Group Selection

I’ve certainly expressed neo-pan-Darwinian views on natural evolution that might be called “group selection” – in fact I’ve even defended group-selection per se. I am one of those who sees evolution by natural selection as the best idea anyone ever had, that I’m happy to apply it to practically any situation – even one where cause and effect benefits of any change may be explained in real-time, in a single “generation”.

So I’m guilty as charged here by Pinker. Clearly if we’re going to limit the word evolution to original-Darwinian natural selection – where it’s numbers of copies we’re valuing, and mutations are entirely blind to their effects. Then “group selection” in human affairs – and the affairs of social creatures generally – is something entirely different. Sure it is.

Sure we’re valuing other qualities of life and measures of existence than just head-count and group-count. And sure, in communities of less intelligent creatures, where individual immediate choice can be barely if at all aware of causation effecting future group and individual benefit, then all group behaviour including relative behaviour between group members, is ultimately, reductively, seated in attributes of the individuals. Tell us something we don’t know.

The interesting ground is the middle ground.

At one extreme, parallels in ant analogies and hive rhetoric are surely more poetic than scientific, and undoubtedly more concerned with the natural processes of group-effects on group member selection, and group success, than selection of the groups themselves. Nevertheless real effects.

And at the other, if it were purely a numbers game, then let’s just give up now and admit the bacteria as champions. But, as intelligent humans, with far more sophisticated values than arithmetic, we’re sadly arrogant enough to believe our knowledge gives us control over cause and effect, over multiple time-scales, here and now, later in our lifetimes, and in the legacy bequeathed to future generations.

In reality what we’re concerned with is natural processes of change over one or more cycles, given our imperfect knowledge. These cycles are indeed fractal over many different layers and time-scales and definitely involve – if not blindness – uncertain feedback against the imperfect knowledge and facility used on each cycle of change.

Real allure, wrong definition. The real difference between the sides in the group selection debate are differences in what to value, what matters. Definitions and numbers are very low value indeed.

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