Most of the contents of the Times Literary Supplement are behind a paywall (a few pieces are free in each issue), but you can at least see the latest Table of Contents here. In that issue I’ve reviewed E. O. Wilson’s new book The Social Conquest of Earth, in which he claims that major features of human behavior evolved by group (rather than individual) selection. Sadly, my own piece, “Genes first,” is also behind a paywall, but judicious inquiry might yield you a pdf file.
Here are two excerpts:
Although Wilson pushes this view [group selection] hard –it’s the book’s centrepiece – he is probably wrong. Most biologists have rejected group selection for two reasons: it doesn’t work well in principle, and, more important, there’s no evidence that it has been of any significance in evolution. For an obvious reason, selection among groups is far less efficient than selection among genes: genes replicate and replace other genes much faster than groups of individuals divide and replace other groups. Evolving all the social traits on Wilson’s list via group selection requires a slow and unrealistic sequence of episodes in which human populations replaced each other, each replacement based on one or a few behaviours. Further, once group selection fixes a disadvantageous trait like altruism within our species, individual selection proceeds to undo it within populations (“selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals”). In other words, altruism evolved by group selection is unstable and should disappear.
If the better angels of our nature really are based on genes that evolved – rather than on non-genetic aspects of culture – then they are much more likely to have done so by individual than by group selection. This becomes even more plausible with a more detailed look at how human altruism really works. It is preferentially directed towards friends and relatives, there is much concern with reciprocity and one’s own reputation, and psychological studies show that we dislike cheaters who hurt us personally much more strongly than cheaters who hurt our group. Such behaviours are precisely what you’d expect if altruism evolved by individual rather than group selection. But Wilson ignores these problems.
It is not even clear that altruistic groups of humans would beat non-altruists. Steven Pinker has noted that success of one group over another in the real world is based not on higher frequencies of altruistic individuals, but on matters like harsher discipline, better technology, and more brutal ideology. Indeed, altruistic groups may be more easily defeated because their empathy for the weak makes them susceptible to domination. But the most important problem is this: I know of not one evolved behaviour in any species that is harmful to individuals and their genes but good for their social groups. In the end, Wilson’s invocation of group selection is superfluous.
Needless to say after that, I don’t recommend buying this misguided book, which is a sad departure from Wilson’s usual high standard of thinking and writing.