Saturday, December 7, 2013

109. Sociobiology, Altruism, Morality, Group Selection

A group comprising many individual agents working together can be viewed as a problem-solving system. Each agent may have some degree of autonomy, but may not be aware of the entire picture. This sort of teamwork is seen in many situations; e.g. in human sports and at the workplace, as also in social-insect colonies.

One of the great minds to have studied insect behaviour is E. O. Wilson, the Harvard naturalist. Wilson spent many decades decoding the biochemical communication mechanisms that ants use in order to function as a well-synched group. His discoveries led him to explore behaviour in all social organisms. He coined the word 'sociobiology', which is the study of the evolutionary basis for the behaviour of organisms. Wilson, in his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, took the scientific community by surprise with his assertion that biology also played a key role in human behaviour. At that time it was widely believed that human behaviour was purely culturally determined.

The triumph of Wilson's ideas was in presenting the self-organization view of group behaviour as a common aspect of both bee swarms and humans groups. The concept of the 'superorganism' was developed to express how a large group of non-intelligent agents can function as one highly intelligent entity. These entities can handle and synthesize large quantities of sensory data, and use the data to perform complex computations that are commonly associated with intelligence

Altruism and Natural Selection

Altruism can emerge in a species in spite of the fact that each individual is hard-wired to be selfish. It may appear at first sight that selfish individuals are more likely to survive and propagate their selfish-tendency genes. But if a group or a population as a whole has better survival chances if altruism prevails, than if rank selfishness prevails, altruism can emerge: Even though an altruist individual may not survive because it chooses to make sacrifices for the group, its altruistic genes will still survive in the population because the latter comprises of its brothers and sisters and other relatives. In such a situation, natural selection works in favour of promoting altruism in the gene pool.

In the human context, it should be clear to us that only a kind of collective altruism can ensure our survival as a species.

At what level does natural selection drive biological evolution? Is it all about selfish genes and fertile individuals, or can ‘group selection’ also occur? The group-selection idea involves altruistic behaviour conducive to the survival and propagation of a group as a whole, even at the cost of elimination of some individuals making the sacrifice for the sake of the group. Group selection is still a matter of debate, although it has been debunked by many experts.

Historically speaking, Darwin supported the idea of group selection (Mirsky 2009). He argued that, although moral men may not do better than immoral men at the level of the individual, tribes of moral men would ‘have an immense advantage’ compared to the survival and propagation rate of tribes with no moral scruples. But later opinion in the evolution community did not favour this postulate. The argument advanced was that at the genetic level it has to be ‘every man for himself’. I quote Steven Pinker: 'I am often asked whether I agree with the new group selectionists, and the questioners are always surprised when I say I do not. After all, group selection sounds like a reasonable extension of evolutionary theory and a plausible explanation of the social nature of humans. Also, the group selectionists tend to declare victory, and write as if their theory has already superseded a narrow, reductionist dogma that selection acts only at the level of genes. . . . 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. . . . . Group selection has become a scientific dust bunny, a hairy blob in which anything having to do with "groups" clings to anything having to do with "selection." The problem with scientific dust bunnies is not just that they sow confusion; … the apparent plausibility of one restricted version of "group selection" often bleeds outwards to a motley collection of other, long-discredited versions. The problem is that it also obfuscates evolutionary theory by blurring genes, individuals, and groups as equivalent levels in a hierarchy of selectional units; ... this is not how natural selection, analyzed as a mechanistic process, really works. Most importantly, it has placed blinkers on psychological understanding by seducing many people into simply equating morality and culture with group selection, oblivious to alternatives that are theoretically deeper and empirically more realistic'.

Pinker summarizes his essay as follows: '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'.

Kerry Koyen (2012) has also argued strongly against group selection.

And here is more from Pinker on morality: 'Nor is morality any mystery. Abstract, universal morality (e.g., a Kantian categorical imperative) never evolved in the first place, but took millennia of debate and cultural experience, and doesn’t characterize the vast majority of humanity. More rudimentary moral sentiments that may have evolved – sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt – are stable strategies in cooperation games, and emerge in computer simulations'.