Thursday, July 17, 2008

Aristotelian Regime Analysis and Darwinian Group Selection

In Moral Minds, Marc Hauser tries to explain the evolution of human morality from traits shared with other animals. Although he does show how many of the components of human morality can be seen in other animals that cooperate with one another, he recognizes the uniqueness of human cooperation and morality: "We are the only animal that cooperates on a large scale with genetically unrelated individuals and that consistently shows stable reciprocity" (378, 411).

Hauser concludes that explaining the evolution of human morality requires group selection. Here he follows in the tradition of Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man: "It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe . . . an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another." The problem, then, is that a social group cannot succeed unless its members cooperate for the good of the group, and yet within the group, it is almost always advantageous for individuals to become cheaters who advance their selfish interests at the expense of the common good. The solution to the problem arises when competition between groups is more intense than competition within groups. Although selfishness beats altruism within groups, altruistic groups beat selfish groups.

While the idea of group selection has been out of favor among most evolutionary theorists over the past 40 years, recently there has been a revival of group selection thinking. David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson have written an article for The Quarterly Review of Biology surveying the recent research supporting group selection and arguing that group selection should provide the theoretical foundation for sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. An abridged version of this article appeared in the New Scientist.

My interest here is in considering the common ground between this Darwinian group-selection explanation of human morality and Aristotle's account of political regimes.

As Hauser indicates, other animals show differences between groups based on differing cultural traditions. But with other animals these cultural differences don't carry much emotional weight. With human beings, by contrast, cultural differences carry the weight of competing moral conceptions of what is good and right. Human beings don't just cooperate as do other animals. Human beings cooperate based on explicit recognition of rules and procedures of cooperation that have moral authority. Thus, groups form around distinctive symbolic markers that constitute moral communities based on some shared conception of what is good and right. Human group selection arises from the competition between these symbolically constituted moral communities. With language, cultural group selection can operate on cultural variation.

Similarly, Aristotle saw that human beings were not the only political animals. But he also saw that human beings were more political than other political animals because of the uniquely human capacity for speech--logos. Other animals can share their perceptions of pleasure and pain. But human beings can use speech to share their conceptions of the advantageous, the just, and the good. Human beings are the most political animals, it seems, because through speech human beings cooperate for common ends in ways that are more complex, more flexible, and more extensive than is possible for other political animals. Through speech human beings can deliberate about the "common advantage" as the criterion of justice. Political communities can be distinguished as different kinds of regime based on how they structure the order of rule to conform to some moral conception of the way of life of the community. A just political community can be judged to be one that serves the common advantage of all of its members, as contrasted with an unjust political community that serves only the private advantage of its ruling faction. The political problem, then, is that although people are naturally inclined to cooperate for a common life, they are also thrown into factional conflict by their selfish desires. In the long run, Aristotle suggests, the more just regimes tend to be more stable because they avoid or at least moderate factional conflict.

Could the Darwinian evolution of morality through group selection be understood as an Aristotelian evolution of regimes? Could we see this in the history of government? Certainly, American statesmen like Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln believed that the modern republican regime based on limited government by consent of the governed, the rule of law, and private property promised a major advance in political history. For Lincoln, the Civil War was a test of whether such a regime, conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality, could long endure. Do we see here a ground for moral progress through the evolutionary group selection of political regimes?


Paul D. said...

Good timing since I am just digesting D.S. Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral which makes the case for the adaptiveness of religion via multilevel selection including group selection.

I am not convinced that group selection fell out of favor to the degree that Wilson claims. But then again I am a student of social insects so my perspective may be biased.

What did fall out of favor is the pan group selectionism of V.C. Wynne Edwards who in his monster book on animal dispersion seemed to invoke group selection for any group phenomenon that didn't appear to him to have a ready explanation via classical Darwinian selection.



Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, I think many of the students of social insects--including E. O. Wilson--have long been open to the idea of group selection. In his article co-authored with D. S. Wilson, Ed Wilson shows how research on social insects supports the "superorganism" concept. As far back as SOCIOBIOLOGY (1975), one can see that Ed Wilson was always a proponent of group selection.

The interesting point now is whether applying group selection to the evolution of human morality--as originally proposed by Darwin--will open up new lines of thought about the biological basis of morality.

As I suggested in my post, I see this as a return to Aristotle, who was a student of the social insects who identified ants, bees, and wasps as "political animals."

Paul D. said...

Maybe D.S. Wilson's work on religion and multilevel selection will get at least some religious folk and scientists talking. One of the interesting points D.S. Wilson makes is that we need to judge religions by the standard of the adaptive significance rather than using rationality as standard.