Group selection, red in tooth and claw

By Razib Khan | June 5, 2009 4:41 am

Classic case of “no free lunch,” a new paper in Science, Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?, gives rise to popular press pieces with titles such as Blood and treasure and Altruism’s Bloody Roots. If for most of human existence our species has been trapped by the reality of Malthusian conditions, boxed in by fixed resources, then it stands to reason that ingroup altruism and cohesion must be balanced by more vicious between group competition. This sort of process is not necessarily most obvious biologically. Rather, consider the cultural exemplar of religion. There are many religious groups which exhibit enormous within group altruism, but can turn viciously and without fellow human feeling against outgroups. The rather unappetizing reality of groups cannibalizing each other is likely why the white nationalist psychologist Kevin MacDonald uses group selection theory as his preferred model to explain how Jews manipulate and control Northern Europeans to advance their own interests.
No one said reality was going to be peaches & cream.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
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Comments (23)

  1. Colugo

    I remember seeing MacDonald’s A People Who Shall Dwell Alone on display at the ’96 HBES meeting. That was fairly mild stuff compared to what was to come from MacDonald, but still an omen for the future of the field of human behavioral evolution. Back then most had not made the connection between group selection and genocide, although a moment’s pondering should make that clear. People tended to think of group selection as being ‘nicer.’
    There are some scientifically-minded white nationalist and paleocon types who are thrilled by developments in human evolutionary ecology, thinking that these validate the inevitabile and salutary of racial enmity. Even if these lines of investigation in human behavioral evolution prove fruitful, white nationalists and other ethnonationalist who think that such research is their scientific vindication couldn’t be more wrong.
    The collectivist tendencies that are manifested as racism, genocide, and xenophobia are continually compromised by individual reproductive interests. Loyalties to the group, much less the race, are continually challenged and broken down by converts, empathy across group lines, sexual curiosity, and just plain contrariness. Indiviudals can have multiple, sometimes contradictory, identities and affliliations that shift with milieu and life stage.
    But there is a more profound way in which tendencies towards intergroup enmity can be thwarted.
    Once intra-group altruism, compassion, and empathy had evolved and been reinforced – even if through genocide of rival groups – the developmental mechanisms involved in those sentiments can be employed in service of fostering fellow-feeling across race, ethnicity and other kinds of identity.
    That is, the evolutionary heritage of group competition can be appropriated to thwart group competition and in the promotion of a common human identity.
    With the contribution of group selection within a Tinbergian four causes approach, we can more effectively enhance universal altruism while minimizing xenophobia.

  2. With the contribution of group selection within a Tinbergian four causes approach, we can more effectively enhance universal altruism while minimizing xenophobia.
    yes, but we need to foster enmity to the aliens. or the elves. or something.

  3. TGGP

    Reminds me of the commenter at O.B who said humanity needed to unite in order to fight the squirrels to the death. Another commenter accused them of undermining inter-mammalian unity, necessary for our struggle against the reptiles.
    My suspicion is that a lot of activity superficially about intergroup competition is actually about jockeying for intra-group position.

  4. Colugo

    Point well taken about the ingroup/outgroup dynamic – hence the role of the ‘squid’ in Watchmen, the Machines in Matrix and Terminator etc. However, I suspect that the proximate mechanisms that produce unity and altruism that ultimately originated in intergroup competition can contribute to an expanded identity even without an external adversary.
    Kevin MacDonald correctly pays a lot of attention to the memetic component of group identity.
    While identity-generating tendencies are genetic, the particular parameters of that imprinting are not. The specificity of that identity can be modulated through differential conditioning and instruction – nuclear family, micro-cult, neighborhood, national origin, continental race, even the whole human species.
    One of the hallmarks of globalization is the production of people with shifting, amorphous, hybrid and multiple identities, people not rooted in any particular locale or ethnic community. Our president is a prime example. (Right, Mr. Sailer?) This trend will likely accelerate.
    But to address the external adversary, the environmental movement has been trying to do that with the prospect of ecological apocalypse, a fairly more abstract and diffuse enemy to be sure. But if there is anything that humans are good at, it’s anthropomorphism.
    It would be quite amusing if the work of Kevin MacDonald, JP Rushton (his work on similarity), and even Frank Salter had an important role in accelerating the breakdown of racial enmity and promoting human unity by providing instruments to help us understand the formation of group identity. Future intellectual historians may discuss how race realists inadvertantly delivered one of the major blows to white nationalism (and the related manifestations of jihadism and Marxist class hatred).

  5. Renee

    I don’t understand why everyone loves to use group selection when kin selection and reciprocity is perfectly sufficient to explain such matters and is more stable.
    We know both from psychology that the maximum number of people we can keep track of reciprocal relationships is less than 200, above which group cohesiveness typically dissolves.
    We also know that humans show female dispersal, which means in any given human group, the males are related- much like lion prides of 7 males mostly consist of brothers.
    Maybe group selection is possible, but given that humans clearly show a huge altruistic bias towards kin and have clearly specially evolved mechanisms to keep track of reciprocity, evidence for true altruism as a result of group selection is very weak. In all probability, displays of true altruism are errors made by individuals, not evolved strategies.

  6. Outside of the popular press, did anyone ever think group selection could be driven by something other that inter-group conflict and competition?

  7. Renee:
    Two things: first, there’s rather a big difference between 7 and 200. If empathy evolved in the pleistocene–I see no reason to believe it did, but everyone else likes to assume this–but if it did, what was the average relatedness of two individuals in a group. I wouldn’t be anything approaching siblings and it probably wouldn’t justify a whole lot of self sacrifice.
    Second, the fact that humans have strong reciprocity tracing capabilities doesn’t mean much. Group selection supporters think reciprocity is important, too. They just don’t think it’s a major motive force in the evolution of altruism.

  8. Wait, I’ve been scolded several times by brainy evo-bio types for being partial to group selection. Now, if I’m following right, group selection is suddenly OK. Is that right? If so, do I get to do a little “I told you so / I was right all along” dance in the endzone?

  9. MB: Seems a lot of recent work–Sean Carrol, for instance–has brought factors aside from gene’s eye selection to the fore . . . and suddenly the consensus seems to be that the whole anti-group-selection jihad was rather overdone. . . . As Gould was saying a long time ago.

  10. Not if Eliezer Yudkowsky is in the vicinity, Michael.

  11. Seems a lot of recent work–Sean Carrol, for instance–has brought factors aside from gene’s eye selection to the fore
    no. that’s not what carroll is focused on. more about cis & trans & regulation. in fact carroll does a bit show and dance about how classical a darwinian he is in endless forms before talking about how regulation gives us particular insights to the evolution of development.
    Wait, I’ve been scolded several times by brainy evo-bio types for being partial to group selection. Now, if I’m following right, group selection is suddenly OK.
    you shouldn’t be partial to it cuz it ain’t the default/parsimonious. prolly occurs far less frequently. but those occurrences are obviously of interest. might occur more frequently in humans. and more likely is a cultural than biological process.

  12. Me: Seems a lot of recent work–Sean Carrol, for instance–has brought factors aside from gene’s eye selection to the fore
    You: no. that’s not what carroll is focused on. more about cis & trans & regulation. in fact carroll does a bit show and dance about how classical a darwinian he is in endless forms before talking about how regulation gives us particular insights to the evolution of development.

    You mean to content that Carroll *doesn’t* bring any other factor than gene’s eye selection to the fore? Or that he doesn’t support group selection? If the latter, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying Carroll is part of a bunch of work that has called the gene’s-eye orthodoxy into some question. This general tendency has turned group selection from a stigma to something that one actually thinks about.
    Whether Carroll positions himself as a classical darwinian is really beside the point–the point being the EFFECT of his work and that of other folks who are “complicating the picture” in the last 10 years or so.
    And, of course, Gould, who liked to entertain notions of group selection, also positioned himself as the true heir of the darwinian position. Everyone seems to want this mantle, regardless of their position.
    Kind of like how myriad interpretations of the bible all claim God’s authority.

  13. I’m saying Carroll is part of a bunch of work that has called the gene’s-eye orthodoxy into some question. This general tendency has turned group selection from a stigma to something that one actually thinks about
    have you read his work? it’s orthogonal what you’re getting at. dan dennett would contend that the “gene’s eye view” is substrate-neutral. therefore the arguments about sequence vs. regulatory elements is irrelevant.the gene’s eye view isn’t very invested in the physical details of how genes are encoded or expressed (naturally since it goes back to fisher before this was understood). w. d. hamilton also expressed the opinion that substrate doesn’t matter in narrow roads of gene land 1.
    And, of course, Gould, who liked to entertain notions of group selection, also positioned himself as the true heir of the darwinian position. Everyone seems to want this mantle, regardless of their position.
    right. this indicates you haven’t read carroll’s book. or at least not closely. his show & dance about being a classical darwinian is that he is a gradualist. he spends some time on this. p. z. myers has criticized this aspect of carroll’s version of evo-devo. whatever anyone might interpret from carroll’s works he seems to go to lengths to position himself outside of the gouldian revisionist camp (which not all evo-devoists do).
    i’m sure you can keep arguing with word games or hand waving, but appealing to carroll’s work is besides the point in his particular debate. especially since he claims he’s a orthodox gradualist.
    if you want to talk about group selection and what not, look at martin nowak, david sloan wilson and e. o. wilson. they’re relevant to the discussion, especially since e. o. wilson published a book superorganism which supports this position. at least that’s what i would have done if i was trying to make the point you were trying to 😉

  14. I haven’t read Carroll’s book. I am not making an argument about what Carroll’s book says. I am making an argument about its effect. The distinction here isn’t wordplay or “hand-waving,” whatever that is–it’s a pretty basic distinction that I’ve seen you employ many times in the past so I’m sure you are familiar with it.
    But here you are like Dawkins defining religion by quoting the bible. For my purposes here, telling me that Carroll says x or y is beside the point.
    If his book is all so harmless to the Second Synthesis, why the need for a third?
    Whatever he says to comfort gene folk, its pretty clear to me that he complicated the picture, and that he clearly sees his work as part of an emerging paradigm that will supersede the one build by folks like Hamilton, Williams and Dawkins. And many others in the field see it that way.
    So, partially as a result of Carroll, the orthodoxy looks a lot more fluid and a lot of things once scorned are getting an actual look these days. David Sloan Wilson has been around a long time. David Sloan Wilson doesn’t account for the recent change in wind direction Michael Blowhard has observed. Something else does.

  15. , its pretty clear to me that he complicated the picture
    how can you know this when you don’t even know the details of his work? this is like talking about christianity without having ever read the bible. and i would suggest that perhaps science as a practical matter has to do with theories & results more than religion has to do with holy texts, making a knowledge of theories & results a little more than relevant in taking the pulse of paradigm shifts?
    you don’t know what you’re talking about. if you did you would have mentioned superorganism. you’re digging in cuz you don’t want to admit you didn’t know what you were talking about. pathetic.

  16. Future intellectual historians may discuss how race realists inadvertantly delivered one of the major blows to white nationalism

    ‘Inadvertently’? I think you’re making a very large assumption about who the race realists are and what they want.
    Or perhaps you meant ‘unintentionally’ but couldn’t think of the right word.

  17. blue anonymous

    O cryptic one,
    Like, what do you mean?
    I’m thinking that by your lights inadvertantly = not anticipating the result at all, whereas unintentionally = being aware that the result is likely to be produced, but not really caring that much about it and not actually trying to produce it… ?

  18. how can you know this when you don’t even know the details of his work?
    Haven’t read his book–I’ve read other, shorter stuff he’s written and some pretty interesting discussions of the book, and have observed the stronger nuancing a lot of gene-centric folk have begun to employ in the last few years, and the increased open-mindedness to certain kinds of ideas–precisely what Blowhard observed which observation you haven’t bothered to explain yourself.
    this is like talking about christianity without having ever read the bible.
    I’d love to see a sociological study of Christianity that was utterly ignorant of the purported founding text. A lot of studies I read go wrong precisely when the researcher begins reading the bible and stops reading the practitioners.
    and i would suggest that perhaps science as a practical matter has to do with theories & results
    In the long run, maybe. But the current reconsideration of group selection is largely an admission that the former rejection of it was NOT warranted by results, isn’t it?
    And Coyne’s crying out against theoretical fashionability and buzzwords would seem to argue that he disagrees with that sort of complacency as well.
    I really doubt that fashion and science are so divorced as you seem to think.

  19. oran, you didn’t know what you were talking about 😉 trying to change the subject makes that pretty obvious. as a point of fact i could make your original argument better than you can. e.g., w. d. hamilton himself was not as hostile to group selection as people assume. i know this because he attests to this in narrow roads of gene lands 1 when talking about his collaboration with george price. sometimes knowing stuff does help and prevents you from making silly assertions as you started out with. you should have just acknowledged your error and gotten back to discussing group selection. as it is you dug in and started throwing up strawmen and red-herrings, arguing instead of learning.

  20. And the Wilson book looks as if it may be interesting . . . I was already aware of his leanings on this, but didn’t know he’d taken up the cudgels himself.
    Still, this is what Wilson has felt and written for a while, it doesn’t explain the recent change in atmosphere.

  21. MB: Seems a lot of recent work–Sean Carrol, for instance–has brought factors aside from gene’s eye selection to the fore . . . and suddenly the consensus seems to be that the whole anti-group-selection jihad was rather overdone. . . . As Gould was saying a long time ago.

    My original argument having precisely NOTHING to do with William Hamilton, but rather with how fashionable rejection of group selection was. Why what Hamilton said matters in the face of the widely acknowledged general hostility to group selection, I don’t know. I wasn’t making a point about Hamilton.
    Thanks for trying, but I don’t think WD Hamilton trivia really does all that much to shore up my point. But it’s good to know.
    The point was that Carroll’s book is one of several recent pieces of work that have helped alter the consensus about the explanatory power of the Williams/Price/Hamilton/Dawkins line. That perceived power having decreased, alternatives once scorned or ignored are now taken more seriously.
    So what, precisely, was the error that I must admit to?

  22. Thanks for trying, but I don’t think WD Hamilton trivia really does all that much to shore up my point. But it’s good to know.
    The point was that Carroll’s book is one of several recent pieces of work that have helped alter the consensus about the explanatory power of the Williams/Price/Hamilton/Dawkins line. That perceived power having decreased, alternatives once scorned or ignored are now taken more seriously
    yeah, see, you think what a scientist believes and thinks about the implications of their own work is actually “trivia,” while all the while lumping together various people in a “line” as if you had any clear idea of what they believed. it’s a joke dude. i can’t explain to you why you’re wrong because you
    1) you don’t know enough to understand why you’re confusing things.
    2) you refuse to acknowledge that some basic level of understanding of what these thinkers actually think is necessary.
    3) and i’ll end this by repeating that carroll’s work has nothing to do with group selection. that’s obvious to anyone who knows anything about the work. the fact that you thought it was an apropos reference suggests you don’t know what you are talking about. if you’d just admitted that yeah, you didn’t know enough about carroll’s work to dispute my characterization i would have left it at that. instead you continued to push a connection when you admit to not knowing his work. weak.
    the arguments that coyne and lynch have had with carroll have nothing to do with the levels-of-selection debate. molecular and developmental genetic theories have little to do with the levels-of-selection debate on the scale of group selection.

  23. and i’ll end this by repeating that carroll’s work has nothing to do with group selection
    Repeat away! And if I had ever claimed otherwise, there might actually be some point in the repetition. That, unfortunately, isn’t the case.
    You, I’m afraid are the confused person: having read Hamilton’s book and Carroll’s book doesn’t exempt you from the basic rules of argumentation.
    The question is “Why has group selection lost it’s stigma?” My answer is because gene-centered explanations of evolution *generally* have lost some of their elan. This GENERAL trend, I argue, is exemplified by Carroll’s work and the reaction to it. And one result of this trend is that approaches that have been formerly marginalized by the gene’s-eye approach are now getting serious consideration.
    The one counter-argument that you raise that is actually to the point (it simply doesn’t matter whether Hamilton says he *meant* to inspire hostility to group selection; I’m NOT SAYING Carroll advanced any arguments about group selection)is that fashionability doesn’t matter much in science. To which my response is, then why, for instance, does Coyne seem to fear it so much in his complaints regarding Carroll. And again, this is meant to demonstrate that other, very well informed commentators, think that fashionability DOES matter in science. I was not under an illusion that Coyne was attacking Carroll on the issue of group selection itself.
    Coyne could have been arguing about anything: the point is that he thinks arguments can gain a lot of ground in science through pleasing novelty rather than through scientific merit.
    2) you refuse to acknowledge that some basic level of understanding of what these thinkers actually think is necessary.
    At the moment, you seem to lack a basic level of understanding of what you are supposedly responding to, and until you understand THAT how can you decide what knowledge is necessary to address the question at issue?

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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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