Reflections on Charlottesville

(Recent) Books

By Jonathan B. Wight

Two books occupied me this weekend. Neither is brand new, but both relevant to ethics and economics.

  1. E. O. Wilson, the dean of ant biology, wrote The Social Conquest of Earth in 2012. In it, he continues to argue for a more complex understanding of human evolution, one that was envisioned by Darwin.

The more complex argument says that human evolution occurs in two ways: first, through individual selection as you and I compete with others to leave the most surviving offspring. This is the standard view of Richard Dawkins and others, who argue that any appearance of altruism or sacrifice for others can be explained entirely by kin selection (since our nearest relatives pass along our genes).  Economists have generally adopted this view that all appearances of altruism can be explained within a selfish utility function.

Wilson argues, however, that there is a second way that evolution occurs, in which groups of humans compete against other groups.  Those groups that are successful have a greater chance to leave behind their genes.  What makes groups cooperate better is social cohesion, including genuine empathy, altruistic behaviors or sacrifices for the group. 

According to this view, individual selection and group selection are contradictory forces that work simultaneously in human societies. Hence, greed and altruism can both exist in pure forms. Individuals have an incentive to cheat and game the system, but people are also driven by instincts to share emotions and to reach emotional equilibrium with those in one’s group. Social forces lead to internal self-control and sometimes altruism—such as by punishing transgressors in the Ultimatum Game. 

To me, this is more appealing view of the world.  I say this not as a scientist, but simply as someone who has lived on the planet for six decades. It is difficult for me to accept that the sacrifice of my parents and other heroes is simply and only disguised selfishness.

  1. J. D. Vance published the Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis last year, and it became an instant hit as Donald Trump marched into the White House, presumably on the coattails of the demographic group Vance writes about.

Someone outside the in-group of Kentuckians, West Virginians, and other Appalachians would be ill-advised to call anyone a hillbilly. Vance uses the term with pride, but it is mixed pride.

The memoir tells a sad tale (with a happy ending) of Vance’s disjointed youth as a member of an extended family of uneducated, willful, hard charging people who for generations seem to carry along the cultural gene for broken relationships. Vance’s mom had multiple houses, apartments, husbands, boyfriends, and lovers, took to drinking and finally heroin. Vance was eventually raised by his grandmother, a gun-toting, cussing, good woman who was the love of his life.

Family disharmony and perpetual disruption of schedules and the stress this caused, led Vance to nearly fail in school. Vance credits luck for getting out of this swamp. A few good people saw his potential and encouraged him and made great sacrifices for him (see Wilson above!).  He eventually went into the Marines, graduated from Ohio State, and graduated from Yale Law School.

The bottom line for Vance is that economic development in Appalachia is held back by social forces so strong they act as quicksand.  Kids don’t do well in school not because districts are underfunded, but because parents don’t create the home environment necessary for success in school or life.  Despite proclaiming antipathy to government welfare, a huge proportion of people are on the dole.  Failed marriages, drug problems, and an inability to face up to one’s own responsibilities, make many younger workers unreliable and unproductive on the job. These problems cannot be fixed by government.

These are the vast swatches of the population in the Rust Belt and elsewhere who feel they have been left behind.  They are ready for a political savior like Trump, despite the obvious paradox that government cannot fix their broken family relationships, and Trump’s promoted policies on health care would have caused great hardship. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

... individual selection as you and I compete with others to leave the most surviving offspring. This is the standard view ... argue[ing] that any appearance of altruism or sacrifice for others can be explained entirely by kin selection.

I don't think this is correct. Altruism certainly needs to start as kin selection, but once individuals are able to condition their altruistic behaviour on the behaviour of others, it can be sustained in reciprocal relationships with non-kin. This requires repeated interactions and a limited number of others to interact with, both conditions that apply to the circumstances under which humans evolved (though maybe not always to today's world).

> ... Those groups that are successful have a greater chance to leave behind their genes.

I find gene group selection implausible. As far as I know, nobody has ever convincingly solved the problem that everyone prefers that the other sacrifices themselves for the group instead and that genes of those more willing to do so eventually die out. Now if you try to explain MEME group selection, I'm listening. A group that has a meme that encourage self-sacrifice for the greater good of the group does not die out if someone does sacrifice themselves (probably on the contrary).

Thanks for your comments. Regarding the last point, Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, in Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Harvard University Press, 1998): pp. 23-26, provide a model for explaining how the gene for altruism could survive. Your MEME point is a good one, but may not be the only mechanism for promoting altruism. Perhaps you will convince me in the end, but I'm willing to keep open the gene possibility for now. Best regards, JW

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)