Roger Scruton on altruism

I’ve just started reading philosopher Roger Scruton’s new book The Soul of the World, in which he defends the transcendent against the scientific conception of reality. Chapter 3 contains an interesting but wrong-headed argument to the effect that evolutionary explanations of human altruism are superfluous, because altruism can be explained perfectly well in moral terms. It’s particularly interesting in light of our discussions on the Critique of Naturalism thread, so I thought I’d share it:

An organism acts altruistically, they tell us, if it benefits another organism at a cost to itself. The concept applies equally to the soldier ant that marches into the flames that threaten the anthill, and to the officer who throws himself onto the live grenade that threatens his platoon. The concept of altruism, so understood, cannot explain, or even recognize, the distinction between those two cases. Yet surely there is all the difference in the world between the ant that marches instinctively toward the flames, unable either to understand what it is doing or to fear the results of it, and the officer who consciously lays down his life for his troops.

If Kant is right, a rational being has a motive to obey the moral law, regardless of genetic advantage. This motive would arise, even if the normal result of following it were that which the Greeks observed with awe at Thermopylae, or the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Maldon. In such instances an entire community is observed to embrace death, in full consciousness of what it is doing, because death is the honorable option. Even if you don’t think Kant’s account of this is the right one, the fact is that this motive is universally observed in human beings, and is entirely different from that of the soldier ant, in being founded on a consciousness of the predicament, of the cost of doing right, and of the call to renounce life for the sake of others who depend on you or to whom your life is owed.

To put it in another way, on the approach of the evolutionary psychologists, the conduct of the Spartans at Thermopylae is overdetermined. The “dominant reproductive strategy” explanation and the “honorable sacrifice” explanation are both sufficient to account for this conduct. So which is the real explanation? Or is the “honorable sacrifice” explanation just a story that we tell ourselves, in order to pin medals on the chest of the ruined “survival machine” that died in obedience to its genes?

But suppose that the moral explanation is genuine and sufficient. It would follow that the genetic explanation is trivial. If rational beings are motivated to behave in this way, regardless of any genetic strategy, then that is sufficient to explain the fact that they do behave in this way. And being disposed to behave in this way is an adaptation — for all this means is that people who were disposed by nature to behave in any other way would by now have died out, regardless of the reasons they might have had for behaving as they did.

…it illustrates the way in which evolutionary explanations reduce to triviality, when the thing to be explained contains its own principles of persuasion.

There are lots of interesting and intertwined errors here. Dissect away!

289 thoughts on “Roger Scruton on altruism

  1. Yet surely there is all the difference in the world between the ant that marches instinctively toward the flames, unable either to understand what it is doing or to fear the results of it, and the officer who consciously lays down his life for his troops.

    Of course there’s all the difference in the world, the human is much less likely to do “act selflessly.” An unrelated human not part of the military culture would be very unlikely to commit such an apparently selfless act.

    The ant is much like a cell in our bodies, something that will die so that closely-related beings will be more likely to reproduce. The human has to think about these matters because it’s not nearly so straightforward what one should do, although to endure the threat of dying to save several of one’s own children is generally not such a difficult decision. If one is living like a clan, as troops often do, in a culture where bravery is rewarded while cowardice is punished, one will often behave as if the platoon, is composed of organisms closely related to oneself. But a neighbor isn’t likely to put himself in grave danger when he’s otherwise safe in order to save someone next door, and especially not for a stranger.

    We think in part in order to weigh risks and rewards of helping others. The ant doesn’t have to, it’s a useful piece of the colony that should be and is sacrificed when it’s best for the colony.

    Glen Davidson

  2. It’s not clear what he means by ‘disposed by nature’ towards the end. He seems to be arguing against the genetic explanation, but replacing it by a handwavy thing that sounds awfully like a genetic explanation.

  3. Unlike ants, people have language and rationality which allow us to reflect upon and change the moral predispositions evolution gave us as part of our primate heritage.

    We create/discover human morality and embed it in our cultures. Rationality, intersubjectivity, and individual creativity are key parts of that change process.

    Cultural moral codes are transmitted by parental and social education and feedback. Education and feedback act upon what evolution gave us to create individual moral behavior; namely, emotions like empathy and disgust. Cultural education and feedback change or extend the way we react emotionally in moral situations.

    That moral change and variety exist is an anthropological fact.

    That such change can represent progress is a different question and open question as discussed in the KN’s previous thread.

    That thread was also about whether the norms created/discovered by language and rationality are entities which can be completely studied and described by science.

  4. Our ability to sacrifice ourselves – literally – is something of a puzzle. The naive reader of evolutionary theory might assume that a genetic tendency towards this cannot arise by ‘Darwinian’ means, since it is assumed that they will leave fewer offspring on average than the doggedly self-preserving.

    However, when an altruist helps a group, and that group contains relatives, there is a means by which this behaviour can spread, because the gene copies for the behaviour in relatives are assisted and passed on. Additionally, it is not a given that the altruist has left no offspring prior to their sacrifice. People who fall on their swords at the age of 5 would have to provide some hefty group benefit; those who do so at 45 less so.

    We are not able to readily compute our relatedness, generally. We tend to favour those who are like us over those who aren’t; that may be a proxy for a more accurate assessment of relatedness.

    Whatever the role of genetics, we are strongly conditioned by cultural/environmental examples (a tendency which itself is likely to have a genetic basis). The suicide bomber may be motivated by altruism (towards those they believe their actions will benefit) or by the heroic example of others. And they illustrate how culture can trump the genes, and not always in a good way. Genetic determinists are not arguing that we are automata.

  5. The argument here is based on the principle of causal exclusion: if one mechanism is sufficient to bring about the observed effect, then another mechanism with the same effect would be superfluous – or the other way around. One should then choose the more parsimonious explanation and discard the alternative.

    But apart from the difficulty of evaluating relative parsimony (a magical type of explanation only seems parsimonious on its surface, but in actuality it is the least parsimonious explanation possible), the principle of causal exclusion is only applicable when considering alternative mechanisms within the same explanatory framework. On the other hand. different explanatory frameworks have no difficulty existing side by side and accounting for some of the same phenomena (at least until we ask ourselves why there are different explanatory frameworks in the first place – but that’s a different and more thoroughgoing question than the one considered here).

    Examples of parallel, coexisting explanatory frameworks abound in natural science. Theories, such as structural mechanics, mechanics of continua, molecular dynamics, atomic physics, plus a host of special theories like linear elastic fracture mechanics, theory of dislocations, etc. – are all applicable to some of the same phenomena. Whether they can be arranged into a reductive pyramid or whether all or some of them are in some way independent from each other is a contentious question, but we need not answer it here. The fact is that all of these theories exist side by side, each has its use, and no one is anxious to discard some of them on account of overdetermination.

    The reason is that each of these theories are formulated within its own explanatory framework (or constitutes an explanatory framework of its own), and thus they do not directly compete with each other for causal primacy. And the reason for that is that causes are understood relative to a particular theory, a particular explanatory framework. Within one framework multiple causes acting on the same object will add up and produce an effect that is distinct from the effect of a single cause. But different frameworks do not interact with each other, they replace each other. Causes operating in different frameworks exclude each other on the epistemological, rather than on the physical level.

    So yes, the reasons for human altruism can be found in moral motivation. They might also be found in sociobiology and our evolutionary history. Regardless of whether these explanations reduce to one another, one question we can put to rest: they are not mutually exclusive.

  6. Sociobiology is discredited, smelly scientism. Altruism coined by Comte, not Lamarck. Scruton is Abrahamic, not agnostic or atheist. ‘Sceptics’ have little to elevate on this, just weigh things down like Marx or let them evaporate.

  7. Gregory: Sociobiology is discredited, smelly scientism.

    I don’t know whether that is true. However, I have never been persuaded that sociobiology has explained anything. I do not find the “kin selection” arguments particularly persuasive.

  8. Allan,

    It’s not clear what he means by ‘disposed by nature’ towards the end. He seems to be arguing against the genetic explanation, but replacing it by a handwavy thing that sounds awfully like a genetic explanation.

    Yes, and to me that’s the strangest thing about his argument. He’s fine with the idea that moral behavior can be shaped by selection…

    And being disposed to behave in this way is an adaptation — for all this means is that people who were disposed by nature to behave in any other way would by now have died out, regardless of the reasons they might have had for behaving as they did.

    …but he implies that it is not being transmitted genetically:

    If rational beings are motivated to behave in this way, regardless of any genetic strategy, then that is sufficient to explain the fact that they do behave in this way.

    It’s unclear what mechanism of inheritance he has in mind. Cultural transmission? Something transcendent?

  9. Neil Rickert: I don’t know whether that is true.However, I have never been persuaded that sociobiology has explained anything.I do not find the “kin selection” arguments particularly persuasive.

    By sociobiology I did not mean Wilson’s theories specifically, but more generally using biological framework(s) to explain various aspects of social behavior, which ought to be uncontroversial. Behavior has been within the (non-exclusive!) purview of biology for a long time, and social behavior is no exception.

  10. One aspect of being disposed to act altruistically is being reinforced by the approval of others. Some people can become addicted to approval.

    Even sociopaths seek approval.

    It would seem to be tied in some way to caring for young, without which a lot of species could not exist.
    ETA:
    Humans learn the forms of social interactions, just as they learn a language, but the predisposition has to be there.

    And approval can be imaginary, as we continue to pay attention to our parents’ wishes after we no longer live with them. Or imagine what some religious leader would say or do.

  11. SophistiCat,

    I think it’s a bit more complex than that.

    Yes, we are a social species. Yet it seems to me that most aspects of our social behavior are learned. For sure, biology predisposes us toward learning cooperative behaviors. But I think the story is a bit more complex than saying that behaviors themselves are transmitted in the genes.

  12. Neil Rickert:
    Yes, we are a social species.Yet it seems to me that most aspects of our social behavior are learned.For sure, biology predisposes us toward learning cooperative behaviors.But I think the story is a bit more complex than saying that behaviors themselves are transmitted in the genes.

    Paul Bloom writes about experiments he and others have done with babies and young children to try to separate what we inherit versus what we learn.

    Babies (who can be tested by see what surprises them or where they pay attention):
    – prefer helpers to hinderers so we have an inborn sense of fairness
    – prefer the smell, sight, sound of people they are familiar with so we have an inborn preference for people we know

    Young children (around 3)

    – prefer to be with same sex, age, language; race not as important, so racial prejudice is cultural
    – will help with chores, sooth distressed adults, are embarrassed if caught stealing
    – will share but not with strangers so altruism to strangers is cultural

    Biology has given us initial moral attitudes and emotions which implement them.

    Culture creates and changes morality and moral behavior by working with the initial attitudes and mechanisms that biology has bequeathed.

    So I agree that biology is less important than culture, but we still need to understand biology to understand how our moral behavior originates and how it is implemented, eg to understand what could constrain proposed moral changes.

    For example, because of our inborn sense that bad behavior should have consequences, it is problematic to propose we eliminate the concept of moral responsibility because of determinism, regardless of whether behavior is fully determined.

  13. Neil Rickert:
    SophistiCat,

    I think it’s a bit more complex than that.

    Yes, we are a social species.Yet it seems to me that most aspects of our social behavior are learned.For sure, biology predisposes us toward learning cooperative behaviors.But I think the story is a bit more complex than saying that behaviors themselves are transmitted in the genes.

    I agree.

    But when you say “a lot more complex than that” – what “that” do you have in mind? Surely, there aren’t many genetic determinists around – I doubt there are any among biologists studying social behavior; besides, not all biology that is relevant to behavior is genetics (or evo-psych). Learning is also very much within the purview of biology, as Lizzie will attest.

    Whether “most” behavior is learned will depend on whether we look at specific patterns in specific individuals or general patterns in the population. I think a case can plausibly be made for genetic causal factors in altruism as a general phenomenon of social behavior.

    My point was simply that the mere fact that such behavior can be explained psychologically (by appealing to moral motivations) does not exclude biological explanations as superfluous or invalid.

  14. “genetic causal factors in altruism”

    That’s just biologistic myopia with no elevation.

    “biology is less important than culture, but…”

    On the human level, yes.

    No doubt your approach would change, BruceS, if you overcame your atheism/agnosticism. On the topic of altruism, the worldview background is a HUGE issue, undeniably so. But it goes beyond any single society and past Comte’s ‘3-stage’ theory to be more integrative, holistic…even vertical.

  15. BruceS: So I agree that biology is less important than culture, but we still need to understand biology to understand how our moral behavior originates and how it is implemented, eg to understand what could constrain proposed moral changes.

    If you reinforce the tendency to be helpful and cooperative, you can diminish the list of shall nots.

  16. Ants? Workers are sterile. The only vehicle for heritable material is the queen. If kamikaze workers and soldiers add to the possibility of the queen’s genes surviving, then such alleles will survive and proliferate.

    For any species, altruism -“true” altruism where there is no heritable benefit to the genes of the individual altruist – will not be reinforced by selection.

  17. Seems Scruton is not the only philosopher to be hazy with evolutionary theory. Thanks again to News at Uncommon descent for highlighting this paper by Massimo Pigliucci which seems to contain errors on altruism and talks of group selection as if it were still a viable evolutionary hypothesis.

  18. Gregory: That’s just biologistic myopia with no elevation.
    No doubt your approach would change, BruceS, if you overcame your atheism/agnosticism. On the topic of altruism, the worldview background is a HUGE issue, undeniably so.

    I’d be interested in how you think it would change me to believe in God. (I am not sure if that is the only worldview change you have in mind but I am assuming it would be the starting point for any others.)

    I think that, regardless of whether there is a God or not, we humans must use our own wisdom to determine how to live purposeful lives together. Holy writings are a source of wisdom, but it is wisdom filtered through human intelligence and analysis, and so such writings are subject to human error and bias. Trying to find the wisdom there seems no different to me than finding it in secular human thought.

    Even if you grant some people were divinely inspired at some times, where and when? And was that inspiration properly captured, preserved, or has it been subject to human interpretation and fallibility?

    Belief in God would be a way of knowing-by-faith that there is purpose to be found in human life and that moral progress is possible. But I already believe in moral progress and in the possibility of a purposeful life. So believing in God would not change me in that way.

  19. Alan Fox:
    talks of group selection as if it were still a viable evolutionary hypothesis.

    Jonathan Haidt is another author who thinks there is some role (not the primary role) for group selection in moral behavior, although he includes any kind of group behavior, eg both in-group altruism and xenophobia with respect to those outside the group.

    Here is an interview with him. Links to others on morality and evolution there as well.

  20. Group selection is a valid alternative to kin selection.

    Evolutiuonary biologists these days do make allowances for selection at multiple levels, individuals (including kin selection), groups, and species. However the conditions for each to be effective are different, and increasingly stringent as one goes to higher levels. It depends on how often local populations go extinct, and how often species are replaced by other species.

    But to conclude that group selection is nonexistent, or bad science, or a delusion is not justified.

  21. Joe Felsenstein: Group selection is a valid alternative to kin selection.

    As the late Professor C E M Joad might have said – it all depends what you mean by “valid”. Perhaps a mathematical model can be derived but can a real-life example of a species apparently operating under “group selection” rather than at the level of the gene and alleles be found?

    I see a case has been made for some liver flukes. I’d certainly reject the claim that eusociality in hymenoptera involves group selection. Nor am I persuaded by the example of Heterocephalus glaber

  22. Yet another silly philosopher. Does Scruton reference or even know about, the pioneering work of Richard Alexander (“Darwinism and Human Affairs”)? I’m betting no.

    The fact that this silliness gets published (and by reputable presses) is yet another indication of the sad state of academic philosophy.

  23. shallit,

    Following Jeff Shallit’s reference to Richard Alexander, I see Wikipedia says:

    In 1974 he created a detailed model for a eusocial vertebrate, having no idea that a mammal with these characteristics actually existed. It turned out that his hypothetical eusocial rodent was a “perfect description” of the naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber).

  24. Alan Fox:
    Seems Scruton is not the only philosopher to be hazy with evolutionary theory. Thanks again to News at Uncommon descent for highlighting this paper by Massimo Pigliucci which seems to contain errors on altruism and talks of group selection as if it were still a viable evolutionary hypothesis.

    I’ll take that as your personal opinion, because judging by recent publications, group selection is very much a viable hypothesis.

  25. SophistiCat,

    Sure, it’s my opinion. If didn’t think it, I wouldn’t say it. I may of course be ignorant of recent developments where group selection turns out a better explanation than selection at the level of the gene. Do you have a favourite example of a species where group selection is a good explanation of the evolutionary processes observed therein?

    ETA

    Using “group selection” as a search in Google Scholar didn’t get any recent hits. Would you have a link to a recent paper?

    ETA The demise of group selection

    ETA Coyne again responding to a newspaper article by E. O. Wilson. (I think Wilson is an outstanding contributor to our knowledge, especially in the field of sociobiology, just not infallible)

    Keith’s link to Pinker’s article is good too.

  26. shallit,

    Hmm, dismissive and condescending at all? 😉 That would be like saying all computer scientists are narrow-minded fools too (who think they are deeper and broader thinkers than they actually are!). Surely now Shallit will name his favorite ‘academic philosopher’ that deals with altruism instead of Scruton and show his superior erudition?

    Not sure about Scruton, but I’ve read Alexander’s book. Not all that ‘pioneering’ imo – yet another natural scientist treating human beings as insects, while believing he’s elevating human dignity.

    Steve Fuller came up with an insightful term to describe such approaches (though he was referring to extreme deep ecology approaches), which get rights to the heart of Scruton’s criticism of trivial evolutionary explanations (such as genetics dealing with altruism): ‘zoocentric misanthropy.’ Alexander’s (zoocentric) work is part of a trend of dehumanizing thought, that includes Lorenz, Hamilton, Campbell, Trivers, the Wilsons, Pinker, et al.

    The more important conversation is: what then is (re-)humanizing (about altruism)? The ‘scepticism’ (cum atheism) often displayed here is usually just a sad aspect of that conversation. Only appealing to the humanism of folks here, not to the heart of altruism, would likely appeal.

    “[I]t is just as wrong to explain human affairs entirely by biology as it is to suppose that biology has no bearing on human affairs.” – Theodosius Dobzhansky (1956)

    “When philosophy occupies itself with the animal man it ceases to be a philosophy of man and becomes a philosophy of animals, a chapter of zoology dealing with man.” – Piotr Chaadaev (1829)

  27. Aha! It’s a small world, Gregory. Whether group selection is real or illusory is a scientific argument independent of whether God exists.

  28. Alan Fox:
    Sure, it’s my opinion. Ifdidn’t think it, I wouldn’t say it. I may of course be ignorant of recent developments where group selection turns out a better explanation than selection at the level of the gene. Do you have a favourite example of a species where group selection is a good explanation of the evolutionary processes observed therein?

    I meant to say that a hypothesis is viable if it continues to stimulate research, which group selection appears to do. I understand that this is a controversial subject, and I am not taking sides here. The partisans on both sides can be quite strident, so reading op-ed pieces is not going to resolve the controversy in my mind.

    Using “group selection” as a search in Google Scholar didn’t get any recent hits. Would you have a link to a recent paper?

    That’s odd, because Google Scholar is where I went in the first place to check whether my impression was correct. Not all of these articles concern group selection in evolutionary biology, but quite a few of them do. Here is an example from this year:

    http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-642-54420-0_56

    Vampire bats exhibit a unique behavior: they help unlucky conspecifics by sharing part of their meal. This altruistic act seems to happen in their group of reference even between individuals not genetically related. Inspired by this biological example, we have developed a simulation that reproduces its essential traits, where group selection counteracts selective pressure towards cheating: the roosting effect.

    Previous work on the same theme has shown how the roosting effect can cope with sensible mutation levels. Here, leveraging the features of D-Mason that allows to run massive simulations on a distributed environment, as well as performing a batch scheduling of the experiments, we derive a relationship between mutation rate and roost size.

  29. BruceS,

    Do you really think it would not change you if you came to believe in God?

    Surely we are agreed that human beings are fallible. As vessels of divine inspiration, ‘holy writings’ as you call them are nevertheless prone to bias and error. But the messages of hope, love, compassion and yes, altruism are not to be missed.

    I’m glad you believe in “moral progress and in the possibility of a purposeful life,” which is more than most of the atheists here would say. Yet the purpose you currently hold ends at death, which differs from the Abrahamic faiths.

    I wrote: “On the topic of altruism, the worldview background is a HUGE issue.” Is that not something easily agreed about, even if it makes the topic more difficult?

  30. Alan Fox:
    Keith’s link to Pinker’s article is good too.

    Did you read the replies and counter arguments to Pinker at Edge.org? There are lots of references on both sides. I think the exchange shows the existence and nature of group selection is an open question among scientists.

  31. Gregory:
    Surely we are agreed that human beings are fallible. As vessels of divine inspiration, ‘holy writings’ as you call them are nevertheless prone to bias and error. But the messages of hope, love, compassion and yes, altruism are not to be missed.

    Of course these messages are fundamental to human life. But one finds them in both secular and religious writing.

    I wrote: “On the topic of altruism, the worldview background is a HUGE issue.” Is that not something easily agreed about, even if it makes the topic more difficult?

    Certainly I agree one’s worldview makes a huge difference.

    To try to make my query more specific, I’d first exclude the extremes of a nihilist position, such as how Alex Rosenberg is often presented, and of a fundamentalist, who thinks that the only things that matter in this life are those done to prepare for the next one.

    Ignoring those extremes, is there really a difference in how a thoughtful religious person and a thoughtful non-religious person would approach the question of how to life the current life with purpose and with other people?

  32. BruceS: I think the exchange shows the existence and nature of group selection is an open question among scientists.

    The pros seem to be limited to E O Wilson, Sober and D S Wilson. I don’t think the current advocates of group selection have made a case supported by real examples yet. Whether they can is certainly an open question;

  33. SophistiCat,

    From you paper:

    Vampire bats exhibit a unique behavior: they help unlucky conspecifics by sharing part of their meal. This altruistic act seems to happen in their group of reference even between individuals not genetically related

    They’ve left out an ‘apparently” there. 🙂 I referenced a study on Arabian babblers here where apparently altruistic acts were shown, on closer study, to be anything but.

    Not to say that vampire bats are not genuinely altruistic but I wonder how closely the blood-sharing has been studied in respect of whether fitness display could be an explanation. Amotz Zahavi spent years closely watching his birds.

    ETA this paper whilst not discussing fitness display, concludes that what is going on in vampire bat food-sharing is still far from clear.

  34. BruceS: Of course these messages are fundamental to human life. But one finds them in both secular and religious writing.

    To paraphrase Tom Lehrer:

    Holy messages are like a sewer. What you get out of them depends on what you put into them.

    Some have seen hope, and some have see death to infidels.

  35. Alan Fox: The pros seem to be limited to E O Wilson, Sober and D S Wilson.

    Doesn’t seem to be the case from a cursory look at the literature. I see many different names in both technical papers, like the one above that I plucked more-or-less at random, and in comments and surveys like these:

    The group selection controversy (J LEIGH – Journal of evolutionary biology, 2010)
    Too Late – Models of Cultural Evolution and Group Selection Have Already Proved Useful (J Henrich – 2012 – hecc.ubc.ca)

  36. Alan Fox: The pros seem to be limited to E O Wilson, Sober and D S Wilson. I don’t think the current advocates of group selection have made a case supported by real examples yet. Whether they can is certainly an open question;

    Are we looking at the same place? I understand those people support group selection, but they are not the reply people at the link Keith provides. I’m looking at Everett, Queller, Gintis, Whitehouse&Mckay, and several others, all of who disagree with some aspect of Pinker and provide references for their points.

    You have to scroll down past Pinker’s article.

  37. BruceS: Too cynical for me.

    My point would be that religions — as institutions having political power — have found passages of scripture that justify conquest and exploitation, slavery, misogyny and brutality toward women.

    What you find in religion depends on what you want to find.

    I see no evidence that religion — as an institution — improves people’s behavior. What it does do is provide cover for whatever it is you want to do.

  38. BruceS: You have to scroll down past Pinker’s article.

    I see. Jerry Coyne says:

    Because I am an experimental biologist and not a theoretician, I see the biggest problem with group selection as its failure to explain anything about nature. The hypothesis is, as Pinker notes, is designed to explain those features of evolution—especially traits like altruism and cooperation in our own species—that seem disadvantageous to individuals but good for groups. We can predict, then, that if group selection were common and kin selection rare, we would often observe altruistic behavior in nature between individuals who were completely unrelated. That is, individuals would often sacrifice their lives (or reproduction) to help those who don’t share their genes.

    And that is exactly what we don’t see.

    What Coyne and I are asking for is examples, predictions, explanatory power. Is “group selection” an interesting mental exercise or is it useful?

  39. Alan Fox: I see. Jerry Coyne says:

    What Coyne and I are asking for is examples, predictions, explanatory power. Is “group selection” an interesting mental exercise or is it useful?

    Sorry, I don’t know enough about it to comment further. I was just pointing what I take as evidence that it is not a discredited idea in science: namely, there are many reputable scientists who disagree with Pinker. Of course, there are also many who agree with him.

  40. petrushka: My point would be that religions — as institutions having political power — have found passages of scripture that justify conquest and exploitation, slavery, misogyny and brutality toward women.

    You’ll get no argument from me on that. Religious institutions are human institutions which do all the things you say.

    My point is a different one: that there is wisdom in religious writing and that the way to find that wisdom applies to all thoughtful people, both religious and secular (I am excluding literalists in my definition of thoughtful).

    I took Lehrer as making a point about the content of religious writing, not about how people use that writing. By saying religious writing is like a sewer, he called it a conduit for guano.

    That is too strong for me. Yes, many things we know are wrong are supported in, eg, the OT: Genocide, slavery, oppression. The same is true of Greek secular writings.

    But such writing is not a sewer, it is just human beings trying to understand morality, and often getting it wrong, sometimes horribly wrong.

  41. BruceS: I took Lehrer as making a point about the content of religious writing, not about how people use that writing.

    Lehrer didn’t mention religion. I said I was paraphrasing.

    What he said (quoting a fictional friend) was, “Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”

    I suppose not everyone recognizes Lehrer’s style of humor. The closest equivalent would be Monty Python. Oscar Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan also share some of this humor.

    I’m over-explaining. My point was simple.

  42. Alan Fox: I see. Jerry Coyne says:

    What Coyne and I are asking for is examples, predictions, explanatory power. Is “group selection” an interesting mental exercise or is it useful?

    Jerry Coyne, right or wrong, has a right to his opinion, being an expert in the subject (although even experts can be ill-informed about some topic). Are you an expert? You seem to be looking at the issue exclusively through the opinions of one party in the debate, so much so that you are not even willing to acknowledge the existence of the other party.

  43. SophistiCat,

    It’s more than an opinion. Coyne is pointing out that evolution involves selection feeding back on heritable variety. None of the group selection proposals explain “altruism” as a heritable quality and none match any observed species. Social species and eusocial species can be accounted for by current theories at the level of the gene.

    The most damning aspect of “group selection” is that it is not observed in the real world. Though I mean by “group selection” some theory attempting to explain aspects of biological evolution. There seems to be some other amorphous ideas that apply to human cultural evolution but that is a separate issue. Pinker makes the point that “group selection” is not clearly defined even among its proponents.

    No, I’m not an expert in population genetics. Professor Felsenstein may chip in with his thoughts if we are lucky.

  44. SophistiCat:
    … you are not even willing to acknowledge the existence of the other party.

    Not really. I’m questioning the existence of “group selection” as an observed biological phenomenon. It would help the case of those promoting “group selection” if there were an example of the process that we could look at.

    Eusociality in insects doesn’t cut it. Naked mole rats biology is explained by kin selection. Vampire bat food-sharing – the jury’s out but early work also suggests kin selection. I suggest those who think that “group selection” applies somewhere in the real world need to find an example to test their model on.

  45. SophistiCat:

    Jerry Coyne, right or wrong, has a right to his opinion, being an expert in the subject (although even experts can be ill-informed about some topic). Are you an expert?

    You think that Alan, as a layman, has no right to an opinion on this? Seriously?

  46. Alan Fox:
    It’s more than an opinion. Coyne is pointing out […]

    See, that’s what I mean: you look only at one side of the case. You have yet to even acknowledge the existence of the other side, apart from a few stalwarts whom you discount as cranks. Have you managed to find recent publications on group selection yet? Do you know what the other side says? Whether and how it addresses the criticisms leveled by Coyne and Pinker? Do you know enough to adjudicate this debate to your own satisfaction? For myself, I answer the latter question in the negative.

    Professor Felsenstein may chip in with his thoughts if we are lucky.

    He has done so earlier in this thread.

    Alan Fox: Not really. I’m questioning the existence of “group selection” as an observed biological phenomenon.

    Well, what about kin selection? Is it an “observed biological phenomenon,” or a mathematical model that fits some data (and is there a difference between the two?) Proponents of group selection say that their model fits some data better than within-group selection alone, and they try to come up with criteria of applicability of the different models.

  47. SophistiCat,

    Proponents of group selection say that their model fits some data better than within-group selection alone, and they try to come up with criteria of applicability of the different models.

    Pinker makes an important point regarding “group selection” vs “within-group selection”:

    In such cases one can separate the benefits that accrue to the entire group (including me) and whatever benefits or costs are assumed by me but no one else in the group. According to group selectionists, this formulation perspicuously explains the evolution of altruism because it includes cases in which a benefactor to the group suffers in comparison to his groupmates; the payoff trickling down from the group’s benefit can exceed the cost he pays within the group.

    Mathematical biologists such as Alan Grafen, Stuart West, Ashleigh Griffin, and Andy Gardner have criticized this formulation because it obfuscates the fact that individuals are still maximizing their genetic fitness: “The fundamental point is that the spread of a gene is determined by its ‘fitness relative to others in the breeding population, and not to others with which it happens to interact.’ … Natural selection selects for a gene if it causes a behavior that leads to that gene increasing in frequency in the population, not some other arbitrarily defined scale such as social partners.”

Leave a Reply