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.

And Yet More on Group Selection; Jonathan Haidt Chimes In

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.

E. O. Wilson and his Critics; The Group Selection Brawl Continues

For the sake of his own legacy, E. O. Wilson would have done better not to write his last book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  It was certainly an entertaining read, as all of his books have been, full of the speculations of a mind unfettered by ideological dogmas.  However, as much as I admire Wilson for his bold defense of group selection, and his defiance and indifference to his own reputation in proclaiming what he believes to be the truth, this time he’s gone too far.  That may not be such a bad thing as far as science is concerned.  Wilson’s latest has certainly shaken up any number of complacent minds and set them to thinking.  For Wilson himself, however, the consequences will not be good.  There is simply no sufficient basis for the sweeping claim that “An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.”  The simplistic mathematical models that he claims demonstrate the failure of inclusive fitness theory do nothing of the sort.

The response of the high mightinesses of evolutionary biology to all this has not been particularly helpful.  That of Richard Dawkins is typically self-righteous.  Dawkins is the most Puritanical of atheists, a fact reflected in his review of Wilson’s book in The Prospect.  He could not limit himself to a mere sober appraisal of the evidence for and against group selection.  Wilson, if we are to believe Dawkins, is not only wrong, but evil.  He is guilty of “an act of wanton arrogance” for “going over the heads of experts and appealing directly to a popular audience, as if the professional controversy didn’t exist – as if acceptance of his (tiny) minority view were a done deal.”  An interesting notion, that.  Let’s see, how might we formulate it into a law?  How about, “No scientist shall presume to write for the rabble until his work has been approved by the self-appointed gatekeepers in his field. To avoid confusing their simple minds, nothing controversial shall be set before them.”  That would certainly have silenced upstarts like Darwin, and Blank Slate orthodoxy would still be alive and well.

Of course, Steven Pinker had to put in his two cents worth as well.  After all, his excuse for writing a fanciful “history” of the Blank Slate that ignored the work and legacy of that pseudo-religion’s most effective and brilliant opponents was Dawkins’ assertion that they were “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection, a theory that was in no way central to the thought of any of them.  His essay at, The False Allure of Group Selection, though not explicitly a review of Wilson’s book, was almost certainly inspired by it.  He makes it clear quite early that he really doesn’t understand what advocates of group selection are talking about, writing, for example, “In this essay I’ll concentrate on the sense of “group selection” as a version of natural selection which acts on groups in the same way that it acts on individual organisms, namely, to maximize their inclusive fitness (alternatively, which acts on groups in the same way it acts on genes, namely to increase the number of copies that appear in the next generation; I will treat these formulations as equivalent).”  Unfortunately, no group selectionist I am aware of supports or defends either one of these alternatives.  Pinker’s essay abounds in such straw men.  He continues, “I’ll examine the idea that group selection is a viable explanation of the traits of human groups such as tribes, religions, cultures, and nations.”  Why?  Who, exactly has even proposed such an idea, other than as group selection applies to the individuals in those groups?

Another of Pinker’s more familiar straw men is genetic determinism.  In his words,

If humans were selected to benefit their groups at the expense of themselves, then self-sacrificial acts should be deliberate, spontaneous, and uncompensated, just like other adaptations such as libido, a sweet tooth, or parental love.

Of course, such traits could only exist if group selection were the exclusive mechanism of evolution.  No proponent of group selection that I know of has proposed any such thing.  Wilson is closer to the genuine position of most group selectionists when he writes, “Each of us is inherently complicated.  We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners.”   Pinker’s essay is full of similar digressions about the idiosyncrasies of nation states and the behavior of soldiers in battle, a subject upon which we may safely assume he has no firsthand knowledge.  He would have done better to dispense with all the philosophical flatulence and concentrate on taking issue with what modern group selectionists are actually saying.  I suggest he ask Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, or one of the Wilson’s to help him out with a pithy one or two sentence definition, and take it from there.

There actually are some good reviews out there.  For example, Michael Gazzaniga, author of books such as The Ethical Mind, writes,

At a certain point in their careers, great jazz musicians are almost bound to disappoint their fans. Think of John Coltrane venturing into free jazz in the late 1960s or Miles Davis going electric a few years later. The vision that made them great the first time pushes them into new territory, and the magnitude of their early accomplishments—and the number of admirers they have attracted—makes their public’s sense of betrayal all the more bitter. All they can do is keep playing, undaunted by the dissent.  This reality comes to mind when reading Edward O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth,” a sweeping argument about the biological origins of complex human culture.

Count me in as one of the disappointed fans.  Gazzaniga’s review demonstrates that it’s actually possible to take issue with someone without being abusive or striking self-righteous poses.  Andrew Bourke published an excellent critique of the mathematical models Wilson cites in support of group selection in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.  Click on the link to the right to get the full text.

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.

Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and the Unpersons of Evolutionary Psychology

The history of the behavioral sciences in the 20th century cannot be other than an embarrassment to the current practitioners in the field.  Truth was sacrificed to the ideologically motivated dogma now referred to as the Blank Slate.  This dogma, according to which the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior is insignificant, crippled the advance of scientific understanding in fields such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology for many years.  Eventually, the dogma collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity.  Perhaps because of the innate human nature that they once pretended didn’t exist, today’s crop of experts has lacked the courage to admit how wrong they were for so long.  To admit the truth – that they had been completely wrong about something absolutely fundamental to even a rudimentary understanding of human behavior – would be to sacrifice their academic and professional gravitas.  It would be the equivalent of saying, “Yes, we were complete ninnies for the better part of a century even as we bamboozled the general public into believing we knew what we were talking about, but, trust us, now we’ve got it right.”

As a result, it was necessary to give history a makeover.  A new version of the past was created that glossed over the true scale and significance of the debacle.  The Blank Slate was described as “archaic” science, as if it had happened in the days of Galileo instead of a few short years ago.    New heroes were created as the knights in shining armor who had defeated the Blank Slate dragon, chosen from the ranks of the experts themselves, and suitable to their sense of amour propre.  Their noble deeds supposedly all began with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  This reinvented version of the past has certainly helped propped up the academic gravitas of today’s crop of experts.  Unfortunately, it has also resulted in some collateral damage.  Among other things, it ignores the contributions of those who actually did play the most significant role in the overthrow of the Blank Slate.

There were not a few of them who debunked the Blank Slate long before the appearance of Sociobiology.  One of the more interesting examples was the Austrian ethologist, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  There’s actually an interesting association between him and Robert Ardrey.  It happens that Ardrey, and not E. O. Wilson, actually was the most significant and effective opponent of the Blank Slaters.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Steven Pinker managed to write a whole book entitled The Blank Slate, now accepted as the standard “text” on the subject, that ignored the role of Ardrey and that of Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, in spite of the fact that these two were recognized by the Blank Slaters themselves as their two most influential and effective opponents.  Anyone doubting the fact need only consult the invaluable little historical document Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu.  No matter, the two just didn’t fit in the new “standard version” of history.  Pinker dismissed them with a bare couple of lines, declaring that they had been “totally and utterly wrong.”

As it happens, his “authority” for this assertion, remarkable as it is in view of the fact that the two had been the most effective opponents of a dogma that really was “totally and utterly wrong,” was none other than Richard Dawkins, who asserted as much in The Selfish Gene.  His reason for this rather sweeping assertion was their supposed support of the theory of group selection.  What’s interesting about all this as far as Eibl-Eibesfeldt is concerned is that Dawkins lumped him and Konrad Lorenz together with Ardrey in the same denunciation.  Referring to group selection in The Selfish Gene, he wrote,

These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s On Aggression, Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate.  The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong.  They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works.  They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).

For the record, here’s the bit in Pinker’s The Blank Slate that relies on Dawkins’ “authority” to dismiss the work of Ardrey and Lorenz:

Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved:  Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species.  But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)

Basta!  So much for Ardrey and Lorenz!  To the best of my knowledge, Ardrey never even mention the “hydraulic” theory, and Lorenz only brought it up in one of his later papers.  It was of virtually no significance to his overall contribution to the behavioral sciences.  Dismissing Ardrey and Lorenz because of group selection is like dismissing Einstein because of his remarks on quantum theory.  It completely misses the actual theme of their work, which was their insistence on the significance of innate behavioral traits.  The same is true of Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  He wrote a great deal about group behavior in Love and Hate, but there is little if any basis in the book for the claim that he thought these traits existed as a result of group selection.  If anyone can find a passage to justify such a claim, I would be glad to know about it.

In fact, group selection theory was no more an essential to the work of Eibl-Eibesfeld than it was to that of Lorenz or Ardrey.  Its only real significance as far as they are concerned has been to serve as a red herring to justify relegating their work to the dustbin.  The main theme in the work of all three was their insistence that innate predispositions have a significant influence on human behavior.  Books are currently rolling off the presses in a continuous stream confirming that theme.  In a sane world, the three would be lionized as heroes who stood up against a popular lie in the teeth of a vicious campaign of vilification by the ideologues who promoted that lie.  This is not a sane world.  No matter how great their real significance, those who published before 1975 had “jumped the gun” as far as the new official history is concerned.  It was necessary to drop them down the memory hole.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt jumped the gun.  His Love and Hate, which was probably his most effective critique of the Blank Slate, appeared in 1970.  He wrote the book in part to complement Lorenz’ On Aggression, debunking the notion that Lorenz’s book promoted genetic determinism, e.g., the idea that human behavior is genetically predetermined, and is little influenced by culture or environment.  Indeed, while their opposites, the Blank Slaters, who insisted that human behavior was, for all practical purposes, completely malleable, and influenced little if at all by human nature, certainly existed in great numbers, I doubt that there has ever really been such a thing as a genetic determinist, or at least none with any pretense of scientific respectability.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt himself apparently thought Ardrey was one, writing, for example,

“Cain rules the world.  If anyone doubts it let him read the history of the world.” wrote Leopold Szondi in 1969.  In his view a murderous inclination is inherent in all men and he speaks of a “Cain-tendency,” a drive factor with which we are born.  Robert Ardrey has sketched a similar portrait of mankind.

One can but surmise that he swallowed the disinformation thrown out by Ardrey’s enemies, and, like many of his other critics, never bothered to actually read his work.  If he had, he would have found that nothing was further from the truth.  In fact, Ardrey constantly insisted on the influence of both innate predisposition and culture on human behavior.  The whole point of his work was that there is no such thing as an irresistible “Cain-tendency.”  On the contrary, as he constantly reiterated in every one of his books, he believed that the human predispositions that have contributed to our long history of aggression and violence can be controlled and, perhaps, redirected towards positive ends, but only if we understand them.  At the time that his books appeared, the main threat to acquiring that understanding was the ideology of the Blank Slate.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt was well aware of the quasi-religious nature of that ideology.  For example, from Love and Hate,

Marxists base all their efforts on the assumption that there is no such thing as human nature, in the sense of innate dispositions, and that man is shaped by his social environment alone.  Now there is no doubt that the social environment shapes man to a significant extent – it is in man’s malleability that our hope lies – but innate dispositions are equally demonstrable.  If only these can be taken into consideration then society might be spared a number of fruitless experiments.

In other words, like Ardrey, Eibl-Eibesfeldt did not agree that the best way to solve our problems was to collectively bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the behavioral traits that give rise to them don’t exist.  Elaborating on this theme, he wrote,

Our biological investigation of human behavior has first of all shown that the aggressive drive that is innate in us has its own natural antidotes… Just as medicine developed successfully as an empirical science, so we shall be able to evolve ways to cure the crises of society only from a biological understanding of human behavior… Good or evil?  This disposition toward intolerance and aggression is certainly innate in us, but we carry no mark of Cain upon our brows.  The thesis of man’s killer nature cannot seriously be upheld; on the contrary investigation shows that by nature we are also extremely friendly beings.

Many interesting examples of cross-cultural commonalities in human behavior, many of them derived from the author’s own extensive work in the field, are cited in Love and Hate.  They remind one of the similar examples cited in an earlier work by another famous author.  That author was Charles Darwin, and the book in question was The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  The importance of innate behavioral traits in human beings and their relevance to morality were no secret to Darwin, as anyone who reads his book can see.  Unfortunately, few people have read it, or, for that matter, even heard of it.  Given the troubled history of the field, that should come as no surprise.

More on E. O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth”: Let the Kerfluffles Begin!

Group selection isn’t the only hornet’s nest E. O. Wilson poked a stick into in his latest book. The interstellar travel fans at the Tau Zero Foundation are bound to take exception to this:

The same cosmic myopia exists today a fortiori in the dreams of colonizing other star systems. It is an expecially dangerous delusion if we see emigration into space as a solution to be taken when we have used up this planet.


Another principle that I believe can be justified by scientific evidence so far is that nobody is going to emigrate from this planet, not ever.

In my humble opinion, Wilson is wrong about interstellar travel.  I hereby predict that we will colonize planets in other star systems.  Our survival depends on it, and our species has a strong inclination to survive.  I suspect his opinion is motivated less by a sober assessment of the technological possibility of interstellar travel than by ideological concerns about the environment.  For example,

Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have.  The evidence for climate warming, with industrial pollution as the principle cause, is now overwhelming.

I suspect a certain rather irascible Czech physicist may take exception to that comment.  In any case, while I admit to having a personal preference that the planet not be destroyed, but I would certainly not presume to elevate such idiosyncratic whims to the level of a “moral precept.”  Here, like so many other modern thinkers who should know better, Wilson is treating moral precepts as objective things.  In this case, he is suggesting that not destroying the planet can be legitimized as a “good-in-itself” by virtue of everyone agreeing on it.  Otherwise, his comment becomes pointless.  He probably wouldn’t agree, because he writes elsewhere,

There is a principle to be learned by studying the biological origins of moral reasoning… If such greater understanding amounts to the “moral relativism so fervently despised by the doctrinally righteous, so be it.

I can certainly sympathize with Wilson’s aversion to the doctrinally righteous or, as I would call them, the pathologically pious.  However, virtually in the same breath, he falls back into the same old fallacy, writing,

It is that outside the clearest ethical precepts, such as the condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide, which all will agree should be opposed everywhere without exception, there is a larger gray domain inherently difficult to navigate.

Here we have the familiar “50 billion flies can’t be wrong” justification of the legitimacy of moral precepts.  Wilson’s comment begs the question of what qualitative difference exists between “clear ethical precepts,” and all the rest that lie in the gray area.  If, as he asserts, the origins of moral reasoning are biological or, in a word, evolved, in what way is it at all reasonable to claim that condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide can have an objective existence as ethical precepts at all?  Presumably, the thought that there even was such a thing as “genocide” never occurred to those of our forebears among whom the “biological origins of moral reasoning” evolved.   Wilson’s implicit acceptance of an objective morality is evident elsewhere in the book.  For example,

For scientific as well as for moral reasons, we should learn to promote human biological diversity for its own sake insted of using it to justify prejudice and conflict.

On what, exactly, are we to base the legitimacy of these “moral reasons”?  In what sense was the “promotion of human biological diversity” relevant to the australopithecines?  Wilson has some other comments on the origin of moral precepts that are bound to make the detractors of group selection see red, such as,

An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.

At the risk of committing lèse-majesté, I must admit that I find such sweeping generalizations somewhat over the top.  Turning to less controversial subjects, Wilson mentions the concept of a superorganism in several places, such as,

The queen and her offspring are often called superorganisms…

This circumstance lends credence to the view that the colony can be viewed as an individual organism or, more precisely, an individual superorganism.


In this sense, I have argued, the primitive colony is a superorganism.

It would have been nice if Wilson had mentioned the great South African, Eugene Marais, who first proposed the idea of a superorganism in the context of his studies of termites, in the course of these discussions.  Readers of today will find some remarkably modern insights in books such as The Soul of the White Ant and The Soul of the Ape.  To say Marais was ahead of his time is an understatement.

In any case, I hope all the controversy Wilson’s latest is bound to inspire won’t have the unfortunate effect of toppling him from his exalted state as the “father of evolutionary psychology.”  The field has enough unpersons as it is.  Regardless, some rewriting of textbooks will likely be in order.  For example, in David Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology he refers to the “bulk of the theoretical tools” in Wilson’s Sociobiology as “inclusive fitness theory, parental investment theory, parent-offspring conflict theory, and reciprocal altuism theory.”  Might it not, perhaps, be best, to avoid “confusing” young undergraduates, to just let Wilson’s group selection faux pas pass in silence?  If not, and his head must indeed roll, I hereby nominate Charles Darwin as the new “father of evolutionary psychology.”  At least he will be a safe choice.

The Troubled Past of Evolutionary Psychology, or Why Robert Ardrey Should Not Be an Unperson

I often mention Robert Ardrey on this blog. It’s not because I’m a hero worshipper, although I consider him an exceptionally brilliant man. Rather, I’m disturbed by the marked tendency of scientists and academics in disciplines relevant to his work to ignore him. The reason, I think, has much to do with the fact that Ardrey was right about the central theme of all his work, which was decidedly not the “Killer Ape Theory,” that favorite hobby of his detractors. Rather, that theme was the significant impact of innate, evolved behavioral traits, or “human nature,” on human behavior. He was the most important representative of that point of view at a time when virtually the entire academic and professional community of experts in the behavioral sciences was wrong. For the most part, they promoted the “Blank Slate” orthodoxy of the day, according to which, if human nature exists at all, its effect on or behavior is insignificant. In the meantime, many of them have accepted the truth of many of the central themes of Ardrey’s work, but they have not accepted Ardrey.

Ardrey, after all, was a “mere playwright.”  His sin of being right when all the self-anointed experts were wrong was an unpardonable affront to their dignity. As a result, while many of the books on innate human behavior that have been rolling off the presses lately read like Ardrey retreads, the man himself has become an unperson. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, one of the most remarkable instances of the phenomenon is Steven Pinker’s book on the Blank Slate, entitled, appropriately enough, The Blank Slate. In that book, running to more than 400 pages in my paperback copy, he somehow managed to avoid any mention of Ardrey except for a single sentence, in which he dismissed him as “totally and utterly wrong.”  And the reason?  Because Pinker had it on Richard Dawkins’ authority, as set forth in The Selfish Gene, that Ardrey’s comments on group selection, a topic hardly central to his work in one of his lesser known books, were inaccurate.  Well, as readers of my post on E. O. Wilson’s latest book will have noticed, some very influential scientists are not quite as convinced as Dawkins that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection after all.

Pinker’s omission of Ardrey’s contribution to the demise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy may have been excusable if his role had been insignificant, but it was hardly that.  In fact, Ardrey was the most significant opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday.  As I have pointed out before, that is not just my opinion, but was that of the Blank Slaters themselves.  Some of the most influential of them published a book entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968 and is still available used for a nominal price at Amazon.  The book was a polemic directed mainly against Ardrey, with a few potshots at fellow heretic Konrad Lorenz as well.  In the essay by one of the contributors, Geoffrey Gorer, a noted psychologist of the day, one finds the following:

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking impression.  He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.  His wide readership has been earned, at least in part, by his mastery of the writer’s crafts.

Anyone who doubts the accuracy of Gorer’s remarks need only browse the popular newspapers and magazines of the day, which often carried stories on Ardrey’s work.

Why should anyone be concerned about the suppression of Ardrey today?  It seems to me that, if an entire academic and professional community could have been “totally and utterly wrong” about something as obviously bogus as the Blank Slate, at a time when a “mere playwright” dared to face them down in a series of very popular books and tell them they were wrong, it’s worthwhile knowing the reason why, whether it injures the amour-propre of latter day experts in the behavioral sciences or not.  Unless we know and understand how it is that an entire community of experts could have gone so disastrously off the tracks in support of an orthodoxy that, as Ardrey and a few others were insisting, was palpably false, we are more than likely to see recurrences of the same phenomenon in the future.

I think one can begin to see the reasons in some of the essays in Man and Aggression.  For example, again from Gorer,

His categories and preferences are bound to give comfort and provide ammunition for the Radical Right, for the Birchites and Empire Loyalists and their analogues elsewhere; there is, however, no evidence to show that Ardrey himself holds or advocates any such political views.

from naturalist Sally Carrighar,

Nothing could more effectively prolong man’s fighting behavior that a belief that aggression is in our genes.  An unwelcome cultural inheritance can be eradicated fairly quickly and easily, but the incentive to do it is lacking while people believe that aggression is innate and instinctive with us, as both Ardrey and Lorenz declare.

and from editor Ashley Montagu,

Such ideas were not merely taken to explain, but were actually used to justify, violence and war.

Montagu, in particular, was a veritable font of disinformation.  Some of his best thigh-slappers from the book include,

Mr. Ardrey needs the concept of “open instincts,” of innate factors, to support his theorizing.  But that requirement constitutes the fatal flaw in his theory, the rift in the playwright’s lute, for man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.


The field studies of Schaller on the gorilla, of Goodall on the chimpanzee, of Harrisson on the orang-utan, as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible.  All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human ancestors were in any way different.

It seems to me unwise to assume that today’s scientists are so much smarter, so much more free of ideological bias, and so much more infallible than the contributors to Man and Aggression that they will ever be immune to tomorrow’s incarnation of the Blank Slate, and yet they prefer to sweep the whole affair under the rug, referring to it as “archaic science,” or ignoring it completely.  It is anything but “archaic.”  It is still alive in the dark recesses of many university campuses, although its breathing has become increasingly labored of late, and was still fobbed off as received wisdom in the public media as recently as 15 years ago.  Instead of sweeping the Blank Slate under the rug, a new generation of scientists would do better to learn from it so they don’t repeat the same mistake again, and to insist that their students know the details to insure that they are well aware of the potential impact ideology can have in distorting scientific truth, to the point of deluding and befuddling a whole generation of “experts.”  In particular, evolutionary psychology, the modern incarnation of the ideas Ardrey represented, cannot afford to suppress and distort its past.  It will always need to deal with the contradiction between what we want ourselves to be and what we are.

One could cite many instances of potential conflict on the interface between science and ideology.  The clash between the theory of evolution and religious dogma is a familiar example.  However, the evolution of the brain is an area with the distinction of having potential conflicts with both religious and secular sacred cows.  In the case of the latter, contradictions arise because of the ideologically motivated insistence that all human groups not only be treated equally and have equal standing under the law, but actually are equal, for example, in “intelligence,” or brain function.  The potential such ideas might have for inhibiting free inquiry regarding the evolution of the brain were well reflected in an article that appeared in the New York Times a few years back.

The article, entitled Brain May Still Be Evolving, Studies Hint, discussed the finding by Bruce T. Lahn and his colleagues at the University of Chicago that “two genes involved in determining the size of the human brain have undergone substantial evolution in the last 60,000 years, …leading to the surprising suggestion that the brain is still undergoing rapid evolution.  Here are some extracts from the article:

New versions of the genes, or alleles as geneticists call them, appear to have spread because they enhanced brain function in some way, the report suggests, and they are more common in some populations than others.

 But several experts strongly criticized this aspect of the finding, saying it was far from clear that the new alleles conferred any cognitive advantage or had spread for that reason. Many genes have more than one role in the body, and the new alleles could have been favored for some other reason, these experts said, such as if they increased resistance to disease.

“I do think this kind of study is a harbinger for what might become a rather controversial issue in human population research,” Dr. Lahn said. But he said his data and other such findings “do not necessarily lead to prejudice for or against any particular population.”

A greater degree of concern was expressed by Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Dr. Collins said that even if the alleles were indeed under selection, it was still far from clear why they had risen to high frequency, and that “one should resist strongly the conclusion that it has to do with brain size, because the selection could be operating on any other not yet defined feature.” He said he was worried about the way these papers will be interpreted.

Commenting on critics’ suggestions that the alleles could have spread for reasons other than the effects on the brain, Dr. Lahn said he thought such objections were in part scientifically based and in part because of a reluctance to acknowledge that selection could affect a trait as controversial as brain function.

You get the gist.  Any suggestion that there are differences in brain function between human groups raises immediate ideological hackles.  Scientists who are ignorant of the profound impact ideology has had in the past in distorting and, in some cases, falsifying, scientific results are likely to be blindsided by their critics if their own work happens to impinge on such forbidden zones.  A typical result is mystification at why their work is suddenly being subjected to hostile criticism, amounting to an apparently gross double standard that, strangely enough, doesn’t seem to apply to workers in more benign fields.

Scientists are probably more that usually vulnerable to such attacks because of their tendency to focus exclusively on some narrow specialty.  I suspect the impact would be a great deal less startling if young graduate students in the behavioral sciences in general, and evolutionary psychology in particular, were required to learn at least some rudiments of the history of their field, focusing not on the achievements of star performers, but on phenomena like the Blank Slate that have stifled and misdirected scientific progress in the past, turning whole branches into something more akin to religious sects than scientific disciplines.  The learning process would, of course, be facilitated if some of the most significant events and personalities in that history were no longer ignored.


E. O. Wilson’s Group Selection Bombshell: The Social Conquest of Earth

The Grand Old Man of evolutionary psychology won’t be going out with a whimper.  He just threw down the gauntlet to the “selfish gene” orthodoxy in no uncertain terms.  Here are a couple of excerpts from his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth:

For almost half a century, it has been popular among serious scientists seeking a naturalistic explanation for the origin of humanity, I among them, to invoke kin selection as a key dynamical force of human evolution… Unfortunately for this perception, the foundations of the general theory of inclusive fitness based on the assumptions of kin selection have crumbled, while evidence for it has grown equivocal at best.  The beautiful theory never worked well anyway, and now it has collapsed.

The selfish-gene approach may seem to be entirely reasonable.  In fact, most evolutionary biologists had accepted it as a virtual dogma – at least until 2010.  In that year Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and I demonstrated that inclusive-fitness theory, often called kin selection theory, is both mathematically and biologically incorrect.

Great shades of V. C. Wynne-Edwards!  Group selection has risen from the grave!  Whatever flavor of selection you happen to favor, this is a fascinating story.  First, Richard Dawkins “debunked” Robert Ardrey in The Selfish Gene because he had favorable things to say about group selection in The Social Contract, one of his lesser known books.  For example, quoting from the first chapter of Dawkins’ book,

These are the claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s On Aggression, Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate.  The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong.  They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works.  They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).


This is the theory of “group selection,” long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open in a famous book by V. C. Wynne-Edwards and popularized by Robert Ardrey in The Social Contract.

It would seem Dawkins burnt his bridges at little too soon.  Fast forward to 2002, and Steven Pinker publishes a thick tome about the Blank Slate, the prevailing orthodoxy of the mid-20th century in the behavioral sciences according to which what is referred to as “human nature” in common parlance had, at best, an insignificant effect on human behavior.  In the process he manages the remarkable intellectual feat of avoiding all mention of the most significant opponent of the Blank Slate, Robert Ardrey.  Well, not quite all mention.  He does refer to him once, and then only to dismiss him with a wave of the hand.  And the reason?  Why, he just took Dawkins word for it that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection, even though group selection was hardly the main theme of his work.  Those of you too young to have heard of Ardrey don’t need to take my word for it regarding his significance to the Blank Slate controversy.  It’s all nicely documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in an invaluable little work entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968.  The last time I looked, you could still pick up a used copy at Amazon for less than a buck.  For example, quoting Geoffrey Gorer, one of the contributors and a famous psychologist at the time,

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.

The entire book is a polemic directed mainly at Ardrey.  Unfortunately, Ardrey subsequently became an unperson for being right about the actual theme of all his work, the important role of innate human behavioral traits, at a time when virtually the entire community of academic and professional “experts” in anthropology, sociology and psychology had been wrong.  He had “risen above his station,” because, you see, he was a mere playwright.

Ardrey had committed the unforgivable sin of insulting the gravitas of the academic community.  It was, therefore, necessary to drop him and his works, as Orwell might have put it, down the memory hole.  A new, properly credentialed hero was required to serve as the dragon slayer of the Blank Slate.  The choice by acclamation was none other than E. O. Wilson!  And now, Wilson has come full circle, throwing down the gauntlet to the entire expert community in his turn, over group selection, no less, the sham reason that served as the main pretext for “debunking” Ardrey!  It’s delicious!  This has to be one of the best practical jokes history has ever played on the self-anointed experts of science.

David Sloan Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Group Selection

An interesting skirmish has been going on recently between noted proponent of the theory of group selection David Sloan Wilson and Jerry Coyne, bête noir of the Intelligent Designers.  It started when Wilson posted an article on his website entitled When Richard Dawkins is not an Evolutionist.  It appears that, in Wilson’s opinion, Dawkins wanders from the straight and narrow path of a true evolutionist 1) In his discussion of religion in The God Delusion, and 2) In his opinion of the role of selfish genes in relation to group theory.

Jerry Coyne immediately fired back with a somewhat overwrought rebuttal on his blog.  I won’t go into the details of the controversy here, and, for the record, I agree with Coyne in most of his reply, except for his tendency to “soften” Dawkins’ comments about group selection in The Selfish Gene.  Here’s what Coyne wrote:

Yes, genes are replicators, but no, Dawkins never claimed that their status as selfish replicators somehow rules out group selection. What he claimed, in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, was that successful replicators must share the same vehicle if they are to be successful in the future. Usually that vehicle is the body of an individual organism, which is used by the replicators to propagate themselves. Dawkins’s argument against the efficacy of group selection was that this form of selection is usually unsuccessful because groups are vulnerable to subversion from within by those selfish replicators.

Evidently Coyne didn’t read The Selfish Gene very closely, or he’s been unduly influenced by Dawkins’ recent rowback in the matter of group selection.  Here, Wilson is right.  In fact, Dawkins rejected group selection root and branch.  For example, quoting from the book in the context of a discussion of the importance of selfishness and altruism,

“These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s “On Aggression,” Ardrey’s “The Social Contract,” and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s “Love and Hate.”  The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong.  They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works.  They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).”

It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that the bald statement that the theory of group selection is “totally and utterly wrong” is somehow compatible with forthright acceptance of group selection, albeit in limited circumstances.  If that’s what Dawkins meant to say, he certainly had a roundabout way of doing it.  This particular quote has an interesting history, by the way.  It was used by Steven Pinker in his book, The Blank Slate, to dismiss the entire intellectual legacy of Robert Ardrey root and branch, in a single sentence, even though group selection was never more than a sidelight in his work.  In other words, Pinker was capable of writing a thick tome purporting to be about the Blank Slate while managing to ignore the role of the most significant opponent of Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday in all but a single sentence.  Certainly a virtuoso performance.

And how do I know that Ardrey was the Blank Slate’s most significant opponent?  As readers of my earlier posts are aware, you certainly don’t have to take my word for it.  It’s all nicely documented in an invaluable little book published in 1968 by the Blank Slaters themselves, entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, and still available at Amazon for about a buck.  For example, from an essay in the book by Geoffrey Gorer,

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser or the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.

Of course, today Ardrey, is an unperson, thanks in part, as noted above, to Dawkins’ hard over position on group selection.  After all, Ardrey was a mere playwright, and to admit the crucial role he played would be to offend the academic gravitas of any number of worthy professors emeritus who really had been “totally and utterly wrong” about human nature when Ardrey was right.

But I digress.  Allow me to quote a couple of other passages from “The Selfish Gene” to clear up any remaining doubt about Dawkins’ unequivocal rejection of group selection in that book:

To put it in a slightly more respectable way, a group, such as a species or a population within a species, whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first.  Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals.  This is the theory of ‘group selection’, long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open in a famous book by V. C. Wynne-Edwards, and popularized by Robert Ardrey in the Social Contract.

Not much wiggle room there, either, is there, unless Dawkins meant to inform his readers that he is not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory?  Here’s another remarkable example:

Robert Ardrey, in ‘The Social Contract,’ used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general.  He clearly sees man as a species that has strayed from the path of animal righteousness.  Ardrey at least did his homework.  His decision to disagree with orthodox theory was a conscious one, and for this he deserves credit.

Here I really don’t know what on earth Dawkins was talking about.  He was either deliberately lying, or he never actually read “The Social Contract.”  The idea that Ardrey used that book, “to account for the whole of social order in general” is the purest fantasy.

In a word, anyone who takes the trouble to read The Selfish Gene can see that Coyne is on very thin ice in his attempts to dumb down Dawkins’ position on group selection when he wrote the book.  By all means, check all the references to group selection in the index if you like, but you’ll find it’s not really necessary to read past the first chapter to see that Wilson is entirely justified in claiming that, “A major objective of The Selfish Gene was to argue against a theory known as group selection.”