Saturday, February 19, 2022

Group Selection and Humanism: Does it Matter?

 by Bill Creasy

I self-published a book called “Making a Happy Society.” The book based on essays in WASHline and WASH blog, and there is an acknowledgement to WASH. Here is the link to on Amazon:

I recently gave a talk to the WASH-MDC chapter about some points that are in the book. Some points may look familiar to long time members. I spent a lot of time editing as my COVID project. I tried to give the book a unified message.

The book is about a kind of evolution called group selection. I think that a study of group selection gives a very different perspective on a lot of issues that are interesting to humanists. It is also gives a different perspective for solving problems. I already think it matters, but I’d like to hear whether you think it matters.

I tried to write it as if it is a view of society from earth orbit, to give a big picture perspective without a lot of detail. There are a lot of topics in the book that are covered fairly superficially.

One topic that received a lot of interest at the talk was a consideration of Richard Dawkins's view of group selection, first discussed in his book The Selfish Gene in Chapter 1. I didn't include a thorough discussion of Dawkins's points at the talk, so I'll write about it in more detail.

My book is about ideas from group selection. Group selection has had a controversial development and is still controversial in some circles. If you are like a lot of secular people, you found out about group selection from Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins has a lot of respectability as one of the New Atheists and as a scientist and science popularizer.

The first chapter of his book is about why he thinks group selection is wrong, and why that was his motivation for writing the book. It’s an odd way to introduce a topic in a popular science book. Feel free to look at it for yourself if you don’t believe me.

I’m not going to argue with Dawkins about genetic evolution. But I have to disagree with some of his conclusions on group selection. Group selection does have a checkered background. Back in the 1960’s, there was a trend in biology to say that species evolved. Dawkins argued that species don’t evolve as a group but they are competing as individuals. Here is his description of group selection from Chapter 1:

A group, such as a species of a population within a species, whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first. Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals.

But then he makes a categorical generalization that because species don’t evolve as groups, no groups can evolve, and as a result he concluded that only genes evolve. His refutation of group selection is as follows:

Even in the group of altruists, there will almost certainly be a dissenting minority who refuses to make any sacrifice. If there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest, then he, by definition, is more likely than they are to survive and have children. Each of these children will tend to inherit his selfish traits....[I]t is very difficult to see what is to stop selfish individuals migrating in from neighbouring selfish groups.

With regard to group selection of species or in general, he wrote:

Does natural selection choose between species? If so, we might expect individual organisms to behave altruistically 'for the good of the species.' They might limit their birth rates to avoid overpopulation, or restrain their hunting behaviour to conserve the species' future stocks of prey. It was such widely disseminated misunderstandings of Darwinism that originally provoked me to write the book [The Selfish Gene].

From this point, he made a categorical rejection of all group selection. He continued:

The critical question is: Which level in the hierarchy of life will turn out to be the inevitably 'selfish' level, at which natural selection acts? The Selfish Species? The Selfish Group? The Selfish Organism? The Selfish Ecosystem? Most of these could be argued, and most have been uncritically assumed by one or another author, but all of them are wrong.

The strangest and funniest part of Dawkins's argument is his use of a fudge factor or a hedge, a common idea in science that is a often thrown into an argument when no one quite understands what is going on. It is used when someone wants to leave themselves an escape for when it is better understood. Dawkins's fudge factor is what he calls the “muddle”:

The muddle in human ethics over the level at which altruism is desirable—family, nation, race, species, or all living things—is mirrored by a parallel muddle in the biology over the level at which altruism is to be expected according to the theory of evolution.

In other words, he used the word “muddle” because he understood that behavior is complicated, and someone may analyze it in better detail to find that some altruism may be selected by evolution.

Meanwhile, since then, the idea of cultural evolution, a kind of group selection, is in common usage in social sciences. The Wikipedia entry on cultural evolution says,

Today, cultural evolution has become the basis for a growing field of scientific research in the social sciences, including anthropology, economics, psychology, and organizational studies.... In recent years, there has been a convergence of the cluster of related theories toward seeing cultural evolution as a unified discipline in its own right.

The word “evolve” has gotten very common usage to talk about changing ideas or cultures. It’s used for developing computer programs.

Evolutionary biologists study genetic evolution but seem to have lost out on other studies of evolutionary theory. Evolution seems to have split into two branches of biological and social, in spite of the advantages of having a unified picture. Some of the controversy is giving in the Wikipedia page on group selection that tends to favor Dawkins's point of view. Another spirited discussion of group selection was led by Steven Pinker on called “The False Allure of Group Selection.”

Dawkins’s work on genetic evolution is worthwhile from Chapter 2 on, so I don’t want to give the impression that I’m criticizing his work on biology. But his rejection of group selection is a problem, because he has a position of authority on the subject. Forty plus years after the first edition, he hasn’t changed the first chapter and he is still arguing against group selection. This is a particular problem because of his influence among secular people. It is also a problem because groups are such a central part of human social life, and we really need to pay attention to them.

Other biologists are working on group selection. David Sloan Wilson, professor at the University of Binghamton, NY, and (the late) E. O. Wilson, at Harvard, wrote popular books about group selection. David Sloan Wilson has been associated with the Templeton Foundation, which has a reputation for promoting religion. That hasn’t helped his credibility among atheists. But he has a website devoted to group evolution. So it is still a complicated situation.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve been reading about group selection. I started off taking Dawkins’s word for it. After a while, I changed my mind. I think that it can explain a lot of otherwise puzzling aspects of human nature and human social problems. These include political problems like the current culture wars. It gives an explanation about the question of how progress happens. I think it matters, but I’ll be interested in what people decide for themselves to answer the question in the title, “Does it Matter?”