Monday, June 2, 2014

Group Selection and its detractors

Continuing in Nicholas Wade’s, The Faith Instinct, How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, “Here is how Darwin said group selection would work:

“It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience , courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.”

Further down Wade writes, “The most serious objection to group selection has to do with the balance between the forces favoring people with altruistic genes and the forces opposing them. A hunter gatherer group with many self-sacrificing, altruistic heroes might, as Darwin suggested, destroy a group less fortunately constituted, and genes for altruism in the population as a whole would increase. But within the victorious group, as time went on, the nonaltruists would devote their resources to their own families, raising more children and the genes for altruism would become less common. Skeptics of group selection say the second process, the within-group selection against altruistic behavior, will always proceed faster than the between-group process favoring it and hence will overwhelm it.

“The proponents of group selection agree that the balance between the two forces is the crux of the issue. “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary,” say David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson in a recent article.”

Wade then offers arguments (from the two Wilsons) that strengthen the “group selection” view: “There are two significant behaviors that may have made humans far more strongly affected by group selection than are most other species. One was the fierce conformist pressures within hunter gatherer groups that reduce the heavy disadvantages of altruism. The other was intense warfare between groups that accelerated the rate of group selection.

A major point made by the two Wilsons is that selfishness within groups is likely to have been limited by a crucial event in human evolution— the emergence of egalitarianism in early hunter gatherer societies. . . Successful hunters are forced to share their catch with everyone else. They cannot resist sharing, and cannot put on airs, because stinginess and bragging are the two behaviors that incur the most opprobrium in hunter gatherer communities.

Hunter gatherer egalitarianism was no mere principle; it was rigorously applied. And the conformity that ensued would have greatly reduced the natural variability in human social behavior. The mighty hunters, the power seekers, the philanderers and any who stood out and made themselves a subject of gossip, all found it difficult to thrive. If everyone had to behave alike, within-group variation would have been suppressed and differences between groups would have taken over as the principal driver of evolutionary change, at least in terms of social behavior.  [Wade, Nicholas, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (Kindle Locations 1171-1211). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.]

Comment: Back in the 50s when I first began reading about these matters, there was an ongoing debate between those who believed that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were peaceful scavengers who ate what was left after such predators as lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs were done with it. Since those days evidence has mounted that early man was a hunter, and not just a hunter but the very best hunter of all the predators.

If man was merely a scavenger then perhaps group evolution wouldn’t be necessary, but if man hunts, and not only hunts but competes with other hunting tribes (which seems to be the prevailing view today) then group evolution would favor the best and most cohesive tribes; which is what Wade believes (and what Darwin in his autobiography asserted). The best hunting tribes would have eventually (using the Chimpanzee parallel) defeated the rival tribes, and consequently their gene pool distinctions. Thus, these successful hunters wouldn’t need to put too fine a point on getting their individual genes perpetuated. It would have been plain for them to see that if they were superior hunters, they would get more game and feed their tribe better. Also, if they were better warriors they would be able to defeat rival tribes and take they females, thus satisfying their concern about passing on their individual genes – if they indeed thought in those terms. There would therefore have been a distinct advantage to tribes who put the good of the tribe above their own good.

Wade uses the term “free loaders” to describe those who “steal” from the productive members of society in the various ways thieves have. This includes those who place their own safety (cowards) above that of the tribe. Tribes winnowed their cowards. They couldn’t afford them. If they wouldn’t fight and hunt and instead robbed those who did fight and hunt then the tribe killed or banished them. Today, interestingly we have great numbers of such “thieves,” not ashamed of mantras like “hell no, we won’t go.” But we are a wealthy “tribe” and can afford them. If ever times got tough we would no doubt find means to get rid of them, but as for now we don’t really care. Thanks to technology we have enough of those willing to fight; and as to “hunting,” thanks to modern agriculture and animal husbandry we no longer need it. As societies we seem more concerned about the “free loaders” who won’t work. What should we do about them? Well, not much, but they seem to be a by-product of wealth. Their hands are out to those who do work (in a manner of speaking) to rob them (in the form of a dole) of a bit of their wealth.

Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in 1994 published The Bell Curve, Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. I read it about then and so probably don’t remember it vividly, but among other things it argued that “since” freeloaders (and they weren’t so much interested in them as freeloaders but as being of deficient intelligence) were being supported by the dole, and since women on the dole had greater numbers of children than those who were not, society was in effect giving an evolutionary advantage to the dumb.

I don’t know where the controversy between Murray (Herrnstein avoided most of the controversy by dying) and his detractors stands. After reading their book I lost interest when I noticed that their most voluble detractors had not. Murray and Herrnstein emphasized “intelligence-classes,” assuming that greater intelligence was better for society then less intelligence. It was noticed, and still seems obvious that the smarter people do the more complicated jobs. It doesn’t sound outrageous to be told that college professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers and the like are, on average smarter than garbage collectors, fast-food workers, checkout counter clerks, and those who can’t find or don’t want jobs. However, their detractors were quick to substitute “race” for “intelligence” and cast Herrnstein and Murray (figuratively) into political outer darkness.

But to be fair Wade isn’t interested in current evolutionary trends (at least not as far as I’ve read) but in the effects we have inherited as a result of 2,000 generations of group selection in our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We are still killers, for example, but only in a good, group-supportive way.

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