Group Selection Plays the “Virtue” Card

I know, I’ve been a mite heavy on the group selection stuff lately, but I can’t help it. Recent developments touched off by the publication of E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth are, to coin a term, “fascinating,” if you know the history of the theory and the controversy surrounding it. The latest plot twist is the appearance of an article by group selection proponent Martin Nowak entitled “Why We Help,” as the cover story in the latest edition of Scientific American. Nowak was co-author with Wilson and Corina Tarnita of a hard-core group selection paper entitled The Evolution of Eusociality that appeared in Nature in August 2010. I say “hard-core” because the paper included a section announcing the “fall of inclusive fitness theory,” a claim alluded to by Wilson in his book as if it were an accomplished fact. This drew immediate counter-blasts from inclusive fitness theorists such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Jerry Coyne. Now, perhaps all unbeknownst to themselves, the group selectionists have played the “virtue” card.

Scientific American, as it happens, should have been renamed Politically Correct American long ago. Its editors are relentless promoters of the “progressive” version of the Good. Enter Martin Nowak, with an article about the evolution of cooperation, a progressive Good if ever there was one. To make sure its readers get the point, SA added the following blurb on the cover: “The Evolution of Cooperation; Competition is not the only force that shaped life on earth.” Competition is, of course, anathema to all right thinkers on the left. The Dawkins/Pinker faction, on the other hand, has stressed the notion of the “selfish” gene, which they associate with innate “selfish” human behaviors. If history is any guide, they are treading on thin ice. In the past, Scientific American has responded to such deviations from the “correct” line with thinly veiled hints that their authors are “conservative,” or even, heaven forefend, fascist!

Group selectionists have long had the virtue card up their sleeves. For example, Mark Borrello cites saintly anarchist godfather Peter Kropotkin (fondly referred to by Lenin as “that old fool Kropotkin”) as an early advocate of the idea in his book, Evolutionary Restraints:

Kropotkin argued (in a series of articles published between 1905 and 1919, ed.) that in the course of the struggle against the environment, species were more apt to practice mutual aid, and that cooperative species would increase in numbers and outlast their individualistic rivals. In this scenario, natural selection ceases to be “a selection of haphazard variations, but becomes a physiological selection of those individuals, societies and groups which are best capable of meeting the new requirements by new adaptations of their tissues, organs and habits. It operates largely as a selection of groups of individuals, modified all at once, more or less, in a given direction.

Of course, Kropotkin was a political ideologue, and political ideologues have a habit of construing “reality” to favor whatever flavor of utopia they happen to prefer. I’m not aware of the political proclivities of Nowak, and have no evidence that his theories are tainted by ideology. However, there are some hints in the article, perhaps reflecting the context (Scientific American) in which he is writing. For example,

As the human population expands and the climate changes, we will need to harness that adaptability and figure out ways to work together to save the planet and its inhabitants.


Policy makers should take note of indirect reciprocity and the importance of information and reputation in keeping defectors in check. And they should exploit the capacity of these factors to make better cooperators of us all in the mother of all public goods games: the seven-billion-person mission to conserve the rapidly dwindling resources of planet Earth.

It is interesting that Nowak is very reserved about his advocacy of group selection in the paper. Instead, he cites his background in the mathematics of game theory. Group theory is only mentioned in passing as the last of five mechanisms that may have contributed to the evolution of cooperation. As Nowak puts it,

Last, individuals may perform selfless acts for the greater good, as opposed to abetting a single peer. This fifth means by which cooperation may take root is known as group selection.

No matter, at this point, “Nowak” and “group selection” are virtually synonymous among evolutionary biologists, so they’ll get the drift, although most of them would probably dispute the fact that the acts involved are really “selfless.” Still, “selfless acts for the greater good” hits the right tone for an article in Scientific American.

And so continues the melodramatic career of the theory of group selection. Used by Steven Pinker as a pretext to dismiss the life work of the most effective and influential debunker of the Blank Slate, Robert Ardrey, in a single paragraph as “totally and utterly wrong” in his comical “history” of the Blank Slate, it would seem the theory has now risen from the grave. Pinker had better step lively, or he may soon find himself on the wrong side of the “virtue” line.  There may be poetic justice in science after all.

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.

2 thoughts on “Group Selection Plays the “Virtue” Card”

  1. I see that you are still propagating your mistaken view that Pinker dismissed the life work of Ardrey in the Blank Slate, when as we have previously discussed this was simply a misreading of the paragraph on your part – I suggest you read it again without preconceptions and look at my last reply on that subject, which explains what Pinker was really getting at.

    Re: “The Dawkins/Pinker faction, on the other hand, has stressed the notion of the “selfish” gene, which they associate with innate “selfish” human behaviors.” This is a major misunderstanding of selfish gene theory, if a popular one: One might call it “The Midgely delusion” after the blank incomprehension of her response to Dawkin’s book. The “Selfish Gene” is in fact largely about altruism in individuals and is asking the question: How can cooperative behaviour between individuals arise, given that at the level of genes it’s all about competition between alleles. The beautiful answer is that cooperation in individuals, the products of genes, arises naturally, because genes that enhance cooperation survive preferentially over their alleles. How that happens is explained rather well by Dawkins, but only for those that get to understand the distinction between the levels of individual behaviour and gene selection – and for many this has been a leap of comprehension that they have not been able to make, however often it gets explained to them.

    In general it’s pretty damaging to keep spreading around the same old misconceptions about evolutionary theory and human nature that were fully clear to everyone in the field by the end of the 20th century.

  2. I’m content to let readers look at your comments and my replies and make up their own minds, Roq. I have no intention of getting into an infinite loop of comment and reply with you on the subject.

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