E. O. Wilson has an essay in today's NY Times on "group selection" theory. For those not familiar with this term, it represents a companion idea to "individual selection" theory. In the familiar survival-of-the-fittest story, an individual mutation gives rise to an adaptation that allows for greater procreation, hence more of the mutated genes survive and get transmitted down the line. The story is about individual adaptation.
In group selection theory individuals live and survive in small tribes. The group that works together best using trust and members showing some altruism can overcome other tribes in which the predominant portion of individuals are free-loaders. Hence, the genes for trust and altruistic behaviors can increase in the population, even though altruists lose out in head-to-head contests with free-loaders.
Wilson believes both theories are simultaneously right. Some part of natural selection has to do with our individual strivings and some has to do with the concerted action of the group. For a book that shows the math behind how selfish individualists AND altruists can co-exist in natural selection, see Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson (no relation), Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (1998), pp. 24-25.
All of this is contentious in biological circles, despite the fact that Darwin himself endorsed group selection theory for humans in The Descent of Man (1871).
Those who endorse selfish individualism and greed (like Walter Williams) as a bulwark against government in markets will likewise be unhappy with group selection theory.
But we should clarify: the type of group behavior being identified is not forced collectivized behavior, as in a colony of ants or bees or a Stalin work gang! Instead, Wilson identifies natural instincts that people have to bond with others voluntarily—and to alter their own behaviors in a way that allows for both benevolence and justice. This sounds very much like Adam Smith—who equally railed against big government.
The first line of defense against big government is having societies that work reasonably well without coercion. And that implies something like a voluntary system of natural liberty based on natural moral sentiments, honed though several millions of years of group evolution.
[Thanks to biologist Peter Smallwood for the initial link.)