Group Selection – Universal Darwinism Part 1

In this case, we’re using a framework of universal Darwinism. This position rests on the position that in systems with i) Variation ii) Selection iii) Heredity – Evolution must emerge. Susan Blackmore has a great intro to this idea – and to memes in general in her ted talk (jump to 3:40)

From the very beginning Darwin saw how group level behaviors would have strong interplay with the survivability of the individual:

“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”

The evolution of group behavior, especially altruism and morality has had a tough go of things. Wilson and Sober have done an excellent job of showing how altruism can evolve on a group level but seem to still be fighting that battle for multi-layer evolution. They do a wonderful job of this, and the intent here is not to duplicate their effort. The goal is to extent the ideas of group level evolution to more behaviors than just altruism or morality. In order to do so we must first dispense with the two most contentious aspects of group selection. As Wilson summarizes in “Darwin’s Cathedral” (pp. 10) these are:

1) not just showing that group formation is adaptive, but showing that it outweighs individual selection and 2) this does not generate a universal morality, but can go in any direction in order to be successful, including out-group violence.

Wilson supposes that there is an ability for multi-layer selection theory. Much like natural and sexual selection are both active forces in evolution, but do not always favor the same traits. Sometimes, in fact, they are in opposition in our favorite case of the peacock’s tail. There is a similar tension with group selection in the case of genetic altruism which obviously runs counter to survival instincts. Blackmore, and miller also show evidence for a runaway brain theory that runs counter to natural selection. The higher order function of this expensive organ are mostly tied to social behavior in (no surprise) the structure and interaction of groups!

This is where we are ready to depart from the genetic discussion of survival. Instead of looking at organisms and genes, let’s look instead at “groups” and memes. Groups being a general description of a “social organism”, where the memetic structure, along with the membership – compose the identity of the group.


About livingthememe

engineer and armchair philosopher
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