Steven Pinker Contra Group Selection

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.”


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3 thoughts on “Steven Pinker Contra Group Selection

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our philosophies.
    One comment from Daniel L. Everett (to Pinker) is particularly poignant (paraphrased a bit): What about language? Language serves no function to an individual, only to a group sharing that language. Any gene that supports language helps only groups, requires a group to provide selective pressure, to have evolved.
    You’ve been kicking that horse (of no-culture-in-evolution) down the road for some time, but I doubt it will ever get up to be ridden. Leaving Darwin out of this (he had no clue as to any mechanism for heritability), evolution of living forms requires viable life forms. Any description or model of evolution of man must describe or model viable humans. As recognized in your own writings, man without fire could never have evolved. Men without language could never compete. DNA alone does not define a viable human. Our evolution cannot be isolated from our culture.

  2. Cris Post author

    A couple of things. As you apparently see things, all human adaptations must be group adaptations because humans live in groups. If that’s your view, fine. It’s a fallacy and pretty badly misunderstands phenotypic and individual selection.

    Language can easily evolve under the standard or synthetic neo-Darwinian model, as something that furthers and enables any number of things that needn’t entail groups or the rather stringent conditions required for group selection to operate. Language could evolve in dyadic fashion, and in fact some argue that it did under pressure of mother-child rearing (the “prosody” hypothesis). It could also evolve for other dyadic interactions, including the reciprocal altruism that is characteristic of simple friendship. Language can serve many functions in dyadic or triadic or even kinship units that aren’t what group selectionists envision when they imagine selection on autonomous groups having no or very limited in-migration or out-migration. The mathematical circumstances under which group selection supposedly occurs do not accord with empirical observations of any species groupings in the natural world, other than perhaps eusocial insects which are quite different from humans.

    As for my kicking the horse that won’t ride, my view (“cultures aren’t organisms and they don’t evolve”) is the majority view. Only true systematic believers in evolution as a universal meta-theory believe that stuff. Most of them are biologists and/or geneticists, and they are a minority even within their own disciplines. The only exception I can think of is Dan Dennett, and he should have been a biologist because his philosophy doesn’t amount to much more than dogmatic biology.

    My horse is being ridden; your horse is the odd one out. Culture is an emergent property of human evolution and is more properly dealt with as niche construction, which is a subset of standard theory. Biological evolution simply is not coeval with cultural evolution. Biology participates in culture but doesn’t explain it.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    Difficult questions should not be asked? Only the dishonest ask difficult questions, or those lacking some other integrity? Must reject that – regardless the fears Friedrich may have.

    No question there is much to learn from biology as a focused study, as there is for culture. To understand the human, though, the anthropologist must recognize that the human never could have evolved save with developing culture. I just gotta go with what makes sense, not who’s turf gets trampled.

    And cooing to babies? Just doesn’t make sense either. No one dies ‘cause they weren’t cooing to their babies – but every primate troop that could not articulate died before becoming human. I do not see cooing to babies as having that much clout. (Which is an argument independent of how it may have started).

    I have no good definition for group selection while conceding that it should have one – circumstantial or not, there seems too much evidence supporting to write it off yet. Regardless how many specific group selection arguments should be written off – As Edison suggested: We have simply found a lot of ways that don’t work.

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