David Sloan Wilson has been perhaps the strongest advocate for group selection for several decades now. The article under consideration here is an attempt to show that human cultures have been created by and evolve by a form of group selection, presumably cultural group selection. I am afraid that I don’t find anything in this article convincing at all. It mostly consists of a series of assertions for which no evidence is provided. Since space is short, I shall take up just a few of Wilson’s arguments. In my discussion I shall think of group selection as behavior that has been selected “for the good of the group.”
- Widespread human cooperation is to be explained primarily by group selection. Certainly humans are a highly cooperative species and in every society there is an enormous amount of cooperation. But I see no reason why group selection is necessary to explain this. Groups are aggregates of individuals who are pursuing their own interests, which are both somatic and reproductive. But to achieve these interests they have to cooperate in numerous ways. Wilson gives the example of the difficulties of survival in the Arctic, pointing out the many forms of technology that are required, much of which can only be produced by cooperative efforts. No problem there. But the cooperation is easily explained by standard gene-level (or individual-level) evolutionary theory. What individual living in such an environment would be so foolish to think that he or she could somehow survive on his own? This would be well-nigh impossible. Of course members of Inuit groups cooperate, otherwise they would be driven to extinction as individuals. Cooperation doesn’t require selection at the level of the group. Ordinary individual selection will do just fine. (Sometimes I think that the group selectionists believe they are the first scholars to discover that there is such a thing as human cooperation.)
- Religion fascinates social scientists because it seems not to be utilitarian. I have not read many works on the sociology or anthropology of religion that take such a perspective. Indeed, I can’t think of a single example. Quite the opposite is the case. Nearly all social-scientific theories of religion stress its benefits, with different theorists proposing different benefits. Wilson is keenly interested in religion, indeed wrote a whole book on it (Darwin’s Cathedral) in which he tried to explain it by group selection. Many years earlier Durkheim proposed one of the most famous theories of religion ever developed. He argued that religion is really the worship of society and thus binds individuals together. Its function is to provide social cohesion. This is a type of group selection argument. Wilson believes that Durkheim got it basically right. I would claim, however, that he got it basically wrong. I have formulated a list of ten major criticisms that I will be developing in a book on religion that I am currently writing. Be that as it may, the really shocking thing Wilson says in his discussion of religion is that Rodney Stark, a leading sociologist of religion, “portrays religion as primarily dysfunctional.” Stark is rolling over in his grave at this very moment. The last person on earth who would make such a claim is Stark. He uses the well-known sociological theory known as exchange theory to explain how people use gods in order to gain rewards that are otherwise unavailable in daily life. Religion is not dysfunctional, but highly functional, and it is individuals that religion is highly functional for. Exchange theory is a highly individualist theory and Stark is a strong anti-Durkheimian. He is also, in my view, the best sociologist of religion since Max Weber.
- Cultural evolution is a product of group selection. Group selectionists talk a lot about cultural evolution, but in a very constricted way. Usually they have in mind just very small bits of it over very short periods of time. But let’s think about cultural evolution – I prefer to call it social evolution – on a long-time scale, the 10,000 years since the Neolithic Revolution. Social evolutionists are generally agreed that over this period of time there have been remarkably similar evolutionary trajectories all over the world. In terms of subsistence technology, we see a shift from hunting and gathering to horticulture (shifting cultivation), from horticulture to intensive agriculture, and from intensive agriculture to modern industrial capitalism. In terms of political life, we see an evolution from bands, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to states. Societies have grown much larger with much denser populations and greater complexity. It’s pretty much the same story wherever you look. We know that it is those societies smallest in scale that exhibit the highest levels of cooperation. But what happens when societies evolve? A big thing is increasing status differentiation and social stratification along with increasing concentration of power in the hands of a few. Hunter-gatherer societies are highly egalitarian and status competition is frowned upon and strongly policed. In horticultural societies we see the development of status competition that is lightly policed, if at all. In some of these societies “big men” hold large feasts to show how skilled they are. Some of them grow big inedible yams that they present to status rivals, who must respond with yams of equal or greater size or else lose status. Among the Kwakiutl of the Northwest Coast, chiefs held potlatches in which they gave their goods away, daring other chiefs to give their own goods away or lose status. Once we get to full-fledged chiefdoms, a major line of division opens up between a powerful chiefly class and the rest of the population. This class is capable of exercising a lot of coercion over everyone else. Once states are achieved, the level of coercion becomes much greater still. Chiefdoms and states can extract tribute from most of the population, and coerce a lot of young able-bodied males to fight in wars of conquest against other societies. Most of these men are not interested in fighting. They are given no choice. What kind of cooperation is that?
- Inter–societal selection. The point about conquest is especially important because it is about one group defeating another. On the surface that looks like group selection. But is it? I would say no. It isn’t a matter of a whole society against another, but of the most powerful members of a society conquering another in order to gain the spoils. Do they want to share these spoils with the rest of the society? Not really. They may share some to keep the population relatively quiescent, but mostly they keep the spoils for themselves. That’s largely what preindustrial states and preindustrial warfare are all about. And what allows one group to defeat another is such things as bigger armies, superior military technology, more effective military strategies, and so on. It isn’t really about cooperation. But none of this is for “the good of the group.” It is for the good of those who are running the group. The sociologist Gerhard Lenski called this sort of thing inter-societal selection. I can’t see that it is any sort of group selection in Wilson’s sense.
- Consensus. Wilson stresses that the 45 participants in the Strungmann Forum all agreed that group selection is a vitally necessary concept. He seems to be implying that, because of this consensus, and because they agree with him, they must therefore be right. But who are these 45 people and what are their backgrounds? It would be quite easy to organize another forum and invite 45 different people ( or even 1,045 people) all of whom agreed that group selection is a wobbly concept that explains nothing. To be fair to Wilson, consensus in science is necessary, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out years ago. Research can march forward more efficiently this way. But the entire history of science is a story of consensus formed, consensus lost. Unfortunately, Wilson seems to want a permanent consensus, since he used that phrase in the title of an earlier article. The idea of a permanent consensus is dangerous because such a consensus can easily descend into dogma, and dogma doesn’t advance the cause of science.
In conclusion, I would just say I think Steven Pinker got it almost exactly right in his essay “The False Allure of Group Selection.” Of course there are cultural traits that may benefit the group as a whole. But all this can mean is that these traits benefit all of the individual members of a group. And of course there are individuals in societies who may display altruism (e.g., suicide bombers, men who volunteer for the military and are only too happy to fight for their country in faraway lands). But if one looks around I don’t think genuine altruism is the sort of thing one finds at a high level of frequency in human in any human society. And Pinker tells us why.
Stephen K. Sanderson. University of California, Riverside