Pinker takes on group selection

I was surprised at the easy run that group selection has recently had in social science circles, so I am pleased to see that Steven Pinker has waded into the fray with an essay in Edge. Pinker’s whole essay is worth a read, but there were a couple of parts of it that I particularly liked.

The first was Pinker’s highlighting that when many social scientists talk of group selection, they are talking of cultural group selection. Pinker writes:

[M]ost of the groupwide traits that group selectionists try to explain are cultural rather than genetic. The trait does not arise from some gene whose effects propagate upward to affect the group as a whole, such as a genetic tendency of individuals to disperse which leads the group to have a widespread geographic distribution, or an ability of individuals to withstand stressful environments which leads the species to survive mass extinction events. Instead, they are traits that are propagated culturally, such as religious beliefs, social norms, and forms of political organization. Modern group selectionists are often explicit that it is cultural traits they are talking about, or even that they are agnostic about whether the traits they are referring to are genetic or cultural.

What all this means is that so-called group selection, as it is invoked by many of its advocates, is not a precise implementation of the theory of natural selection, as it is, say, in genetic algorithms or artificial life simulations.

Cultural group selection is less prone than “biological group selection” to the criticism that migration and gene transfer between groups prevents genetic differentiation from emerging. It may be possible to argue that when someone joins the group, they absorb the culture or that it is the culture of the whole population that matters. However, you then run into Pinker’s broader question of whether the concept of cultural group selection adds anything to “history”.

Another interesting point Pinker makes is that apparently altruistic behaviour may be more a case of manipulation than evidence of a generally selfless inclinations.

What we don’t expect to see is the evolution of an innate tendency among individuals to predictably sacrifice their expected interests for the interests of the group—to cheerfully volunteer to serve as a galley slave, a human shield, or cannon fodder. … What could evolve, instead, is a tendency to manipulate others to become suicide attackers, and more generally, to promulgate norms of morality and self-sacrifice that one intends to apply in full force to everyone in the group but oneself. If one is the unlucky victim of such manipulation or coercion by others, there’s no need to call it altruism and search for an evolutionary explanation, any more than we need to explain the “altruism” of a prey animal who benefits a predator by blundering into its sights.

This manipulation extends into the manner in which we treat non-kin as kin.

The cognitive twist is that the recognition of kin among humans depends on environmental cues that other humans can manipulate. Thus people are also altruistic toward their adoptive relatives, and toward a variety of fictive kin such as brothers in arms, fraternities and sororities, occupational and religious brotherhoods, crime families, fatherlands, and mother countries. These faux-families may be created by metaphors, simulacra of family experiences, myths of common descent or common flesh, and other illusions of kinship.

Pinker makes some other good points, but one element I alluded to above is missing from Pinker’s argument – the critique of group selection on the basis of migration and gene flow between groups. While advocates of group selection in humans often spend much effort on showing how human groups experienced regular conflicts and wars, little is focused on the likely transfer of people between groups through capturing women from the losers in war or through exogamy. It takes little inter-group migration to prevent genetic differentiation between groups. If you were to ask what it would take for me to believe that group selection was a significant force in shaping human traits, it is on this point that you would need to change my mind.

*I make some comments on the responses to Pinker in this later post.


  1. I think the controversy now is about how “inclusive fitness” can sometimes just give the wrong prediction (vs a direct fitness computation), rather than all those semantic points that lack mathematical rigor. I was actually disappointed with Pinker’s essay. He, just like Dawkins, discusses the issue like it’s 1985. As if nothing has changed since then, and as if the question about “the levels of selection” is the same that was debunked by Williams, Maynard-Smith and others. I think the question has changed, and they should inform themselves and take into account the mathematical arguments that have emerged over the last couple of decades. That is the only way to real progress.

  2. Modern group selection and kin selection frameworks are mathematically equivalent. If kin selection affects humans (which it obviously does) so should group selection. The equivalence has long been noted, many papers testify to it and most group selection advocates have embraced it.

    1. Most group selection advocates of the type Pinker targets aren’t simply stating that there is a modern use of group selection that is equivalent to inclusive fitness. Their claim is that most of the selection happens at the level of the group and in particular, that most of the selection occurs at the level of tribe/clan. Although they often claim equivalence, their claim is stronger than simply the existence of accounting equivalence.

Comments welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s