This article is from
Journal of Creation 36(3):92–98, December 2022

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What’s wrong with being wrong: a closer look at evolutionary ethics—part 2


Previously, I’ve set out the problem evolution and naturalism present for morality. In this second part, I analyze group selection, the original model that sought to explain how morality arose. Despite the majority of evolutionists having dismissed group selection as implausible, in some quarters it has made a rebound.

“Morality is a set of psychological adaptions that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefit of cooperation.” (Greene, J., Moral Tribes: Emotion, reason, and the gap between us and them, Atlantic Books, London, p. 185, 2015.)

Group selection—all for one, and one for all

Michael Wade defined group selection as “that process of genetic change which is caused by the differential extinction or proliferation of groups of organisms.”1 Originally proposed by Alfred Russel Wallace,2 a collection of organisms will cooperate to gain a more secure existence against threats to the group’s survival than a single organism could on its own. An individual organism will surrender its own best interests so that the probability of extinction of the group or species is minimized, though this does not necessarily exclude some gain passing to the individual. Bence Nanay has circularly addressed the quite real at-cross-purposes end product of group selection, writing that “If I do something that decreases my fitness, this can still be evolutionarily useful, as long as it increases the fitness of the group, since the fitness of the group is what counts (given that the unit of selection is the group).”3

The early bird doesn’t always get its worm

Wynne-Edwards argued that birds’ reproductive output increased until available resources were threatened. Then individuals would reduce reproductive capacity for group survival.4 Lack, another ornithologist, disagreed, showing empirically birds were not demonstrating reproductive self-restraint. This proved the catalyst for an almost universal rejection of group selection by the early 1960s.5 Despite bolstering his theory from a number of animal studies, particularly the red grouse, given the number of variables which affect groups and individuals, Wynne-Edwards eventually conceded that “the scale of the operation in time and space [of these variables] precludes an immediate experimental test of group selection.”6

More importantly, Wynne-Edwards never successfully linked his animal studies and group selection to the rise of morality. He acknowledged that man can occasionally disregard concern for the group, electing for individual needs first. Notwithstanding this admission, he, without a trace of deference to the importance of providing an epistemological justification, stated moral codes are “reinforced by conscience and the law”.7 Of course this is nothing less than question-begging morality into existence, additionally aided by the following conclusion:

“There appears therefore to be no great difficulty in resolving the initial problem as to how intergroup selection can override the concurrent process of selection for individual advantage. Relatively simple genetic mechanisms can be evolved whereby the door is shut to one form of selection and open to the other, securing without conflict the maximum advantage from each.”7

The proponents and their opposition

Most evolutionists today reject the group as the unit of selection, as it runs counter to the core principle of contemporary Darwinian theory; namely, the individual’s overarching role in adaptation and survival, usually interpreted at the gene level.8

West et al. have argued that there is often a widespread, semantic confusion over what group selection truly means. They accuse some well-known academics and specialists of mistakenly conflating intergroup with intragroup selection.9

Ruse, in a moment of frustration, has accused group selection advocates of being “unable emotionally to face the stark nature of the Darwinian process”.10 Individuals are never going to sacrifice their fitness for the group because social behaviour always has enlightened self-interest lurking somewhere. Despite adherents’ complex theoretical models, it is problematic why some group-serving feature, an initial burden for an individual carrying it, would spread to the group. Wouldn’t, say, an altruistic behaviour be pounced upon as a weakness and be exploited by another who doesn’t possess this particular genetic wiring? Furthermore, it has been argued that the modelling for selection between groups has been unable to override the strong effects of selection against the spread of these altruistic traits within the group apart from some highly contrived values.11

Group selection advocates side-step this problem of individual egoism by splitting the selection process for cooperation at the group level from the ‘more’ Darwinian individual fitness maximization. Qualities that promote cooperation—honesty, providing help when needed, charity—cause groups who display them to become better survivors than ones who don’t possess them. Durham believes that group and individual selection do not have to be in opposition:

“… the acceleration of changes made possible by group-level extinction and replacement may be the key to understanding the rapid pace of the evolution of Homo sapiens. Once a trait like Pm [a theoretical phenotype that lies intermediately between the two extremes of minimum costs and benefits and maximum costs and benefits drawn from a hypothesized process of cultural selection] gets established by individual-level cultural selection within a social group, that trait may then give its bearers an advantage as a group in competition with other groups.”12

Such neat independence is unrealistic and unlikely. After all, much depends on a selfish variant not being introduced into the altruists’ group. If an altruistic gene can arise and spread throughout a population, why could not a selfish scoundrel just as easily pop into existence and weave his Machiavellian mischief? Before long a whole, silently plotting army of egoists would lie, cheat, pillage, plunder, and breed themselves to become the majority.13 An initial society of altruists would become evolutionary unstable, while the egoist community would obtain stability and prove robust against external attacks.14

On the recognition that cheats can prosper, Ayala accepts that group selection is not an evolutionary stable strategy. However, he consigns such parasitism to the non-human world, arguing instead that humans “can perceive the benefits of altruistic behaviour for the group (and through the group to themselves) and choose to behave altruistically.”15 Two comments. First, once an argument introduces ‘benefits’ as the raison d’être it would appear to be for instrumental considerations, teleological purposes and consequences other than morality. Second, similar to Hobbes, Ayala claims altruistic behaviour requires enforcement by political authority with bite. This, surely, question-begs whether the ‘behaviour’ in need of government authority is actually moral. Christians could point out any number of laws which, although supported by majorities, would be unquestionably called immoral. Same-sex marriage, abortion, and restriction to freedom of speech, particularly limiting or even outlawing the right to criticize religions other than Christianity, quickly come to mind.

Through a series of overly imaginative thought experiments, Kitcher explains how normative capacities arose. The details are irrelevant (nothing novel to report here!); what is insightful is Kitcher’s question-begging that our putative evolutionary hominid relations gained sufficient altruistic tendencies. More telling is his admission that his answer is “backed by all-too-little evidence”.16

Other explanations have been suggested to buttress group selection. These include populations dividing into small groups and being dispersed, that whole groups are frequently made extinct often through stronger groups exterminating weaker ones, and higher inbreeding rates.17

Image: Classic Image / Alamy Stock PhotoPhoto of JBS Haldane
Figure 1. JBS Haldane (1892–1964) unreasonably argued that an altruistic gene could become fixed in a population if highly favourable circumstances were in force. He apparently ignored the eliminative effect of genetic drift.

Haldane (figure 1) proposed that, under special conditions, an altruistic gene could possibly advance in a population if: (i) the initial gene’s frequency was sufficiently high, (ii) the disadvantage of possessing the gene was low in comparison to the advantage conferred on the group, and (iii) the group split into smaller ‘tribes’ which facilitated the first event to come about.18 Hamilton, a year prior to his famous Inclusive Fitness paper, criticized Haldane’s group selection on the principle that novelty usually resulted in rapid disappearance:

“[Haldane] did not, however, sufficiently emphasize that ultimately the gene number must begin to do what the gene frequency tends to do, ex hypothesi, from the very first; namely, to decrease to zero.”19

Intergroup Selection, as proposed by Sewall Wright (figure 2), in which altruistic genes are spread from a small, often related, group, is premised on the viability of genetic drift being able to retain favourable characteristics, as well as severe inbreeding, leading to chance homozygosity of the altruistic gene.20 He theorized that large populations would break up into much smaller temporary or imperfectly isolated groups and, in these initial small groups, the gene would become fixed and the group would expand in size.21 Once fixed in a small group, immigrants would relocate outside to another small group and the process would begin all over again. Wright argued that the groups the altruistic genes enter were also sufficiently small in population22 to allow altruistic gene frequency to drift to high values. The ‘invaded’ group must be small due to the assumed initial disadvantage that an altruistic gene would have because “even a minute selective disadvantage to a gene in a population of moderate size can cause an almost deterministic reduction of the gene to a negligible frequency.”23 This three-step process of genetic drift, intrademic selection, and interdemic selection became known as the shifting balance theory.24

Photo of Sewall Wright 
Figure 2. Sewall Wright theorized that genetic drift would randomly and favourably allow altruistic alleles to become dominant within a group. This group would subsequently split and an altruistic individual would enter another non-altruistic group and somehow proliferate. Proponents of intergroup selection argue a saint immigrating to a population of immoral individuals can, over time, replace the maleficent group.

This reeks of special pleading, where the disadvantageous role of genetic drift is acknowledged but the required fitness-decreasing attribute, altruism, is still permitted to not only appear, but spread. E.O. Wilson admits that in quite small populations “drift can completely swamp out the overall effect of differential extinction within the population”, yet, in the same breath, referring to Haldane’s pioneering work, ignores the impact of genetic drift by claiming “the process is feasible if the groups are small enough for altruists to confer a quick advantage.”25

As ReMine and others have pointed out, small populations work against a beneficial gene mutation being fixed as they are rarer and can be rapidly removed by chance.26 Well understood, drift tends to eliminate novelty rather than preserving it, and Wright gave unreasonably high values to their retention in the outside groups.27 Williams noted how Simpson severely criticized Wright by identifying the “rather improbable concatenation of the population parameters of size, number, degree of isolation, and the balance of genic and group selection coefficients.”28

The model’s success also depended on overcoming a small population’s greater tendency to head towards extinction more readily than larger ones. Williams, the key influence behind Dawkins’ push for the gene as the unit of selection, claimed such a process to be virtually impossible, labelling it ‘misinterpretation [and] impotent’ and going on to say “group related adaptations do not, in fact, exist.”29 While begging the question of an individual gene for self-sacrifice initially coming into existence, Williams objected to the contrived circumstances of the model. Not only would a highly disadvantaged individual have to survive its parlous environment, it would have to migrate to another group where altruistic tendencies were not disadvantageous, and then migrate back to form its own group of like-minded altruists. All this would unravel at a fillip if a selfish mutant were to appear among them.

Sober and Wilson demur, however.30 Take a group of, say, 200 individuals containing a very small percentage of self-sacrificing helpers. After a few generations the ratio of non-helpers to helpers would increase, eventually leading to the complete extinction of helpfulness. But, argue Sober and Wilson, something very interesting happens if this original 200 is evenly split into two isolated groups, one containing only non-helpers, the other holding the same number of helpers as the original thought experiment. After a few generations, the ratio of helpers to non-helpers will fall within the second group, but, relative to the global population, the ratio actually increases. After several generations, mirroring the outcome of the initial calculations, the helpers of the second group would also become extinct. However, consider what would occur if a ‘special’ event allowed the two groups to recombine, say, after the third generation. If this new mega-group were proportionally culled back to the original 200 and divided into the two disparate groups of exclusively non-helpers and a mixed population, the latter would start reproduction from a greater ratio base of helpers to non-helpers than the original. Furthermore, if the members were allowed to associate with whomever they preferred (i.e. helpers attracting like-minded souls), reiteration of the splitting and recombination process would slowly, but inexorably, increase the percentage of helpers to non-helpers.

Now, what would happen if the whole scenario began again, but with a reversal of percentages of helpers to non-helpers and allowed to reproduce for a similar tally of generations? If the first group were all helpers and the second contained a minority of non-helpers, eventually the latter’s non-helping numbers would increase but then decrease relative to the global population of actors. Splitting and recombining the groups would lead to the non-helpers’ extinction.31

Richard Joyce, in response, called this ‘number fiddling’,32 while others have raised doubts regarding the methodological impracticalities of undertaking the tremendous amount of empirical research to ascertain whether group selection really occurs, whether a population does actually hold distinct subsets and whether or not these clusters exhibit a genetic-based variance in fitness.33

The phoenix returns

A recent paper has, however, advocated a re-evaluation of group selection. E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson have sought to dispel the, as they see it, original confusion surrounding its rejection.34 Responding to Williams’, Dawkins’, and others’ efforts to remove the group as a significant evolutionary force, they have argued that its detractors’ fundamental objections—theoretical implausibility, lack of empirical evidence, and more robust alternative explanations—are no longer sustainable. They cite the ‘behaviour’ of microbial organisms, highly contrived cultures of bacteria and phage being directed by a ‘prespecified migration scheme’, and artificial selection of groups of plants rather than individuals, to counter Williams et al.’s contention that selection is not operating at the group level.35

Ignore the problems raised against group selection but recall evolutionists’ ultimate objective: the group was fancied a rudimentary antecedent to human altruism. Conceding that original naïve group-only selection lacked proof, the Wilsons attempt to salvage their theory by claiming that the appearance and spread of altruism happens instead on a multilevel basis. Rather than selection occurring exclusively on one level, fitness differences can occur on all levels, within a ‘nested hierarchy’ of units. Altruism arises through genes and individuals within a group, and then extends beyond the borders of a single group to acting between groups. Acknowledging that overcoming altruism’s selective disadvantage within a group is the core problem, the authors nevertheless argue that if this

“… trait is locally disadvantageous wherever it occurs, then the only way for it to evolve in the total population is for it to be advantageous at a larger scale. Groups whose members act ‘for the good of the group’ must contribute more to the total gene pool than groups whose members act otherwise. This is the only solution to the problem from an accounting standpoint, which is why the basic logic of multilevel selection is present in all theoretical frameworks.”36

E.O. Wilson has continued to carry the flag for multi-level selection:

“… the unit of heredity is the gene, which typically acts as part of a network of genes, and the target of natural selection is the trait prescribed by the gene … . A gene for a trait that affects a group member’s longevity and reproduction relative to other members in the same group is said to be subject to individual-level natural selection. A gene for a trait entailing cooperation and other forces of interaction with fellow group members may or may not be subject to individual-level selection. In either case it is also likely to affect longevity and reproduction of the group as a whole. Because groups compete with other groups, in both conflict and their relative efficiency in resource extraction, their differing traits are subject to natural selection. In particular, the genes prescribing interactive (hence social) traits are subject to group-level selection.”37

With such malleability, it remains unpersuasive that there is a single rational justification, short of highly contrived mathematical modelling, for their claim that group selection is a major factor.38

Equally astonishing is their confidence in meretricious and ‘just so’ stories that amount to nothing more than special pleading. Altruism arose because groups became level playing fields, which allowed social equality and fairness to extend to other groups:

“A key event in early human evolution was a form of guarded egalitarianism [which suppressed] fitness differences within groups [and] made it possible for between-group selection to become a powerful evolutionary force … . The human major transition was a rare event, but once accomplished, our ability to function as team players in coordinated groups enabled our species to achieve worldwide dominance.”39

Evolution is principled upon differential survival, yet here are two evolutionists implying that differential survival suppresses differential survival—a howler which, no doubt, would have Popper turn in his grave!

Tautology and special pleading permeate the literature. For example, two authors pleonastically and circularly explain group selection’s possibility by proposing that “differential extinction of groups can account for the direction of evolutionary change in a trait only when groups differ in the trait and when this difference accounts for the difference in extinction rate.”40

 Image: Shah Jahan / Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0Photo of Arabian babbler
Figure 3. Arabian babbler (Argya squamiceps). A bird, giving out a distress call to alert the flock of a nearby predatory threat, and thus putting its own existence at risk, is a standard example to demonstrate group-selection altruism. However, doubts have arisen over this explanation. One hypothesis is that sentinels may be warning the predator it’s been spotted for the bird’s own survival, not primarily for the group.

Likewise, special pleading. Consider a recent paper in which its authors conveniently argue:

“The paradox in the evolution of altruism is that carriers that are, on average, at a local disadvantage (i.e. compared to those they interact with) can still have higher fitness than the population average and hence can increase overall. The most fundamental explanation for how altruism (defined by local interactions) increases in a population requires that there be assortments in the population such that the benefit from others falls sufficiently often to carriers (and at the same time non-altruists are stuck interacting more with each other).”41

Bowles lays out several counterfactuals against the possibility of altruism arising through group selection but sets these data aside and claims that early humans acquired culturally transmitted norms, like monogamy and consensus decision-making. These, he argues, “reduced within-group differences in fitness [which] may have attenuated the selective pressures to which altruists are subject.”42 For support, he includes a dazzling array of charts, graphs, and intricate equations. In a rare moment of transparency, he concludes that the “above estimates are subject to substantial error given that they are inferences about conditions occurring tens of thousands of years ago for which very little direct evidence is available.”43

As noted by Williams, mutatis mutandis, any behavioural trait could be explained through the fallacy of ‘evolutionary plasticity’. He astutely observed that “a biologist can make any evolutionary speculation seem scientifically acceptable merely by adorning his arguments with the forms and symbols of the theory of natural selection.”44


Something important has been lost in this forest of dispute. Whether one sees merit or places no value in the group selection argument, everything rests on having an actual gene(s), or a proxy mechanism, for altruism. No one has demonstrated this, its reality only presupposed. The considerable disagreement among evolutionists and the paucity of evidence for deriving altruism through group selection should give creationists confidence that morality is a unique attribute of human existence, remaining inexplicable through group selection specifically and, more generally, within a materialist worldview.45

In the next part I will discuss several other proposed evolutionary explanations for the rise of morality. These, like group selection, fare no better.

Posted on homepage: 5 January 2024

References and notes

  1. Wade, M.J., A Critical review of the models of group selection, The Quarterly Review of Biology 53(2):101, Jun 1978. Return to text.
  2. There is some disagreement concerning the accuracy of this. Ruse, without explanation, comments that Wallace favoured group selection. (Ruse, M., Taking Darwin Seriously: A naturalistic approach to philosophy, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, p. 48, 1986.) However, for a more detailed exploration and contrary position, see Bulmer, M., The theory of natural selection of Alfred Russel Wallace, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 59(2):125–136, May 2005. From the following passages I would think it reasonably clear Darwin himself held to some group dynamic: “For firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them” (Darwin, C., The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Penguin Books, London, p. 121, 2004). See also his discussion about the individual acting for the ‘general good’ on pp. 144 ff. Also note the following: “as happiness is an essential part of the general good, the greatest happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong” (Ibid., Darwin, p. 681). From these remarks you can certainly appreciate the impact that utilitarianism had on Darwin’s normative values. See also ref. 8, below. Robert Richards has claimed that Darwin’s views on group selection strengthened over time and that later editions of the Origin were more forceful in promoting the explanation. See Richards, R., Darwin on mind, morals and emotions; in: Hodge, J. and Radick, G. (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 103, 114, n. 37, 2003. Korsgaard alludes to an even earlier suggestion of the group being hierarchically superior. She writes, “Hobbes and Pufendorf believed that the content of morality is given by natural reason. What morality demands of us is what it is reasonable for us, at least as a group, to do” (Korsgaard, C.M., The Sources of Normativity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 27, 2009). Some caution is due, however. Both of these early modern philosophers took moral impetus to lie in some sort of divine command: “They believed that it takes God or a Godlike sovereign to impose moral properties on the indifferent world of nature” (Korsgaard, p. 22). Return to text.
  3. Nanay, B., Group selection and our obsession with the meaning of life, The Monist 93(1):76–95, Jan 2010; p. 80. Return to text.
  4. For a full elaboration of Wynne-Edwards’ theory, see his article: Intergroup selection in the evolution of social systems, Nature 200(4907):623–626, 1963. A quite useful summary of Wynne-Edwards’ life and work can be read at encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2830906226.html, accessed 20 Aug 2021. Return to text.
  5. See Ridley, M., The Origins of Virtue, Softback Preview, England, pp. 175–176, 1997; Wynne-Edwards, ref. 4. The idea was also attacked in Williams, G., Adaptation and Natural Selection: A critique of some current evolutionary thought, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 103 ff, 1966. For a humorous sketch of Haldane lampooning Wynne-Edwards’ group selection to Maynard Smith, see Kohn, M., A Reason for Everything: Natural selection and the English imagination, Faber and Faber, London, pp. 227–228, 2005. Return to text.
  6. Wynne-Edwards, ref. 4, p. 625. Return to text.
  7. Wynne-Edwards, ref. 4, p. 626. Return to text.
  8. Darwin, however, did allude to group selection in his discussion of the ‘probable’ steps that were involved in transforming a selfish tribe to a more altruistic one. He wrote, “It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another” (Darwin, ref. 2, p. 157). Return to text.
  9. West, S.A., Griffin, A.S., and Gardner, A., Social semantics: altruism, cooperation, mutualism, strong reciprocity and group selection, J. Evolutionary Biology 20(2):415–432, Mar 2007. Elliott Sober maintains, however, Darwin was a pluralist with respect to selection and on some matters supported the group as a vehicle for evolution of a trait. See Sober, E., The ABCs of altruism; in: Post, S.G., Underwood, L.G., Schloss, J.P., and Hurlbut, W.B. (Eds.), Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, philosophy and religion in dialogue, Oxford University Press, New York, p. 18, 2002. Return to text.
  10. Ruse, M., A Darwinian naturalist’s perspective on altruism; in: Post et al. (Eds.), ref. 9, p. 154. Return to text.
  11. For such and other difficulties of group selection, see Brandon, R.N. and Burian, R.M., Genes, Organisms, Populations: Controversies over the units of selection, Bradford Books/MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1984. For arguments for its existence, see Sober, E. and Wilson, D.S., Unto Others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1998. Return to text.
  12. Durham, W.H., Toward a coevolutionary theory of human biology and culture; in: Caplan, A.L. (Ed.), The Sociobiology Debate, Harper & Row, New York, p. 440, 1978. Also see morality being introduced via group selection due to its being ‘sexy’ in Miller, G., Kindness, fidelity, and other sexually selected virtues; in: Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (Ed.), Moral Psychology, vol. 1, The Evolution of Morality: Adaptions and innateness, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MS, pp. 209–243, 2008. For germane criticisms of this application of group selection, see Driscoll, C., Why moral virtues are probably not sexual adaptions; in: Sinnott-Armstrong, pp. 245–250. Retrospective explanations often incorporate ‘bait-and-switch’. For example, Richard Alexander, twice over, employs words which more or less signal the same idea but utilizes them to appear as though they are performing two separate functions. He writes, “once groups form, social behaviour evolves within them for three reasons: First, it may enhance the original advantage of group living” (Alexander, R.D., The evolution of social behaviour, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 5:325–383, 1974; pp. 329). Surely it would be inconceivable, on the level of an oxymoron, to have a group without social behaviour. Is it at all possible to be a member of a group but display absolutely no evidence of the latter? Groups can, and only can, be understood to be a synonym for social behaviour. Social behaviour doesn’t come into being (in his words, ‘evolve’) after groups form but exists from the beginning. Evolutionists cannot argue otherwise because they would be faced with the bigger problem of explaining what would appear to be either a teleological phenomenon or something so complex as social behaviour ‘popping’ into existence without a cause. Return to text.
  13. Or, as Robert Frank points out, group goals can be avoided due to the absence of around-the-clock detection: “[There are people] whose strategy is to follow all group norms except those that are manifestly impractical to enforce. Such a person would not tip at restaurants away from home, or make anonymous donations to charity, or vote; nor would he return a lost wallet found on a street corner. But where convenience dictated he would pour pesticide down his basement drain or toss litter on a deserted beach” (Frank, R.H., Honesty as an evolutionarily stable strategy, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12(4):705–706, Dec 1989). Notwithstanding his cavil, Frank, however, remains committed to an evolutionarily stable strategy by supposing, rather naïvely I contend, cheats can be quickly discovered by, among other things, their body language belying their (fake) honesty and cooperation. Return to text.
  14. Of all academic disciplines, it would not be entirely unfair to implicate philosophy as being quixotic. It’s been argued that if it were discovered that morality was not so moral after all, that evolutionary considerations and empiricism dragged us screaming and kicking to a conclusion that some of our deliberations were motivated by entirely selfish reasons, this would not constitute reason to reject all moral judgements based on a similar origin. The philosopher Hallvard Lillehammer is committed to retaining moral judgements despite a finding just such as this. He justifies his position by stating, “while the discovery that what appeared to be an instance of altruism is really selfishness in disguise might be depressing, the possibility remains that we would on reflection prefer the appearance of altruistic acts over blatantly selfish behaviour” (Lillehammer, H., Debunking morality: evolutionary naturalism and moral error theory, Biology and Philosophy 18(4):573, Sep 2003). The lengths people go to in order to justify an incredibly bad idea never cease to amaze. I’m quite sure, for people living in the real world, the speedy identification of a narcissistic sociopath is a valued enterprise. I don’t want to be fooled by faux-good works but to quickly discern the selfish so as to avoid or protect those that are unable to look after themselves. Return to text.
  15. Ayala, F., Biology to ethics: an evolutionist’s view of human nature; in: Boniolo, G. and De Anna, G. (Eds.), Evolutionary Ethics and Contemporary Biology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 152, 2006. Return to text.
  16. Kitcher, P., Between fragile altruism and morality: evolution and the emergence of normative guidance: in: Boniolo and De Anna (Eds.), ref. 15, p. 170. Return to text.
  17. Although he stands firm that group selection remains a viable alternative, Michael Wade’s paper examines several of its problems. See Wade, M., ref. 1, pp. 101–114. Wade’s paper is useful for identifying the ‘realistic’ (read, tendentious) assumptions that proponents of group selection filter through to their models. Also see Wispé, L. (Ed.), Altruism, Sympathy, and Helping: Psychological and sociological principles, Academic Press, New York, p. 50, 1978, and Wilson, E.O., Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, chap. 5, 2000, Wilson is one of the most quoted and respected of evolutionary scientists, though not in equal measure. He’s particularly referred to concerning his study of insects and deliberations on the ‘history’ of moral behaviour. In his concluding comments to this chapter, Wilson quite astutely recognizes that science and religion should not be divorced from each other. And it is to this end that he suggests “a science of sociobiology, if coupled with neurophysiology, might transform the insights of ancient religions into a precise account of the evolutionary origin of ethics” (p. 191). Unfortunately, his preferred text is the Bhagavad Gita, in particular a splice from the dialogue between Arjuna and the Indian god Krishna, to link the “conduct of termite colonies and turkey brotherhoods to the social behaviour of man.” Return to text.
  18. Haldane, J.B.S., The Causes of Evolution, Longmans Green & Co., London, p. 235, 1932. As to the intellectual honesty of assuming an altruistic gene’s high frequency, an anonymous reviewer has helpfully expanded on how this fanciful solution plays out in an evolutionary mindset. I quote his comment in full: “They assume a particular gene starts out being initially neutral, and ‘drifts’ its way to ‘sufficiently high frequencies’—and then a ‘change’ happens (say, due to a change in the environment), and this neutral gene becomes ‘beneficial’, and then begins its substitution process already at a high frequency. The big problem is that they ignore the bad side effects of their own story. Environmental change is random with respect to genes, and random change is overwhelmingly harmful, not beneficial. In other words, the neutral gene will almost always be turned into harmful, and this process will overwhelm their storytelling. Evolutionists cannot be allowed to ‘select’ the mechanism they like and ignore the ones they don’t like. They must take nature as it is.” I thank this reviewer for his insight. Return to text.
  19. Hamilton, W.D., The Evolution of Altruistic Behavior, The American Naturalist 97(896):354, Sep–Oct 1963. Return to text.
  20. ReMine neatly outlines the reasons that evolutionists propose small populations, opt for the bean-bag approach to trait accumulation and ignore the importance of polygeny. These unrealistic assumptions tendentiously serve to theoretically overcome the awkward and insurmountable problem of inadequate reproduction rate of the higher vertebrates. See ReMine W.J., The Biotic Message: Evolution versus message theory, St Paul Science, Saint Paul, MN, pp. 193–194, 1993. Return to text.
  21. Wright’s concepts concerning population structure came from cattle breeding in which a farmer would artificially inbreed his animals and then cross-breed them with another group. As remarked by Provine, Wright’s belief that animal husbandry was applicable to nature was “based upon very little evidence”. Provine, W.B., Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, p. 236, 1986. Wright also observed highly inbred populations of guinea pigs, which led him to conclude that very small, isolated populations led to deleterious fitness and extinction. Return to text.
  22. Confusingly, E.O. Wilson writes, “[altruistic] genes can prevail over all the metapopulation if the populations they [the altruistic genes] aid are small enough to allow them to drift to high values” (Wilson, ref. 17, p. 109); whereas W.C. Allee writes, “Wright and others have evidence that evolution proceeds most rapidly in populations of interbreeding organisms that are intermediate in size, as compared with similar populations which are over-small or over-large” (Allee, W.C., Where angels fear to tread: a contribution from general sociology to human ethics; in: Caplan (Ed.), ref. 12, p. 44). Williams points out that Wynne-Edwards postulated that smelts, in groups of tens of thousands of individuals, and marine invertebrates, in their millions, may be the origin of biotic adaptations, despite individuals carrying a disadvantage. (Wynne-Edwards, V.C., Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh & London, 1962. Quoted in: Williams, ref. 5, p. 113.) Also note Fisher’s opposition to the importance of drift because he regarded the fixation of low-frequency mutations more likely in larger populations because they were more often going to occur compared to small populations. For a discussion, see Provine, ref. 21, p. 239 ff. All I can say is, go figure! Return to text.
  23. Williams, ref. 5, p. 113. Wright admitted, however, that the population cannot be too small as drift would lead inevitably to “loss of variance, and degeneration” (Wright, S., The genetical theory of natural selection: a review, J. Heredity 21(8):354, Aug 1930, pp. 349–356). Return to text.
  24. For two worthwhile discussions on this, see Provine, ref. 21, pp. 285 ff, and ReMine’s thoroughly subversive review of the theory, ref. 20, pp. 190–192. Return to text.
  25. Wilson, E.O., The Genetic Evolution of Altruism; in: Wispé (Ed.), ref. 18, p. 16. Return to text.
  26. ReMine, W.J., ref. 20, p. 181. Also see Sanford, J.C., Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome, FMS Publications, Waterloo, NY, pp. 76 and passim, 2005. For further explanation on the failure of drift, see Tomkins, J.P. and Bergman, J., Neutral Model, genetic drift and the Third Way—a synopsis of the self-inflicted demise of the evolutionary paradigm, J. Creation 31(3):94–102, 2017. Return to text.
  27. See Wright, S., Evolution and the Genetics of Populations, vol. 2: Theory of Gene Frequencies, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1969. Also see Wilson, ref. 17, p. 166. Return to text.
  28. Williams, ref. 5, p. 112. Return to text.
  29. Williams, ref. 5, pp. 8, 93. Williams, however, along with Bill Hamilton (the originator of Kin Selection, another model to explain the rise of morality, which is to be examined in a subsequent part), later in life did somewhat ameliorate his views on group selection. As explained by Samir Okasha, both “did come to accept elements of a ‘hierarchical’ [i.e. multi-level] approach, though without rescinding their commitment to gene’s eye thinking” (Okasha, S. and Maynard Smith, J., On the levels of selection question, Biology and Philosophy 20(5):997, Nov 2005). For more detail on the modification of their views, see Okasha, pp. 997 ff. It must be kept in mind that Okasha is pro-group selection, believing, somehow, for example, the prokaryote to eukaryote transition is best explained by a group selection mechanism. Return to text.
  30. Sober and Wilson, ref. 11. Lest I misrepresent these two as idealistic, ivory tower, dyed-in-the-wool group selectionists, they comment that this mode of selection is not all as rosy as it appears: “[Group selection] provides a context in which hurting individuals in other groups can be selectively advantageous. Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness” (p. 9). Also note Sober and Wilson’s earlier paper, with additional comments from opponents and detractors; in: Reintroducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 17(4):585–654, Dec 1994. For another of Sober’s mathematical, tendentious, assumption-filled explanations, see his From a Biological Point of View: Essays in evolutionary philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 10–13, 1994. Return to text.
  31. Responding to Sober and Wilson’s attempt to place group selection back on the table, Randolph Nesse notes the attractiveness of their project and the demon in the alternative: “W[ilson] & S[ober] seem determined to demonstrate that human altruism arises from group selection. I sympathize with their wish. The discovery that tendencies to altruism are shaped by benefits to genes is one of the most disturbing in the history of science. When I first grasped it, I slept badly for many nights, trying to find some alternative that did not so roughly challenge my sense of good and evil. Understanding this discovery can undermine commitment to morality—it seems silly to restrain oneself if moral behavior is just another strategy for advancing the interests of one’s genes. Some students, I am embarrassed to say, have left my courses with a naïve notion of the selfish gene theory that seemed to them to justify selfish behavior, despite my best efforts to explain the naturalistic fallacy [sic]. Is selfish-gene theory a meme that is toxic to social structures that depend on commitment to abstract moral principles? I worry a lot about this possibility and thus sympathize with those who want to show that human altruism was shaped by group selection. If this were true, it would help, psychologically at least, to reconcile our moral feelings with our biological natures. Unfortunately, it seems to be false” (Nesse, R., Why is group selection such a problem? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 17(4):633–634, Dec 1994). Return to text.
  32. Joyce, R., The Evolution of Morality, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, p. 37, 2007. As a result of this seemingly tendentious numbers game, Joyce remains ambivalent whether altruism was an outcome of group selection. However, “what is important is that helping behaviours have been selected for” (p. 38). Note the circularity: helping behaviours exist; evolution is the only explanatory game in town; it doesn’t matter if group selection is what really happened as long as we can provide a model because we know that evolution must have caused helping behaviours to arise. For a fuller account of Sober and Wilson’s model, see Joyce, pp. 33–40. Abstract thought experiments notwithstanding, Jane Goodall observed prolific cannibalism within a group initiated by a high-ranking female and one of her daughters, and a four-year war of extermination when a group of chimps divided. Despite the smaller one still remaining within the original territory, the larger one ‘annihilated’ the former (Goodall, J., Reason for Hope: A spiritual journey, Thorsons, London, pp. 113–117, 1999). Return to text.
  33. It’s been argued that the selection debate has been influenced by one’s worldview. On the background debate, see Shavit, A., Shifting values partly explain the debate over group selection, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 35(4):698 ff, Dec 2004. Some hint of the elusiveness of nailing down a tight definition of ‘group’ is revealed in Shavit’s labelling of it as a ‘metaphor’ (p. 700). Shavit’s paper is one of the most riveting and controversial papers I’ve read. This well-documented argument is that political allegiances influenced people’s ideas on what selection process they supported. For example, she writes that “during World War II many Anglo-American scientists associated group selection with fascist ideologies, and individual selection with democracy and freedom” (p. 704). For an equally fascinating paper on the politics behind the man and his theory, see Shapiro, A.M., Haldane, J.B.S., Marxism, and the conduct of research, The Quarterly Review of Biology 68(1):69–77, Mar 1993. Return to text.
  34. Wilson, D.S. and Wilson, E.O., Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology, The Quarterly Review of Biology 82(4):327–348, Dec 2007. Return to text.
  35. Wilson and Wilson, ref. 34, pp. 333–334. For references which point out and address the basic errors in the Wilsons’ confusion, particularly with respect to their proposed counter-examples, see West, S.A., Griffin, A.S., and Gardner, A., Social semantics: altruism, cooperation, mutualism, strong reciprocity and group selection, J. Evolutionary Biology 20(2):424, 2007. Also note the host of problems brought about by differences in definitions of groups and the abstract and broad nature of such, semantics, heuristic values etc. in Shavit, A. and Millstein, R.L., Group selection is dead! long live group selection, BioScience 58(7):574–575, Jul/Aug 2008. Return to text.
  36. Wilson and Wilson, ref. 34, p. 338. Return to text.
  37. Wilson, E.O., The Meaning of Human Existence, Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, pp. 62–63, 2014. Return to text.
  38. Apparently oblivious to the binding force of the Law of Non-Contradiction, David Wilson confidently proposed that “traits that benefit whole groups can spread only by causing groups possessing the trait to out-produce other groups. If these traits are also disadvantageous within groups (i.e. they are altruistic), then the process of group selection must be correspondingly strong” (Wilson, D.S., A critique of R.D. Alexander’s views on group selection, Biology and Philosophy 14(3):437, Jul 1999). Samir Okasha points out that a part of the disagreement regarding group-only selection centred upon the definition of a group. Wilson, along with Elliott Sober, took an entirely different direction to Maynard Smith on what exactly constitutes a group. See Okasha, S., ref. 29. Return to text.
  39. Wilson and Wilson, ref. 34, p. 343. More recently, E.O. Wilson has continued his highly idealistic having-his-cake-and-eating-it-too multilevel selection explanation: “the key to the mystery is the force that lifted prehuman social behaviour to the human level. The leading candidate is multilevel selection, by which hereditary social behaviour improves the competitive ability not just of individuals within groups but among groups as a whole … during organic evolution the unit of natural selection is not the individual organism or the group, as some popular writers have misconstrued … . The target of natural selection is the trait prescribed by the gene. The trait can be individual in nature and selected in competition among individuals inside or outside the group. Or the trait can be socially interactive in nature with other members of the group (as in communication and cooperation) and selected by competition among groups. A group of uncooperative, poorly communicating individuals will lose to its better organized competitors … multilevel selection, with a powerful role of group-to-group competition, has been a major force in the forging of advanced social behaviour” (Wilson, ref. 37, pp. 28–29). Wilson also seems oblivious to the internal contradiction generated by group selection. He writes that “Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue” (Wilson, ref. 37, p. 33). The former’s altruism in and of itself cannot beat selfish groups in an altruistic manner. If groups of altruists win out over groups of selfish individuals then they must do so by being selfish toward the selfish group. In any case, the plausibility of Wilson’s argument does rest on an oversimplification: no group, and certainly no individual, is purely altruistic. Return to text.
  40. Alexander, R.D. and Borgia, G., Group selection, altruism, and the levels of organization of life, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 9:450, 1978. Return to text.
  41. Fletcher, J.A. and Doebeli, M., How altruism evolves: assortment and synergy, J. Evolutionary Biology 19(5):1389, Sep 2006. Return to text.
  42. Bowles, S., Group competition, reproductive leveling, and the evolution of human altruism, Science 314(5805):1569, Dec 2006. Return to text.
  43. Bowles, ref. 42, p. 1572. Return to text.
  44. Williams, ref. 5, p. 21. No more perspicuous example is to be found than in Nanay’s paper. He writes, “our [contemporary] evolutionarily fixed psychological disposition to look for the meaning of life is an extension of our evolutionary fixed psychological disposition to be part of an isolated [Pleistocene] group, [and] then taking the meaning of life to derive from some larger [contemporary] group one is part of is a natural way of satisfying this disposition” (Nanay, ref. 3, pp. 76–95). Certain that our putative Pleistocene ancestors were, for example, addicted to sugar, and that this was then adaptive, but clearly not so now, Nanay distinguishes himself by supporting these claims with the following: “we do not have any direct evidence of what [this environmental adaptedness] looked like, but some of its characteristics can be postulated [my italics] based on what we know about how our ancestors lived in the Pleistocene era” (p. 86). Return to text.
  45. I haven’t included an important counterfactual to group selection; namely, the phenomenon of infanticide. For a brief, and referenced, analysis of this, see Parmigiani, S., De Anna, G., Mainardi, D., and Palanza, P., The biology of human ethics: an evolutionary perspective; in: Boniolo, G. and De Anna, G. (Eds.), ref. 15, pp. 129 ff. Social Darwinism, the biological parent’s black sheep sibling, has its group selectionist adherents. The uber-capitalist Andrew Carnegie, disciple and friend of Spencer, wrote that the biological foundations of the law of competition “cannot [be] evade[d; there are] no substitutes for it; and while the law may sometimes be hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department” (Carnegie, A., Wealth, North American Review 148(391):653–664, Jun1889; pp. 655). Mark Francis, despite Carnegie’s enthusiasm for Spencer, argues that “Spencer’s progressive evolutionary theory has been widely misunderstood as a hard-hearted apology for business” (Francis, M., Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life, Acumen, Stocksfield, UK, p. 278, 2007). Whatever the merits of Francis’s arguments are, it is difficult to see how this can be reconciled with Spencer’s clear dislike for social welfare. It is quite possible that the two can be quite happy bedfellows but, ostensibly at least, there appears to be some tension. Return to text.