On group selection and altruism

A recent post of mine on group selection elicited a number of responses; some pointed me to the Beinhocker book, for which I’m immensely grateful. Others questioned the mere possibility of group selection making sense, challenging me on a number of fronts, ranging from the relationship (or more accurately the risk) of using biological evolution discussions in a social or economic context all the way through to discussions on Darwin and, more appropriate, Dawkins.

Exemplifying the serendipity that all such debates have, I found myself at the Darwin exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York a few days later, and had a great time there. Do see it if you get the chance. While I was there, I learnt that the single biggest event that influenced Darwin to write his theories on evolution was reading Malthus on population. A harbinger of consilience?

I quote from their web site, which summarises aspects of the exhibition:

  • Darwin always read widely, on the lookout for new ideas. In late September 1838 he found himself reading—”for amusement,” he later recalled—the “Essay on Population” by political economist Reverend Thomas Malthus. In this essay, Malthus argued that human population could quickly outstrip the food supply: competition for food or space was a constant force keeping population in check.
  • Darwin immediately saw how the idea could be applied to the natural world. More animals were born than could survive.

A harbinger of consilience?

Then, catching up on my reading after returning from vacation, I found this article in the New Scientist, sadly behind a DRM wall. Headlined The Selfish Gene That Learned To Cooperate, it deals with a gene called regA that helps certain unicellular algae survive in hostile environments, and at the same time helps cells in a related multicellular alga cooperate. Read what Kurt Kleiner has to say in the article, it’s worth it.

I quote from his article “At some point, a mutation seems to have occurred which turned the selfish gene into a cooperative one, and made it possible for V. carteri to develop specialised cells.” He also quotes a biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Gene Robinson says this : “The evolutionary roots of altruism have been functionally traced from a solitary species to a more social species”.

I think a lot of emergent and swarm behaviours have some element of altruism at their heart, or at the very least a communal rather than a purely selfish will to survive and thrive. But I claim to be no expert on this, just an interested amateur. Much of what I’d read in the Emotional Intelligence space also suggested similar ideas to me, so the Group Selection theory is probably deeper in me than I realised.

One thought on “On group selection and altruism”

  1. Here’s another immensely insightful – although a bit lengthy – book about similar subject: Nonzero by Robert Wright

    Have you read it?

    In short, the author has found convincing evidence of “a world of increasing human cooperation”, and “how history naturally weaves people into ever more vast webs of interdependence”. Thought-provoking stuff.

    As always, if you decide to read it, please write your thoughts about it :)

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