I have been re-editing my book, and thought that this key juncture might hold together on its own.

NepotismAs 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.”

Therapy for LiberalsIt 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.

Richard Dawkins, EOWilson, Nepotism and Human BondsWhat 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 The Evolutionary Biology of Destinyintentions 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.

Strong human bondsThere are two problems with Dawkins-style gene-level kin selection. First it limits its scope to the family-kinship group as the sole unit of multi-individual selection. But much more fundamentally, because the source of the cohesiveness of family bonds lie in randomly partitioned shared genes “recognizing” each other from the bottom-up, they are inherently far weaker than the collective genes I am discussing which are naturally selected from the top-down specifically for their capacity to strengthen the cohesion of social bonds on account of the enhancement of productivity. 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 Cordination of divided labornepotism. It would be more correct to refer to human 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:

Dawkins, EOWilson, Nepotism and Human BondsLet’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.


Relational Selection

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7 Comments on “Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Nepotism and the Nature of Human Bonds”

  1. Very stimulating—I hope this shakes up the lockstep “selfish genes” mindset that has been limiting scientific inquiry. This is a fresh new paradigm in evolution!

    1. Thanks Richard. The basic idea is really quite simple, but like all new ideas, it is hard to 1) clearly articulate, and 2) accept it once understood because it is so new.

  2. John, after reading your comments about Dawkins and Wilson and your self-essay, it occurred to me that the most fundamental arena for cooperation and obedience to authority would be male-female bonding and resultant production of babies, who are essential to the survival of the species. In fact, it might be interesting to consider whether and how larger groups, e.g., tribes, might be shaped by relationships first worked out within male-female bonding. Also, consider whether females are attracted to particular males because, at an unconscious level, they see that their genetic makeup–expressed in phenotype form–is conducive to their personal survival and the survival of their offspring.

    This line of thought reminds me of a conversation the other day with the project manager for a major house remodel (3 months of work) that is almost completed. I said to him that if it were not for my wife and the need for spatial relationships that bring us together but also provide distance from each other, I’d be happy living in a small cabin. He replied, “If it weren’t for women, men would still be living in caves.”

    1. Thank so much for the comment Mark. Yes this post does sort of go with the previous post on the the self. And yes evolution very much focuses on the decision of with whom one should mate because from a genetic point of view that is the most crucial decision as to the survival of one’s offspring, particularly in the emotional-psychological dimension. I was did couples therapy for a number of years and became interested in what it was that psychologically attracted people to one another. In humans, who are basically monogamous and have to tolerate each other for an entire lifetime as you point out, I came to the conclusion that “love” is elicited by a very deep complimentarity. Here is a link to a post on the subject: https://whywebecamehuman.com/marital-problems/

      1. John, I read your comments about marital problems, and they rang true. I was particularly taken by the phrase “complementary variance in temperament.” The idea of complementarity is interesting. Does it mean that a spouse will be satisfied if his/her spouse in dominant in certain domains, so long as s/he can be dominant in other domains. Also, I wonder whether a spouse would be satisfied if his/her spouse was completely submissive. As for myself, I’ve met women who seem completely submissive, and that’s attractive but only up to a point. In fact, I married a highly educated woman who can challenge me and add new perspectives to a problem; and that seems adaptive.

        My larger point, though, is a query, namely, whether the male-female relationship, grounded in child-bearing and raising, is the foundation for larger social structures, such as religion, the economy, and the military.

  3. The following is an email exchange with Dr. Jay R. Feierman, who is a professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico and the author of The Biology of Religious Behavior

    Me: Hi Jay, okay. There are fundamental emotions and motivations such as fear and aggression, and many more. I don’t know if you know Jaak Panksepp’s work; he has described them. But the Minnesota separated-at-birth twin study demonstrated that very subtle emotions and motivations are inherited.

    Jay R. Feierman: Only DNA is inherited, as well as the proteins that DNA makes. Or, said more broadly, only structural design features are inherited. Emotions and motivations are not structural design features. They are not inherited. Love is not inherited across generations in DNA as an example.

    Me: It is also my clinical conclusion that there is indeed a “rainbow” of mixed and matched combinations of inherited temperaments that are extremely variable and very specific:

    Jay R. Feierman: Temperaments are not structural design features and are not inherited. They emerge as the result of the structural design features whose functions contribute to temperament. One can breed aggressive dogs. But, the aggressive temperament is not what is inherited. Rather, certain enzymatic alleles that code for proteins that decrease the threshold for aggression are what is inherited.

    Me: Why wouldn’t the environment/genetic ratio in emotions-and-motivations be about 50-50 as in most other aspects of behavior?

    Jay R. Feierman: Because “emotions” and “motivations” are not inherited.

    Me: The other problematic aspect is to assume that the evolution of temperament only occurs “bottom-up” by mutations like physical traits.

    Jay R. Feierman: Temperament is not inherited. There is a genetic component to temperament. It is these genetically mediated proteins that are inherited as a by-product of the genes that code for them.

    Me: But this “higher” level of temperament is evolved “top-down” in highly social groups of hominins, where people are constantly making decisions about who to mate and (particularly) who to associate with, mostly based on the spectrums of temperament in the individuals available. As for the physiology of emotion, top-down evolution can easily exapt [co-opt] the panoply of existing physiology to meet specific goals in a social context.

    Jay R. Feierman: There is no such thing as top-down evolution by natural selection. Things at the top emerge as by-products of the evolution of things at the bottom. And at the very bottom is DNA.

    Jay R. Feierman: What you are saying is that what things do contribute to the things that are doing being objects of natural selection. Goals is a higher order context that has no place in natural selection. A goal requires a brain to have a goal. Natural selection has no brain.

    Me: For example, a balanced temperament is generally most adaptive in a highly social setting; but temperaments have to be “actively” re-balanced (by choices that are then naturally selected – or not) in each and every generation.

    Jay R. Feierman: Temperaments are never objects of natural selection whether they are balanced or not.

    Me: Jay, I do recognize that most of what I am saying here is not accepted.

    Jay R. Feierman: That’s only because of how you are saying it. You are attributing natural selection forces to higher organization levels than where it acts within individuals. As a result of natural selection, genes change frequencies in populations over time. That’s it.

    Me: What I am suggesting happened in hominin evolution is, strictly speaking, not classical natural selection; it is really “self-domestication” in which individuals are choosing each other, not for individual “fitness,” but for the fitness of their relationships, which then are naturally selected for their fecundity.

    Jay R. Feierman: That’s really just sexual selection. People choose other people they are compatible with to mate with.

    Me: It is beyond established that animal temperaments can be bred by top-down selection, the most obvious example being the the long standing Russian study on silver foxes in Russia (posted here: https://whywebecamehuman.com/doghuman-domestication/ ) in which wild foxes obtained temperaments every bit as as domesticated as dogs in just three generations by a simple formula of balancing the level of aggression and fearfulness in mating pairs.

    Jay R. Feierman: I didn’t look at the link but if I remember the experiment it shows that two traits were genetically linked. Selection was for one trait but it changed another trait.

    Me: I am merely saying that in hominins living in highly social environments, balanced temperaments would be naturally selected and achieve the same result.

    Jay R. Feierman: If you are talking about sexual selection, it operates by different rules than natural selection. It can select for traits that are natural selection positive, neutral or even negative.

    Me: So are you saying that in sexual selection, you can get top-down evolutionary changes in temperament? Because what I am talking about is really structured like sexual selection in which an individual in a dominant state is selecting an individual in a submissive state (and vice-versa), so the dimorphism is not sexual but actually two different temperaments engaged in sexual-like selection in that there is selection for the capacity (and motivation) to select very specific traits — but the results of this selection (unlike sexual selection) are also naturally selected according to the productivity/fecundity of the relationship.

    Once again, Jay, thanks so very much for engaging here: there is nothing better than dialogue. By the way, is there any site I can link your name to when I put this up?

    Jay R. Feierman : Yes, there is a conference on the the evolution of religion in November 2017.

    Me: Sounds fascinating, will definitely check it out.

  4. Mark Gall: I couldn’t find a hot link to your blog in the message below, so I’m writing to you directly.

    It seems to me that Dr. Feierman is a strict cause-and-effect scientist who relies on biological entities (genes and the like) to explain human behavior. I am inclined to agree with you that man’s social conditions also have a causal role in ensuring his survival. Humans who can cooperate with each other and who can obey authority are more likely to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation.

    As I reflect on this matter, I am driven to think about the teleological side of human evolution. What are we evolving toward? This question assumes a higher authority who sees an end goal for human beings. But science currently has no way of studying this “higher authority,” just as they cannot investigate what came before the big bang.

    Me: Yeess Mark! It indeed does raise a teleological component of human evolution. That essay I sent you some months ago, posted here, discuss the possibility that the teleology of justice, which I speculate is naturally selected because it is the social order that is optimally productive and fecund in human relationships, forms the evolved authoritarian core of all religions, and that the the real “mission” of human evolution is to “replace the the laws of the jungle with the rules of justice,” which is something like Elijah’s prophesy that some day there will be world peace. I have been in contact with a marvelous theologian, who is a distinguished scholar at Georgetown University, John Haught; He sent me the manuscript of his most recent book out this Fall, New Cosmic Story. He feels that the discovery that the universe is in a state of linear evolution should shift the “field” religious faith in the direction of the future, such that a major ingredient of faith (and prayer) becomes patience, which is a religious concept that I can really get my mind around. Plus, if you can get enough people believing that it is “in the cards” (as opposed to the pessimism that now abounds), maybe—just maybe . . . it might actually happen. Have you ever read anything by Teilhard de Chardin, the brilliant Jesuit geologist, paleoanthropologist and theologian? He was the geologist for the enormously significant “Peking man” fossil find in the 1930’s ( I post on it here) and went on to speculate that evolution was proceeding to an omega point of hyper-consciousness “rightness.” I am now reading his The Heart of Matter.

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