Pinker explains Group Selection

I found this very satisfying: Steven Pinker summarizes all the problems with group selection. It’s a substantial essay, but if you just want the gist of it, here’s the conclusion.

The idea of Group Selection has a superficial appeal because humans are indisputably adapted to group living and because some groups are indisputably larger, longer-lived, and more influential than others. This makes it easy to conclude that properties of human groups, or properties of the human mind, have been shaped by a process that is akin to natural selection acting on genes. Despite this allure, I have argued that the concept of Group Selection has no useful role to play in psychology or social science. It refers to too many things, most of which are not alternatives to the theory of gene-level selection but loose allusions to the importance of groups in human evolution. And when the concept is made more precise, it is torn by a dilemma. If it is meant to explain the cultural traits of successful groups, it adds nothing to conventional history and makes no precise use of the actual mechanism of natural selection. But if it is meant to explain the psychology of individuals, particularly an inclination for unconditional self-sacrifice to benefit a group of nonrelatives, it is dubious both in theory (since it is hard to see how it could evolve given the built-in advantage of protecting the self and one’s kin) and in practice (since there is no evidence that humans have such a trait).

Group selection is one of those ideas people succumb to all the time…but it’s also a fringe concept that demands really good evidence before anyone should believe it, and no one seems to be able to come up with any.


  1. #1 Luke
    June 19, 2012

    Please be careful here PZ. I love Steven Pinker, the psychologist, and so please note the very important restriction he places on this statement, “I have argued that the concept of Group Selection has no useful role to play in psychology or social science”.

    He does not say, for instance, “Group Selection has no useful role to play in evolutionary biology”.

    The evidence you are looking for to support the significant role of group selection in evolutionary biology can be found in the annals of animal breeding (i.e. quantitative genetics), and particularly in the work of Mike Wade and Bill Muir.

  2. #2 BO_Behold
    June 19, 2012

    Those dependent on tithe takers have limits on the free expression of thought. Harvard is the worst in this regard. The Truth is that evolution in the presence of organized Agriculture is the primary determinant of one’s propensity and ability to serve group interests. Agriculture tied men to their land, their neighbors, and the benefit of group outcomes.

    In contrast, in hunter-gatherer societies, the largest Alpha male inseminated all the females he could catch, and thus strength, rather than organization (Civilization) was the primary determinant of reproductive success.

    This is why NFL defensive linemen’s ancestors (individual bodily strength) predominately evolved in tropical regions and NFL offensive linemen’s ancestors (group coordination) predominately evolved in Northern Europe.

  3. #3 Sascha Vongehr
    June 19, 2012

    Thanks for the link, but I have to very much disagree with your fast endorsement of Pinker’s essay. He seems ever more careless:

  4. #4 Buck Field
    June 19, 2012

    I agree with Sasha.

    Pinker’s arguments seem to have little to do with the claim to which he ostensibly objects: “They have claimed that human morailty, [sic] particularly our willingness to engage in acts of altruism, can be explained as an adaptation to group-against-group competition.”

    Refutation would be an argument that “It is not the case that human morality can be explained this way.”

    Telling accurate accounts of errors and mistakes associated with a theory not invalidate evolution, gravity, or any other model, including group selection theory.

  5. #5 ppnl
    June 19, 2012

    I think it is important to remember that group selection is composed of gene selection at a lower level. The question then isn’t “Is group selection true?” but “Is group selection a useful level of description?”.

    We no doubt have genes for kin selection. It is reasonable to think these genes for valuing our kin also make it easier to live together in larger less related groups. The genes have in a sense been co-opted to a different but related purpose.

    Now as I see it in order to show group selection you have to show that this co-option process was driven by competition between larger and larger groups. Thats a hard task,

    In order to disprove group selection you have to show that there was no genetic change in kin selection genes driven by competition between groups. Also a hard task.

    This seems to put both claims on equal footing. Yet gene selection is unquestionably useful now. Group selection has a hard task to complete before it is shown to be useful. Thats not equal.

  6. #6 Tim Harris
    June 20, 2012

    Thank you for bringing this to my – and others’ – attention. I am no biologist, or scientist at all, but I have grown rather tired of people like E. O. Wilson (for whom I have considerable admiration when he sticks to ants and doesn’t pontificate on human society or write – dreadful – novels), Sloan-Wilson and, latterly, Jonathan Haidt, in his very superficial book on morality, going on about ‘group selection’ and how groups that are single-mindedly bent on aggrandising themselves win out over groups that are not. What strikes me from a cursory look at history is that single-minded groups like, say, the Nazis, Pol Pot and his chums and Al Qaeda are fundamentally destructive not only of others but of themselves, and do not usually last very long.

  7. #7 Michael Turton
    June 20, 2012

    “””t is dubious both in theory (since it is hard to see how it could evolve given the built-in advantage of protecting the self and one’s kin”””

    But…. in the small groups that humans evolved in, bands of H-Gs, probably everyone in the group WERE kin. In that case group selection = kin selection. I think I must read this whole thing.

  8. #8 travc
    June 20, 2012

    Strict group selection is very weak at best… However, cultural evolution is potentially quite powerful and certainly interesting. A lot of the talk/work/interest in group selection is really just a mis-framing of cultural evolution.

    When thinking about cultural evolution, there is a dichotomy of approach which pretty much mirrors the “unit of selection” argument. If one takes a view similar to the “organisms are the unit of selection” (Gould-like), then groups do indeed appear to be the units of cultural evolution. The alternative is a meme based view, which is a lot cleaner but makes many people uncomfortable since memes aren’t physical (or exist in a variety of physical substrates to be more precise.)

  9. #9 Walt
    June 20, 2012

    The reactions to “group selection” are so disproportionate to the outrageousness of the idea (not very outrageous) that I have to think that rejecting group selection is part of the foundation myth of the current generation of biologists, the way “free trade is awesome” is part of the foundation myth of economists, or “Popper was wrong!” is part of the foundation myth of philosophers of science. If you’re inventing special rules to keep it out of bounds, as you do here, then we’re out of the realms of normal science.

  10. #10 Walt
    June 20, 2012

    I guess an alternative explanation is that it’s politics: reading between the lines it’s possible that group selectionists are ginormous dicks, which makes the idea of group selection less palatable than it otherwise would be.

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