Humans may be more adept than other primates at discouraging intra-group conflict, but by our own standards, we’re not nearly adept enough. I’m a big fan of multilevel selection, and, in particular, David Sloan Wilson’s emphasis on pro-active efforts to promote more effective cooperation. As a social scientist, however, I think that David’s optimism is overstated in ways that jeopardize his long-run vision. To use Star Wars terminology, he underestimates the Dark Side of the Force in ways that may hamper the ability of the Jedi to overcome it.

The prolonged, intense, and surprisingly international protests that unfolded in May under the Black Lives Matter banner brought one dimension of collective conflict to the fore—the perversion of police powers systematically applied in violent and racially discriminatory ways. It also highlighted the persistence of extreme economic inequalities that have left Black communities, in particular, vulnerable to the depredations of Covid-19. 

Wesley Morris, writing in the New. York Times, put it this way:

This country manufactures only one product powerful enough to interrupt the greatest health and economic crisis it’s probably ever faced. We make racism, the American virus and the underlying condition of black woe. And the rage against it is strong enough to compel people to risk catching one disease in order to combat the other.1

Here lie some big questions for evolutionary thinkers: is racism within the U.S. a maladaptive preference–a by-product of the evolution of some other characteristic? Or is it a manifestation of intra-group conflicts with implications for a culturally constructed unit of selection known as race? And, if the latter, how does it relate to other forms of group competition based on ethnicity, citizenship, class, gender, age, sexuality, and other forms of collective identity within the unit of selection known as the nation-state?

Interdisciplinary efforts to answer these questions can draw from intersectional political economy, an outgrowth of a heterodox social science tradition long critical of the individualism of neoclassical economics, emphasizing instead the complexity of collective conflict.2 Intersectional political economy challenges David Sloan Wilson’s vision of multi-level selection yet also complements it by devoting more attention to intra-group conflict.

In its simplest version, multi-level selection theory posits a binary distinction between self-interest and group-interest. “Selfishness beats altruism in groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”3  David defines altruism not in terms of motives, but in terms of results that benefit a group, highlighting tensions between competition and cooperation that are potentially mitigated by achievement of some balance between the two.

But the line between competition and cooperation is not so easily drawn. As John Nash demonstrated in his game-theoretic approach to bargaining, the two often go together. Economist Amartya Sen and political scientists Charles Mills and Carol Pateman flesh out the implications with terms such as “cooperative conflict” and “coerced cooperation.” Two parties (whether individuals or groups) may benefit from cooperation but nonetheless bargain over the distribution of the gains from cooperation. Their bargaining power is strongly affected by their next-best alternative or fallback position—and, if they are able to capture disproportionate gains, they can invest these in efforts to further improve their fallback—or weaken that of their collaborators.

In other words, cooperation is not always voluntary, democratic or egalitarian, and is often enforced by hierarchical institutions (laws, norms, and unequal asset distributions) that are themselves contested. The tension between overall gains from cooperation and their distribution helps explain why some groups in powerful positions resist technological or social innovations that could make everyone better off—because those innovations might also lower their bargaining power, reducing their slice of a larger pie enough to leave them worse off than before (with a bigger slice of a smaller pie).

Some salient examples from the nineteenth century to the present: slaveholders in the U.S. outlawing the education of slaves, even when this would have increased slave labor productivity; husbands prohibiting their wives from earning income outside the home despite potential increases in family income; employers preferring a relatively high unemployment rate despite its macroeconomic costs, because it weakens the bargaining power of wage earners; native-born citizens opposing immigration of low-wage workers despite their economic contributions;  and whites fearful of losing their relative advantages over workers of color.

These group dynamics differ from those emphasized in multi-level selection theory, because the groups involved are not nested from small scale to large, like Russian dolls, but rather based on intersecting, overlapping, variable, even fractal allegiances.  People simultaneously belong to many different socially assigned groups, influenced as much by cultural construction as biological cues.

People don’t have much scope to choose their own gender, age, race, ethnicity, class, or country of origin (or many other dimensions of collective identity) yet are subject to institutional rules based on these characteristics. These rules coordinate their behavior, with hierarchical consequences.

Some people enjoy multiple forms of group-based advantage, some multiple forms of group-based disadvantage. Most people find themselves somewhere in between, often in somewhat contradictory positions that complicate their strategic choices. It hardly seems incidental that the richest and most powerful individuals in the world are white male citizens of the United States, or that the poorest and most disempowered are women of color in low-income countries. This polarity, however, is counterbalanced by a social ecology of co-optive complexity: almost everyone has something to lose from destabilization of the status quo.

In this environment, coalitions play a crucial role, binding groups together in pursuit of a greater share of the gains from cooperation—ideally, in ways that do not reduce the total gains available. Such coalitions depend heavily on moral principles, cultural values, and potential payoffs shaped by environmental specifics. They can coalesce abruptly, as in the case of the protests catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd. The protestors who took to the streets in May and June did so in the name of larger principles of political and economic justice and their persistent intensity created a tipping point that persuaded many bystanders of the need for systemic change.

Yet the resistance to such change remains powerful, not only because individuals are competing with one another for jobs and public assistance, but also because the groups they belong to are orchestrating similar efforts. So, what, exactly, are the “units of selection” here? Not just individuals embedded in successively larger groups, but also cross-cutting sub-groups competing for their allegiance, such as political parties, social organizations, and international movements.

Successful formation of coalitions represents, in a way, a new organism, a crucial intermediate step in the formation of the larger social organism that Wilson describes, following Teilhard de Chardin, as “the Omega point.” But the ability of humans to be “ultra-social cooperators” is a mixed blessing, because it also leads them to be “ultra-social competitors.”

Like Elinor Ostrom, whose path-breaking analysis of conditions for collective governance of common resources informs David’s economic analysis, I believe in the potential for successful democratic cooperation in which gains are equitably shared. However, I see their list of preconditions for such cooperation as incomplete, because it does not adequately address inequality. If individuals—or groups—have very different fallback positions, they are unlikely to agree to equitable sharing rules.

Cooperation itself is less important than the terms on which it is established and sustained. Hierarchical and authoritarian forms of cooperation succeed by distributing just enough benefits to the less empowered to leave them better off than their next best alternative. The only way to beat them is to improve that next best alternative.

That’s what Black Lives Matter, with its emphasis on systemic change, is reaching for.


[1] Wesley Morris, “The Videos That Rocked America. The Song That Knows Our Rage,” New York Times, June 3, 2020, accessed June 7 at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/arts/george-floyd-video-racism.html

[2] This is a very brief summary of a section of my forthcoming book, The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems: An Intersectional Political Economy (New York: Verso, 2021).

[3] David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (Pantheon, 2019), p. 78.

Published On: June 9, 2020

Nancy Folbre

Nancy Folbre

Nancy Folbre is Professor Emerita of Economics and Director of the Program on Gender and Care Work at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Senior Fellow of the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College in the United States.  Her research explores the interface between political economy and feminist theory, with a particular emphasis on the value of unpaid care work. In addition to numerous articles published in academic journals, she is the author of The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems (forthcoming in 2020 from Verso), the editor of For Love and Money: Care Work in the U.S. (Russell Sage, 2012), and the author of Greed, Lust, and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas (Oxford, 2009), Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family (Harvard, 2008), and The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values (New Press, 2001). She has also written widely for a popular audience, including contributions to the New York Times Economix blog, The Nation, and the American Prospect. You can learn more about her at her website and blog Care Talk.


  • Ralph Haygood says:

    Regarding the examples listed in the paragraph beginning “Some salient examples”, I observe that in most, if not all, of these cases, it’s questionable whether the people opposed to “innovations that could make everyone better off” actually would have been “worse off than before (with a bigger slice of a smaller pie)” in any but the most myopic sense. They may indeed have believed they would be, but they may well have been mistaken. Accurately assessing probable benefits and costs of potential changes in society is challenging for even the most intelligent people, in part because it requires weighing benefits and costs of different kinds (e.g., the greater intimacy possible in a marital relationship not colored by enforced economic dependence of the wife on the husband versus the greater security, from the husband’s perspective and for want of a better term, conferred by such dependence). In general, it seems to me the difficulty of accurate assessment is an underrated factor in theorizing about human conflict and cooperation. John Stuart Mill famously observed that “stupid persons are generally Conservative”. Presumably, to the extent this holds, it reflects the cognitive challenges of realistically envisioning and evaluating a state of affairs other than the current one. The immense complexity of modern societies compared to those in which human cognition largely evolved makes bad matters worse.

    • Nancy R Folbre says:

      Ralph, thanks so much for your comments. This is exactly the kind of conversation I wanted to start. I agree that it’s really hard to assess these individual costs and benefits and I’ve never endorsed the stylized decision-making of “rational economic man.” I wanted to emphasize the trade-off between level and share, efficiency and power, because I think it resembles, in a way, the tradeoff between individual selection and group selection. One can think about both tradeoffs from an evolutionary game theory perspective–that is, individuals don’t necessarily “optimize” but those who, for one reason or another, figure out where the greatest benefits lie are likely to prevail in competition with those who are more short-sighted.

      I do observe a lot of political discourse that emphasizes the “everybody would gain” argument as a way to overcome the “some people might be penalized” objection, and I think economists are particularly drawn to this logic–its kind of built into the discipline. So most of the people that I argue with take a position that is the opposite of yours–holding that people will always agree to expand the production frontier. I am more inclined to agree with you about the cognitive challenges. Still, a lot of cultural construction (of say, Republican versus Democratic worldviews) is based on collective effort to think about these trade-offs, and I do think people are aware of them–not in a calculating, but in an almost unconscious or sublimal way…

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