Are you following the latest evolution debate? The debate is on the question of how altruism evolves. Theoretical frameworks and empirical evidence have been proposed to explain altruism in the animal kingdom, from sterile worker ants to suicidal bees. But now that the evolution of human altruism and cooperation is under the microscope, partly because of the recent publications by E.O. Wilson, Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, the debate may have reached a climax. Thanks to Steven Pinker, who published a piece with a provocative title “The False Allure of Group Selection” supporters of group selection have been passionately responding.

Can we expect the scientists who have been participating in the debate to reach a consensus? Or, will scientists just talk past each other?

In the spirit of This View of Life’s mantra “science as a process of constructive disagreement” we will highlight the debate and welcome all arguments. We want to thank our partner site the Social Evolution Forum for hosting the debate. The following are short previews of responses to Steven Pinker’s original piece on the SEF. Also visit for more commentaries on Pinker’s piece.

Harvey Whitehouse and Ryan McKay: Intelligent Design Versus Random Mutation?

According to Pinker, group selection “adds nothing to conventional history” as an explanation of cultural change. Rather than arising from processes of random mutation and indifferent selection, he argues, cultural traits arise and spread as a result of the complex intentions and interactions of agents: “Conquerors, leaders, elites, visionaries, social entrepreneurs, and other innovators use their highly nonrandom brains to figure out tactics and institutions and norms and beliefs that are intelligently designed in response to a felt need”. Pinker insists that natural selection isn’t natural selection unless mutations are random: “unless the traits arose from multiple iterations of copying of random errors in a finite pool of replicators, the theory of natural selection adds nothing to ordinary cause and effect”. In short, the variability that natural selection acts upon must be randomly generated rather than deliberately generated – and, in that sense, intelligently designed……

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Michael Hochberg: There is no (Single) Holy Grail (a comment on Steven Pinker)

Much of the discussion regarding group selection has been fueled by its fuzziness for many, yet the appeal to many of holy-grail, single-process explanations for human social behaviors. Steven Pinker’s essay is provocative and as such important in educating readers, but I believe that he is incorrect in applying Occam’s razor to say that simpler, ground level, individual selection is sufficient to explain traits in human groups. There are counter-arguments that selection on different levels is involved (or as I argue below, was involved) in the establishment of behavioral and institutional adaptations.

Challenge – Signal – Response. In understanding the origin and current relevance of group traits, one must consider the context in which they are elicited, the elicitor, context-dependent signals between individuals, and their behavioral responses. Take for example feelings of patriotism, elation, and resolve when in a like-minded group, hearing and singing one’s national anthem and seeing one’s national flag raised. These unifying signals elicit emotional and physiological responses (e.g. adrenaline secretion). What for? Those groups that more effectively react to challenges will tend to survive and spread, even if the precise signal is altered, for example, when colonizing a new habitat (e.g., the colonizers may invent a new anthem and new flag, but have the same group level traits). What counts is whether the specific stimulus and response are shared by many or most members of a given group, and whether their evocation changes the prospects of group survival, growth and spread….

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Herbert Gintis: On the Evolution of Human Morality (a comment on Steven Pinker)

Steven Pinker’s thoughtful remarks concerning group selection present a useful occasion for clearing some misconceptions surrounding recent developments in the behavioral sciences concerning our understanding of moral vs. self-interested behavior. Initiated in 1966 by George C. Willams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection and followed a decade later by Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologists in the last quarter of the Twentieth century came to view humans as fundamentally selfish, contributing to society only when socially-imposed rewards and punishment render it in their self-interest to do so. Dawkins, for instance, opines in the opening pages of The Selfish Gene, “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes…. a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior…. Anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish.”

Of course, it does not appear in our daily life that everyone is selfish, and if we introspect, most of us will agree that we try to behave, however successfully or unsuccessfully, as moral beings willing to sacrifice personal amenities in the pursuit of truth, justice, loyalty and compassion. Dawkins’ explanation is that human morality is a cultural facade laid upon our basically selfish human nature. “Be warned,” he states, “that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”…

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Peter J. Richerson: Comment on Steven Pinker’s Edge essay

In these remarks I concentrate on the Steven Pinker’s misconceptions about cultural evolution, cultural group selection, and gene-culture coevolution.

The problems in his essay begin with the idea that mutations have to be random with respect to fitness for natural selection to occur. Since cultural evolution manifestly includes the inheritance of acquired variation (if I learn something interesting, I can teach it to others), defining natural selection in this way seems to exclude anything cultural from the effects of natural selection. This is illogical. The problem is quantitative not qualitative. Natural selection works on any pattern of heritable variation. When animals rely only their own exploration and trial and error learning to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to survive, then the products of their learning are not heritable. This is approximately the case in many species where social learning is absent or of marginal importance. But for humans, learning from others is very important. We inherit most of what we know from others. Human are a veritable cultural adaptive radiation based on information that has been passed down the generations by social learning.

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Jonathan Haidt: To See Group Selection, Look at Groupishness during Intergroup Competition, Not Altruism during Interpersonal Competition (a comment on Steven Pinker)

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.

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Published On: June 30, 2012


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