ASEBL Journal “Morality and Selection – How?”
This is an interesting article that tries to frame the debate over multilevel selection. Lots of other people have tried to similarly frame this debate, and I am pretty sure that no single prescription is going to resolve the debate. There is a debate about whether we need multilevel selection to understand biological phenomena in large part because biological phenomena are so diverse. Different biologists in different realms have different perspectives on this ‘debate’ because multilevel selection is a valuable tool to particular degrees in their particular realms (sometimes totally necessary, sometimes totally unnecessary, hence the polarized debate).
What I like about this article is that it asks that we consider the human realm specifically, particularly from a bio-cultural (in other words, a gene-culture coevolutionary) perspective. I think that this is entirely appropriate, as human culture is its own completely different evolutionary phenomenon (other than being dependent on our biology, which has much in common with our closest animal relatives).
That said, this article’s call for resolving the debate by focusing on human cooperation seems a bit odd to me. I liken it to trying to resolve the debate which baseball team is the best of all time? from within the lobby of a particular team’s stadium. You cannot get a universal answer from within a particular context. Humans are interesting, and I would predict that looking at human cooperation might allow us to say at least one species has been shaped by group selection, but would that end the debate?
Maybe, but only because our ‘debate’ is so ridiculous. The real reason that there is anything that we might call a ‘group selection debate’ is because there is a large contingent of very orthodox evolutionary biologists — most of whom work in biological systems where multilevel selection is not important — who insist on clinging to the 1960’s idea that group selection can never work as an evolutionary mechanism. Isn’t it about time that we just ignore these fanatics?
This article also uses a short exploration of human moral emotions to argue that multilevel selection is necessary to understand the evolution of said emotions. I cannot agree more that looking at the proximate mechanisms underlying our behaviors — what humans call “emotions” — is critical to understanding what needs to be explained. And I also agree with Robert Axelrod’s original interpretation of the computer algorithms’ decision-making mechanisms: if those mechanisms were found in a human being, we would likely use words like compassion, indignation, and forgiveness to describe them. But arguing that these proximate drivers were shaped by levels of selection above the individual (or individual gene) simply using logic is not very scientific. It is ‘weak hypothesis testing’ at best. Basically Sloan is arguing in this piece that our moral emotions are easier to explain from a multilevel selection perspective. But to actually test the hypothesis that moral emotions allow us to succeed because they produce group-level benefits, we would have to go back to Darwin’s suggestion and actually show that groups of humans in which these emotions are more prominent drivers of behavior out-compete groups in which these emotions have less influence on behaviors. That such a test is difficult to perform is why we are still having a debate.
I do not mean to nitpick, but I have to point out a few things in this article that are just plain wrong:
- I don’t know why one would concede that all forms of genetically-coded altruism are best explained by gene selection. First there is the question of whether kin-level selection is best described as gene selection, but beyond that smaller question there looms the larger question is culture the only thing we can’t explain via gene-level selection? It seems pretty clear to me that there are a lot of altruistic phenomena in nature that have not been well-explained by simply appealing to selection at the level of the individual or gene.
- Although I agree that understanding the evolution of cancer can yield insights into cooperation, this has nothing to do with debates about the behavior of current-day multicellular organisms. What studying cancer allows us to better understand is how multicellular cooperation was achieved, which is likely to shed very little light on why animals perform altruistic behaviors.
- If David Axelrod had written The Evolution of Cooperation, or if its actual author (Robert Axelrod) had served as Senior Advisor to President Obama, this would be a very different country!
A Minor Post, Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Ethics, Group Selection, Methods, Multilevel Selection, Social Norms, Web