Steven Pinker writes:
Human beings live in groups, are affected by the fortunes of their groups, and sometimes make sacrifices that benefit their groups. Does this mean that the human brain has been shaped by natural selection to promote the welfare of the group in competition with other groups, even when it damages the welfare of the person and his or her kin? . . .
Several scientists whom I [Pinker] greatly respect have said so in prominent places. And they have gone on to use the theory of group selection to make eye-opening claims about the human condition. They have claimed that human morailty, particularly our willingness to engage in acts of altruism, can be explained as an adaptation to group-against-group competition. As E. O. Wilson explains, “In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals. But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals.” . . .
I [Pinker] am often asked whether I agree with the new group selectionists, and the questioners are always surprised when I say I do not. . . . The more carefully you think about group selection, the less sense it makes, and the more poorly it fits the facts of human psychology and history.
I was not persuaded by Pinker’s arguments against group selection. Before getting to the details, let me just say that I think it’s ok that I think this. After all, Pinker himself says that E. O. Wilson thinks group selection is real. I’m not saying that Wilson is definitely correct, but when it comes to evolution it certainly doesn’t seem unreasonable to side with biologist E. O. Wilson over linguist Steven Pinker or popularizer Richard Dawkins. (Just to be clear: I’m not saying I found Pinker unpersuasive because I was weighing his qualifications against Wilson’s. What I’m saying is that (a) I found Pinker unpersuasive (for reasons I outline below) and (b) it seems that I’m joined Wilson, among others, in that point). I do, however, recognize that many prominent biologists despise the idea of group selection.
Pinker makes three arguments:
1. For a process to be called “natural selection,” it must satisfy the following criteria: “the groups made copies of themselves by budding or fissioning, the descendant groups faithfully reproduced traits of the parent group (which cannot be reduced to the traits of their individual members), except for mutations that were blind to their costs and benefits to the group; and groups competed with one another for representation in a meta-population of groups.” Without these, Pinker says, stories about group selection are “so poetical that they shed no light on the phenomenon” and are no better than silly analogies such as “Cars today are equipped with steel-belted radials because they outcompeted polyester-belted tires in a process of tire selection.”
2. Pinker makes the reasonable point that “it’s only when humans display traits that are disadvantageous to themselves while benefiting their group that group selection might have something to add.” He then continues: “this brings us to the familiar problem which led most evolutionary biologists to reject the idea of group selection in the 1960s. Except in the theoretically possible but empirically unlikely circumstance in which groups bud off new groups faster than their members have babies, any genetic tendency to risk life and limb that results in a net decrease in individual inclusive fitness will be relentlessly selected against.”
3. “Nepotistic altruism in humans consists of feelings of warmth, solidarity, and tolerance toward those who are likely to be one’s kin. . . . The cognitive twist is that the recognition of kin among humans depends on environmental cues that other humans can manipulate. Thus people are also altruistic toward their adoptive relatives, and toward a variety of fictive kin such as brothers in arms, fraternities and sororities, occupational and religious brotherhoods, crime families, fatherlands, and mother countries. These faux-families may be created by metaphors, simulacra of family experiences, myths of common descent or common flesh, and other illusions of kinship. None of this wasteful ritualizing and mythologizing would be necessary if “the group” were an elementary cognitive intuition which triggered instinctive loyalty. Instead that loyalty is instinctively triggered by those with whom we are likely to share genes, and extended to others through various manipulations.”
To which I reply . . .
One man’s “manipulations” are another’s group selection. The story I’ve always heard, and which makes sense to me, is that different groups have different social organizations, and some are more successful than others. It all depends on the environment, but in some environments an every-man-for-himself (or, every-man-for-himself-and-his-kin) society won’t be so economically successful. A famous example is the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies; it’s said that the latter dominate economically even while being worse for most of the individuals involved.
Pinker might argue at this point that this has nothing to do with natural selection and has everything to do with wasteful ritualizing, mythologizing, and coercion. But I don’t see how that shoots down the group-selection story, in which the qualities that help a social structure expand and be copied are not necessarily those that benefit each individual or kin. The story is that many of our social norms arise because we are part of societies that exist partly from the development of such norms.
To me, Pinker’s arguments seem inappropriately normative. Anything having to do with genes is “instinctive”, while more generally social attitudes are dismissed using words such as “faux,” “simulacra,” “myths,” “illusions,” and “manipulations.”
A clue to Pinker’s attitude comes from his statement, “the term ‘group selection’ adds little to what we have always called ‘history.’” I’m reminded of the notorious statement that all science is physics or stamp collecting. The study of history is hugely important, and what history is about (to me) is nailing down the facts. History is the ultimate descriptive social science. What happened when, who said what to whom. Sure, interpretations are central to historical work (consider, for example, A. J. P. Taylor’s “Origins of the Second World War”), but what historians contribute in particular is the particularity of history.
Just as there’s a lot of science in between physics and stamp collecting, there’s a lot of social science in between biology and history. As a psychologist, Pinker knows this, but he seems to forget it here. The study of group selection of societies would seem to me to fall in the category of anthropology or sociology. I do think that it can help to understand the social benefits of “ritualizing and mythologizing,” rather than simply dismissing them as “wasteful” and created by “manipulations.” Just as a biologist or psychologist might study some apparently strange individual behavior as a result of some evolutionary adaptation, it can make sense for a sociology to take rituals and myths seriously and not be so quick to dismiss attitudes such as patriotism that are central to our culture.
That said, I don’t want to overstate my case. I’m not a biologist or even a sociologist, and I’ve been careful to characterize these cultural evolution examples as “stories.” That’s just the way it is: we have a lot more examples of animals than of societies so these ideas are inherently more speculative, more like the sort of just-so stories for which evolutionists are so notorious. So I agree with Pinker that cultural evolution will never reach the scientific status of the evolution of species. But that doesn’t mean that group selection isn’t real. It just means that group selection makes Pinker uncomfortable.
Pinker has clearly thought more about all this than I have, so I won’t go so far as to say I think he’s wrong. Just call me unconvinced.
P.S. Pinker characterizes natural selection as “the best idea that anyone ever had.” I don’t know about that. Given that evolution by natural selection is (basically) true, it’s no surprise that someone would come up with it sooner or later. I think the title “the best idea that anyone ever had” should be attached to a truly unique idea that might never have arisen. I’m sure that Steven Wolfram and Nathan Myhrvold have come up with a few dozen better ideas all by themselves! And what about that religion that L. Ron Hubbard invented? The secrets of nature will eventually be discovered in any case, but coming up with a new religion all on his own—that’s what I call impressive.
P.P.S. The discussion by Richard McElreath in comments seems helpful.