Over at The Edge, Steven Pinker has posted a long essay on the false allure of group level selection, which is often touted by group selectionists as the explanation for the evolution of religion. In this passage, Pinker identifies the conceptual and conflationary confusion at the heart of such stories:
On top of these differences, most 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. Instead it is a loose metaphor, more like the struggle among kinds of tires or telephones. For this reason the term “group selection” adds little to what we have always called “history.”
Amen brother. In this post on the quixotic quest for a unified meta-theory of selection that encompasses biology and culture, I observed:
When evolutionary theory is applied to culture change, we are dealing in metaphors and analogues. Societies do not evolve; they have histories. The sooner we stop talking about memes and “cultural evolution” the better.
Darwinian monism in the form of gene culture co-evolution has the metaphorical feel of an umbrella hypothesis and reminds me of Nietzsche’s quip: “I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.”