Group selection has been out of fashion for a while, subject to withering attack by Richard Dawkins and others. In general, I found the criticisms of Dawkins convincing and so missed the point of group selection. But as Jeff Schloss pointed out in his talk at the Faraday Institute that I noted last week, modern group selection theory is different from the now discredited idea that groups themselves can be selected for (and Dawkins is correct to dismiss this idea). However, there is an alternative sort of group selection that makes a great deal of sense and is fully compatible with the neo-Darwinian emphasis on the gene a the unit of selection. Today, these ideas are most associated with David Sloan Wilson, but my treatment shamelessly rips off what Jeff had to say at the Faraday.
Instead of groups, let’s think about football teams. Consider first, a rubbish team. We’ll call them England. The manager of England pays only for each goal that a player scores. As a result, all the players are desperate to score, but never pass the ball. This means that England are not very good. Consider second, a good team which we’ll call Spain. Players in this team also get paid for scoring goals, but less per score. But, additionally, the manager of Spain pays the whole team a bonus if they win, such that he expects his wages bill to be the same as England's. As a result, Spanish players pass the ball a lot to maximise the team’s goal scoring chances. This means that Spain are much better than England and each player actually scores more goals.
Now group selection says that your reproductive chances are boosted when you are a member of a successful group just as you’ll score more often if you are a member of a successful football team. Indeed, your reproductive chances are also increased if you are a member of a successful football team. In other words, the group forms part of the environment within which the individual’s genes are selected and genes that help the group will be favoured. So in Spain genes for passing the ball are favoured over those of selfishly trying to score yourself.
But as the group favours particular genes (or distributions of genes), the nature of the group itself will change over time and evolve. Just as a football team has room for strikers and midfield play-makers, so groups can accommodate different kinds of individual. This means that in a limited sense the group can be subject to natural selection, at least relative to other groups, such that it is fair to speak of group selection.
We can fruitfully speculate that altruism within the group, even altruism that does not directly favour the genes of each individual, could evolve in these circumstances. And it seems just as likely, as David Sloan Wilson has proposed, that group selection can help to account for some of the complex of behaviours associated with religion.
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