicine). Eugenics is still completely toxic, except for plant breeders. Group selection theory, my primary interest these days, may offer extraordinary opportunities for insights into the human condition, but it is tainted enough by association with all of the above to render it off limits for many serious scholars.

I have long nursed the suspicion that we’ll never get over the lingering atavism that breeds inter-group hatred until we get to the bottom of what it is that engendered that hatred in the first place. And we’ll never even begin on that journey until we recognize that anti-anti-semitism had its place and time, but that time is now over, and we should get on with the job.

Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker are among the most articulate opponents of group selection. (Click here for a recent essay by Pinker on the subject). A lot of their problem with the concept is essentially semantic: group selection cannot be described in Darwinian terms as something involving natural selection because it cannot operate through genetic transmission across generations and therefore, ipso facto, it isn’t, well, natural. Including group selection under the more general rubric of natural selection weakens the latter, rendering impotent a concept that is crucially important to critical thinking about biological evolution.

This is easy. We who subscribe to group selection as a principle useful for understanding our species have entirely abandoned the practice of calling it natural. We agree, it isn’t. Let the purists hang on to their use of the word “natural”, and leave it to the philosophers to decide how unnatural the rest of us are. We groupies, however, will insist on the use of the word selection. Selection occurs between groups, whether the anti-anti-semites like the idea or not. Selection also occurs within groups all the time, between ideas (‘memes’ if you will), and also between the individuals comprising the group. It’s not as tidy a process as selection based on genetic transmission, but that is hardly a reason for dismissing it as a respectable field for scientific inquiry. To my way of thinking its complexity makes it all the more challenging.

All right, says Pinker, but if you subtract the process central to natural selection from group selection thinking, what’s left that you don’t already have in the study of history? After all, the historians record what happened and why, and if they tell you doctrine or product “a” won out over “b” over time, and the comparative advantage of the one over the other is obvious, who needs Darwin?

One answer is that the evolutionary approach is inherently interdisciplinary. Knocking down walls separating specialist thinking is likely to produce fresh insights and better understanding. At a recent interdisciplinary conference, for example, we considered nation building and whether failed states represented the same process, but in reverse. I can’t say we arrived at any useful answers, but the discussion did reveal that there was a lot of territory out there, lurking between the classic domains of history and political theory and anthropology, that needs to be explored before we can arrive at a scientifically based answer. There are many more such issues, of course, and some of them being are being addressed by Dr. David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution Institute. I am confident that in the next few years the usefulness of an interdisciplinary approach to intergroup behavior based on evolutionary theory will have won its spurs and convinced even doubters like Dawkins and Pinker.

In my opinion the naysayers about group selection have tied themselves in knots trying to prove that it cannot work because culture doesn’t get inherited genetically, while the supporters have wasted too much time in rebuttals. It is really quite simple: human nature is ill suited to large-scale eusociality, but as eusociality confers great benefits, we and our ancestors alike have been adapting like mad, trying to make our size eleven feet fit into size 9 boots. The real struggle is not so much between altruists and free riders as it is between optimists who can imagine the benefits of adapting to tighter shoes, and realists who want to stick with what they already have, maybe even loosen the laces a bit.

I repeat, I’m more of a pragmatist than a scientist. I think we are on to something with this group selection concept. We got off to a late start thanks to post-Holocaust blues. Now that we’re on track we shouldn’t go astray by arguing theory to the extent we lose direction. We need to know more about how human societies get started and how they interact and grow. Evolutionary concepts can help. Enough said.


In Defense of Group Selection — 1 Comment

  1. Perhaps we are just getting tied up in the words and missing the essence of the idea. If you subtract the intimate connection with Darwin and genetic evolution, you can use the general framework of how evolution works and apply it to societal evolution, without making it adhere to every nuance of natural selection.

    Maybe we just need a new name…

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