David Sloan Wilson’s essay Human Cultures are Primarily Adaptive at the Group Level is helpful in calling attention to the fundamental role that the human social group has played throughout our evolutionary history. But Sloan Wilson is mistaken, in my view, in seeming to use the phrase “primarily adaptive at the group level” to mean that humans have acquired a suite of social and psychological dispositions for promoting the fitness of their groups even if it means suffering a cost to their own fitness.
There is agreement that there is something important to explain. Human beings are distinguished among all animals for having forms of cooperation that, on the face of it, pose a challenge to conventional Darwinian accounts of evolution. We routinely help others, we share our knowledge and skills, we give up seats on trains, pay taxes, hold doors for people, give money to charities, and even sometimes risk our health and well-being to fight wars.
The challenge to Darwinism is to explain how such apparent altruism can evolve when there are people who are only too happy to benefit from your aid but have no intention of returning it. This question is often answered by drawing on an analogy to the social insects – the ants, bees, wasps and termites – or even to the skin cells in your body.
Individual ants quite willingly, indeed sometimes enthusiastically, go to their deaths in support of their queen, and skin cells in your body do not have to be coaxed into giving their lives to protect you from the harmful rays of the sun. These actors’ high genetic relatedness to each other makes selfless altruism a good strategy for promoting copies of their genes that reside in others.
But humans are different – the multiple actors in the great ‘bodies’ we call our societies are not like cells in a body, nor even like a colony of ants. Indeed, the wonder of human cooperation is that we somehow manage to make our style of altruism work even among non-relatives. We have moved beyond the mere eusociality of the social insects to an ultrasociality, this term acknowledging that we cannot explain our actions as strategies for promoting copies of our genes in relatives.
Sloan Wilson is one of the leading proponents of ‘group selection’ as a way to explain this fascinating dilemma of human behaviour. The idea is that our groups have been as important to our survival and well-being throughout our evolutionary history as an ant’s colony has been to it. As a consequence we have been moulded by natural selection to do things that advance our ‘colonies’ even if it means suffering a cost to our individual fitness.
Our groups have been important to our success as a species – a point that is difficult to overemphasize. But have we really evolved to be willingly subservient to them? Is this what it feels like to you to be a human? This is really one of the most fundamental questions we can ask of our nature. Are we fundamentally ‘good’ or are we fundamentally self-interested?
In seeking answers to these questions, it is vital not to fall into the trap of assuming that what appears to be selfless group-level altruism and cooperation can only emerge from the sort of group-selection Sloan Wilson envisages. There can be selection between groups but this need not imply ‘group selection’ in the sense that Sloan Wilson uses it. In my book Wired for Culture, I discuss several alternative propositions that explain how apparent group-level altruism can evolve because it has returned individual benefits, not group ones at the expense of individuals.
In the simplest case, imagine you inhabit a group of two and that by helping each other you can achieve more than twice as much as the two of you working alone. Now ramp this scenario up to a larger group. The behaviours might range from cooperation in acquiring food to fighting battles with other groups. The returns from cooperation mean that what looks like altruism, is really a form of enlightened self-interest. Selfishness can never be widespread because groups with lots of selfish players cannot compete against cooperative ones.
Another scenario I call ‘enhancement selection’ and it seems to capture some of the more psychologically and socially nuanced, charming and puzzling aspects of our behaviour. What if, by virtue of being useful to the group in some way, you enhance your reputation, becoming widely known as the kind of person others like to have around. Perhaps you are a good hunter willing to share the meat you bring back, a good warrior, or you might simply be good at making arrows or navigating on the open seas. If as a consequence of your good deeds you attract kindnesses from others, then your apparent altruism can be more than repaid, and what looks like altruism is really in your best interest.
The appeal of this scenario is that once ‘altruism’ becomes a way of acquiring a good reputation, the problem of how to get altruism to evolve is subverted: if being altruistic attracts altruism from others, then people will actually compete to cooperate. In fact, we will become altruism ‘show-offs’, falling all over ourselves in an attempt to convince others of our worth. Our ultrasocial nature becomes the altruistic equivalent of a peacock’s tail, except where the peacock uses his tail to acquire a mate, we use our altruism to secure the spoils of cooperation.
This can explain the peculiar and repeated acts of altruism that most of us display throughout a typical day. All those doors we hold open, seats we give up, coins we drop into charity boxes and cats we rescue from trees are ways that we display our ‘long tails’ of altruism. The wonderful irony is that, as a self-interested tactic, this kind of ‘altruism’ can happily take its seat alongside all the other self-interested things we do, like cheat on taxes, exceed speed limits, lie to people, or pay huge sums of money to have our children educated. It is hard to explain these in the ‘nice’ world of Sloan Wilson’s style of group selection – you certainly wouldn’t see ants behaving like this.
So, yes, many of our distinctly human traits are adaptations that make it more likely our groups will be successful, but they need not be ‘adaptive at the group level’ in the sense that I think Sloan Wilson has in mind here. There might be an emerging consensus about the former, but certainly not about the latter, and it would be mischievous to suggest otherwise.
Pagel, M. 2012. Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind. W.W. Norton, USA and Penguin Press, UK.
Pagel, M. 2012. Adapted to Culture. Nature, 482, 297-299.