The Blank Slate and the Great Group Selection Scam

“Group Selection” has certainly been good for something. Steven Pinker seized on the term to rationalize dropping those who played the greatest role in demolishing the Blank Slate orthodoxy down the memory hole in the fairy tale he served up as the “history” of the affair. His version had the great advantage of sparing the feelings of the academic and professional “experts” in the behavioral sciences, by assuring them that their “science” had been self-correcting after all. In fact, it didn’t self-correct on its own for over half a century. As so often happens, it took outsiders to finally break the Blank Slate spell and extract the behavioral sciences from the swamp they had been floundering in for so long. They included ethologists and behavioral geneticists who were supposed to be confining their attention to animals. Perhaps the greatest of them all was the “mere playwright,” Robert Ardrey, an outsider par excellence. Enter Richard Dawkins, who observed that some of the most important of these dismantlers of the Blank Slate were “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection. No matter that the theme of their work had been the existence and importance of human nature, and not group selection. Pinker seized on Dawkins’ convenient phrase, and declared that they had all been “totally and utterly wrong,” period, without even bothering to mention that Dawkins criticism had been limited to group selection.

It gets worse. It is hardly clear that the very term “group selection” as used by generations of earlier thinkers since Darwin even meant what Dawkins claimed it did. You see, there’s “group selection,” and then there’s “group selection.” The term can mean different things to different people. No doubt a great many thinkers since Darwin would  have been furious to learn that Dawkins had gratuitously foisted his definition on them. Many of them meant nothing of the sort. They certainly included Konrad Lorenz, one of the men specifically called out by Dawkins. Lorenz liked to speak of traits as being “good for the species.” Indeed, there can be little doubt that our hands, with their nice, opposable thumbs, and the eyes that present us with a 3-dimensional view of the world are “good for our species.” That rather obvious observation hardly implies that these handy traits were actually selected at the level of the species. Lorenz never suggested any such thing. Indeed, elsewhere he wrote very clearly that selection takes place at the level of the individual, not at that of the species. In spite of that, Dawkins insisted in putting words in his mouth, and Pinker was only too happy to use Dawkins as his “authority” on the matter.

If you’d like to read a brief but concise account of the use of the term over the years, take a look at Section 1.2.5 (“Group Selection”) in the first volume of Johan van der Dennen’s The Origin of War, which is available free online. As he puts it,

Group selection is one of the most confused and confusing topics in modern evolutionary biology. It is part of an ongoing and sometimes acrimonious, controversy over the “level-of-selection.” the term “group selection” is used in a dazzling number of different meanings. One generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that a trait may evolve for the benefit or the “greater good” of the group or species, but at the expense of the individual gene carrier.

Dawkins wrongly implies that this “strict” version of the definition is the only one around, but that’s hardly the case. Van der Dennen continues,

The other generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that in the course of human evolution, groups have competed with one another – some groups subjugating other groups, some groups absorbing and assimilating other groups, some groups even eliminating other groups altogether – and that these events must have had an impact on the gene pools and (the direction of) human evolution. As applied to the human species, therefore, group selection may be eminently possible, “since one group of humans can consciously organize their altruistic behaviors and wipe out a rival group.” …This latter meaning of the term “group selection” is probably what Darwin envisaged when attempting to explain human morality (which posed a serious problem for his theory).

Darwin suggested a solution to the problem as follows:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

In other words, “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection” was certainly plausible if the traits in question could somehow arise via natural selection. Darwin was puzzled about how these traits could evolve to begin with, given that they imparted only “a slight or no advantage” to individuals. This, of course, is already quite different from Dawkins’ “strict definition,” according to which “group selection” means traits that are only useful to the group, but actually harmful to individuals within the group. As it happens, Sir Arthur Keith, whose work I discussed in my last post, also commonly used “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection.” Indeed, he referred to his “new theory of human evolution,” the subject of a book with that title published in 1948, as “group theory.” Heaven forefend that Pinker should immediately pounce on poor Sir Arthur and declare him “totally and utterly wrong” with the rest.  In fact, like Lorenz, he also made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t using the term in the strict sense implied by Dawkins. But most importantly, he suggested an answer to Darwin’s puzzle. According to Keith, the traits commonly associated with group selection could very definitely be strongly selected at the level of the individual.  In other words, they were not necessarily harmful to the individual at all.

According to Keith, life in small groups in close proximity to each other had a forcing effect on human evolution. In his words, “it favored rapid evolutionary change.” As noted in my last post, he considered our common tendency to perceive others in the context of ingroups and outgroups as key to this effect. In his words,

It will this be seen that I look on the duality of human nature as an essential part of the machinery of human evolution. It is the corner-stone of my mosaic edifice… We may assume, therefore, that in the very earliest stages of man’s evolution, even in his simian stages, “human nature” was already converted into an instrument for securing group isolation.

According to Keith, in the context of isolated, competing groups, the factors which favored the survival of groups were also strongly selected at the level of the individual. As he put it, “Individual and group selection went on hand in hand.” Obviously, he was not using the term “group selection” in the sense suggested by Dawkins. In the following chapters, he discusses many aspects of human morality and human nature and the reasons they would have been strongly selected at the level of the individual in the context of his “group theory.” These included many aspects of human behavior that we can all observe for ourselves, assuming we are not blinded by ideological dogmas, such as the desire to appear morally “good” in the eyes of others in the group, the desire to achieve high status in the group, the desire to appear attractive to the opposite sex, etc. As Keith pointed out, all of these “good” traits would contribute strongly both to the “selection” of the group in competition with other groups, and at the same time would strongly increase the odds that the individual would survive and reproduce within the group.

Darwin and Keith were hardly the only ones to use the “other generic meaning” of group selection. Indeed, use of the term in that sense may be considered the default until V. C. Wynne-Edwards finally showed up in the early 60’s with a version that really does fit the “strict” definition preferred by Dawkins. Whether that version ever actually happened to a significant extent is still the subject of bitter disputes. The point is that use of the term by no means implies acceptance of the “strict” version. It goes without saying that it is also no excuse for rearranging history.

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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