There is very little argument that the reason that Homo sapiens has become the most dominant species on earth is our extraordinary ability to cooperate—I would say coordinate—in their behavior towards mutual goals. The issue addressed in this blog is how this came about. The demonstration by William Hamilton of “kin selection” in which the biologic predisposition of genetic relatives to cooperate with one another is due to the effect of the identical genes they share forms the foundation of the presently preponderant theory of how our cooperation evolved. The second component of the theory, called “reciprocal altruism” is that, in long-lasting groups, good deeds beget good deeds in return, such that those with the inclination to help each other, and gain the reputation for doing so, would cluster together and out-compete those without such sentiments. The problem with this tandem theory is that, although both of these two socializing factors are obviously real and easily understood, the influence of gene selection among relatives is relatively narrow and too weak an influence to pull individuals together sufficiently to achieve a threshold at which a businessman’s ethic of reciprocal back scratching could take over. The Myth adjudicates that the only force decisively powerful enough to counter the evolutionary process of natural selection at the level of the individual is natural selection at the level of the group.
The Myth holds that the independent process of evolution at the level of groups has been a force in primate evolution since groups first formed 52 million years ago. Evolution at the level of groups forged the dual fears of separation and that of being trapped outside of groups, which engaged the atavistic impulses of fight and flight into the dynamic structures of dominance and submissive hierarchies. In addition, the myth attributes to this same force of group selection the evolution of the rudiments of morality and justice in apes and other animals, which have been the topic of three books by Frans de Waal (1) and one by Bekoff and Pierce (2), among others.
However, the Myth considers that only with the ascension of individual dominance into group authority described in this post, were the forces emanating from groups empowered to redirect them inwards in order to suppress the divisive elements within them. Most revolutionary of all, the metamorphosis that occurred 6 million years ago not only suppressed individual competition between individuals within groups, the Myth maintains that this force of group selection also projected to groups of groups thus suppressing conflict between them as well. Both of these ideas are highly controversial. Most heretical is the idea that group selection could take place without group–group competition because it violates a fundamental Darwinian principle (which is the intellectual foundation of modern cynicism).
Like the idea of sexual selection, the idea of group selection sprang from the mind of Darwin, who thought that it was probably the mechanism whereby humans evolved morality:
” It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe . . . an increase in the number of well-endowed men and advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over anothe (Descent of Man -1871, p. 166)”
However, since World War II, the idea of group selection has been associated with Hitler’s poisonous idea of the struggle between races for superiority called Social Darwinism. To give you an inkling of the passions stoked by this idea, in Richard Dawkins’ book The Greatest Show on Earth (2009), which is a brilliant summary argument for the idea of natural selection, he relegates the entire subject of group selection to a solitary footnote:
[stextbox id=”custom” bgcolor=”f8f8ff” image=”null”]The misunderstanding of the Darwinian struggle for existence as a struggle between groups of individuals—the so-called “group selection” fallacy—is unfortunately not confined to Hitlerian racism. It constantly resurfaces in amateur misinterpretations of Darwinism, and even among some professional biologists who should know better.[/stextbox]
The “professional biologist who should know better” is none other than E. O. Wilson, the author of this blog’s epigraphic, penetrating quotation about the need for a sacred myth consistent with the science of evolution. Two years before Dawkins wrote that footnote, an article appeared in the prestigious Quarterly Review of Biology (2007) that Edward Wilson coauthored with David Sloan Wilson (no relation) roundly endorsing the idea of group selection. Wilson’s endorsement brought perhaps the most controversial of all of Darwin’s ideas out of the shadows and made it respectable again almost overnight.
Nevertheless, the price of establishing morality continued to be group–group conflict, better known as war. Darwin gives a sense of this in the passage immediately following the one above from “Descent of Man” in which he introduces the elements of patriotism and victory:
“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”
So, here we return to the foundations of Darwin’s theory on the ideas of Malthusian overpopulation resulting in an inevitable struggle for scarce resources. Darwin makes it very clear that this struggle is “most severe” within a species in On The Origin Of Species, the subtitle of which is, The Preservation Of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life (1859).
…But the struggle almost invariably will be most severe between the individuals of the same species, for they frequent the same districts, require the same food, and are exposed to the same dangers. (page 75 on electronic version by Penn State University)
In the next post, the Myth will describe how the hominid family could have been founded by group selection which did not result in group–group conflict.