Group Selection: Steven Pinker Weighs In

Steven Pinker just fired another salvo at the advocates of group selection in an essay entitled “The False Allure of Group Selection” at the Edge website.  Obviously, the orthodox gene selectionists haven’t taken kindly to E. O. Wilson’s latest bombshell, The Social Conquest of Earth, in which he declared their ideas “archaic” and disproved by the latest mathematical models.  I notice a link to the essay is prominently featured on the masthead of the This View of Life website, edited by arch-group selectionist David Sloan Wilson.  I suspect we won’t have long to wait for a counter-blast.

Both sides claim their opponents are “confused,” and the average lay reader trying to figure out who won the latest round will definitely be confused unless they are willing to put some time and effort into understanding what, exactly, is meant by group selection.  My own impression is that there’s nothing really new in Pinker’s essay, and it’s mainly a restatement of arguments that are already familiar to proponents of both sides.  However, one thing that did catch my eye was his claim that,

And they (group selectionists) have drawn normative moral and political conclusions from these scientific beliefs, such as that we should recognize the wisdom behind conservative values, like religiosity, patriotism, and puritanism, and that we should valorize a communitarian loyalty and sacrifice for the good of the group over an every-man-for-himself individualism.


Many questionable claims are packed into the clustering of inherent virtue, human moral intuitions, group-benefiting self-sacrifice, and the theory of group selection. One is the normative moral theory in which virtue is equated with sacrifices that benefit one’s own group in competition with other groups. If that’s what virtue consisted of, then fascism would be the ultimate virtuous ideology, and a commitment to human rights the ultimate form of selfishness.

While Pinker doesn’t explicitly point the finger at them, I suspect he has E. O. Wilson and Jonathan Haidt, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, whom he mentions later in the essay, in mind here.  In both cases, he’s wrong.  Neither Wilson nor Haidt has advocated a “normative moral theory” based on group selection.  Both have speculated on the possible influence of evolved behavioral traits in the genesis of “conservative values, like religiosity, patriotism, and puritanism,” and Haidt has noted the overwhelming preponderance of liberals in academia and the resulting danger of political groupthink, but neither has jumped the is/ought barrier and actually advocated a moral system based on these values.

In a word, Pinker has created a straw man.  Apparently he feels more comfortable talking down from the moral high ground, but I suspect it only exists in his imagination.  I doubt that anyone with any scientific credibility has seriously advocated any such “normative moral theory.”  If anyone can cite examples, I’d be glad to hear about them.

UPDATE:  Czech physicist Lubos Motl weighs in on his blog, The Reference Frame.  Lubos might not be up to speed on the latest nuances of group selection theory, but he has an interesting (and entertaining) take on global warming and the latest doings in physics.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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