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 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.
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?