Steve Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist, a great thinker, a popular author, an impressive speaker (I remember one of his talks about the evolutionary explanation of the religion: it was cool), and also one of the few brave Harvard professors who have defended Larry Summers when professional women and professional blacks slammed the former Harvard president for the very suggestion that there may exist group differences.
Now, I want to discuss another scholarly issue that is related to groups: group selection. It's the idea that natural selection applies to groups and societies as well. In particular, societies composed of members who are willing to sacrifice themselves in ways that benefit the society prevail – because of analogous rules as the natural selection that is routinely applied to individuals or genes. In an Edge.org article called
He tries to present the topic in as apolitical a manner as possible (although he hasn't avoided the ideological ramifications of these ideas elsewhere). That's perhaps also why he connects the idea of group selection with the promotion of conservative values. However, I personally think that Pinker realizes that the dominant advocates of group selection in the present world are leftists – people on the left side from him, to be more accurate – such as Sascha Vongehr, a Maoist and trained physicist from whom I learned about Pinker's essay.
Group selection as a theory is something that is designed to support collectivist ideologies and collectivist political regimes. They exist on both sides of the political spectrum; it just seems fair to say that the extreme left-wing ones are much more widespread than their right-wing counterparts today. Nevertheless, Pinker mentions fascism as something that should be the best organization of a society if the group selection theory were right.
Vongehr accuses Pinker of rejecting evolution. That's a very bizarre accusation as you will realize once you will swallow the totally crisp and highly conservative explanations of the evolution paradigm, as communicated by Pinker. Vongehr just likes the idea of evolution that is applied at many levels – multilevel selection – but he doesn't offer any truly rational argument for his sentiment – and he also claims that facts arising from biological research such as a variable mutation rate undermine Pinker's claims. It's not clear to me why Vongehr thinks so (the mutation rate and even its dependence on the parameters of the environment is just another quantity encoded in the genes and is subject to natural selection applied to the genes – the mutation rate in your body isn't controlled by the government, for example); his text is pretty much unintelligible so that's everything I want to say about it.
Back to Pinker.
He begins by a clear universal explanation of the mechanism of natural selection and evolution. Societies and cultures are claimed to compete in similar ways but Pinker says that this is at most a metaphor because societies and groups in general fail to obey three key conditions of the classical evolution theory:
- the number of copies isn't what measures the success; instead, we often talk about one society in its own category and its size, wealth, or longevity etc. matters; the statistical aspect is absent
- mutations aren't random but often planned; natural selection is meant to be a process that selects the preferred mutations while the process of mutation itself didn't anticipate or plan its consequences
- the success affects the group itself rather than its distant descendants
Some sentences betray the postmodern intellectual atmosphere of the environment in which Pinker works (Edward O. Wilson is one of the fellow Harvard authors whose ideas Pinker argues against). For example, the group selection theory is "nice because it is non-reductionist and ecumenical", Pinker reproduces a theme heard in his environment. Needless to say, reductionism is considered by many as a major "villain" that partially drives the group selection advocates to their conclusions. Pinker makes a convincing case that it's the individual (in a species) or the individual gene that is always a player in the game of selection and the society or context may always be treated as a type of an environment.
It's surprising that Vongehr, a trained physicist whom I know from TASI-99 in Colorado (but I don't really remember him well), decided to argue against reductionism but I have already reduced this surprising attitude to Vongehr's Maoism (which brought us another piece of evidence in favor of reductionism).
The self-sacrificing behavior that benefits the group is the ultimate situation in which the classical evolution and group selection offer different predictions. Pinker analyzes some suicidal strategies whose carriers would be quite obviously driven towards extinction; time scales are important in some of them (individuals following these suicidal strategies may die out well before the group could see substantial benefits so the theory with a dominant group selection driver simply doesn't work).
He also says that the correct explanation of some suicidal behavior of bees involves the genes' desire to spread themselves (even if the genes are located in the queen, a different individual from the kamikaze bee). Human altruism may be predominantly explained by the individual desires to spread their broader kin with similar genes (regardless of more noble explanations that are sometimes being offered); so whenever the individual humans aren't the right "unit" that enters natural selection, the more correct unit is actually a smaller one (gene) and not a larger one (society).
At some level, this discussion may be just about the accuracy of effective theories we use to describe the phenomena. Pinker chooses the more microscopic, more reductionist viewpoint, as physicists would naturally do. That's the approach to describe the phenomena most accurately. (If Pinker were fully principled in this reductionist struggle, he would surely continue up to string theory instead of mentioning Lee Smolin's crackpot theory of Cosmic Natural Selection – although the latter didn't really play a role in Pinker's model of the world.) Some other people may prefer more macroscopic, emergent – and therefore less accurate, more social-scientific or humanities-oriented, and more metaphorical – descriptions working with greater, more composite building blocks.
Pinker says that even though the bees' behavior wouldn't be evidence in favor of group selection because it may be explained by the propagation of genes, the humans behave nothing like the bees, anyway. The human trait that group selection theory depends upon doesn't really seem to exist. And when some people do happen to sacrifice themselves – suicide attacks are Pinker's natural ultimate examples of self-sacrifices, of course – they lead to negative consequences for the individuals who do such things and people connected to them. The military history would look very different if suicidal attacks were benefiting the groups.
It's a clever reading which I recommend to you...