June 12, 2009


Blood and treasure: People are altruistic because they are militaristic, and cultured because they are common. At least that is the message of a couple of new studies (The Economist, 6/04/09)

Dr Bowles’s argument starts in an obscure cranny of evolutionary theory called group selection. This suggests that groups of collaborative individuals will often do better than groups of selfish ones, and thus prosper at their expense. It is therefore no surprise, according to group-selectionists, that individuals might be genetically predisposed to act in self-sacrificial ways.

This good-of-the-group argument was widely believed until the 1960s, when it was subject to rigorous scrutiny and found wanting. The new theory does not pitch groups against groups, or even individuals against individuals, but genes against genes. It does not disallow altruistic behaviour, but requires that this evolve in a way that promotes the interest of a particular gene—for example by helping close relatives who might also harbour the gene in question. The “selfish gene” analysis, so called after a book by Richard Dawkins, makes good-of-the-group outcomes almost impossible to achieve.

A few researchers, of whom Dr Bowles is one, have been unwilling to give up on group selection completely. They note the word “almost” in the argument above and contend that humans, with their high intelligence and possession of language, and their tendency to live in small, tightly knit groups, might be exceptional. They also think people could be subject to a form of group selection that is genetically selfish.

Dr Bowles has focused the argument on war, since it is both highly collaborative and often genetically terminal for the losers. In his latest paper he puts some numbers on the idea. He looks at the data, plugs them into a mathematical model of his devising and finds a pleasing outcome.

Because science is all about making the data fit your prejudice.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 12, 2009 5:53 AM
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