Tag: Evolution

The False Allure of Group Selection.

From Steven Pinker’s edge.org article The False Allure of Group Selection.

Pinker argues that the more carefully you think about group selection, the less sense it makes, and the more poorly it fits the facts of human psychology and history.

Human Psychology and Bees?

So for the time being we can ask, is human psychology really similar to the psychology of bees? When a bee suicidally stings an invader, presumably she does so as a primary motive, as natural as feeding on nectar or seeking a comfortable temperature. But do humans instinctively volunteer to blow themselves up or advance into machine-gun fire, as they would if they had been selected with group-beneficial adaptations? My reading of the study of cooperation by psychologists and anthropologists, and of the study of group competition by historians and political scientists, suggest that in fact human are nothing like bees.

The huge literature on the evolution of cooperation in humans has done quite well by applying the two gene-level explanations for altruism from evolutionary biology, nepotism and reciprocity, each with a few twists entailed by the complexity of human cognition.

Nepotistic altruism in humans consists of feelings of warmth, solidarity, and tolerance toward those who are likely to be one’s kin. It evolved because any genes that encouraged such feelings toward genetic relatives would be benefiting copies of themselves inside those relatives. (This does not, contrary to a common understanding, mean that people love their relatives because of an unconscious desire to perpetuate their genes.) A vast amount of human altruism can be explained in this way. Compared to the way people treat nonrelatives, they are far more likely to feed their relatives, nurture them, do them favors, live near them, take risks to protect them, avoid hurting them, back away from fights with them, donate organs to them, and leave them inheritances.[5]

The cognitive twist is that the recognition of kin among humans depends on environmental cues that other humans can manipulate.[6] Thus people are also altruistic toward their adoptive relatives, and toward a variety of fictive kin such as brothers in arms, fraternities and sororities, occupational and religious brotherhoods, crime families, fatherlands, and mother countries. These faux-families may be created by metaphors, simulacra of family experiences, myths of common descent or common flesh, and other illusions of kinship. None of this wasteful ritualizing and mythologizing would be necessary if “the group” were an elementary cognitive intuition which triggered instinctive loyalty. Instead that loyalty is instinctively triggered by those with whom we are likely to share genes, and extended to others through various manipulations.

The other classic form of altruism is reciprocity: initiating and maintaining relationships in which two agents trade favors, each benefiting the other as long as each protects himself from being exploited. Once again, a vast amount of human cooperation is elegantly explained by this theory.[7] People are “nice,” both in the everyday sense and the technical sense from game theory, in that they willingly confer a large benefit to a stranger at a small cost to themselves, because that has some probability of initiating a mutually beneficial long-term relationship. (It’s a common misunderstanding that reciprocal altruists never help anyone unless they are soliciting or returning a favor; the theory in fact predicts that they will sympathize with the needy.) People recognize other individuals and remember how they have treated and been treated by them. They feel gratitude to those who have helped them, anger to those who have exploited them, and contrition to those whom they have exploited if they depend on them for future cooperation.

One cognitive twist on this formula is that humans are language-using creatures who need not discriminate reciprocators from exploiters only by direct personal experience, but can also ask around and find out their reputation for reciprocating with or exploiting others. This in turn creates incentives to establish and exaggerate one’s reputation (a feature of human psychology that has been extensively documented by social psychologists), and to attempt to see through such exaggerations in others.[8] And one way to credibly establish one’s reputation as an altruist in the probing eyes of skeptics to be an altruist, that is, to commit oneself to altruism (and, indirectly, its potential returns in the long run, at the expense of personal sacrifices in the short run).[9] A third twist is that reciprocity, like nepotism, is driven not by infallible knowledge but by probabilistic cues. This means that people may extend favors to other people with whom they will never in fact interact with again, as long as the situation is representative of ones in which they may interact with them again.[10] Because of these twists, it’s a fallacy to think that the theory of reciprocal altruism implies that generosity is a sham, and that people are nice to one another only when each one cynically calculates what’s in it for him.

Group selection, in contrast, fails to predict that human altruism should be driven by moralistic emotions and reputation management, since these may benefit of individuals who inflate their reputations relative to their actual contributions and thus subtract from the welfare of the group. Nor is there any reason to believe that ants, bees, or termites have moralistic emotions such as sympathy, anger, and gratitude, or a motive to monitor the reputations of other bees or manage their own reputations. Group welfare would seem to work according to the rule “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Ironically, Wilson himself, before he came out as a group selectionist, rejected the idea that human altruism could be explained by going to the ants, and delivered this verdict on the Marxist maxim: “Wonderful theory; wrong species.” Haidt, too, until recently was content to explain the moral emotions with standard theories of nepotistic and reciprocal altruism.


People punish those that are most likely to exploit them, choose to interact with partners who are least likely to free-ride, and cooperate and punish more, and free-ride less, when their reputations are on the line.

Tribal Warfare

In tribal warfare among non-state societies, men do not regularly take on high lethal risks for the good of the group. Their pitched battles are noisy spectacles with few casualties, while the real combat is done in sneaky raids and ambushes in which the attackers assume the minimum risks to themselves.[14] When attacks do involve lethal risks, men are apt to desert, stay in the rear, and find excuses to avoid fighting, unless they are mercilessly shamed or physically punished for such cowardice.

Early Empires

What about early states? States and empires are the epitome of large-scale coordinated behavior and are often touted as examples of naturally selected groups. Yet the first complex states depended not on spontaneous cooperation but on brutal coercion. They regularly engaged in slavery, human sacrifice, sadistic punishments for victimless crimes, despotic leadership in which kings and emperors could kill with impunity, and the accumulation of large harems, with the mathematically necessity that large number of men were deprived of wives and families.

Nor has competition among modern states been an impetus for altruistic cooperation. Until the Military Revolution of the 16th century, European states tended to fill their armies with marauding thugs, pardoned criminals, and paid mercenaries, while Islamic states often had military slave castes.[17] The historically recent phenomenon of standing national armies was made possible by the ability of increasingly bureaucratized governments to impose conscription, indoctrination, and brutal discipline on their powerless young men. Even in historical instances in which men enthusiastically volunteered for military service (as they did in World War I), they were usually victims of positive illusions which led them to expect a quick victory and a low risk of dying in combat.[18] Once the illusion of quick victory was shattered, the soldiers were ordered into battle by callous commanders and goaded on by “file closers” (soldiers ordered to shoot any comrade who failed to advance) and by the threat of execution for desertion, carried out by the thousands. In no way did they act like soldier ants, willingly marching off to doom for the benefit of the group.

To be sure, the annals of war contain tales of true heroism—the proverbial soldier falling on the live grenade to save his brothers in arms. But note the metaphor. Studies of the mindset of soldierly duty shows that the psychology is one of fictive kinship and reciprocal obligation within a small coalition of individual men, far more than loyalty to the superordinate group they are nominally fighting for. The writer William Manchester, reminiscing about his service as a Marine in World War II, wrote of his platoonmates, “Those men on the line were my family, my home. … They had never let me down, and I couldn’t do it to them. . . . Men, I now knew, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory of any other abstraction. They fight for one another.”

What about the ultimate in individual sacrifice, suicide attacks? Military history would have unfolded very differently if this was a readily available tactic, and studies of contemporary suicide terrorists have shown that special circumstances have to be engineered to entice men into it. Scott Atran, Larry Sugiyama, Valerie Hudson, Jessica Stern, and Bradley Thayer have documented that suicide terrorists are generally recruited from the ranks of men with poor reproductive prospects, and they are attracted and egged on by some combination of peer pressure, kinship illusions, material and reputational incentives to blood relatives, and indoctrination into the theory of eternal rewards in an afterlife (the proverbial seventy-two virgins).[19] These manipulations are necessary to overcome a strong inclination not to commit suicide for the benefit of the group.

The historical importance of compensation, coercion, and indoctrination in group-against-group competition should not come as a surprise, because the very idea that group combat selects for individual altruism deserves a closer look. Wilson’s dictum that groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals is true only if one classifies slaves, serfs, conscripts, and mercenaries as “altruistic.” It’s more accurate to say that groups of individuals that are organized beat groups of selfish individuals. And effective organization for group conflict is more likely to consist of more powerful individuals incentivizing and manipulating the rest of their groups than of spontaneous individual self-sacrifice.

The Argument

Now, no one “owns” the concept of natural selection, nor can anyone police the use of the term. But its explanatory power, it seems to me, is so distinctive and important that it should not be diluted by metaphorical, poetic, fuzzy, or allusive extensions that only serve to obscure how profound the genuine version of the mechanism really is.

Still curious? Read E.O. Wilson’s NYTimes article supporting multilevel selection. Also, check out some comments by Richard Dawkins and his take.

The Peter Principle

Laurence J. Peter and James Hull defined The Peter Principle: “In a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence.”

I think that’s fairly well understood, but what does it look like if we frame it in an evolutionary perspective?

The evolutionary generalization of the principle is less pessimistic in its implications, since evolution lacks the bureaucratic inertia that pushes and maintains people in an unfit position. But what will certainly remain is that systems confronted by evolutionary problems will quickly tackle the easy ones, but tend to get stuck in the difficult ones. The better (more fit, smarter, more competent, more adaptive) a system is, the more quickly it will solve all the easy problems, but the more difficult the problem will be it finally gets stuck in. Getting stuck here does not mean “being unfit”, it just means having reached the limit of one’s competence, and thus having great difficulty advancing further. This explains why even the most complex and adaptive species (such as ourselves, humans) are always still “struggling for survival” in their niches as energetically as are the most primitive organisms such as bacteria. If ever a species would get control over all its evolutionary problems, then the “Red Queen Principle” would make sure that new, more complex problems would arise, so that the species would continue to balance on the border of its domain of incompetence. In conclusion, the generalized Peter principle states that in evolution systems tend to develop up to the limit of their adaptive competence.

The role of error in innovation

The British economist William Stanley Jevons in 1874:

It would be an error to suppose that the great discoverer seizes at once upon the truth, or has any unerring method of divining it. In all probability the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one. Fertility of imagination and abundance of guesses at truth are among the first requisites of discovery; but the erroneous guesses must be many times as numerous as those that prove well founded. The weakest analogies, the most whimsical notions, the most apparently absurd theories, may pass through the teeming brain, and no record remain of more than the hundredth part.

From Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

“The errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one.” This is not merely statistics. It is not that the pioneering thinkers are simply more productive than less “vigorous” ones, generating more ideas overall, both good and bad. Some historical studies of patent records have in fact shown that overall productivity correlates with radial breakthroughs in science and technology, that sheer quantity ultimately leads to quality. But Jevons is making a more subtle case for the role of error in innovation, because error is not simply a phrase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions.

Thomas Khun makes a similar argument for the role of error in Scientific advancement.

And, of course, without error evolution would stagnate. We’d be nothing more than a perfect copy, incapable of adaptation. Luckily, however, DNA—whether in the code itself or in copying mistakes—is susceptible to error so we are always testing new combinations out. “Most of the time,” Johnson writes, “these errors lead to disastrous outcomes, or have no effect whatsoever. But every now and then, a mutation opens up a new wing of the adjacent possible. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not enough to say “to err is human.” Error is what made humans possible in the first place.”

Still curious? Susan Rosenbery found that “stress” dramatically increases the mutation rates of bacteria.

What Competition in Nature Should Teach Us about Markets

“Though the free-market faithful have long preached that competition creates efficiency, as if it were a law of nature, nature itself teaches a different lesson.”

No tree can afford to not compete in the height competition. However, if somehow the trees could arrange a pact of friendship to limit their heights, each tree, and the forest as a whole, could save energy. This is obviously not possible for trees, but if it were, Dawkins concludes, the “Forest of Friendship [would be] more efficient as a forest.”

Systems of self-interested agents, responding only to local incentives, can easily evolve energy-wasting, unfruitful competitions. Dawkins doesn’t make the obvious connection between free-market theory and freely evolved systems, but you should. Once a way of competing is established, it’s very difficult for individuals not to play along. If we let our economies imitate trees, and the majority of nature, in practicing unguided free competition, the results will often be suboptimal, for each and for all. Worse, we will miss the main benefit of being human, which is to use reason to coordinate better outcomes.


The way wasteful competition gets entrenched is a worrying example of an entire class of errors in which what passes for rational decisions can create undesirable outcomes. These include the tragedy of the commons, Prisoner’s Dilemma-type games, and Nash equilibria. Applying a narrowly self-maximizing logic yields suboptimal results for everybody.

Still curious? Try reading The Darwin Economy.

Richard Feynman — Take the World From Another Point of View

In this clip from a documentary film shot in Yorkshire in 1973, physicist and philosopher Richard Feynman (1918-1988) talks with Fred Hoyle, an accomplished astronomer from the United Kingdom.

Feynman poses the question: “What, today, do we not consider part of physics, which may ultimately be part of physics?”

His answer (which should be cued up here at the 7:10 mark) is the initial conditions of the universe, as well as the possibility that the physical laws themselves, evolve with time.

As he explains, there was a time when we considered the properties of substances to be chemistry, but as the quantum mechanical understanding of the atom evolved, we came to discover that this was actually all a part of physics.

In physics, our acceptance of the way things are (i.e. given conditions) without wondering why they’re like that is akin to playing chess without asking where the pieces should be placed before the game even starts.

It’s as though we’re doing a chess game and we’re working on the rules but we’re not worrying about how the pieces are supposed to be set up on the board in the first place. We tell ourselves, that’s not our business, that’s the business of cosmology and how the universe came to be. It’s interesting that in many other sciences, there’s a historical question. Like geology, we ask “How did the earth evolve into its present condition?” In biology, it’s “How did the various species evolve to get to be the way they are?” But the one field that has not admitted any evolutionary question is physics. “Here are the laws!” we say. We don’t even think about how they got that way. We think, well it’s been that way forever, it’s always been that way. It’s always been the same laws. And we try to explain the universe that way. So it might turn out that they’re not the same all the time, and that there is a historical, evolutionary question.


This fascinating conversation between two great minds continues in the follow-up video. Listen on to hear Feynman explain why he’s afraid to speculate about things.

The evolutionary roots of human behaviour

Anthony Gottlieb writing in the New Yorker:

Indeed, the guilty secret of psychology and of behavioral economics is that their experiments and surveys are conducted almost entirely with people from Western, industrialized countries, mostly of college age, and very often students of psychology at colleges in the United States. This is particularly unfortunate for evolutionary psychologists, who are trying to find universal features of our species. American college kids, whatever their charms, are a laughable proxy for Homo sapiens. The relatively few experiments conducted in non-Western cultures suggest that the minds of American students are highly unusual in many respects, including their spatial cognition, responses to optical illusions, styles of reasoning, coöperative behavior, ideas of fairness, and risk-taking strategies. Joseph Henrich and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia concluded recently that U.S. college kids are “one of the worst subpopulations one could study” when it comes to generalizing about human psychology. Their main appeal to evolutionary psychologists is that they’re readily available. Man’s closest relatives are all long extinct; breeding experiments on humans aren’t allowed (they would take far too long, anyway); and the mental life of our ancestors left few fossils.

He concludes:

Barash muses, at the end of his book, on the fact that our minds have a stubborn fondness for simple-sounding explanations that may be false. That’s true enough, and not only at bedtime. It complements a fondness for thinking that one has found the key to everything. Perhaps there’s an evolutionary explanation for such proclivities.

Still curious? Check out Barash’s book, Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature, for yourself.