Sunday, 24 February 2013

The reality of group selection - and the not-niceness of group selection


I was talking with Michael A Woodley the other day about group selection, and he made an important observation.

People talk as if group-selection is 'nice' - a kind of caring-sharing socialistic thing; contrasted with the nasty individualism of neo-Darwinian mainstream theory.

But as Michael pointed-out, the opposite is closer to the truth, as we experience it. 


Group selection has been a dirty word in biology since the early-mid-1960s when the (brilliant) insights of WD Hamilton and GC Williams showed how selection was working on genes rather than individual organism - and how (as Richard Dawkins put it) the selfishness of genes implied that organisms could be altruistic... without need for group selection.

And indeed, from this perspective, the pre-requisites of groups selection were many and its effects weak and slow.

But there have always been people, mostly with a 'progressivist' stance, who advocated group selection - because it seemed to them that selection of individual genes or organisms was 'fascist' (in origin and effect) while organisms behaving 'for the good of the group' was nice and socialistic.

In the end, there was a sort of consensus that group selection would have been nice but probably didn't happen; it was a sort of wishful thinking.


But the opposite seems more likely: group selection is real, but it is nasty.


Group selection is certainly real in the sense that complexity can only be built by subordinating the individual unit of reproduction to the reproductive benefits of the larger group - so that a multicellular organism can only exist if it controls the individual cells reproduction such that the individual cell can reproduce only via the reproduction of the whole organism.

This is a matter of control; and especially coercion; and especially killing.

The cells of the body (of your body and mind) must be controlled so that they function for the benefit of the body (and its reproduction) - and this control is imposed by many organism-wide mechanisms of which the immune system is one.

When a cell stops performing its allocated function and/or starts to reproduce itself with the implicit goal of maximizing its own reproduction - then that cell is (usually, if possible) eliminated by the immune system.

If immune surveillance or effectiveness breaks-down, or if the individual cell evades immune elimination, we call the outcome cancer: so a cell that lines the lung or the gut or covers the body stops its proper function of absorbing gas or digesting food or covering the flesh - and instead switches its energy to making copies of itself and seeding these copies to grow around the body.


Anyway, the principles of group selection apply to human societies just as they do to human bodies: humans societies can only exist insofar as they subordinate individuals to the society - so that individuals 'benefit' more from performing their function and reproducing as a part of the society, than they do from pursuing their own independent reproductive benefit.

This aspect of group selection is basically a nasty thing - at least from our individual, personal perspective. It means that the social imperative is to ensure that individuals perform their function of serving the survival, growth and reproduction of the society that contains them - and if they do not, then they must be eliminated.

Still, nice or nasty, group selection is a reality in situations of complexity - and the scientific problem is not to argue over whether it exists, and is nice or nasty - but to understand how it works in each specific situation.


One aspect of group selection relates to genius.

Woodley made the comment that it is hard to make sense of the phenomenon of genius without group selection.

This is because even the most cursory examination of the history of genius reveals that those geniuses whose work has led to increased success of the group - increased power and efficiency, increased ability to impose itself on the environment - are not genetically rewarded for this contribution.

In brief, geniuses are rare and extreme types of person, present in high concentration only in some societies at some points in history, and whose contributions are crucial to the dominance of the societies they inhabit - yet these geniuses are not personally differentially rewarded for their vast contributions.

Thus genius is seen as a prime example of the individual benefiting the group, and not himself.


The high concentration of geniuses that led to the industrial revolution and the massive expansion of the population of Britain (and the expansion of the British Empire) - participated in this expansion, and so did their familial descendants, but this process was (in terms of society as an organism) operative at the group level.


However, as the example of cancer shows, groups selection is always prone to subversion by individual selection. If we lived long enough, everyone would die of cancer.

And this happened to Britain, as the genius-driven success of the industrial revolution led to the encouragement of individuals and groups that were analogous to cancer cells and tumours. The group selected immune system that maintained social complexity broke down.


My point here is that group-selected mechanism was all the nasty anti-individualism from which modern people are so happy to be free; and this 'nice' happiness is real, because to be group-selected is to be coerced.

So individualism is nice. 

But this freedom is the freedom of the cancer to do its own thing, kill the host, and then kill itself.

So individualism is nasty.


But the niceness is upfront and immediate while the nastiness is down-stream (and deniable). Because before the host has been killed, the cancer thrives, parasitically, by feeding-off the functional body and metastasizing (seeding) to take root and grow in whatever healthy tissues remain.

Since the social cancer thrives, the cancer comes to control the social immune systems (military, law, media etc).

And since the cancer is happy (at the moment) with its rapid growth and the metastatic dissemination of malignancy - then the immune system ceases to eliminate malignancy and instead promotes malignancy and encourages metastatic dissemination...

The immune system creates a new environment, the reverse of the healthy environment; a carcinogenic milieu (of unbalanced and abnormal chemical constituents) in which the malignancy is energized and the remaining healthy tissues are primed and prepared to yield to the cancer, rather than fight it...


But I am concerned here to make the point that should be obvious but is often forgotten.

That social complexity is group selected, and if we regard complexity as a 'good' then group selection is a good (or, at least, a 'necessary evil'); but that getting the individual to work 'for the good of the group' is ultimately coercive.

And therefore, by and large, individuals will resent being coerced to work for the good of the group; and will continually be trying to evade the social immune system which forces them to perform a function which only-very-indirectly benefits them.


This is the reality of the human condition - of mortal life - conceptualized in  reductionistic scientific terms - it is not, of course, the whole story of mortal life, nor is it the most important part of that story.

And it is not a matter of nice group selection versus nasty 'selfish gene' theory, nor of nice individualism versus nasty totalitarian coercion: the whole thing is nasty. 


It demonstrates the futility, the nihilism, of a bottom-line philosophy of life which is bio-socio-political - like the dominant secular mainstream Leftism.

The psychological consequences are so bleak they must be dishonestly denied, distracted from or obliterated by intoxication.

Rather, the above bio-socio-political analysis is the context for what is most important - religion.

And it clarifies that religion should be allied neither with individualism, nor with groupishness - because despite that both are real, and both in competition: both are nasty, albeit in different ways.