Dawkins and Group Selection

I’ve been traveling around the world and studying different kinds of people since I was twelve years old. You’d think that in over sixty years, I’d have learned something, and indeed I have. I’ve assembled a huge library in my mind about different cultures, different ways people organize their societies, different ways cultures relate to the present system of nation states, different do’s and don’ts within a culture, ways different cultures can share space peacefully and ways they come into conflict, and so on. Actually, the variety of dimensions within which you can measure these variations in the human condition is staggeringly large all by itself, let alone the variability within each of these dimensions. So the linguists, the anthropologists, the geographers, and the students of comparative religion are just examples of many professional approaches that open up into complex fields of study. These fields are all parts of the effort to describe and make sense out of the phenomenally complex tapestry that our ingenious species has been developing for the last 50,000 years, ever since our ancestors learned to think in abstractions and started us out on the peculiarly human form of social organization that we know as culture.

Gradually I came to see that history, both past history and the historic events being played out in the present, could best be understood in terms of competition between the kinds of culturally identified groups or societies I had been studying. After I retired from the diplomatic service, I began to read the current literature about human evolution, to retrace my anthropological studies from my college years, and try to catch up. I joined the humanist movement, and through it began to meet some of the leading lights in the scientific fields concerned with human evolution. But then I had a shocking experience. At a humanist conference seven or eight years ago I was stunned when a distinguished anthropologist answered a question of mine with the acid turnoff that my question was invalid because “the theory of group selection among humans is not generally accepted in the scientific community.” What? It was as though he had informed me that the American Association for the Advancement of Science had repealed the law of gravity. I figured I had some homework to do, to catch up on what was happening in the scientific community. And I’ve been doing that ever since. It took a while, but I think I’ve figured out why the politically correct anthropologist holds a view about cultural evolution so radically at variance from mine.

It’s usually easier to discern broad trends when you look at them from a distance. That was my experience when I began, in the late ‘90’s, to try to trace the professional peer group thinking about human evolution that occurred during the ‘50’s and’60’s. I could see broad patterns more readily than the professionals who had been participating in the debates at the time. And I could see that during the third quarter of the last century the study of human cultural variability became unfashionable, especially in the USA, and for good reason.[1] Public opinion and cutting edge science co-evolved; it was hard to say which one was leading the other. As a nation, we were trying to extirpate old-fashioned racism, particularly as applied to our African Americans, from our national consciousness. And at the same time, we were reacting to the appalling tragedy of the Holocaust, and to the racism it represented. The collective moral sense of the nation, if you can call it that, was that when we thought about differences between societies, some of us drew invidious comparisons of one kind or another, and when carried to extremes these comparisons led to tragedy. So it was better not to think about such differences in the first place.

This explained why most of the intelligent, scientifically minded, responsible leaders of our intellectual community had developed the habit of ignoring the very same kinds of differences that I had been busy cataloging, and even in some cases denying their existence. Race was the prime example. Racism became a dirty word. Serious scientists loudly asserted that the whole concept of race was a product of the human mind, something that just did not exist in the “real” world. Some of them still do.

I suppose some people have always tended to deny the existence of an objective reality when they believed that to recognize it might lead other people to sin. It isn’t just the scientists who are guilty; indeed, they are less guilty of this mindset, on the whole, than people of faith. The Pope is an outstanding example, and the prevailing Roman Catholic attitude toward sex. But I digress. My purpose is not to inveigh generally about aberrations in scientific fashions, but to explain the conundrum I faced, when I found my own observations colliding head on with politically correct scientific interpretations of the role of human cultural differences in the evolution of modern human societies.

What I have found is that the core scientific argument against group selection in human societies has been based on a misunderstanding, perpetuated by sloppy nomenclature. It is incontestable that biological inheritance operates through the genes, not the group, and it follows that natural selection works on the basis of the individual not the group. Evolution through natural selection is possible at the group level, but only in circumstances where the genes are mostly shared. The mother bear protects her cubs at some risk to herself, since the cubs share her genes. Various studies in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s confirmed the existence of kin-based altruism in various animals. But the peer group conventional wisdom said that that is as far as it goes. Group selection may operate at the level of small, kin-based groups, but not with larger ones, because groups as such have no biological heritability.

Well and good. The biologists and the molecular scientists had biological selection pinned and parsed. It happens through the individual. No problem. But then a major error occurred, when the same logic was applied to human societies. The anthropologists should have declared their independence early on. They were obsessed, however, with the notion that race didn’t exist, and that carried most of them over to the related notion that if they acknowledged that cultures differed and formed a basis for a form of selection, then some cultures would seem more successful than others. They sensed they might be getting onto politically incorrect turf. So they played along with the biologists, and joined the “no group selection” chorus. The anthropologist who put me down was just a fellow-traveler who was being politically correct.

That attitude may still be politically correct, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it is bad science. The study of human cultures and how they develop is flourishing. The idea that altruism can only exist at the kin level has been shot down by recent theoretical studies that demonstrate that altruistic behavior among larger groups of humans is not only possible, but is indeed virtually inevitable under certain conditions.[2] The reason this applies to humans but not to other species is that we think in abstractions and have used that capability to create a uniquely elaborate structure of behavioral guidelines and restraints that enable us to cooperate in large groups. We are talking here about something we can sum up in the word “culture.” So why, if we are demonstrably different, don’t the anthropologists wake up and agree with the biologists that they are talking about two different things? If the elephant can develop something as specialized and uniquely useful as its trunk, why is it so difficult to imagine another species, our own, developing a similarly unique and even more useful capacity for large-scale social cooperation? And where is the logical objection to the obvious fact that this kind of social cooperation leads to conflict between groups and a form of culture-based group selection?

Perhaps an attempt to clarify our terms will help, especially if, as I believe, we are no longer arguing about questions of objective facts, but rather about the words we use to describe them. Who owns the term “group selection”? Is it the unique property of evolutionists? To my way of thinking, “selection” is an umbrella word, that can apply to everything from natural selection among rabbits to selecting apples at the corner market. “Group selection” means picking something by groups rather than items. You can, if you wish, select artichokes and shrimps to serve at your next cocktail party, before you go buy the individual items. It all comes down to context. So why should anyone worry when botanists and zoologists refer to “group selection” as an evolutionary principle that is not very helpful in explaining how other species evolve, while anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists use the same term to describe a principle that is in fact quite helpful in explaining the evolution of human culturally defined societies? Would the purists insist that group selection does not operate in contemporary economics? There are many cases where it does. Group selection is an umbrella phrase, a subset of the word selection. There are subsets of “group selection” too: biological group selection (or natural group selection if you prefer) versus cultural group selection versus market group selection, and so on. And if you want to get even more specific you can devise subsets for cultural group selection, and probably for the others as well.

Professor Richard Dawkins is one of my heroes, both for his uncommon ability to explain evolution, and for the short shrift he gives to alternative religious explanations. I had hoped to persuade him to review my latest book [3] and, thanks to the intercession of a mutual friend, he actually started to read its final draft. But he gagged at my discussion of group selection in the fifth chapter, and especially at my citing another academic personage he didn’t approve of as an authority. He stopped reading right there and sent me a message that included the following:

“ …he has confused thousands of people (including, I regret to say, you) by using the NAME group selection, for phenomena which, when you dissect them carefully, always turn out to be something else, usually kin selection. And the very term kin selection was coined (by John Maynard Smith) as DISTINCT from group selection…
A parallel might be somebody who says he believes in God, then when you ask him what he means by God says he means Science. Words are our servants not our masters. But for millennia, people have used the word God to mean something supernatural, so to use the word for science would be perniciously misleading. Exactly the same could be said of [his] usage of ‘Group Selection’.”

So what are we arguing about, substance or nomenclature? I too prefer that words be used accurately, but with all due respect, Professor, aren’t you making a mountain out of a molehill? Would you be satisfied if, every time the phenomenon of group selection as between culturally defined human societies was discussed, we label it “cultural group selection”? And if so, would you be willing to concede that zoologists and botanists should reciprocate by eschewing the simple term “group selection” themselves, always calling it “biological group selection” or some equivalent? Rather awkward. We rely on context quite often to solve this kind of referential problem, why not here?

This may sound like nitpicking, and I suppose it is, but for me it is an important nit and I need to pick at it. Dr. Dawkin’s statement as quoted above suggests he hadn’t sufficiently internalized recent theoretical advances that establish that there is indeed a major qualitative difference between the way humans organize themselves into groups, something that separates them from the rest of life on this planet. But I suspect he is coming around. He touches on the issue of cultural group selection in a recent two-part essay in Free Inquiry (V.24, #s 4 and 5) entitled “What Use is Religion?”. He points out the selective advantage of the enhanced ability to imitate during the first few years of the human child. Bipedal locomotion and an enlarged brain require the mother to give birth earlier in the child’s life cycle than is the case with other primates. This means the small child must be able to absorb parental guidance uncritically for several more years than other primate babies need, before it is on its own. This can explain our extraordinary ability, as small children, to soak up the language spoken by the people around us, a facility that is usually lost later in life. Quite persuasively, Dawkins suggests that this same imitative facility constrains the small child to accept the religious doctrine of its group, however irrational, along with semantic information. Hence the staying power of religious faith, however irrational, later in life.

I agree. I applaud the concept. If Dr. Dawkins had managed to read more of my book he would have found that it was central to my whole argument. And it isn’t just religion and language that gets absorbed at that early, uncritical age, it is the whole bag and baggage of the local culture, including ethical principles, how to define the in-group and attitudes toward other groups, and how to behave with the ins versus the outs. This uncritical acceptance of the manners and mores of the group is what makes group cohesion in humans possible on a far grander scale than kinship. You learn to be a patriotic American as a small child and stay that way, even if there are things about America that you dislike. This has nothing to do with kinship. But it’s real. The whole phenomenon of group identification and loyalty is not only real, it’s basic to any understanding of our human society.

So I would hope that one of these days Dr. Dawkins will finish reading my book. I’d like to think we were on the same side on this issue.

Carl Coon 10/23/04
[1] I could cite many sources here, but the most informative one was probably Segerstrale, Defenders of the Truth, Oxford U. Press, 2000

[2] See, for example, Fehr, E. and U. Fischbacher (2003). “The Nature of Human Altruism.” Nature 425: 785-791.

[3]Carl Coon, ‘”One Planet, One People, Beyond ‘Us vs. Them’” Prometheus

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