By Jonathan B. Wight
Arthur J. Robson has in interesting review of David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Yale 2015) in the latest Journal of Economic Literature.
The bottom line is that it is likely that genes and human culture co-evolve. For example, the technology of herding animals may give rise to favoring the survival of those who are lactose tolerant. This has profound implications for society, particularly if some genes can survive that lead humans to sacrifice for the interests of others., according to group selection theory.
Darwin certainly thought that in the competition between groups, those whose members were willing to sacrifice for the group would out compete other groups comprised of selfish individuals. Modern biologists, at least until recently, have not accepted this part of Darwin's thinking.
Part of Robson's conclusion is that:
“Wilson makes a stimulating argument that, in the first place, group selection should be taken more seriously in general. In the second place, and of particular interest to economists, he argues that group selection should be taken especially seriously for humans, since cultural evolution is especially important for us. Indeed, he advocates the strong position that individual humans and human society have a relationship analogous to that between the organs of any individual and that individual. Hence, in particular, economists’ view of basic human motivations must be extended to include altruism as a central feature” (pp. 1581-2)
Robson goes on to argue against Wilson’s position, on the grounds that individual group selection still has lots of legs left and shouldn’t be thrown out before all avenues can be explored.
I don’t disagree with Robson, because individual selection has powerful explanatory force. But at the same time I see no reason to accept his claim that “It seems desirable that [any] alternative retain the simplicity and generality of the current theory” (p. 1571). A simple and elegant model on paper that doesn’t do the job should be thrown out, even if the replacement model is somewhat more complicated.
As with Robson, I don’t accept the claim that altruism is the be-all or end-all in society. Indeed, as Robson notes, malevolence may be a more powerful force (as noted also by Adam Smith).
Humans are complicated, and accepting that fact seems essential to further discovery, rather than maintaining the simplifying fiction that humans are always and everywhere predatory and selfish (even if it may seem that way this week with the sexual harassment scandals).
David Sloan Wilson's writings are wonderfully provocative and timely, and hopefully pushing forward our understanding of complexity.