Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The False Allure of Group Selection - By Steven Pinker

I am often asked whether I agree with the new group selectionists, and the questioners are always surprised when I say I do not. After all, group selection sounds like a reasonable extension of evolutionary theory and a plausible explanation of the social nature of humans. Also, the group selectionists tend to declare victory, and write as if their theory has already superseded a narrow, reductionist dogma that selection acts only at the level of genes. In this essay, I'll explain why I think that this reasonableness is an illusion. The more carefully you think about group selection, the less sense it makes, and the more poorly it fits the facts of human psychology and history.


Art De Vany also thought it was a great article, and gave a few thoughts and passages on it in a public post on his site:
Unconditional self-sacrifice for a group does not exist, nor could it have evolved. Yet, self-sacrifice and appeals to altruism or fairness are the primary themes of our present political debate. Group selection cannot explain fairness as a basis for human society and self-sacrifice.
Consider Pinker's discussion of individual sacrifice. It is manipulation of one member of the group by others. And it relies on a false or manipulated conception of a group of "us" versus "those".
"What about the ultimate in individual sacrifice, suicide attacks? Military history would have unfolded very differently if this was a readily available tactic, and studies of contemporary suicide terrorists have shown that special circumstances have to be engineered to entice men into it. Scott Atran, Larry Sugiyama, Valerie Hudson, Jessica Stern, and Bradley Thayer have documented that suicide terrorists are generally recruited from the ranks of men with poor reproductive prospects, and they are attracted and egged on by some combination of peer pressure, kinship illusions, material and reputational incentives to blood relatives, and indoctrination into the theory of eternal rewards in an afterlife (the proverbial seventy-two virgins).[19] These manipulations are necessary to overcome a strong inclination not to commit suicide for the benefit of the group."
Then, to conclude, consider Pinker's discussion of how powerful individuals use compensation, coercion and indoctrination in group-against-group competition, which perfectly describes the present political strategy of incentivizing and manipulating groups used by our politicians.
"The historical importance of compensation, coercion, and indoctrination in group-against-group competition should not come as a surprise, because the very idea that group combat selects for individual altruism deserves a closer look. Wilson's dictum that groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals is true only if one classifies slaves, serfs, conscripts, and mercenaries as "altruistic." It's more accurate to say that groups of individuals that are organized beat groups of selfish individuals. And effective organization for group conflict is more likely to consist of more powerful individuals incentivizing and manipulating the rest of their groups than of spontaneous individual self-sacrifice."