Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Group selection

I have written about group selection before.

The orthodox Darwinian position on group selection is that it does not happen. If an individual makes sacrifices for his group (a collection of people who are not sufficiently closely related), his altruistic genes will suffer and the non-altruistic genes of the group will flourish.

However, researchers like Michael Woodley, Ed Dutton, Bruce Charlton have written about the consequences of group selection and their benefits. For example, Charlton and Dutton in "The Genius Famine" argue that the genius is an example of group selection. Geniuses are anti-social figures whose inventions benefit the group, but not themselves. Geniuses typically do not reproduce. 

This is Bayesian evidence for the existence of group selection. Perhaps the logical argument against group selection is flawed.


  1. Group selection may exist, but I think that if it does it isn’t at the level Dutton suggests. Dutton, so far as I understand—I may have this wrong—thinks that group selection takes place at the level of the national group, and I understand this to be “the nation” as conceived from the 19th century onward. Given that “the nation” has never really been a homogeneous entity—a Cornishman being very different to a Liverpudlian, even now—it seems to me that group selection, if it happens, takes place at the level of families or extended families (tribes).

    It could be argued that the nation is an extended family, but it strikes me that the idea of a homogeneous national family is a late arrival on the scene—a product of a national education system and printing press. I think reading group selection back onto a 19th invention, the nation, is an ideological mistake.

    This is connected to the question of genius via an article by Freeman Dyson. In the article, Dyson mentions that genius is associated with the number of heterogeneous small communities in a country (i.e. having lots of different small villages increases the chance of genius occurring). This gives weight to the idea that the genius is not the product of a homogenous “nation” but rather a process at the family/tribal level and connected with the differences between lots of small communities. The homogeneous “nation” as a national group is a myth, and Dyson highlights the genetic isolation of different villages as the cause of genius (i.e. the very fact that a Cornishman is different to a Liverpudlian, even if they are notionally “English”).

    Further, non-Darwinian thinkers like Spengler and Evola (perhaps Burke also) suggest the family as the base unit for society, with their conceptions of “race” amounting to the family unit (in the way aristocrats used to ask of a stranger, “Is he one of our people?”—meaning of the extended aristocratic clan, not of an invented national identity).

    This points me towards family, tribe, and village as being the important building blocks in terms of biology, genius, and selection. Particularly, think about how historically “the next village over” or the county town was often seen as another world with strange customs and appearances (a different biology).

    (Unfortunately, the Dyson article is now behind a paywall. There’s a summary here: https://nicklouras.wordpress.com/2018/05/10/villages-genetics-genius/).

  2. I would characterise the modern group selection argument as that group selection takes place at what ever level it takes place at. For it to take place, groups have to die out wholesale and be replaced by other groups.

    Dutton does seem to me to believe that group selection has built in to us certain tendencies. For example, a history of group selection has bred into us a tendency to act in a game-theoretically correct way regarding intra-group cooperation. It has bred a tendency for the genius to exist.

    Some kind soul has archived Dyson's 2018 review of "Scale" by Geoffrey West at http://archive.is/mmRJ5

    What Dyson says about small inbred villages starting with a high level of ability producing lots of geniuses is true, but it's not sustainable. If the level of inbreeding is too close, it will soon cause problems. The high average level of ability will not be maintained.

    Of course adding low ability strangers will not help, but assortative mating should prevent this.

  3. “I would characterise the modern group selection argument as that group selection takes place at what ever level it takes place at. For it to take place, groups have to die out wholesale and be replaced by other groups.”

    What is the evidence it takes place at the level of the nation? The nation, as the term seems to be used by Dutton, is a new invention—it seems unlikely to me that this would be the level of selection. The family is, however, very old and established; it seems a more likely candidate.

    I agree with your other points. Taking into account Spandrell’s ideas about large cities as “IQ shredders” and your point about inbreeding then it seems to me that the production of genius requires a balance between larger settlements (genius will only mean something if, like Newton, you are plucked off the family farm to a university town or similar) and genetically isolated villages. Ancient Greece provided this kind of situation, with its city states surrounded by farms. The mountainous geography of Greece means that these communities were quite isolated from each other—perhaps this accounts for that civilisation’s production of genius and extraordinary success.

    Whether or not my comments are low ability contributions to your blog will, doubtless, be subject to Darwinian winnowing. I don’t believe in anything, so in terms of ideological assortative mating (and other types) you’re out of luck.