Sunday, 24 February 2013

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

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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. 

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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.

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

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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.

http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/endopara.html

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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22 comments:

  1. "it seemed to them that selection of individual genes or organisms was 'fascist' ... while organisms behaving 'for the good of the group' was nice and socialistic."

    So the fact that the Nazis urged the sacrifice of the individual to the interests of the German Nation and Aryan Race was lost on these 'Progressivists'. It is hard to overestimate the degree to which such people are dim, ignorant, and wilfully blind.

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  2. @d - Indeed. Apparently progressivists translate Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei as the Germany party of Nationalist, Conservative, Republican bosses.

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

    It's absolutely true that to survive in a world where group selection is an obvious fact, and to enjoy all the goods that social complexity and geniuses can make possible, we need effective cultural sanctions against hostile free riders. And that means control, and sometimes coercion, and sometimes killing, including killing in-group members.

    To imply that this is what group selection is about and thus that human group selection is nasty is a value judgement or a statement about the telos of human groups as such that I don't agree with at all.

    It also leave out of account things that ought to be relevant, such as whose interests are being served, and whether behavior within the group is in harmony with our evolved dispositions, such that our implicit and explicit thinking is reasonably well lined up and we are on the whole sane and happy, or whether we're being forced against the joint and doing stuff that destroys us.

    You can say that if we're not wrecking our own blood-lines we're always being forced against the joint, because to be free to be our true selves would be the same as being free to be human cancer cells, but again, this isn't a statement about the facts, it's a pronouncement on our telos as human beings (that is we really aim at being walking cancer cells rather than at human flourishing) or a statement about values and which aspects of our situation should be allowed to "count" (with say fear and coercion "counting" and love and concern for race, ethnicity or nation "not counting") and either way, again I disagree.

    The life of a man who gets a gambling habit and wrecks his family (or forgoes reproduction altogether) to spend all his life feeding the machines and paying off gambling debts at compounding interest really is meaningless. It's a less than human life, and it's contrary to his genetic interests, which are the most fundamental interests we all have.

    The lives of childless janissaries indoctrinated in some religious nonsense and laboring for the destruction of their own extended clan of relatives for the benefit of an alien people are meaningless too.

    The lives of the pioneers who built Australia at the cost of arduous toil for the sake of their posterity were highly meaningful. We can make their lives and their sacrifices meaningless by giving away what they built, so that retroactively they can be seen as slaves laboring not for their own future but for that of some alien people, but that isn't the inner nature of what they did. An analysis that ignores the question of whose interests were served is blind to that.

    Yes, the convict system and forced labor and shackles and whips and the cruelty of Port Arthur are part of the story, but it's no more than signing on to the culture of critique to say that that is what the story of Australia is really about.

    When you sign on to a hostile biased narrative like that, you condemn your own tribe and contribute to its destruction. You become a slave lending strength to the narrative weapons of hostile groups advancing their group interests at the expense of yours and your ancestors'. You become an intellectual janissary. That's no good life.

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  4. None of us are really in a position to be for or against group selection. It just is. What we are for or against as a practical matter is our own group being selected out.

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  5. Perhaps Nazism is still so news-worthy for constant demonization because it is at root a modern heresy. A completely materialistic, egalitarian and socialist ideology, but essentially heretical to modernism. As a heresy, unlike a foreign ideology, it must be completely uprooted and purged. Nazism is such a threat because it is so close to the heart.

    The reaction might be compared to that against a real alternative - traditionalist religious outlook - which is more ignored, dismissed, misrepresented, and left to its vestiges.

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  6. To expand on the though - this same society that opposes "facism" nevertheless continues to expand totalitarian control mechanisms, and is intent on a total control on worldly influence. It uses the same techniques of that which it claims to so oppose.

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  7. "Yet these geniuses are not personally differentially rewarded for their vast contributions."

    Interesting to note that, as a group, we have a strong fiction surrounding "evil geniuses" and the heroes who defeat them. Evil geniuses are always those who use their abilities for personal gain as opposed to group benefit.

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  8. This is an incredible article, very insightful, one of my favorite blog posts ever.

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  9. “…humans societies can only exist insofar as they subordinate individuals to the society…
    …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.”


    There is a bitter irony in this socialist notion: the obvious law of material living things is that individual life is submitted to the survival of the group, but we see the Leftist preference for the victims of the ‘system’ going against the survival instinct. Instead of limiting the parasites’ proliferation for the good of the many, Leftists encourage the cancer whose successful reproduction will eventually kill the host.

    The fundamental difference between material only, thus amoral, living beings and those possessed with a moral conscience keeps reappearing, but totally warped.

    In sound humanism, man is not properly speaking a part of society, for he is a totality in his own right. The good of his soul surpasses the good of all the material universe, which will disappear while man’s soul will endure for eternity. Society is not a totality in its own right, it is a totality made up of totalities (Maritain, Integral Humanism). Thus man is not made for society, rather the assembly of men is at the service of individuals. (Sad to think how the term ‘civil servant’ applies less and less in our post-modern world.)

    To make for a harmonious society, men should be able to exercise authority on their institutions at the nearest convenient level; the state should not pry and interfere in family, community and city affairs. There is no real solidarity without subsidiarity (communism), and no real subsidiarity without solidarity (unjust laws and practices in free market economies); an equilibrium is necessary between the two (Christianity). Only a real Christian society would be able to avoid the nastiness of individualism or communism-socialism; conversely, this nastiness was possible because of the dechristianization at work particularly from the Renaissance.

    You remarked that the decay of intelligence is observed from the beginning of the 19th Century. I read 30 years ago (and a few times since) that intelligence is related to sound morality coming from sound religious belief, the Christian one having been the basis for the development of Western Civilization. If the hypothesis is true, the decay of intelligence would logically follow dechristianization in the West. From what I read in De Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism (1941), I infer that it began in earnest with Renaissance humanism, which is individualistic-hedonistic, thus anti-Christian at the core.

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  10. @D - you need to understand that by nice and nasty I am talking about the history of how group selection was talked about, argued for - it is clear that many advocates of group selection linked it to a more altruistic and compassionate niceness. That is a fact of history, not my own moral evaluation. What I am pointing out is that properly understood group selection would be regarded as nasty by the people who - ignorantly, - approve it because they imagine it is nice.

    @SDR - I think my analysis shows why it is absolutely necessary that government be religious, permeated by religion. What passes for government at present ought to be regarded with utter horror and revulsion - it does us no credit that now we scarcely notice the monstrous evil of the way things are evaluated in all the major domains of public life (including, I am afraid, the leaders of many or most Christian churches in the West - I exempt Benedict XVI from this criticism, but he was almost alone as a shining beacon).

    @GG - thanks - glad you liked it.

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  11. 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.


    I think W.D. Hamilton would dispute Woodley and argue that social and group living and selection would not explain the phenomenon of genius but would explain its gradual diminishment.

    As Hamilton remarked in his paper "The Innate Social Aptitudes of Man":

    "The incursions of barbaric pastoralists seem to do civilizations less harm in the long run than one might expect. Indeed, two dark ages and renaissances in Europe suggest a recurring pattern in which a renaissance follows an incursion by about 800 years. It may even be suggested that certain genes or traditions of pastoralists revitalize the conquered people with an ingredient of progress which tends to die out in a large panmictic population for the reasons already discussed. I have in mind altruism itself, or the part of the altruism which is perhaps better described as self-sacrificial daring. By the time of the renaissance it may be that the mixing of genes and cultures (or of cultures alone if these are the only vehicles, which I doubt) has continued long enough to bring the old mercantile thoughtfulness and the infused daring into conjunction in a few individuals who then find courage for all kinds of inventive innovation against the resistance of established thought and practice. Often, however, the cost in fitness of such altruism and sublimated pugnacity to the individuals concerned is by no means metaphorical, and the benefits to fitness, such as they are, go to a mass of individuals whose genetic correlation with the innovator must be slight indeed. Thus civilization probably slowly reduces its altruism of all kinds, including the kinds needed for cultural creativity (see also Eshel 1972)."

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  12. I haven't read Hamilton since I got interested in intelligence and creativity or genius - but I don't remember him discussing these matters much - indeed I rather doubt whether he knew much about it? He was, after all, a zoologist/ statistician.

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  13. Er, um, but wasn't the 24th the sabbath, Bruce?

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  14. The mechanism of natural selection is reproductive success. Any heritable character [and its underlying gene(s)] that promotes reproductive success becomes more common in the population automatically, baring extreme random events like floods that kill off the bearers of the character.

    Since people are social animals, characters like altruism that promote success in the group are selected for.

    However, it is possible in an altruistic society to improve one's own reproductive success by cheating, and that is selected for, too.

    The result is an ever changing balance between altruistic and selfish people.

    Groups of predominantly altruistic individuals win in competitions with groups with mostly selfish individuals because they can coordinate force. So most modern human groups are largely altruistic.

    But the altruistic groups that win will always have some selfish people.

    Remember, evolution is only concerned about reproductive success. Everything else is just a means, and any means will do in a pinch. And what works at one time and place might not work in another.

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  15. @d - That comes under the 'intermittent' blogging announcement - as does this (2.30 am, awake with migraine...)

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  16. Governments should indeed be permeated by Christian religion, by way of a comfortable majority of their members being real Christians operating along Christian ethic principles. I am not saying you are advocating a state religion, but it sounds like it sometimes. State religion is not at all a good thing. In order that religion remain pure, it must be freely chosen, and must be independent from the state and the judicial. A state religion is unable to avoid coercion and ostracism and corruption. Maritain’s Integral Humanism is a very good reference on the subject.

    I completely agree that the governing classes corruption is appalling, including most Roman Catholic leaders, but there is still a small number of faithful priests and bishops and other leaders. Some Catholic observers think the trend is beginning to reverse toward a more traditional and correct Catholicism. A couple of homilies I heard myself while visiting the Little Sisters of the Poor in New York a few months ago, and a recent address from Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, as well as one of 2010 when he was Archbishop of Denver, give me hints that there are some good shepherds caring for the Lord’s sheep in some places. Even here in Quebec, the modernist clan seems less virulent than it previously was.

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  17. Ouch! I'm sad to hear of your pain, Bruce.

    But I'll post this anyway.

    I think I've mostly got you now.

    Help me out on your final two paragraphs though?

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

    That analysis was not really about group and individual selection, but about how, properly understood, group selection would be regarded as nasty by the people who - ignorantly - approve it because they imagine it is nice. In other words it's meta; it's not about the thing, it's about politically correct rhetoric about the thing. So the context for what is most important - religion - is not individual and group selection but politically correct rhetoric about individual and group selection... right?

    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.

    "Religion" means Christianity, right? Politically correct rhetoric about "religion" (see "the evils of") is directed at Christianity, not Islam or Buddhism or Judaism or Hinduism.

    And, for what "religion" / Christianity should actually do, in terms of the social forces it allies with (or, maybe more wisely, the entanglements it abstains from), the proper frame is not the actual niceness or nastyness of individual and group selection (which was not really under discussion) but historical politically correct rhetoric about individual and group selection. Is that correct?

    Or is it that what "religion" / Christianity should do according to political correctness (but not in reality) is driven by historical politically correct rhetoric about individual and group selection?

    Because if that's the point, I don't think that's right. When you read about politically correct intellectuals and their attitude to actual Christianity as embodied in working class Polish or Irish neighborhoods with high levels of racial, ethnic and religious homogeneity and strong norms mandating in-group altruism and the suppression of hostile free riding, you don't see the intellectuals' attitudes being driven by politically correct rhetoric about group selection being a good and cuddly thing. Not at all. What you see is intellectual antagonism, dislike on every level (racial, ethnic and religious) and a persistent determination to see that those communities end, and that intellectual norms and social policies (like forced integration) that are incompatible with their flourishing are enshrined and imposed.

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  18. @D - still got the migraine, so I'll be brief. By religion I meant something generic, not specifically Christianity - and this might include PC, except that it fatally lacks the basic self-awareness/ honesty to recognize itself as a religion; but old-style mystical blood and soil nationalism would also qualify as a religion.

    What I was getting at is that people live for their religion - and the matter of selection is fitted within that. I mean this is what people actually do DO - this is not a policy recommendation.

    It is because they are living by a bad/ wrong/ false religion that modern societies are semi-deliberately (only 'semi' because nothing is done with self awareness and honesty) destroying themselves - the religion 'makes them do it'.

    What is wrong with PC is not that it is a religion, but that it is a bad/ false/ wrong religion.

    I would regard your religion as less bad/false/wrong than PC - but still on the wrong side of the bfw line - and I believe you are en route to something better!

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  19. Governments should indeed be permeated by Christian religion, by way of a comfortable majority of their members being real Christians operating along Christian ethic principles.

    That is true, but the obvious fact that a comfortable majority of the people in Britain and America are no longer real Christians operating along Christian ethic principles, as they were in the 1830s, makes me rather doubtful that another "Great Awakening" is possible, and fearful of the outcome if it did.

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  20. @JP - I agree. I am not optimistic - I hope you didn't get the impression that I was?

    But, even though the outcome is highly-likely to be *bad* - it is possible that *only* another great Awakening *could* save us.

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  21. I like your post, especially the post about the cancer did enlighten my perspective to this issue.

    From my perspective an altruistic trait by itself is almost never selected for, since the benefits accrue to society, and not the individual.

    However if your group has some kind of mechanism to reward individuals who provide exceptional benefit to the group, for example a mechanism like female hypergamy, then group selection can become real.

    I don't see coercion working, because the individual with the beneficial genetics wouldnt get any benefit from "his" mutation.

    In today's society we mustn't think about coercing the individuals who don't contribute, but instead just kick unproductive individuals out of the group. Don't let them benefit of the group.

    Anyway, i hope for a nice discussion. Regards

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  22. Anon - if you want a discussion, you have to have a (at least pseudo) *name*. You should know that posting comments as un-differenitated 'anonymous' is rude to the blogger, especially when the blogger is using real name and address.

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