Group Level Selection Saudi Style

It is fashionable these days to argue that “religion” is an adaptation that evolved through group level selection. There are mathematical models which show this is possible. Whether these models capture or describe anything real is another story.

For it to work, the group level selection story first requires a kind of systematic and organized “religion” that is historically rather recent. These are the kinds of religions which, through a variety of mechanisms such as intensified morality and supernatural surveillance, enable the formation of groups larger than prototypical hunter-gather bands.

Because these sorts of religions began appearing no more than 5,000 years ago in conjunction with the rise of the earliest city-states, it is reasonable to ask whether the dynamic being described has much to do with evolution, sensu stricto. Group level selectionists tend to conflate biological evolution with cultural change or what they call “cultural evolution.” Some simply jump from one to the other as if there were no differences between organisms and cultures, while others more subtly argue that biology and culture co-evolve.

These group level selection models assume a relatively homogenous and insular group of people who share the same religious beliefs, and that because of these beliefs (along with corollary institutions), the society is stable, competitive, and successful. It sounds good in abstract theory, even if it ignores the messy realities of the historical and human processes by which religions are constructed and contested.

On the surface, Saudi Arabia would appear to be perfect model for group level selectionists. It is an insular society that revolves around a single form of religion: Wahhabist Sunni Islam. The rulers champion religion, the clerics support the rulers, and the people believe. Saudi society, so the story goes, is bound tightly and ethically together by religion.

It’s a great story until one digs deeper and discovers some of the messy realities and variables which group level selectionists always ignore in their models. In this piece on the soon-to-be-without-head Saudi man who had the temerity to tweet about Muhammad, I was reminded of these realities:

While the most vituperative responses to the Hamza Kashgari affair are no doubt rooted in zealous conviction, the reality is that this episode, and particularly the government’s support for the case against him, has little to do with protecting the sanctity of Islam. Rather, the Saudi regime is playing a calculated political game, one that aims to oppress some critics, to outmaneuver others and to bolster its thin claims to religious legitimacy.

Kashgari was hardly a revolutionary, but his views most certainly were. The kingdom’s government is intolerant of free speech, especially anything that challenges political authority. Dissenting religious and political views, including those expressed by Kashgari, are widely shared inside the kingdom. Among the droves of death threats and the cries of angry critics, Kashgari also commands a sympathetic following. Thousands have rallied in his support. And the regime in Riyadh is well aware, particularly in an era of revolutionary upheaval, that a significant number of its subjects bristle against its authority.

The Saudi royal family has long leaned on the country’s senior clerics to stamp its temporal power with the imprimatur of religious legitimacy. But many in the kingdom see through the claim. Pious and agnostic alike consider the royal family corrupt and irreverent. It is commonly held that Riyadh’s assertion of Islamic authority is spurious, a fiction that the government peddles as an excuse to protect its personal fortunes and power. Whether genuine or not, the result has been the empowerment of a class of religious scholars who are committed to protecting their own authority.

It has long been my contention that when we talk about post-Neolithic religions and their effects on societies, evolutionary analyses aren’t very helpful or enlightening. Biocultural co-evolutionary models can neither capture nor describe things like economy, power, politics, cynicism, corruption, and dissent, all of which affect “religion.” Because religion is the key variable in group selection models, this is a problem.

When your primary variable is highly unstable, and can’t even be defined without making unrealistic assumptions about what religion is and how it works, chances are good that your model doesn’t describe anything real.


In this Nature article about Henry Markram’s controversial pitch for a $1 billion brain modeling project, he expresses concerns about modeling similar to those I have about the too tidy models favored by group level selectionists:

At the heart of that approach is Markram’s conviction that a good unifying model has to assimilate data from the bottom up. In his view, modellers should start at the most basic level — he focuses on ion channels because they determine when a neuron fires — and get everything working at one level before proceeding to the next. This requires a lot of educated guesses, but Markram argues that the admittedly huge gaps in knowledge about the brain can be filled with data as experiments are published — the Blue Brain model is updated once a week. The alternative approach, approximating and abstracting away the biological detail, leaves no way to be sure that the model’s behaviour has anything to do with how the brain works, said Markram.

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7 thoughts on “Group Level Selection Saudi Style

  1. Jack Laughlin

    Precisely the problem with Nicholas Wade’s, The Faith Instinct, when he leaps to “Axial Age” religion, yes?

  2. Cris Post author

    I think so. It seems he swallowed the whole group level selection story without giving it much thought, or testing the ideas with actual historical cases.

  3. J. A. LeFevre

    In following the path of fashion, you are missing what they are looking for (just as they are). From the age of empire forward, the trajectory of culture and religion, collectively and independently, has been to maximize inclusion. Sumeria, Persia, Greece and Rome had peoples (and products) flowing in from all corners. Cults and sects springing up like weeds (Ditto for India, China and the US today). Misguided emperors and popes (and the occasional president) tried to stop this from time to time, but without success – culture (and/or barbarians) mowed them all down. Success in empire could probably be measured by inclusiveness (in strict contrast to selection).

    Selection took place far earlier when the Neanderthals, Denisovans, archaic Cro-Magnons et. all went extinct in the face of the (religion enhanced) Modern Humans. Genetic diversity, as you are no doubt aware, is rather limited in the ‘modern’ population vs. the ‘archaic’ – a clear mark of selection.

  4. Cris Post author

    I’m not following any path except for the one that makes it hard for me to understand what empire and inclusiveness have to do with group level selection theory and Saudi Arabia. In other words, I’m not following the point of your first paragraph. Care to elaborate?

    I’m aware of your “religion did it” hypothesis, and always ask the same questions: What kind of “religion” did early modern humans have? What kind of “religion” did Neanderthals have? What kind of “religion” did Denisovans have?

    How do you know that these groups had different kinds of religion? Once you’ve identified the differences in their respective “religions,” can you explain how those differences led to success in one group but not another?

    I suspect that Neanderthals had nearly as much “religion” as moderns. If you want religion to be your deus ex machina for human success in the Paleolithic past, you are going to need something more than a hypothesis and storytelling based on a narrow reading of the record.

    I would also ask you why superior linguistic and technical skills (i.e., enhanced cognition) couldn’t account for all this success, but since I’ve asked you that many times and haven’t gotten an answer, I won’t ask again.

  5. J. A. Le Fevre

    I did email you a discussion of my theory over a month ago, but mine or any theory is secondary to what is really going on.

    You opened your argument with: ‘It is fashionable these days’ following with: ‘For it to work, the group level selection story first requires a kind of systematic and organized “religion” that is historically rather recent.’
    I agree that D.S. Wilson is prominent among current researchers looking into modern religions in support of his ‘group-level selection’ ideas. With M. Rossano, M. Bloom and legions more carrying similar banners, it starts to look downright fashionable. Like you, what I see in their papers looks like culture developing, not biology evolving. They are looking for what appears to be a very subtle phenomenon if it even exists. If you want to find something in a hurry, look for something less subtle, like the genetic restriction of the Upper Paleolithic. I see no evidence that any archaic humans had what archeology or anthropology tag as ‘religion’. Religion, per the standard texts, is confined to ‘Modern Humans’, and I am simply using that as a marking feature. Moderns are credited with several advanced technologies vs. the archaic which is probably why they prevailed, but the post was not about the effects of technology on evolution but religion. The correlation is pretty obvious in the data: Winners had religion, losers did not, losers had greater genetic diversity, many of those gene variants were lost – that’s evolution. Let’s skip the discussion on cause ‘till you read my mail.

  6. Sabio Lantz

    Fantastic post. As always, you introduce me to academic controversies of which I am unaware, and you make me walk away feeling I understand far more than I do — a mark of a great writer. But at least now my antenae will be up for the possible assumption of these group-selection folks.

  7. J. A. Le Fevre

    To expand on the inclusiveness comment, while evolution may occur in microcosms there are few fixed barriers left in the human habitat so it is likely that any ‘gains’ in an isolated community will be quickly overwhelmed by migration as there are larger communities in the wide world. The more successful human communities in the past have trended to empires who like to conquer isolated communities with the result of bringing foreign ‘governors’ in and allowing many more locals to migrate out to the greater empire.

    For the religion angle, different personality types seem to migrate to different sects or religions, suggesting there may be some genetic selection by sect. The more successful states and empires through history have embraced religious diversity, suggesting they would also be more people-friendly to genetic diversity – an anti selection phenomenon. In general, the move to states and empires appears to be anti-selection, which would be anti ‘group selection’ as well. A phenomenon accelerated by human rights awareness.

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