I still have a vivid recollection of the seminar that David Sloan Wilson gave to the Zoology Department at Duke University, where I was a graduate student in the early 1980s. In his typical enthusiastic fashion David gave a great talk about group selection, explaining why it’s an important evolutionary theory for understanding many things that otherwise don’t make sense, such as altruism. Of course, David was fighting a losing battle against the tide of gene-centric theories of evolution that were spearheaded by the likes of G. C. Williams and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene.
David lost that battle, and for two decades the gene-centric theory reigned, while adherent of group selection were banished to the wilderness. And then a strange thing happened. The gene-centric paradigm began collapsing under the weight of empirical and theoretical anomalies. We now understand that evolution can occur simultaneously at multiple levels: a trait that is disadvantageous at the individual level may still be favored by natural selection if it’s advantageous at the level of groups.
This is a very important insight, because without it we wouldn’t be able to figure out how such behavioral traits as altruism and cooperation evolved. I have always found unsatisfactory the conclusion reached by Richard Dawkins, that evolution would always destroy altruism, so the only recourse for us was to bravely choose to behave altruistically, despite that.
David Wilson’s ideas and work has been vindicated by the development of evolutionary science in the last two decades, and especially by the rise of the new discipline of Cultural Evolution. I just finished reading the latest of David’s books, Does Altruism Exist?, which was published by the Yale University Press earlier this year (2015). Here are some of the thoughts that were prompted by reading the book.
First, I must acknowledge that I never liked ‘altruism’ as a scientific concept, and what I read in David’s book has reinforced my feelings. As David notes in his book, the word altruism was coined by the French sociologist Auguste Comte in 1851. It’s derived from the Latin alter, which means ‘other.’ In evolutionary science an altruistic act is one that increases the ‘fitness’ (survival and reproduction) of another, or others, at a cost to the altruist (again, measured in the units of fitness: survival and reproduction).
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Much of the controversy about altruism centered on whether altruistic acts are ‘really’ altruistic, or unselfish. For example, when someone helps an elderly woman cross a street safely, the helper sacrifices some time and effort, but gains a feeling of satisfaction of doing good. Is this really altruism? Or take the case of world religions that David discusses in the book. Christians are encouraged to love their neighbors, for which they are rewarded with eternal life in the paradise. Where is the altruism in that?
In other words, the discussions of altruism easily get mired in trying to figure out motivations of the altruists. But, as the Russian proverb goes, “the soul of another is enigma.” A stranger’s heart is a deep well. We can’t read other people’s minds, and we can never know whether Mother Teresa was really an altruist.
In any case, people helping other people is nice, but perhaps it’s not as interesting a problem as the question of cooperation. I work within the conceptual framework of Cultural Evolution, and to me the greatest puzzle that we need to resolve is why groups of people—from small teams to whole societies—cooperate to produce public goods. That’s both a more interesting theoretical problem, and the one that can yield the most practical benefits, when it is solved. Most of the amenities of modern life are a result of cooperation in large-scale human groups.
David’s book has a lot to say on this subject. Probably the most important insight is that cooperation, and group-level functional organization that produces cooperation, cannot be explained by selection within groups. It evolves primarily as a result of selection between groups. In other words, we are back to group selection, which was wrongly rejected back in the 1970s, and now is, thankfully, back. Although now we prefer to call this theory multilevel selection, because our conceptual tools allow us to deal with simultaneous (and opposite) selection pressures acting both at the individual and group levels.
David’s book is not going to end the controversy, but it is a very nice summary of the state of the art from one of the key players in the debate over altruism and cooperation.