The Germans seem determined to convert their language into an English hybrid, but they do have some good words of their own. One of them is hoffähig. It originally meant someone who was sufficiently noble to appear in a king’s court, and now means persons or ideas that are acceptable in polite company. Given the company it has been keeping lately, one might say that the theory of group selection is finally becoming hoffähig. Following its recent warm embrace by E. O. Wilson in his book, The Social Conquest of Earth, another member of the scientific nobility has now come forward in its defense. This time it’s Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, and an expert on morality and the moral emotions.
In a comment on Steven Pinker’s recent article on group selection with the heading, “To See Group Selection, Look at Groupishness during Intergroup Competition, Not Altruism during Interpersonal Competition,” Haidt managed to avoid stumbling over some of the more obvious landmines that await those who haven’t stayed abreast of recent developments in the field. One such landmine is the notion, espoused by Wilson and his collaborators, Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, that group selection and inclusive fitness theory are somehow antagonistic. In fact, as group selection proponent David Sloan Wilson and others have pointed out, they are actually equivalent frameworks for describing natural selection. Another is the idea that group selection and altruism are somehow joined at the hip. As Haidt puts it,
I think the opposite of selfishness in evolutionary terms should not always be altruism. For the purposes of the present debate, it should be groupishness. The hand of group-level selection is most clearly seen, I believe, when we look at behaviors that may be costly for the individual, but that don’t transfer that cost as a benefit to a specific other group member (which would help the selfish individualists prosper in a multi-level analysis). Rather, mental mechanisms that encourage individuals to do things that help their team succeed, despite some cost to the self, are the most likely candidates for having come down to us by a path in which group-selection played a part.
In fact, the obsession with associating altruism with group selection is remarkable in view of the many other behavioral traits associated with groups. For example, group competition in general and ingroup-outgroup behavior, or what Robert Ardrey called the Amity/Enmity Complex, in particular, receive comparatively scant attention. The pervasiveness of warfare throughout our history cannot really be explained without reference to these traits. That is, perhaps, the reason for the lack of interest. In the heyday of the Blank Slate, the obsession was with “aggression” instead of altruism. Rather than admit that anything so ideologically unpalatable might be associated with innate behavioral traits, orthodox experts in human behavior preferred to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that there was no such thing as human nature. That pretense has now become untenable, but similar ideological reasons still exist for focusing on the “good” aspects of human nature, and ignoring the “bad.” Now we are told that “altruism” can be dialed up full blast, until all of us finally see every single one of our fellow human beings as belonging to our own “ingroup.” This notion is almost as fantastic as the old obsession with the Blank Slate, and Haidt is having none of it. Again, in his words,
If you want to see fish, look in the water, where fish are most likely to be found. If you want to see evidence of group selection, look at small groups in competition, which is where group-selected traits are most likely to be found… If you look beyond altruism among strangers and you examine instead the psychological traits that motivate and enable cohesion, trust, and effective coordination during times of intergroup competition, then at least you’re looking in the right pond, and I see fish.
Perhaps Haidt has sharper vision than I. I’m not sure I see fish, but I can certainly imagine them. My vision might improve if some of the evolutionary biologists’ “sophisticated” mathematical models really were sophisticated. I’m a computational physicist, and compared to a modern fluid dynamics or radiation transport code, their models seem hopelessly crude to me. To mimic nature, you need models that approach nature as closely as possible. In physics we refer to them as “full physics codes.” Show me a model of group selection that can bear comparison with a 3D implicit Monte Carlo radiation transport code. Then my eyes will get a whole lot better.