Steven Pinker: The False Allure Of Group Selection
June 26, 2012
“I am often asked whether I agree with the new group selectionists, and the questioners are always surprised when I say I do not. After all, group selection sounds like a reasonable extension of evolutionary theory and a plausible explanation of the social nature of humans. Also, the group selectionists tend to declare victory, and write as if their theory has already superseded a narrow, reductionist dogma that selection acts only at the level of genes. In this essay, I’ll explain why I think that this reasonableness is an illusion. 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.”
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? If so, does the theory of natural selection have to be revamped to designate “groups” as units of selection, analogous to the role played in the theory by genes?
Several scientists whom I 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.[i] 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.” They have proposed that group selection can explain the mystery of religion, because a shared belief in supernatural beings can foster group cohesion. They suggest that evolution has equipped humans to solve tragedies of the commons (also known as collective action dilemmas and public goods games), in which actions that benefit the individual may harm the community; familiar examples include overfishing, highway congestion, tax evasion, and carbon emissions. And they have drawn normative moral and political conclusions from these scientific beliefs, such as that we should recognize the wisdom behind conservative values, like religiosity, patriotism, and puritanism, and that we should valorize a communitarian loyalty and sacrifice for the good of the group over an every-man-for-himself individualism.
I am often asked whether I agree with the new group selectionists, and the questioners are always surprised when I say I do not. After all, group selection sounds like a reasonable extension of evolutionary theory and a plausible explanation of the social nature of humans. Also, the group selectionists tend to declare victory, and write as if their theory has already superseded a narrow, reductionist dogma that selection acts only at the level of genes. In this essay, I’ll explain why I think that this reasonableness is an illusion. 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.
Why does this matter? I’ll try to show that it has everything to do with our best scientific understanding of the evolution of life and the evolution of human nature. And though I won’t take up the various moral and political colorings of the debate here (I have discussed them elsewhere), it ultimately matters for understanding how best to deal with the collective action problems facing our species.
The first big problem with group selection is that the term itself sows so much confusion. People invoke it to refer to many distinct phenomena, so casual users may literally not know what they are talking about. I have seen “group selection” used as a loose synonym for the evolution of organisms that live in groups, and for any competition among groups, such as human warfare. Sometimes the term is needlessly used to refer to an individual trait that happens to be shared by the members of a group; as the evolutionary biologist George Williams noted,”a fleet herd of deer” is really just a herd of fleet deer. And sometimes the term is used as a way of redescribing the conventional gene-level theory of natural selection in different words: subsets of genetically related or reciprocally cooperating individuals are dubbed “groups,” and changes in the frequencies of their genes over time is dubbed “group selection.” To use the term in these senses is positively confusing, and writers would be better off referring to whichever phenomenon they have in mind.
In this essay I’ll concentrate on the sense of “group selection” as a version of natural selection which acts on groups in the same way that it acts on individual organisms, namely, to maximize their inclusive fitness (alternatively, which acts on groups in the same way it acts on genes, namely to increase the number of copies that appear in the next generation; I will treat these formulations as equivalent). Modern advocates of group selection don’t deny that selection acts on individual organisms; they only wish to add that it acts on higher-level aggregates, particularly groups of organisms, as well. For this reason, the theory is often called “multilevel selection” rather than “group selection.” This all sounds admirably ecumenical and nonreductionist, but my arguments will also apply to multilevel selection. I don’t think it makes sense to conceive of groups of organisms (in particular, human societies) as sitting at the top of a fractal hierarchy with genes at the bottom, with natural selection applying to each level in parallel ways.
First I’ll examine the idea that group selection is a viable explanation of the traits of human groups such as tribes, religions, cultures, and nations. Then I’ll turn to group selection as an explanation of the traits of individual humans, that is, the intuitions and emotions that make it possible for people to learn their culture and coexist in societies. (No one denies that such faculties exist.) Finally I’ll examine the empirical phenomena that have been claimed to show that group selection is necessary to explain human altruism…