Most people are prepared to admit that we are influenced by our cultures in ways that we don’t understand. As a proverb puts it, the hardest thing for a fish to see is water. Part of the “water” of Victorian culture was an assumption of European superiority. Darwin was progressive for his time but even he was repelled by the “savages” of Tierra del Fuego. When Victorians attempted to view racial and cultural diversity through the new lens of evolutionary theory, some argued that the different races are different species, with Africans closer to the apes. Others argued that we are all one species but that cultural evolution runs along a single track, from savagery to civilization, so that the humane thing to do was make everyone else more like Europeans. Only in retrospect can we look back and see that not only are these theories wrong, but they don’t even follow straightforwardly from evolutionary theory.

What is the water of our culture? I would like to nominate individualism. Individualism is the belief that individuals are somehow a privileged level of the biological hierarchy; that explanations framed in terms of individual action are somehow more “fundamental” than explanations framed in terms of social action; that individual self-interest is a grand explanatory principle that can explain all aspects of humanity. For many people, these beliefs seem like common sense. Water always does.

It wasn’t always that way. Consider the following passage from the social psychologist Daniel Wegner:

Social commentators once found it very useful to analyze the behavior of groups by the same expedient used in analyzing the behavior of individuals. The group, like the person, was assumed to be sentient, to have a form of mental activity that guides action. Rousseau (1767) and Hegel (1807) were the early architects of this form of analysis, and it became so widely used in the 19th and early 20th centuries that almost every early social theorist we now recognize as a contributor to modern social psychology held a similar view.

Even in Darwin’s time, the Russian naturalist and social theorist Peter Kropotkin accused evolutionary theory of being biased by the individualism of British culture, which made competition seem more commonsensical than mutual aid. Even so, Wegner’s passage documents that something happened in the middle of the 20th century that made our culture even more individualistic than it was before. Margaret Thatcher’s notorious quip in 1987 that “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” would have boggled the minds of the Victorians!

Against this background, when evolutionists rejected group selection in favor of “the theory of individual selection” in the 1960s (see T&R IV), they were just swimming with the other fish. At roughly the same time, a position known as “methodological individualism” became dominant in the social sciences and radical individualism became the dominant position in economics. These parallel events did not take place because scientists were talking to each other across disciplines and changing their views in a coordinated fashion. Much as scientists might like to think otherwise, their formal theories were simply reflecting a larger cultural sea change.

What exactly was this sea change? I would love to know the answer to this question and urge historians of culture and science to study it, or to contact me if they already have. Nazi Germany and the cold war with Communism probably had something to do with it. With Ayn Rand there was a direct connection since she came from Russia and had a zeal for free-market economics that rivaled religious fundamentalism, as I recount in a chapter of Evolution for Everyone titled “Ayn Rand: Religious Zealot.” Another factor might have been the allure of reductionism; the belief that lower-level explanations are somehow more fundamental than higher-level explanations.

Regardless of the reasons, the hyper-individualism that took hold during the second half of the 20th century became the cultural “water” for the theory of individual selection in evolutionary biology, which portrayed everything that evolves as a variety of self-interest. The zeal associated with hyper-individualism, in general, might also explain the zeal with which some individual selectionists argued their position, as I documented in T&R V.

Thinking about science as a culturally influenced activity is a tricky business. On one hand, everyone is prepared to admit the abstract possibility and to see it clearly for past examples, such as evolutionary theories of racial and cultural diversity in Darwin’s day. On the other hand, most scientists don’t like to admit the possibility for their own theories. To make matters worse, some scholars who study science as a culturally influenced activity conclude that science, therefore, has no more truth value than any other cultural belief system, such as astrology.

The hardest ground to capture, it seems, is the middle ground. Science remains the best cultural system we have for holding each other accountable for our factual statements– vastly better than astrology, for example. But scientists are full of biases, many beneath their conscious awareness, just like everyone else. That’s why a cultural system is required to overcome individual biases. The cultural system does a pretty good job but is especially prone to failure when everyone shares the same biases. Then there is nobody around to propose and defend an alternative hypothesis. The best solution would be to make sure that scientists are as culturally diverse as possible and to employ an army of scholars to scrutinize current scientific theories for cultural bias in a constructive way, sharing the belief that at the end of the day there can be an accumulation of knowledge that deserves to be called factual.

Factual matters are definitely at stake for the issues associated with group selection. What I called “the original problem” in T&R II remains a fact. It is simply the case that “for the good of the group” traits are often locally disadvantageous. If they are to evolve at all, a selective advantage must exist at a larger scale. If group-level selection is sufficiently strong, then “for the good of the group” traits can evolve in the total population, despite their selective disadvantage within groups. Determining the relative importance of within- vs. between-group selection is a straightforward matter of theoretical and empirical research. Even though hard work might be involved, it should be possible to determine the facts of the matter.

What I called The Great Reckoning in T&R IV appeared to deliver a verdict: group-level selection is almost invariably weak compared to individual-level selection. As George C. Williams put it, “group-level adaptations do not, in fact, exist.” Despite the appearances of decades, he was massively wrong.

Read the entire “Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection” Series:

00. Prologue for the Twelfth Anniversary Edition

01. Why It Is Needed 

02. The Original Problem

03. Naïve Group Selectionism

04. The Great Reckoning 

05. The Patriotic History of Individual Selection Theory

06. Individualism

07. If You Make A Mess, Should You Clean It Up?

Published On: April 26, 2022

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.


  • Steve Davis says:

    I’ve always struggled with your contention that “It is simply the case that “for the good of the group” traits are often locally disadvantageous.”

    You explained this in T&R 2 by saying “Charitable, heroic, and honest individuals do not necessarily survive and reproduce better than their immediate neighbors who are stingy, cowardly, and deceptive.” I cannot see that that follows. Stingy, cowardly and deceptive people get a reputation for that, and suffer accordingly. Yes, they do have an occasional win, but it’s a tough way to make a living.

    Charitable and honest individuals are certainly taken advantage of from time to time, but this is balanced by the public esteem that they enjoy, esteem that makes their lives easier. As for heroism and its associated esteem, you will recall that this was a feature that caused Fisher a lot of trouble. If my memory is correct, (correct me if I’m wrong) he was unable to fit it (or aposematism) into his schema, and was honest enough to draw no conclusions about either of those. No such honesty from his followers. The Hamiltonian contention that the heroic, the honest and the charitable will be bled dry by cheaters is just simplistic reductionist nonsense. The key factor in all evolution is co-operation. Even those few who manage to make a living by cheating or deception or theft, spend more time engaged in co-operation than in cheating, deception and theft.

    And it’s not only at the human level that this applies. Kropotkin noted the collective justice that is applied to cheaters among, of all things, sparrows.

    Darwin shed light on this when he explained that while we can all be selfish or spiteful from time to time, we later reflect on this and inwardly resolve to do better in the future. He concluded that the social instincts dominate the selfish instincts.

    You mentioned the lure of reductionism in the article, but there is a lot more going on in for-the-good-of-the-group dynamics than heroism, charity, honesty and the like.

    For example, those pushing the cult of individualism refuse to concede that the protections offered by groups actually enhance individual welfare. A simple example is union membership. Or the legal system. Or building regulations. Or fire safety regulations. I could go on forever.

    And once individuals see that membership of a group enhances their lives, they act to preserve the group, or at the very least, do it no harm. As someone once said, there’s no libertarians in an aircraft at 30,000 feet. Everyone in that aircraft is a communitarian giving thanks every moment they are airborne, for strict airline regulation.

    When G C Williams, one of the luminaries of individual selection, can make what you refer to as the “massively wrong” statement that “group-level adaptations do not, in fact, exist”then logic tells us that it’s highly likely that most of his work was also wrong and possibly massively wrong. I live for the day David, when you make a similar criticism of Hamilton.

    You said in conclusion “Determining the relative importance of within- vs. between-group selection is a straightforward matter of theoretical and empirical research. Even though hard work might be involved, it should be possible to determine the facts of the matter.”
    I think that when that hard work is done, traits for the good of the group, (with occasional exceptions, but too few to influence evolution) will be seen as being overwhelmingly advantageous for the individual.

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Dear Steve–thanks for this very careful and well-reasoned comment. I will try to reply at appropriate length later. Very briefly, if you consider a prosocial act all by itself, it requires an expenditure of time, energy and risk on behalf of others, no matter how small. This is the general point that I am making. If the prosocial individual ends up benefitting, for example by acquiring a good reputation, then that is due to how others respond to the prosocial act with prosocial acts of their own. Likewise, if selfish individuals are punished, that is a prosocial act on the part of the punisher. These prosocial responses to altruistic and selfish acts are called second-order public goods. They must be modeled as the coevolution of multiple traits. Between-group selection is required for the second-order public good, if not the first-order public good.

    To make matters more complex, there can be multiple local social equilibria that are internally stable by definition but differ in their group-level functionality. Between-group selection is required to evolve group-functional equilibria, This is called equilibrium selection.

    I encourage you to join the Prosocial Commons, where conversations like this can continue among like-minded people and extended beyond myself. https://thisviewoflife.com/introducing-the-prosocial-commons/.

  • Steve Davis says:

    Hi David, many thanks for your speedy reply.
    I followed your response without a problem until “These prosocial responses to altruistic and selfish acts are called second-order public goods. They must be modeled as…”
    But why must they be modeled? They exist, they occur, they are observable. Surely modeling occurs in the absence of verifiable data, as a tool for further inquiry. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but after seeing how Hamilton manipulated modeling to push a pseudo-scientific agenda, (see Geometry For The Selfish Herd) I have little regard for modeling in biology, and even less in social evolution.

    You continued “Between-group selection is required for the second-order public good, if not the first-order public good.To make matters more complex, there can be multiple local social equilibria that are internally stable by definition but differ in their group-level functionality. Between-group selection is required to evolve group-functional equilibria,…”

    I will not comment on this until I’ve seen your more detailed reply if you can provide one later. But it seems to me that while I deplore reductionism in biology, it appears from these two points I’ve selected that a level of complexity (that you acknowledge) has been introduced without good reason.

    I have felt for a long time now that you are fighting the good fight within boundaries set by those with an ideological mind-set, making your task at the very least frustrating, and possibly eventually futile. Having said that, truth eventually comes to the fore, so while you will win in the end, why make life hard for yourself?

    So where am I going with this?
    I see no need for complexity such as you have introduced. There is one simple concept that is the basis of social evolution, (that being the focus of the discussion) and that is cooperation. The link of cooperation to social evolution is by definition. You can’t have “social” without cooperation. A social structure cannot exist without cooperation, cooperation is its foundation, its defining feature, so cooperation is the foundation principle of social evolution also.

    It can be forcefully argued that cooperation is the underlying feature of life itself, indeed, that cooperation can be a useful definition of life itself. If that is accepted then cooperation is the underlying feature of all evolution, but perhaps that is an unnecessary distraction at this point.

    My suggestion is that you change the boundaries. Don’t play by rules set by sociopaths. Or as Mark Twain said, if you argue with idiots they’ll bring you down to their level and beat you with experience. He might have also said don’t argue with pigs because you’ll end up covered in crap and the pigs love it.

    Don’t get tied up with minutiae. The whole purpose of the Hamiltonian-neo-Darwinian approach to social evolution has been to exclude cooperation from the discussion, showing how delusional/ideological they are. That needs to be turned around. Change the rules. Approach these issues from a broader perspective, that is, with cooperation (and of course, efforts to thwart cooperation) as the underlying principle behind all social outcomes.

    Because ultimately David, all selection is group selection.

    And the point of changing the debate along the lines I’ve indicated? It’s because we will never have a better world until the crucial role of cooperation is universally recognized.

    The Hamiltonians have assisted in changing global attitudes for the worse. For example, I was taught at high school that economics is the study of the production and distribution of goods and services. Today it is taught as the study of scarcity. In other words, the study of get what you can while you can. The study of how to satisfy greed.

    This descent has to be turned around.

  • Steve Davis says:

    Hello again David,
    One option to turn around this descent into the delusion of “greed is good” as the operating principle of of our economic, political and social life is to stop discussing the nuances of group dynamics altogether. Such discussions are a distraction; useful later when the battle has been won, but at the moment diverting attention away from the main game.

    Do you really want to bring your perfectly sound philosophical position into the public arena, to raise public awareness, to make it a talking point in the mainstream media, to really get the word out there? You rightly referred on the main page (but not in the the article) to the mistaken belief in the importance of individualism. That being the case, then mount an attack on individualism itself rather than just trace the history of its development. In the process you’ll make yourself a household name! [How’s that for an appeal to vanity? Forgive me, I could not resist it! : ) ]

    Those pushing individualism as the primary factor in evolution (and therefore in life, which is why this is so important) are peddling a lie. They refuse to recognize that individual selection is merely a secondary feature of group selection. Why is this so?

    Because we are social animals. When a social animal is favoured by selection for some beneficial individual trait, the group is favoured because the benefit is shared. When a social animal is selected out due to an individual trait, the group is favoured because the harmful trait is removed. Of course, I’m talking in very general terms here, because in biology and even more so in evolution, there can be gray areas. As Mayr said, biology is messy.

    Mayr had an excellent argument against gene-centrism – that gene-centrism is reductionism beyond the point where analysis is useful. The same argument applies here. Individual selection obviously does occur, but in the evolution of social animals the focus on individual selection is also reductionism beyond the point where analysis is useful. Mayr’s argument carried a great deal of weight, because in The Extended Phenotype Dawkins performed some extreme verbal contortions trying to reconcile his position with that of Mayr. Unsuccessfully, as I recall.

    You said in the article “The hardest ground to capture, it seems, is the middle ground.”

    I see no middle ground here.There cannot be truth and reconciliation where ideologues are involved. There can only be truth. So this is what they need to be hit with. Here it is in a nutshell. Individual selection is a secondary feature of group selection. I can hear their howls of rage already.

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