If we apply universal Darwinism to general group selection, where does that take us? We have already gotten the memetic framework to understand “ideas” as units of culture that are replicated socially. Unlike genes in humans, these ideas can transfer horizontally between peers, not just hereditarily. Bacteria are capable of more horizontal gene transfer, but we are trying to get away from genetic analogies.
If the meme is the gene, the society becomes the organism. On a smaller scale it is possible to look at any group as an individually functioning organism. This is not an attempt at over simplification. Biology is full of examples of many semi-autonomous cells working in complementary fashions to form tissues and organs.
All this has been said before right? Yes. The Organismic school of sociology was advocated by Herbert Spencer and Paul von Lilienfeld in the late 19th century. While this is a common reference in social k, Comte and others always warn of going too far.
Where the organismic movement goes astray is in thinking that it means that human groups are part of a deterministic system, or that there is some perfect “more evolved” form of culture. Or that morality could be derived. Ultimately in the hands of Schaeffle, the organismic analogy was dismissed as being cute but not productive.
So when we look at group survival, is it required that being part of a group increase the survival of the individual? In this day and age? No. of course not. We may have originally evolved biological instincts to improve out survival and ability to replicate.
This has also been proposed as “Cultural Darwinism”. Now the fundamental fallacy here is that evolved is conflated with the idea of “better” or more advanced. There are some species on this planet that have not changed in thousands of years.
This two-part summary is perhaps a long-winded pathway to what – to most, is simply an obvious answer. Human groups form for any number of productive reasons. While our group forming tendencies may have evolved over millenia on the fields of hunters and gatherers, today they have little do to with our biological survival. However, the groups were are in still grow, or die, depending on the ideas that compose their identity. The values of a group, the methods for how they keep certain values in place, the attitude towards other groups.
The field of organizational behavior has already gone quite far in showing how certain corporate cultures can lead to the success or failure of companies. Corporate practice has evolved over the years based on a variety of pressures including improvement in worker condition, safety, inclusion of women, equal pay. Lest we think all of this evolution is positive we can also look at many negatives including runaway securitization, accounting fraud, sexual harassment, embezzlement. These too are behaviors that have “evolved” in the context of ever larger organizations. We speak colloquially about corporations being “dinosaurs”. Is being bigger helpful for survival? These are more than just cute analogies.
By applying a darwinian, and memetic lens to our social organizations we can begin to see the way that certain practices spread over time. And the fun part is, that this is not limited to business.