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