If you want to see fish, look in the water, where fish are most likely to be found. If you want to see evidence of group selection, look at small groups in competition, which is where group-selected traits are most likely to be found.
Here’s a bad way to search for group-selected traits: First, focus your inquiry on altruism and define altruism as behavior in which one individual bears a net cost that creates a net benefit for other individuals within the group. Then bring individuals into the lab to interact with strangers in temporary groups that are not put into competition with other groups. Rather, make your experimental subjects play games in which their monetary interests are directly pitted against the interests of others, even though they could all maximize their outcomes if they were to work “as a group.” You can study the vast field of behavioral economics, including prisoners’ dilemmas, commons dilemmas, and dictator games, and you’ll find no psychological mechanisms that cry out for group selection to explain them.
Unless you flip the intergroup competition switch. One of the few social psychological studies that actually put real, ongoing groups into real conflict was the famous “summer camp” study carried out by Muzafar Sherif (1), who brought two groups of twelve year old boys out to a summer camp in a state park in Oklahoma in 1954. At first, the two groups didn’t even know of the others’ existence, yet even still, each group started marking territory and creating a tribal identify for itself. Both groups engaged in some mild tribal behaviors that would be useful if the group were to encounter a rival group that claimed the same territory. That’s what happened on day 6 when the “Rattlers” discovered that the “Eagles” were playing baseball on what the Rattlers took to be “their” ballfield. The Rattlers then challenged the Eagles to a game, which was the start of a weeklong series of competitions that Sherif had planned from the start.
Once the competition began, it was as though a switch was flipped in each boy’s head. As Sherif described it: “performance in all activities which might now become competitive (tent pitching, baseball, etc.) was entered into with more zest and also with more efficiency.” Tribal behaviors increased dramatically. Both sides created flags and hung them in contested territories. They raided each others’ bunks, called each other names, and even made weapons (socks filled with rocks.)
Were these acts altruistic? I think the opposite of selfishness in evolutionary terms should not always be altruism. For the purposes of the present debate, it should be groupishness. The hand of group-level selection is most clearly seen, I believe, when we look at behaviors that may be costly for the individual, but that don’t transfer that cost as a benefit to a specific other group member (which would help the selfish individualists prosper in a multi-level analysis). Rather, mental mechanisms that encourage individuals to do things that help their team succeed, despite some cost to the self, are the most likely candidates for having come down to us by a path in which group-selection played a part. I mean the sorts of things we do more of when our group or team is attacked – show the flag or the team colors, rally around the leader, join with others (at some cost to the self) to punish free riders and kill or expel traitors, and just generally becoming more of a “team player,” as Sherif’s adolescents did. I’m not saying these things are good in a normative sense. I’m just trying to understand some corners of our moral minds that can’t readily be explained by kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Groups in which genes for groupish psychology co-evolved with cultural innovations for effective groupishness (such as initiation rites and body painting) probably outcompeted groups that lacked either the genes or the cultural innovations to maximize the effectiveness of those genes.
Pinker says that “none of this wasteful ritualizing and mythologizing would be necessary if ‘the group’ were an elementary cognitive intuition which triggered instinctive loyalty.” But many social psychologists believe that the group is an elementary cognitive intuition. The “minimal group” studies of Henri Tajfel (2) showed this long ago – people will make more positive attributions about strangers assigned to their own group even on arbitrary criteria, no more meaningful than a coin flip. And more recently work with infants shows that they note markers of group identity (such as accent) and prefer people who are members of their group (3), and this preference for in-group members is at least as strong (3) as the much-publicized preference of infants for helpful characters (rather than harmful or “mean” characters (4)).
In sum, I fully agree with Pinker, Coyne, and other critics of group selection that humans are not pervasively altruistic. The experimental literature on altruism does not require group selection to explain it. Most of our social psychology, and I’d say even most of our moral psychology, was shaped by the relentless competition of individuals within groups, competing for status, mates, and the trust of potential partners for cooperation. But if you look beyond altruism among strangers and you examine instead the psychological traits that motivate and enable cohesion, trust, and effective coordination during times of intergroup competition, then at least you’re looking in the right pond, and I see fish.
1. Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W., & Sherif, C. (1961/1954). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Institute of Group Relations.
2. Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology Vol 1(2) 1971, 149-178.
3. Kinzler, K. D., Dupoux, E., & Spelke, E. S. (2007). The native language of social cognition. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(30), 12577-12580.
4. Hamlin, J. K. (2012). A Developmental Perspective on the Moral Dyad. Psychological Inquiry, 23, 166-171.