Group Selection

It’s taken me several years to understand why most of the academic professionals dealing with human behavior shy away from applying evolutionary concepts to ethnic and other culturally defined societies. It’s been obvious to me that when you are in Syria you need to know about Sunni Muslims and Armenians and Alaouites and Druzes if you are to have any clue at all as to what is going on in the political, economic and social life of the country. You need to know where each group is coming from as well as its current status before you can understand how they relate to each other. Likewise, in Nepal, you have to know the differences in backgrounds and attitudes of the Brahmins and the Chhetris and the various hill tribes. Starting from that kind of experience it was natural and logical that I have developed an explanation of human behavior based to a significant degree on the cultural bias of the individual’s attitudes and actions. And as I developed my thoughts along these lines, I discovered kindred spirits like Ned Hall and, more recently, Peter Richerson.

Last May, at the annual conference of the Council on Secular Humanism in Chicago, I attended a seminar paneled by a couple of anthropologists. During the question period I raised my hand and asked what I thought was a relevant question about some point one of the panelists had made. I forget the question but remember the answer. The lead anthropologist looked at me rather coldly and said: “The concept of evolution through social groups has not been generally accepted.” End of answer.

I have known anthropologists all my life. They are no more sensible than anybody else. Probably, on balance, below average in the common sense department. They tend, like many theoreticians, to get their egos wrapped up in their theories. But there is also a herd instinct–many of them tend to run with the pack. So I lack the normal sense of awe when I approach these authorities on what they clearly consider is their own turf, and some of them resent it. Perhaps I would resent it too, if one of them told me how to run an Embassy. Never mind, this subject is important and they should be challenged.

Biologists are in a similar boat, in that they also are a pretty specialized lot. They are moving in on the anthropologists and other social scientists, approaching the subject of human behavior from the disciplines of genetics, and of behavioral patterns in other animals. There is some pretty heavy controversy raging these days, which boils down to the old nature vs. nurture issue. Is human behavior genetically programmed, at least within broad general guidelines (which the sociobiologist E.O.Wilson calls “epigenetic rules”), or is it entirely a matter of the individual’s conditioning after birth. I cannot get too excited about this. It seems to me that if you look around and see how people relate to each other in various parts of the world, you conclude that there are some universal principles of human nature, but that various cultures stretch them pretty far in various directions, producing quite different results. So?

Science News of May 8, 1999, p. 301, treats this subject glancingly but informatively. “Although the concept [group selection] made a certain amount of sense, it doesn’t generally hold up to evolutionary theory. Groups don’t reproduce, after all. Only individuals do, and individuals compete with their neighbors for food and mates. Moreover, groups are fluid, with individuals moving in and out of them at a rate that would dilute any benefit accrued by temporary teamwork.” Well, what the hell kind of group are we talking about? A bridge club, or a social unit bonded together by language, religion, values, and a history of being picked on by other groups? How many Sikhs become non-Sikhs, and how many outsiders move in? Surely there must be some solider basis for this generalized academic antipathy to any effort to apply evolutionary principles to culturally defined groups.

The Sci News article is about those rare groups of spiders that work together as social units rather than operating as loners. Toward the end of the article it produces this explanation for why a few kinds of spiders team up: “The spirit of ‘all for one and one for all’ succeeds better, evolutionarily, if the ‘all’ being served share most of their genes.” Why do we need such a labored explanation? Which came first, a few spiders with enough flexibility in their epigenetic rules to allow them to cooperate, which in turn conferred survival value, or a bunch of spiders so close to identical in their DNA that they couldn’t bear to say goodbye to each other when they grew up? If that DNA involved being a loner most of the time, the question answers itself. If those social spiders were human, we could say that they had developed a culture of sociability that conferred such a strong survival value that it overrode their genetic predisposition to be loners. But they are not humans and the culture analogy is just that; it does not apply in any literal sense. What probably happened was that some kinds of spiders became socialized when they evolved modified epigenetic rules over a long period of trial and error, during which their DNA changed opportunistically to adapt to the new circumstances.

Basic to my approach is the concept that memes play a role in groups that is broadly analogous to the role genes play in individuals. But that may be part of the problem: social scientists are mostly unfamiliar with the concept of memes, and rather shy away from it. (The biologists, by contrast, are less gun-shy).

It looks like there is a false connection in the minds of the anthropologists, and indeed most of the other academics engaged in this controversy, between the way cultures evolve, and genes. There just isn’t any direct connection between genes and cultural evolution. When cultures collide, leaving winners and losers, there is no genetic trail left behind. There are no direct implications for the genetic makeup of the participants on either side. Cultures operate according to their own rules, which have nothing to do with the detailed processes that govern DNA composition, modification, and transmission. Memes reproduce, flourish, and die according to principles which are very different from those that govern genetics.

Maybe anthropologists and other specialists in human behavior are lost in the woods. Maybe it takes a diplomat or a journalist or someone equally engaged in looking at how whole groups of people relate to each other to see the human terrain in terms of the whole forest. Or maybe the specialists just need a kick in the pants to persuade them to put genetics to one side, and start applying their considerable analytic powers to something that really matters to the rest of us, namely why whole bunches of people, acting in concert, have gotten into the habit of behaving in such silly ways. In the process they will discover something the rest of us have known all along, namely that cultures do evolve. And therein lies a key that will unlock a whole gallery of mysteries.

Carl Coon 8/99

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