Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Matthew Zimmerman on how international relations views the evolution of groups

Posted 07 Jul 2012 / 0

Social Evolution ForumMatthew Zimmerman: Groups as the Most Natural and Useful Level of Analysis (a comment on Pinker)

I am not sure which frustrates me more:

  1. The contention that genes are the only “target” of selection; or
  2. The contention that selection on organisms is the only level at which selection occurs; or
  3. The contention that arguments about individual versus group selection are purely semantic.

This short piece starts off by asserting frustrating contention #3. To say that “any two of these frameworks, independently brought to bear on the same question, can result in similar answers” ignores completely the distinction between self-focused behaviors that maximize individual fitness versus prosocial behaviors that maximize group fitness.

With that complaint aside, I am excited to see this application of evolutionary theory to international relations, and particularly to rebuke the anti-evolution stances of people like Pinker, who apparently buy into the idea that human social evolution cannot be explained using Darwinian theory (what I call the “human cop out clause”).

What is incomplete here is an analysis of how different levels of selection function to produce war between ‘states as individuals’. Why do other lower levels cease to push against war (which would be the logical ‘selfish’ behavior)?

I am interested in the idea of MLS1 versus MLS2 and how selection acting on competing states is about relative growth and success at capturing territory rather than the collapse or extinction of states. It is also interesting to think about how sovereignty consolidates the many overlapping and non-nested group allegiances that exist on scales smaller than the nation-state.

The idea that states begin to resemble each other via emulation is also interesting, as it suggests that horizontal cultural transmission between states may dampen their competition in the same way that cultural transmission within smaller social group can create greater group homogeneity and thus less selfish competition.

For multilevel selection theory to be useful to historians, it needs to explain why groups are a more salient level at which to understand social evolution than lower levels.

A Minor Post, Altruism, Cooperation, Group Selection, Human Evolution, Multilevel Selection, Political Science, Sociology

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