Contra Group Level Selection — George Williams (RIP)

As Nicholas Wade reports, the prominent evolutionary theorist George Williams recently died.  It is somehow fitting that Wade, who tells group level selection stories about the evolution of religion in his book The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures, should write Williams’ obituary.  Although Williams’ interests were broad, he is best known for concluding that natural selection operates primarily (if not exclusively) on genes rather than groups or species.  As Wade notes:

Dr. Williams played a leading role in establishing the now-prevailing, though not unanimous, view among evolutionary biologists that natural selection works at the level of the gene and the individual and not for the benefit of the group or species.

Dr. Williams laid out his ideas in 1966 in his book “Adaptation and Natural Selection.” In it, he seized on and clarified an issue at the heart of evolutionary theory: whether natural selection works by favoring the survival of elements as small as a single gene or its components, or by favoring those as large as a whole species.

He did not rule out the possibility that selection could work at many levels. But he concluded that in practice this almost never happens, and that selection should be understood as acting at the level of the individual gene.

Although Williams’ ideas were accepted by most evolutionary theorists, they gained much broader exposure with the publication of Richard Dawkins’ 1976 classic, The Selfish Gene.  Not everyone agreed with the Williams-Dawkins view of gene level selection, the late Stephen Jay Gould and David Sloan Wilson foremost among them.  As Wade notes in his obituary, Williams and Sloan Wilson sparred professionally but were good friends; Sloan Wilson has posted an RIP for Williams over at his blog.

While Wade is a popularizer of the idea that religion evolved through group level selection, Sloan Wilson is the professional proponent of this idea.  In Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society, Sloan Wilson states his theoretical case for group level selection and argues that religion is an adaptation which evolved to promote prosociality and morality.  The primary problem with the stories told by Sloan Wilson, Nicholas Wade, and their imaginative compatriot Matt Rossano is they are anchored in historically known and modern religions.

Why is this a problem?  Because historically known and modern religions — those which arose in tandem with agriculture and larger scale societies over the last 7,000 years —  are fundamentally different from pre-Holocene or pre-Neolithic supernaturalisms.  We cannot simply project the structures, systems, concerns or workings of these religions backwards into the Paleolithic.  As I have noted in several posts, those who do so commit both logical and historical error.

Indeed, I contend it is a mistake to even use the term or category of “religion” to describe supernatural beliefs before the rise of larger scale agricultural societies in Mesopotamia and Egypt.  In this sense, “religion” is a modern construct that does not appear on the historical stage until fairly recently.  It is this fact which previously caused me to ask: Where Are the “Groups” Essential to Group Level Selection and the Origins of Religion?

The short answer is that the groups about which Sloan Wilson and others speak are recent cultural formations that did not come together or become larger because people suddenly became more social or moral around 7,000 years ago.  By this time, the forces creating larger and more cohesive groups have little or nothing to do with biological evolution.

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