For nearly half a century, the evolution of human behavior has been presented to the public framed by the ideas of Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and a cohort of sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and media gene-mongers. The scientific basis for the frame is the idea that the focus of Darwinian natural selection is the selfish gene, selection always acting within groups and never between groups — individual selection rather than group selection, the unit of selection the gene. From this has followed the selfish-gene evolutionary analysis of various human behaviors, especially the analysis of altruism.
Well, it seems that the father of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson has changed his mind: in the current issue of New Scientist (November 3, 2007), evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson effectively end the hegemony of the selfish gene idea: they review the field and declare in a voice loud and clear that group selection was mistakenly cast aside during previous decades, that the evidence for group selection is too strong to be ignored, and that the current ideas about how evolution works need to be revised.
The scientific revision, well-known to professional biologists, has actually been in the works for more than a decade (see, Wilson, D.S. & Sober, E. (1994). Reintroducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 17(4): 585-654) but with this new article in the popular media the public revision begins.
Groups with more altruists (people who care about you) do better than groups with fewer altruists?
Okay, if that’s a big surprise, we need to change our idea of what constitutes a “big surprise.” But what big revision is now foreseen? Didn’t everyone except the village atheist know this already?
Akin goes on to enthuse,
Humans are pack animals. We live and die in herds. The group provides the individual with the means of physical and psychological survival. We need the group as much as the group needs us. It’s a fair trade that’s been evolving for millions of years.
Herds. Pack animals. Hmmmm … not so good. Not like – for example – the Christian concept of the Body of Christ. A laggard in the herd is definitely expendable. But even if you are only a toe in the Body of Christ, if you get stomped on …
More pressing: Just what rights does this alleged new insight on the part of the wizards of Darwinism give “the group”, one wonders. Especially in view of the fact that
There will be die-hards. There are people who don’t like the idea that society is as important as genes in determining behavior. They don’t like the idea that nature can select societies as well as individuals.
Now, I would like to know how “nature” “selects” “societies.”
If “nature” is Darwin’s natural selection, then the case is clear. Darwin’s natural selection can only select between randomly mutated genes in individuals (natural selection acting on random mutation). That means individuals, not groups.
Dawkins was right about that, even if he was wrong about almost everything else. So how exactly IS society important?
Well, it is, but … mainly by subverting any type of evolution that is driven by some program other than the human society. Historically, people have worked to subvert nature. We segregate ourselves from nature. Entire industries fret about that fact and market “natural” products.
We also act against nature. Think of all the people who lavish attention on disabled friends and relatives instead of eating them or throwing them off a cliff.
It has been so from the beginning. And it never contributed anything to Darwinian fitness OR group selection. Many groups would be materially better off, no doubt, if they had got rid of their elderly dependents, and yet they did not.
There isn’t really any “group selection”. There are societies that people are willing to belong to and societies that they are not willing to belong to. That has been the story of human history from the beginning. The only selection force is the decisions made by human beings.
But – oops – we are not supposed to believe that, are we? It might imply that there is a spiritual brain.
I can’t help wondering how much of the “group selection” fad is driven by the recent meltdown of the career of anti-theist James Watson (of double helix fame), for uttering politically incorrect thoughts.