03/06/2009 01:01 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection VI: Individualism

Most people are prepared to admit that we are influenced by our cultures in ways that we don't understand. As a proverb puts it, the hardest thing for a fish to see is water. Part of the "water" of Victorian culture was an assumption of European superiority. Darwin was progressive for his time but even he was repelled by the "savages" of Tierra del Fuego. When Victorians attempted to view racial and cultural diversity through the new lens of evolutionary theory, some argued that the different races are different species, with Africans closer to the apes. Others argued that we are all one species but that cultural evolution runs along a single track, from savagery to civilization, so that the humane thing to do was make everyone else more like Europeans. Only in retrospect can we look back and see that not only are these theories wrong, but they don't even follow straightforwardly from evolutionary theory.

What is the water of our culture? I would like to nominate individualism. Individualism is the belief that individuals are somehow a privileged level of the biological hierarchy; that explanations framed in terms of individual action are somehow more "fundamental" than explanations framed in terms of social action; that individual self-interest is a grand explanatory principle that can explain all aspects of humanity. For many people, these beliefs seem like common sense. Water always does.

It wasn't always that way. Consider the following passage from the social psychologist Daniel Wegner:

Social commentators once found it very useful to analyze the behavior of groups by the same expedient used in analyzing the behavior of individuals. The group, like the person, was assumed to be sentient, to have a form of mental activity that guides action. Rousseau (1767) and Hegel (1807) were the early architects of this form of analysis, and it became so widely used in the 19th and early 20th centuries that almost every early social theorist we now recognize as a contributor to modern social psychology held a similar view.

Even in Darwin's time, the Russian naturalist and social theorist Peter Kropotkin accused evolutionary theory of being biased by the individualism of British culture, which made competition seem more commonsensical than mutual aid. Even so, Wegner's passage documents that something happened in the middle of the 20th century that made our culture even more individualistic than it was before. Margaret Thatcher's notorious quip in 1987 that "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." would have boggled the minds of the Victorians!

Against this background, when evolutionists rejected group selection in favor of "the theory of individual selection" in the 1960's (see T&R IV), they were just swimming with the other fish. At roughly the same time, a position known as "methodological individualism" became dominant in the social sciences and radical individualism became the dominant position in economics. These parallel events did not take place because scientists were talking to each other across disciplines and changing their views in a coordinated fashion. Much as scientists might like to think otherwise, their formal theories were simply reflecting a larger cultural sea change.

What exactly was this sea change? I would love to know the answer to this question and urge historians of culture and science to study it, or to contact me if they already have. Nazi Germany and the cold war with Communism probably had something to do with it. With Ayn Rand there was a direct connection, since she came from Russia and had a zeal for free-market economics that rivaled religious fundamentalism, as I recount in a chapter of Evolution for Everyone titled "Ayn Rand: Religious Zealot." Another factor might have been the allure of reductionism; the belief that lower-level explanations are somehow more fundamental than higher-level explanations.

Regardless of the reasons, the hyper-individualism that took hold during the second half of the 20th century became the cultural "water" for the theory of individual selection in evolutionary biology, which portrayed everything that evolves as a variety of self-interest. The zeal associated with hyper-individualism in general might also explain the zeal with which some individual selectionists argued their position, as I documented in T&R V.

Thinking about science as a culturally influenced activity is a tricky business. On one hand, everyone is prepared to admit the abstract possibility and to see it clearly for past examples, such evolutionary theories of racial and cultural diversity in Darwin's day. On the other hand, most scientists don't like to admit the possibility for their own theories. To make matters worse, some scholars who study science as a culturally influenced activity conclude that science therefore has no more truth value than any other cultural belief system, such as astrology.

The hardest ground to capture, it seems, is the middle ground. Science remains the best cultural system we have for holding each other accountable for our factual statements--vastly better than astrology, for example. But scientists are full of biases, many beneath their conscious awareness, just like everyone else. That's why a cultural system is required to overcome individual biases. The cultural system does a pretty good job but is especially prone to failure when everyone shares the same biases. Then there is nobody around to propose and defend an alternative hypothesis. The best solution would be to make sure that scientists are as culturally diverse as possible and to employ an army of scholars to scrutinize current scientific theories for cultural bias in a constructive way, sharing the belief that at the end of the day there can be an accumulation of knowledge that deserves to be called factual.

Factual matters are definitely at stake for the issues associated with group selection. What I called "the original problem" in T&R II remains a fact. It is simply the case that "for the good of the group" traits are often locally disadvantageous. If they are to evolve at all, a selective advantage must exist at a larger scale. If group-level selection is sufficiently strong, then "for the good of the group" traits can evolve in the total population, despite their selective disadvantage within groups. Determining the relative importance of within- vs. between-group selection is a straightforward matter of theoretical and empirical research. Even though hard work might be involved, it should be possible to determine the facts of the matter.

What I called The Great Reckoning in T&R IV appeared to deliver a verdict: group-level selection is almost invariably weak compared to individual-level selection. As George C. Williams put it, "group-level adaptations do not, in fact, exist." Despite the appearance of decades, he was massively wrong.

To be continued.