Group selection and the social sciences


Jason Collins


April 27, 2012

The first day of the Consilience Conference has strengthened my feeling that support for group selection is growing in the social sciences. While the slant of speakers such as Edward O. Wilson and Herb Gintis is no surprise, the degree of support among many conference participants that I have spoken to was. The general argument is that the evolution of “altruistic” and cooperative behaviour requires group selection.

Again, the question in my mind is at what point do the evolutionary biologist critics of the group selection approach enter into this evolution of cooperation debate that is happening outside of their field? Social scientists relying on group selection generally do not receive attention from evolutionary biologists as their respective silos do not meet.

On the speakers, Edward O. Wilson’s advocacy of group selection over inclusive fitness in his keynote address was not particularly convincing, and his broader argument did not require the kin selection critique that he offered. A core point to his support of group selection was that individual level selection is responsible for sin, while group selection is responsible for virtue.

Of the arguments for group selection, the sin-virtue dichotomy is one of the weaker ones, and economics provides one of the best responses. Robert Frank responded to Wilson’s point at the end of his own presentation (which largely covered material from The Darwin Economy). He noted the benefits of exchange and the core insight (dating back to Adam Smith) that cooperative behaviour can emerge from self interested individuals. Despite Frank’s advocacy of Darwin as the father of economics, he has not forgotten the importance of Smith.

Further, I am uncomfortable with the sin and virtue dichotomy. The group selection argument relies on “virtuous” behaviour within the group, but for those outside the group, tough luck.

Massimo Pigliucci has offered a thorough summary of the first day’s events (not that I agree with some of his analysis).