Bret Weinstein was the talk of the Intellectual Dark Web after his recent on-stage conversation with Richard Dawkins. The most dramatic moment came when Weinstein pressed Dawkins on the possibility that religious beliefs and practices might be cultural adaptations that increase the survival and reproduction of religious believers, rather than parasitic “mind viruses”. Dawkins refused to accept this possibility but many thought that Weinstein came out on top of the exchange.

You can’t talk about religious beliefs and practices as adaptations without addressing the issue of group selection. That’s how I became involved on Twitter and in no time Weinstein suggested that we have an on-stage conversation on that topic. He even created a short video on his Patreon site to announce the event and his own position, which is that while many elements of religious beliefs and practices are adaptations, group selection was not required for their evolution.

I admire Weinstein, especially his commitment to science and his vigorous but constructive debate style. I also suspect that we might agree on the topic of group selection more than he thinks. For example, here is a passage from an article on morality that he wrote with David C. Lahti: “Humans are caught in an evolutionary trade-off between two methods of increasing reproductive success: competing with fellow group members, and increasing the stability of the group relative to other groups.” If that’s not a description of multilevel selection, what would be?

Although our on-stage conversation has yet to be scheduled, I can’t wait until then to flag two points that he made in his short video. First, he claimed that Darwin was primarily an individual selectionist. Second, he described the problem posed by the selective advantage of selfishness within groups without describing the solution provided by between-group selection.

There is no one better qualified to comment on both of these points than Elliott Sober, the eminent philosopher of biology whose thinking on multilevel selection stretches back to his 1985 book The Nature of Selection: Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus and my co-author of our 1998 book Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. One chapter of Elliott’s 2011 book Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?: Philosophical Essays on Darwin’s Theory reviews what Darwin thought about group selection in minute detail, along with a concise summary of the current status of the group selection debate. My conversation with Elliott helps to set the stage for my on-stage conversation with Weinstein.

Listen to the conversation between David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober below:


Other TVOL articles on Multilevel Selection

Reaching a New Plateau for the Acceptance of Multilevel Selection

Cooperation Trumps Selfishness in the Founder’s Dilemma

The Tide of Opinion on Group Selection Has Turned

Mopping up Final Opposition to Group Selection

Challenge to Kin Selectionists: Explain This!

Eight Criticisms Not To Make About Group Selection

Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, and the Consensus of the Many

Published On: December 3, 2018

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.

Elliott Sober

Elliott Sober

Elliott Sober teaches philosophy at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research is in the philosophy of science, especially in the philosophy of evolutionary biology. Sober’s books include The Nature of Selection(1984), Reconstructing the Past — Parsimony, Evolution, and Inference (1988), Philosophy of Biology (1993),Unto Others — The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (1998, coauthored with David Sloan Wilson), Evidence and Evolution – the Logic Behind the Science (2008), Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards? (2011), and Ockham’s Razors – A User’s Manual (2015).

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