Over at Bora’s place he talks about a paper on group selection. In regards to the scientific idea and its broad relevance to evolutionary biology, I am mildly skeptical. That being said, this comment drew my attention:
While endorsing DS Wilson’s Unto Others, Richard Lewontin mentioned an unsavory aspect of group selection (NYROB, 10/22/98): namely, war is a mechanism of the differential survival and reproduction of whole groups. Out-group aggression goes hand in hand with in-group cooperation. It is very advisable to be mindful of the Naturalistic Fallacy when considering group selection.
The Naturalistic Fallacy derives from G.E. Moore’s examination of the assumption that what is “good” can be derivable from natural properties (e.g., physical pleasure sensation), and is often conflated with David Hume’s is-ought problem, the idea that what is is what ought, to be. Regardless of which meaning the commenter had in mind, I think the point was that outgroup vs. ingroup dynamics, and their somewhat nasty implications, should be kept in mind when examining the validity of group selection.
I ask, why? In Narrow Roads of Gene Land the individual selectionist par excellence, W.D. Hamilton, pointed to group selection’s possible utility in the service of nationalist-volkisch ideologies. Hamilton, who held to some rather controversial views himself (e.g., infanticide as a form of removing genetic load from the population), was playing an ideological game here. Regardless of group selection’s utility as science, hooking it up to an ideology (nationalism & fascism) held in low regard in academic circles would surely be an extra-scientific way to smear it. Hamilton’s concerns aren’t totally specious, the white nationalist intellectual Kevin MacDonald works within a group selectionist framework to promote the interests of gentile white Europeans and analyze the machiavellian group strategies of Jews. In my own brushes with white nationalists it is clear they do find the group selection model congenial to their conception of the white race as a “super-organism.”
But there’s more, Hamilton’s own kin selective ideas, which explain how altruism may evolve via gene-centric logic, has been used by racialists. The concept of ethnic nepotism is simply a sociological elaboration on inclusive fitness, this time expanded to the ethnic-racial scale. No group selection necessary (there is some controversy as to whether inclusive fitness is simply a form of groups selection, but I hold that group selection should be defined as those processes which can not be understood or intelligible via lower order processes).
My point is that almost any scientific model can be contorted or interpreted through a normative filter. I have entered into arguments with Bora precisely because I feel that he tends to assume that a particular scientific model has a strong correlation with a normative viewpoint. For example, this post, where he connects “genocentrism” with anti-abortion arguments. You can see similar arguments in The Dialectical Biologist, where Richard Levins and Lewontin connect J.M. Smith’s upper-middle class origin to the biological models premised on game theory and individual competition with which he was associated.1
The point is that the validity of the scientific model is independent of the sociological or political inferences various groups may derive from that model. Consider group selection, it may be a justification for ethnocentrism, but one could also reinterpret it to universalist socialism or Communism (i.e., group = human race). Similarly, the most thoroughgoing gene level selectionist today, Richard Dawkins, avows conventially Leftish politics. The same white nationalists who promote group selectionism have no qualms about utilitizing inclusive fitness premised on gene level dynamics when it suits them.
Of course biology isn’t physics, the steps which connect it to human social affairs are far fewer, and scientists do not live on an island. But the task of interpreting biological models which describe the world around us for their social-political ramifications should not be the brief of scientists, rather, it is the role of philosophers to engage in conceptual analysis and slot in the science into the “big picture.”2 Ultimately I think on empirical grounds we can say that group selection’s validity will have little effect on the shape of human politics (since scientific models are fuzzy and subtle enough to be “spun” rather easily), but on first principles I think scientists should explore the full space of theoretical possibilites, because the mapping of those models to normative systems is so very loose.2
Related: For those interested in ancient blog history, here is a post Bora put up several years ago, and my response.
1 – Smith was actually a Communist for much of his life, and from what I can tell remained a man of the Left though not a Marxist. Additionally, Lewontin himself comes from a rather upper-middle class background, and somehow it didn’t influence his Marxist viewpoint on biology.
2 – Since the mapping of science model 1 to a range of normative systems is possible, it seems that the cost vs. benefit should weight toward examining the model as is without extra-scientific concerns. If, on theo ther hand, the mapping of scientific model 1 was to a normative system z in a tight fashion then I can see the rationale behind “suppressing” the model, 1, in the interests of social amity. But, I set this threshold very high and I don’t think that evolutionary theories are anywhere close to unambiguously relevant toward a particular ideology.