The political implications of group selection


Jason Collins


March 19, 2012

Group selection advocates often describe how human cooperation could only have evolved through competition between groups. I have wondered how these advocates view modern day group competition, particularly in the form of tribalism and patriotism. Should we continue to engage in group competition to allow cooperation to flourish?

This article by David Sloan Wilson gives one perspective. Some of the more interesting quotes:

Even small groups can become dysfunctional (i.e., fail to “constitute themselves”) if the analogs of patriotism and civic duty are absent. If members of a small group do not perceive themselves as a group with a common purpose with obligations enforceable by punishment, then they will fall apart as surely as a nation. …

[S]mall groups are essential building blocks of large-scale society. We are genetically adapted to function in small groups of individuals who know, like, and trust each other and who hold each other accountable for their actions. Multicellular organisms can’t be healthy unless their cells are healthy, and large-scale human society requires healthy “cells” of small groups responsible for managing their own affairs. …

If we want America to function as an adaptive social entity, we need to adopt it as our group identity, carry out its obligations, and make sure that other Americans do also. In addition, the iron law of multilevel selection states unequivocally that if America pursues its self-interest too narrowly, then its actions will undermine adaptation at larger scales. The truest American patriot works to make America a solid citizen of the global village; nothing less will do.

Despite my ambition to see evolutionary biology incorporated into economic and policy thinking, the last paragraph is a good reminder that, even from the same framework, it is possible to come to vastly different answers.