Why Do New Atheists Hate Group Selection?

Why Do New Atheists Hate Group Selection?

Richard Dawkins’ best-known scientific achievement is popularizing the theory of gene-level selection in his book The Selfish Gene. Gene-level selection stands apart from both traditional individual-level selection and group-level selection as an explanation for human cooperation. Steven Pinker, similarly, wrote a long article on the “false allure” of group selection and is an outspoken critic of the idea.

Dawkins and Pinker are also both New Atheists, whose characteristic feature is not only a disbelief in religious claims, but an intense hostility to religion in general. Dawkins is even better known for his popular books with titles like The God Delusion, and Pinker is a board member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

By contrast, David Sloan Wilson, a proponent of group selection but also an atheist, is much more conciliatory to the idea of religion: even if its factual claims are false, the institution is probably adaptive and beneficial.

Unrelated as these two questions might seem – the arcane scientific dispute on the validity of group selection, and one’s feelings toward religion – the two actually bear very strongly on one another in practice.

The Selection Issue

The issue of gene-level versus multi-level selection is mostly relevant to the question of the evolution of altruism and cooperation. The usual evolutionary story runs in terms of individual selection. Fit individuals survive and reproduce; unfit individuals don’t. The problem with explaining human society this way is that there’s always someone who can do better for himself (i.e. become more fit) by failing to hold up his end of the social bargain. When individual selection is operative, the sociopath always outcompetes the social creature. So individual selection can’t explain altruism or human society, and it’s why I’ve argued before that they’re remarkable and unlikely.

Gene selection and group selection are both efforts to explain the emergence of altruism and sociality in light of this problem. Gene selection emphasizes kin altruism: a gene encoding self-sacrificing behavior can survive if it makes copies in other individuals more likely to survive. Such genes can live “vicariously” through their copies in other individuals.

This is a perfectly fine explanation for beehives and breast feeding, where the altruist is assured of a high degree of relatedness to her beneficiary. But it’s more dubious as an explanation for human cooperation, which has always had an important element of non-kin cooperation. Group selection aims to fill this gap. By suppressing individuals who would defect and benefit themselves at the expense of the group, this group can become in essence a “superorganism” and a unit of selection of its own with respect to certain traits. Cooperative groups, those most effective at extirpating internal defectors, are also more effective at vanquishing external competitors. Kin altruism is a sufficient condition for large-scale cooperation (e.g. multicellular life, as Dawkins discusses in his book), and possibly necessary to get the ball rolling on non-kin altruism, which is why Wilson prefers the term “multi-level” selection over “group” selection. But, as human society seems to show, it is not a necessary condition.

So What Does This Have To Do With Religion?

Gene selectionists, obviously, deny that there’s anything left for group selection to explain. In order to do so, however, they have to resort to a bizarre notion of human behavior – a notion that, however, makes perfect sense in a New Atheist frame. In his essay on group selection, Pinker makes this revealing statement:

Thus we have a nice set of competing empirical predictions for any examples of group-benefiting self-sacrifice we do observe in humans. If humans were selected to benefit their groups at the expense of themselves, then self-sacrificial acts should be deliberate, spontaneous, and uncompensated, just like other adaptations such as libido, a sweet tooth, or parental love. But if humans were selected to benefit themselves and their kin in the context of group living (perhaps, but not necessarily, by also benefiting their groups), then any guaranteed self-sacrifice should be a product of manipulation by others, such as enslavement, conscription, external incentives, or psychological manipulation.

To anyone else, this sounds like a very strong argument for group selection! Obviously self-sacrifice is not and cannot be unlimited, but to at least some extent, it is “deliberate, spontaneous, and uncompensated”, and the cognitive science bears this out. Even if self-sacrifice were solely the result of manipulation, the human psyche’s systematic vulnerability to this specific sort of manipulation would still have to be explained, which brings us right back to deliberate, spontaneous, and uncompensated self-sacrifice for non-kin.

Why would Pinker argue that human self-sacrifice isn’t genuine, contrary to introspection, everyday experience, and the consensus in cognitive science?

To admit group selection, for Pinker, is to admit the genuineness of human altruism. Barring some very strange argument, to admit the genuineness of human altruism is to admit the adaptiveness of genuine altruism and broad self-sacrifice. And to admit the adaptiveness of broad self-sacrifice is to admit the adaptiveness of those human institutions that coordinate and reinforce it – namely, religion!

By denying the conceptual validity of anything but gene-level selection, therefore, Pinker and Dawkins are able to brush aside the evidence on religion’s enabling role in the emergence of large-scale human cooperation, and conceive of it as merely the manipulation of the masses by a disingenuous and power-hungry elite – or, worse, a memetic virus that spreads itself to the detriment of its practicing hosts.

In this sense, the New Atheist’s fundamental axiom is irrepressibly religious: what is true must be useful, and what is false cannot be useful. But why should anyone familiar with evolutionary theory think this is the case?


Atheism, Biology, Cooperation, Evolution, Religion, Science, David Sloane Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker


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  • 1


    Feb 09, 2017 at 22:49 | Reply

    Interesting perspective! I’ve read a few books of Dawkins and Pinker – I personally didn’t get the impression of motivated reason behind group selection, though it certainly could be there. As it seems like you understand, the simple point is that Darwin/Wallace evolution by natural selection does not well explain group selection. E.g. If an individual were altruistic and others were not, natural selection would favor the more selfish individual as the other would be less likely to pass on genetic material. Kin altruism (again I think you articulated this) is explainable by natural selection and I think is an important point that throughout most of history encountering other groups of humans was much rarer than today (hunter/gatherer vs agrarian society among other things). I think Dawkins’s metaphor was like a moth going to a flame. It’s a misfiring of a helpful adaptation (toward moon). At least as I read them, it’s more about trying to describe what is, rather than what we’d like it to be. Neither would say they think b/c of lack of group selection, therefore we should govern society where the strong survive and others do not. Just my 2 cents. I do think to some degree it at least seems to me that Dawkins is more likely to see the negative aspects of religion than to articulate the positives, and can be critical of religions to a fault.

  • 2


    Feb 10, 2017 at 13:26 | Reply

    It’s been awhile since I’ve read the Selfish Gene, but I don’t think Dawkins would disagree with much of what you said (maybe the terminology). The fact that gene-level selection predicts altruism where organism-level selection does not is considered a point in its favor. I believe that there was even a pretty stirring speech about how this proves that human values, while shaped by evolution, can also transcend them, or be used for human purposes once the memetic structure is established (it’s been a long while since I’ve read it so I’m probably not doing it justice). The fact that gene-based selection could create something of such value seemed to be for him something like what Scott Alexander referred to more poetically as “Elua” in “Meditations on Moloch,” if you’re familiar with the essay. (If you haven’t, check it out, I think it’d be right up your alley as an example of an atheist unexpected confronted by grace. http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/ )

    In any case, his antipathy to group selection doesn’t come from a hostility to altruism, but, as you allude, to the expectation that it be unlimited. Not *every* sacrifice in favor of the group is going to be evolutionary advantageous. Unrelatedly, it’s also not always going to be morally good – something I think a libertarian would appreciate.

    Lastly, it’s not at all clear to me, and it certainly wouldn’t ha e been clear to Dawkins, that religion coordinates and reinforces altruistic behavior (with more nuance, that measures of religious participation aren’t picking up on a social anomie that does harm those values but that secular institutions not commonly thought of as religious are more effective than religion at if people lack the anomie that prevents them from participating in it). Suffice it to say being the only out of the closet queer in a catholic high school leads me to believe its primary use is the coordination and license of sadism. Whatever the truth of that object-level claim, I’m quite certain Dawkins wouldn’t accept it as a premise, so I doubt he’d worry that group selection would prove religion was evolutionarily advantageous.

    • 3

      Cameron Harwick

      Feb 10, 2017 at 15:08

      On coordinating sadism – punishing norm-violators is altruistic in the sense of bearing a cost for the benefit of the group, and probably more important for maintaining cooperation than “positive” altruism like gift-giving. So I don’t disagree with you; religion was/is probably very important in coordinating punishment strategies.

      Humans are very willing to punish each other for violating norms I wouldn’t hesitate to call bad, so this should definitely not be read as an unqualified endorsement of religion in general as a coordinating institution. Obviously not all ways of organizing cooperation are unambiguously better than non-cooperation, though some surely are. So the question shouldn’t be, “is organized religion good or bad?”, but “which norms are better or worse when given religious sanction?” – and it’s this question which one is better able to answer with a view from multi-level rather than gene-level selection.

      (Btw, I had read Meditations on Moloch before, but I had remembered the existential dread of it and forgotten the optimistic closing. Thanks for pointing that out.)

  • 4


    Feb 15, 2017 at 21:35 | Reply

    Good post. I have sometimes pointed out that “Wishful thinking can never be useful,” is itself a case of wishful thinking. As St. Paul put it, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

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