[ExI] Ants for spike! Dawkins and Wilson

Robert Masters rob4332000 at yahoo.com
Mon Nov 16 18:14:14 UTC 2009

spike wrote:

<<We almost need to have two nearly separate bodies of theory, one dealing with non-human evolution and one dealing specifically with human.  We get all tangled up in the special cases of human evolution because of our species' behavior being so influenced by memes instead of just genes.>>

I agree, and I think this point is particularly relevant to group selection.  The case for group selection throughout the animal kingdom is strong; but with regard to humans it's an order of magnitude stronger.

One of the central issues in the debate over group selection has been the problem of altruism--self-sacrificing behavior.  Why do animals sometimes put their own lives at risk to help others in their group?  Why do prey animals call out warnings when predators are spotted, even though the individual doing so makes herself more visible to the predator and more likely to get eaten?  Why do individual wolves come to the defense of the pack, even though being cowardly would be safer?  The OLD, traditional answer to such questions (espoused by Charles Darwin, Peter Kropotkin, and others) was that altruism makes sense at the group level even though it does not at the individual level (packs of "draft-dodging" wolves tend to get wiped out, while packs practicing "solidarity" tend to prosper).  Thus genes for self-sacrificing behavior become widespread throughout the species.

But--the opponents of group selection argued--there's a fatal problem with this: precisely the fact that being an altruist puts one's life at risk, making it less likely that one will reproduce and pass on one's genes.  In any group with high levels of altruism, there will always be "cheaters": free-loaders who save themselves rather than doing their duty.  They will tend to survive and breed more often than the altruists.  Thus, inexorably, the self-sacrificing trait will die out (or, more likely, will never get a foothold in the first place). 

So group-selection theory was dropped and other explanations for altruism were sought: kinship arguments, game-theory arguments, etc.  Whatever one thinks of all that, the point I want to stress is that, with HUMANS, the free-loader problem is pretty much a dead issue--because human groups have ENFORCEMENT MECHANISMS to marginalize and eliminate cheaters.

Isn't that what human morality (or much of it) is all about?  In many human societies throughout history, draft-dodgers and others who failed to come to the aid of the group have been dealt with severely and effectively--through ostracism, exile, imprisonment, execution, threats of supernatural punishment, etc., etc.  In this way, groups practicing and enforcing solidarity have indeed prospered, and genes for altruistic behavior have spread.

So, even if the free-loader argument did apply validly to most species (which is doubtful), it doesn't seem to make any sense at all with regard to humans.  The species capable of conceptual thought has ways of dealing with that problem.

Postscript:  I'm reminded of a comment Robert Heinlein once made.  Someone asked him how it was possible that he had written both "Starship Troopers" (glorifying military heroism) and "Stranger in a Strange Land" (glorifying hippie values like peace and community).  He replied that he had worked on both books AT THE SAME TIME--and that both were tributes to the same two ideals: "love and duty."  To me, that says something about the deep emotional appeal of Heinlein's works; and the feelings involved probably have to do with millennia of genetic pressure in favor of altruism.

Rob Masters


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