I have been re-editing my book, and thought that this key juncture might hold together on its own.
As mentioned, [Richard] Dawkins popularized the concept that natural selection can proceed at the level of genes. For example, some insects will sacrifice themselves for several of their genetic relatives. This is because it is actually the genes and not the individuals that are “pulling the strings” in order to get as many replicas of themselves as possible passed through to the next generation. The idea that genes (as opposed to individuals) can be the source of evolved “motivation” opened my mind to the possibility that the phenomenon of group authority and obedience could be the expression (phenotype) of “relational genes.”
It is important to thoroughly understand the concept of a phenotype because it lies at the heart of what is new here. Your genotype is all of your genes which contain the coded “recipes” to develop your phenotype, which is you, the person who is sitting there reading this. We usually think of genes coding for physical characteristics like eye color and height, but in this book I emphasize that our emotions and motivations are also phenotypes coded by genes. Of course emotions and motivations are also affected by the environment along the way, but here we are concerned only with the inherited genetic portion that is subject to natural selection.
What is new is that I propose that relational genes exist that code for group phenotypes consisting of collective motivations that benefit a group as a whole. Let’s take the example of the social fears of interpersonal separation and social entrapment at the periphery/bottom of a group. Although it is you as an individual who experience those fears, it is the survival of the group that most reliably benefits. So I am claiming these social anxieties primarily “belong” to the group; yes, you can also make the case that they belong to the individual too, or that they are two sides of the same you-coin. However, I am flatly declaring that the motivations involved in obedience to authority are exclusively the property of groups.
Of course, the physical DNA of relational genes would reside within the individuals. However, the intentions of authority, which would be the phenotype of relational genes, would be naturally selected as a result of the substantial survival benefits derived from the synchronization of shared productive behavior (division of labor). This is the most important idea to grasp in the entire book. The evolution of group authority would be the result of a “migration” of the ape-dominance mentality from individuals into the thin ether of a group’s relational space where its intentions would direct coordinated behavior between participating individuals. It is as if these genes within individuals code for musical instruments that are selected on the basis of whether they harmonize with one another (see image below). The cognitive evolution of coordination (mainly language) would be woven upon the loom of the emotional and motivational structure of coordination. In each new generation, relational capacities arising from genetic components reconnect themselves into new relationships, and the ones most able to productively coordinate their mutual behavior are selected.
The two problems with Dawkins-style gene-level kin selection is that it both limits its scope to the family-kinship group as the sole unit of multi-individual selection, and its fragmented bottom-up structure is inherently weaker and less coherent than the unitary top-down effect of group selection. Humans are distinguished from other social animals by the strength and utility of their bonds, and I agree with E. O. Wilson that it is simply not believable that they derive solely from the effect of nepotism. It would be more correct to refer to group-level selection as relational selection, which bred not competition but coordination. Relational selection resulted in higher fertility in all associations within and between family groups due to productive collaboration from the level of monogamous pair-bonds to larger, nested groupings. Most important, this would be the natural selection, not for the winner of any kind of group fitness tournament, but a passive selection—the quiet final tally at the end of each and every generation of those relationships, whether they are made up of two or a hundred and twenty-two individuals, that had produced the most offspring.
Shortly after I read The Selfish Gene more than thirty years ago, I wrote the following in one of my yearly essays to myself:
Let’s say I am one of these newly evolved relational genes that only become activated during the coordination of behavior with others. One day, while off duty, I’m hanging out next to a true-blue regular gene who proceeds to give me all kinds of grief for being disloyal to the individual in which we both reside. This old-school gene is urging me to look for opportunities to gain advantages over these “so-called” partners. I then sit down and attempt to explain a couple things to this “loyalist” gene. I explain to him that whereas he is a whole gene that is completely in charge of a nice little parcel of selfish behavior for our individual, I am really only half a gene and don’t become activated into a whole gene until I meet my other half in a bonded partner. Since I really don’t become a whole selfish gene until I’m joined with my other half, my loyalty is properly to the coordination of the selfish behavior of the partnership, and not to either individual in which we both reside. At this point, my gene friend is looking a little perplexed and disgruntled, so I make a bet with him that if my half a gene hooks up well with my other half in someone else, the resulting relational gene will help our individual survive and procreate (“including you too, don’t forget!”) better than he does. He reluctantly takes me up on the wager and we go our separate ways.