Group selection & the naturalistic fallacy

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2007 6:38 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution
  • John Basl

    Just a quick point. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy is derived from Hume’s is-ought problem. Hume doesn’t claim that what is, ought to be the case. He is, like Moore, skeptical that a purely descriptive claim can have normative implications. Your post seems to be tacking a view on to Hume which he didn’t hold.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Hume doesn’t claim that what is, ought to be the case. He is, like Moore, skeptical that a purely descriptive claim can have normative implications.
    i know this. where in the post did you get the impression that i believed either held to that point? (the wiki entries i link to make it pretty clear both of them reject the fallacies…pretty obvious when you term something the naturalistic fallacy).

  • Colugo

    I am the author of that comment.
    I agree with much of what you wrote, especially:
    “(A)lmost any scientific model can be contorted or interpreted through a normative filter.”
    “(T)he validity of the scientific model is independent of the sociological or political inferences various groups may derive from that model.”
    Group selection has often been cited by those who believe it is “nicer” than orthodox “gene-centric” behavioral ecology. I am not claiming that this is the case with Coturnix. However, I have seen group selection naively touted as a more humane and socialist (in a humane, democratic way – rather than the Gulag, of course), alternative to what is characterized as allegedly dog-eat-dog (and hence neoliberal, Thatcherite etc.) individual selection.
    There is a tendency for some to think that group selection contains normative lessons for how our society should be organized. And in that context, its obvious implications for war and genocide are sometimes overlooked.
    That is what I was cautioning against. My point was not that these concerns “should be kept in mind when examining the validity of group selection,” rather that its advocates be mindful of its implications. I was concerned with styles of group selection advocacy, as well as attempts to derive prescriptive applications for social policy from it, rather than its validity.
    National Socialist biology was explicitly group-centric and collectivist. Consider this passage from a 1942 Nazi biology textbook for 5th grade girls.
    “The ethnic state must demand of each individual citizen that he does everything for the good of the whole, each in his place and with his abilities”
    I recommend clicking the link and reading the whole selection.
    Of course, we should be wary of the ‘reducio ad Hitlerum’ fallacy in both biology and human affairs; the Autobahn and the Volkswagen are not inherently evil.
    However, I still advise that caution be taken with “holistic” and group selectionist approaches to biology because of the historic appeal of such views for Nazis and other totalitarians (including Mao).
    That doesn’t mean that group and holistic approaches are invalid. Indeed, some of them may be quite fruitful. See Gilbert and Sarkar, Embracing Complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century
    (I have a short manuscript on the topic in development.)
    Your observation that many theories can be used in support of a variety of agendas is correct. Social democrats and libertarians alike have cited standard behavioral ecology (on the pro side) in support of their political views. The debate over the origins of modern humans has taken detours into which model is supposedly more “progressive” and which is more “racist.” Roughgarden’s views on sexual selection are well known. Dawkins, who is today lauded by many leftists as the premier advocate of anti-fundie rationalism, was unfairly vilified as a crypto-Social Darwinist by circles within left wing academia when I was in grad school. (And I defended him.)
    By the way, I reject the scientific racist (“race realist,” “racialist”) views of your associates Steve Sailer and Charles Murray. I’m sure that you are familiar with Thomas Sowell’s critique of The Bell Curve and his series of books on peoples and cultures.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    colugo, good comment, though i did find the denouement amusing.

  • http://www.iSteve.com Steve Sailer

    Why assume that William D. Hamilton, perhaps the least guileful scientist of the 20th Century, was playing some kind of subtle game by attempting to link group selectionism to an unfashionable ideology? The evidence is overwhelming that Hamilton thought van den Berghe’s theory of “ethnic nepotism” was a reasonably accurate description of human social behavior. Moreover, to the extent that Hamilton cared about politics (which wasn’t much), he was far out on the unfashionable Right.

  • Caledonian

    My mind boggles at the concept of group selection being more “humane”.
    Aren’t they aware that it inevitably implies that whole groups will viciously compete? Not only that, but that perfectly viable individuals might be eliminated merely because they happen to be part of the wrong group?
    (As an aside, there’s nothing wrong with deriving our ideas about what should be the case from what is – it’s trying to derive what is the case from what we think it should be that’s the real problem.)

  • http://singthebodyelectric.blogspot.com Matt Dunn

    I’m not sure Hamilton is the “individual selectionist par excellence”. That honor would probably go to Williams or, if you want to put him in such good company, Dawkins. You say Hamilton associated group selection with “nationalism and fascism” to “smear it”. But I think he actually believed that group selection could be an important evolutionary process.
    The 1964 papers still smell of group selection even after Maynard-Smith allegedly purged them of the stuff. Hamilton also admits a hierarchical approach in the rather notorious 1975 paper: “Innate Social Aptitudes of Man: an Approach from Evolutionary Genetics”. On the kin-selection=group selection question you say: “I hold that group selection should be defined as those processes which can not be understood or intelligible via lower order processes” this is not what Hamilton thought. He writes “kinship should be considered just one way of getting positive regression of genotype in the recipient…If we insist that group selection is different from kin selection the term should be restricted to situations of assortation definitely not involving kin. But it seems on the whole preferable to retain a more flexible use of terms; to use group selection where groups are clearly in evidence and to qualify with mention of ‘kin’ (as in the ‘kin-group’ selection…)…” (140-1)
    Now I’ve never read “Narrow Roads of Gene Land” and perhaps he retracts everything in the 1975 paper there or says it was just for smearing. But I have a feeling that Hamilton was a far more complex person than the title of that book may suggest.
    And also, Darwin himself was one of the first to use group selection to explain/justify (is/ought?) his racist-imperialist understanding of the world. It was a pretty common way to go in the 1860s and 1870s. It was so common because it was so obvious to the people living at that time. The whiteys took it for granted that they were smarter, more altruistic, more sophisticated emotionally etc. than the people they encountered as they sailed around the world. It was just a matter of explaining this very obvious fact and group selection seemed to do the trick (although it turns out it wasn’t actually group selection but that’s a whole nother story). Used by the first anthropologists like EB Tylor and also by AR Wallace before he went all crazy with the human spirit. The task of the historian of science (not necessarily the philosopher) is to piece (or “slot”) all of this stuff together. What effect did imperialism have on biological theorizing? Where did Darwin get his ideas about the human races? Why did the colonizers and explorers all think they were better than the colonized and explored? How did this come to be generally accepted and held as a naturally occurring fact to be explained? Can we say this fact was constructed in any meaningful sense? How has the construction of new facts about human race affected our theories of human race evolution? These are all questions for the historian. Philosophers tend to be more worried about what you’re worried about, “the validity of the scientific model is independent of the sociological or political inferences various groups may derive from that model.” The historians worry about the “social” or “contextual” issues.

  • Colugo

    Matt Dunn,
    Here’s part of the story behind Western domination: Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby
    Speaking of the Naturalistic Fallacy, years ago I destroyed my chances at being admitted to a prestigious graduate program when I told the interviewer that one of the topics I was interested in was the evolutionary basis of xenophobia. I believe that the interviewer concluded that I was attempting to justify, rather than merely explain, racism.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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