Evolving altruism

by Chris Bertram on July 24, 2003

Today’s Guardian has a profile of biologist David Sloan Wilson, whose book Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (with philosopher Elliott Sober) defended group selection against Dawkins’s “selfish gene” model. His latest book, Darwin’s Cathedral, is about religion. Functional explanations of the religion do not have a history of success (c.f. E. Durkheim), but Unto Others was impressive enough for this one to be worth a look.



dsquared 07.24.03 at 11:55 am

Factive use watch!

>>Anyone who has read the Selfish Gene will know the canonical history of modern biology starts with the rejection of group selection

Steve Rose would certainly want “will believe” there. Although “canonical history” creates an opaque context, I think that a number of biologists would dispute whether the Dawkins/EO Wilson/Maynard Smith axis gets to define what’s “canonical” and what isn’t.


dsquared 07.24.03 at 11:57 am

Transparently, btw, the post above was just an excuse to use the word “factive”. Gosh it’s a great word. Factive factive factive. I’m practically moved to poetry, except that I can’t think of anything that rhymes with “factive”


James Russell 07.24.03 at 12:02 pm



Jeremy Osner 07.24.03 at 1:24 pm

If you use “fictive” you get both near-rhyme and alliteration…


back40 07.24.03 at 2:39 pm

You might enjoy this paper by Gintis.

This model shows that if an internal norm is fitness enhancing, then for plausible patterns of socialization, the allele for internalization of norms is evolutionarily stable. This framework can be used to model Herbert Simon’s (1990) explanation of altruism, showing that altruistic norms can ‘‘hitchhike’’ on the general tendency of internal norms to be personally fitness-enhancing. A multi-level selection, gene-culture coevolution argument then explains why individually fitness-reducing internal norms are likely to be prosocial as opposed to socially harmful.


Matt Weiner 07.24.03 at 2:42 pm

Bush uttered a factive
claim and a tract of
lies and distortion
without any caution.

(It may be impossible to get both these rhymes to work out in the same dialect of English.)


Matt Weiner 07.24.03 at 3:57 pm

Hmm, all claims are factive–I should say “factive locution.” OK, how about:

Bush uttered a factive
locution, a tract of
lies and distortion,
and nary a caution.

Please take this as pointless showing off rather than a serious assertion.


John Landon 07.24.03 at 4:04 pm

Can Darwinian natural selection really explain an ethical subject, crooked timber or not? E.O. Wilson is at least fanatical in his hatred of Kant. Consider David Stove’s _Darwinian Fairytales_, a hilarious blast at the whole genre, group selection, gene selection.
The evolution of ‘ethical man’ and beyond that of religion requires looking at the historical evidence that contradicts current paradigms, cf. my eonic effect, and/or the Axial data of Jaspers. Why trade history for Darwinian speculation and junk math models from hi-tech nitwits convinced genetics is everything?
As Stove notes, these theories are desperate Ptolemaic defenses of the theory against its principal flaw, inability to explain ethical man (or anything else)!! Such is the age of scientism. Ping blog.transeonix.com. bye.


Dick Thompson 07.24.03 at 4:36 pm

I don’t like the epithet factive
It’s twee and it’s snide and reactive
I reach for my gun
To make the meme run
A culture cop must be proactive.


Keith M Ellis 07.24.03 at 4:52 pm

I’d be inclined to agree with this critique of “Darwinism” if I believed that “ethical man” existed. Alternatively, to the degree that I am willing to accept the existence of “ethical man”, I am only inclined to see his existence in the context of sophisticated human linguistic culture–a recently developing and emergent trait that may rely upon a Darwinian substrate yet be wholly independently organized.

Group selection, outside of a few special cases, while no doubt with a few adherents here and there among qualified scientists, is simply not mainstream evolutionary theory. It’s an anachronistic holdover from the infancy of the science of evolution. It is, mostly, silly.

And as someone who’s studied Ptolemy extensively, I must say that I quite enjoy the irony of invoking his name in an attack on “scientism”, of all things. The apt comparison is the inverse: group selection represents the ptolemaic age of evolutionary theory. The tools and observations are beginning to mature yet they are arrayed around buttressing a somewhat naive core assumption. In the deepest sense, the naive core idea is this Genesis-influenced platonic idea of “species” as the atomic unit of ecology. And just as Ptolemaic astronomy had as its foundation a somewhat sensible yet historically quite mystical notion (the Earth as the center of the universe, the Spheres, etc.), just so does this view of ecology: Man as qualitatively distinct, this distinction being ultimately metaphysical in nature.

Hey, wow, isn’t it weird that the motions of what we now call the “outer planets” are regular with regard to the motion of the Sun? Why in the world would that be? Hey, wow, did you see that tool-using crow? How can that be? Doesn’t that crow know that Man is Tool User and, of course, the Ethical (or Rational) Animal? We’re special.

Modern evolutionary theory starts with George Williams’s critique of group selection, and other things, in “Adapatation and Natural Selection”. For those interested, start there, not with Dawkins. Daniel’s comment notwithstanding, “canonical” is (ultimately) descriptive, not prescriptive. At this time, Williams is canonical, group selection theory is not.


dsquared 07.24.03 at 4:54 pm

I tend to agree with John Landon (though I’m not such a Stove fan). I’ll be interested to see if there’s any interesting explanation of *why* a religion is a great means of creating a sense of community, and why so few other cultural complexes will do.


Cosma 07.24.03 at 6:37 pm

I dunno, I’ve never been very impressed by Wilson (calling kin selection a kind of group selection is not a good sign), and the reviewers at American Scientist were quite underwhelmed by Darwin’s Cathedral. If you want really interesting takes on the evolution of human altruism, you should look at the work of Herb Gintis (mentioned upthread) and his collaborator Sam Bowles. I should say both Gintis and Bowles are professors at the Santa Fe Institute, so I may be just a bit biased in their favor. — And much as I adore Stove as a writer, his book about Darwinism is painfully stupid.


Loren 07.24.03 at 6:52 pm

Since Gintis and Bowles have turned up, I’ll just add two more books to the list of interesting stuff on the general theme: Brian Skyrms, Evolution of the Social Contract (Cambridge 1996), and Ken Binmore, Game Theory and the Social Contract (esp. vol II: Just Playing, both MIT, late 1990s).


ashultz 07.24.03 at 6:54 pm

I thought that “The Meme Machine” did a pretty good job of explaining both altruism and religion in a Darwinist (though not genetic) mode. It didn’t have to resort to using group selection or describing these things as a side effect of other evolution either.

Of course, it uses memes instead, which bother many people a lot. But I found them a much more convincing explaination for both phenomena.


dsquared 07.24.03 at 6:57 pm

In as much as memes exist (a point I emphatically do not concede), surely their evolution is Lamarckian rather than Darwinian?


Chris Bertram 07.24.03 at 6:57 pm

This comments thread is getting way ahead of itself IMHO. John Landon jumps straight from the explanation of unselfish behaviour and altruism to the thought that Wilson and Sober attempt an evolutionary explanation of the ethical. But while it might be necessary for us to be able to act unselfishly if we are to be moral, it is hardly sufficient and many acts which are behaviourally altruistic just stink, morally speaking. (Think of the unselfishness needed if an Al-Qaida team are to co-operate effectively with one another in murdering people.)

Keith M Ellis probably knows more biology than I do. But the issue here is surely not whether most group selectionist models are silly or not, but rather whether the multi-level model advanced by Sober and Wilson is. I hate to argue from authority, but I’m inclined to think that the respect shown to them by E.O. Wilson and Maynard Smith (to name but two) suggests that they may or may not be wrong, but probably aren’t silly.

All those remarks are directed to comments which bear on Unto Others. Daniel is sceptical about DSW’s latest project of explaining religion in evolutionary terms. As it happens, so am I (though I’m more partial to just so stories that other timberites) and that’s why I alluded to the failure of past attempts at the functional explanation of religion. But thinking of those past attempts – and I mentioned Durkheim – they weren’t and aren’t without interest. I’m hopeful that Sloan Wilson’s won’t be either.


Chris Bertram 07.24.03 at 7:10 pm

That review that Cosma points to does sound pretty damning!

Very much endorse the Bowles and Gintis recommendation. In fact I heard Bowles make the point I made about about altruism being a necessary condition for co-operative nastiness in Brussels in Feb. For a symposium where B&G and Wilson appear together see the Boston Review here.


Loren 07.24.03 at 7:29 pm

Chris, Cosma: the Boston Review piece is good, yes. Another decent link for interested readers, that briefly surveys some relevant theory, is J. McKenzie Alexander’s Stanford EP entry on evolutionary game theory @ http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/game-evolutionary/


Shai 07.24.03 at 7:35 pm

I tend to not agree with John, but then he seems to have adopted a writing style more impenetrable than Kant himself. It’s rather obvious he doesn’t understand evolutionary theory when he denounces “hi-tech nitwits convinced genetics is everything”. Any reasonable person would agree it’s best to understand what you are criticizing, or at least not say anything unless you do. But so that my argument doesn’t eat its own tail I’ll add the maxim ‘if as many crazy theories crossed your desk as mine…’ you would expect that they were either readable or peer reviewed or both.

Anyhow, there is a explanatory gap between recent experimental work in cooperation and altruism (game theoretic models, blood-oxygen-level-dependent brain scans, etc) and evolutionary genetics, which is what Unto Others points out. I haven’t read Darwin’s Cathedral because it has received some not so good reviews, but I will recommend a monograph that Wilson himself in turn has recommended titled “Hierarchy In the Forest” It’s a good book even if some of its hypotheses are tenuous. The author has some fascinating things to say about apes and hunter gatherers either way. (reviews of both books are in the archives of Nature and Science and elsewhere).

There is one work that embraces multiple levels of selection and isn’t as mushy about altruism as Wilson and Sober, here. And then there’s commentary on Sober & Wilson in the september 2002 issue of the journal “Biology and Philosophy”. etc


Cosma 07.24.03 at 11:00 pm

> In as much as memes exist (a point I
> emphatically do not concede), surely
> their evolution is Lamarckian rather
> than Darwinian?
Respectfully, no. The replicators in memetic evolution would be the memes, not the people who carry them, and so the replicators would not display inheritance of acquired characteristics. This point is generally true of models of cultural and/or social evolution, and often lost sight of by critics. There is an excellent discussion in vol. II of W. G. Runciman’s Treatise of Social Theory, as well as his auto-popularizaton, The Social Animal, though he’s more interested in “practices” than memes, and IIRC skeptical about the latter.

The issue of putative memes been transformed before they can be passed on is a very serious one, and has been urged very strongly in the work of Dan Sperber, particularly his book Explaining Culture, which I can hardly recommend too highly in this connection.


Cosma 07.24.03 at 11:27 pm

Let me second the recommendations of Skyrms, Binmore and Boehm, and of Bowles & Gintis’s Boston Review essay. Let me also add plugs for the work of Ernst Fehr (e.g. this paper) and for Colin Camerer’s new Behavioral Game Theory.


John Landon 07.25.03 at 1:54 am

Interesting replies. The term ‘ethical subject’ of course is a problem unless we mean a ‘subject’ capable of ‘free options’. It is not a question of ‘altruism’, but of a spectrum of values.
Then the question of ‘what options’ makes this an issue of some ‘ethical subject’.
So the question is, can natural selection produce such a creature? I fail to see how adaptation can produce something that transcends a particular adaptation to include a potential of many ‘adaptations’, general situations greater than the piecemeal total of adapted traits. It makes no sense. This ‘evolution of freedom’ is a weak spot for the whole of Darwin’s theory. The eonic model, sorry, looks a bit hard. It’s experimental stuff. I think the question is, does world history show the missing macro factor we suspect but can’t find in the Paleolithic? Answer, yes, and easy to find once we know what to look for.
Look at the ‘Axial’ period (chapter four). We see whole religions and cultures remorph in three century bursts, a complex evolutionary transform visible in history. Why would we need to derive altruism on a case basis when we see there is a large scale something actually working on this ‘ethical subject’ that was probably present earlier.


Cosma 07.25.03 at 3:45 pm

Thus Landon:
> So the question is, can natural selection produce such a
> creature? I fail to see how adaptation can produce
> something that transcends a particular adaptation to
> include a potential of many ‘adaptations’, general
> situations greater than the piecemeal total of adapted
> traits. It makes no sense.
Are you denying that there’s no mechanical way of implementing such adaptations, or that there is no way such a mechanism could be selected for?

If it’s the latter, that’s easy; phenotypic adaptability is, itself, an adaptation, namely to uncertain and fluctuating environments. An organism which can adapt to many different environments will do better than a related organism which can only deal with one, provided the cost of being adaptable isn’t too high. (Exercise for the reader: model this.) Empirically, you do indeed find more adaptable and plastic creatures in more variable environments. Once “the environment” includes other adaptable creatures, there doesn’t seem to be any real upper limit on how complicated the adaptations can get, and still be supported by natural selection. (Do read Dennett’s Elbow Room, even if you disagree with everything else he does.)

If you’re objecting that you don’t see how such adaptations could be physically possible, well, I can only recommend that you learn about feedback mechanisms and physiology; Monod’s Chance and Necessity is nice, but for the real blood-and-guts details you want something like Shepherd’s Neurobiology, or even Churchland and Sejnowski’s The Computational Brain.


John Landon 07.26.03 at 12:46 am

I am not impressed anymore with math models. Nor am I a math idiot, romantic poet (tempted, tho, working on my Ode to a Frog), and I rarely indulge in anti-science or pray for the end of science.
Math models are crap, and I am sick of them. We live in a society where Big Science has given power to a special kind of geek-nerd who is really a halfeducated nitwit. The legacy of math models in the social sciences is a Big Zero, as far as foundational theory is concerned. Am I right or wrong? Think about it, and show me something better than Hamilton or the theory of games used a silly puddy to plug holes in reductionist impoverishment.
Population genetics is good, nice. But it is not a theory of evolution.
Now, the evolution of freedom, hmm… An adapatation. You find that easy to explain. Maybe so, but where is the proof in the descent of man it worked that way. All this stuff is hypothetical, completely. We need closely tracked evidence of how something emerged with man.
Sorry to sound testy, but I am required to take on faith assertions that I don’t wish to take on faith without evidence.

As to the ‘evolution of freedom’, history shows us how that actually occurs, a long demo. I think my style of ‘eonic model’, which is evidentiary, can illuminate that.

The bottom line is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is what is to be proven, and it isn’t proved yet, probably not provable.
But we can catch a glimpse of the transition from evolution to history, and that is all we have.

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