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Group selection?

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Many advocates of explanation through evolution accept the possibility of group selection: that groups (societies, cultures, clans) at least partly end up the way they do because evolutionary forces operate upon them, just as those forces operate upon individuals. Steven Pinker disputes that idea here, in a thoughtful article, with a very clear account of the mechanism of evolution. Here’s his concluding summary:

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).

None of this prevents us from seeking to understand the evolution of social and moral intuitions, nor the dynamics of populations and networks which turn individual psychology into large-scale societal and historical phenomena. It’s just that the notion of “group selection” is far more likely to confuse than to enlighten—especially as we try to understand the ideas and institutions that human cognition has devised to make up for the shortcomings of our evolved adaptations to group living.

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