Opinions on "multi-level selection"


(Christy Hemphill) #1

Richard on Facebook asks what people think about multi-level selection. “That’s a debate where even atheists don’t agree,” he says.

Anyone have any informed evaluations or recommended resources to offer?


(Richard Suttles) #2

BioLogos- Thanks for inviting me and including this topic.

The gist of the controversy of Multi Level Selection…

Dawkins says gene-level selection overwhelms any selection at the group level. For instance, a group of cooperators night beat out a group of selfish people, but one selfish person would wipe out a group of cooperators by appealing to their “better nature” and free-riding his way through life, (this is where game theorists might chime in with their algorithms and show how each cooperator would eventually have to stop cooperating because of the “free rider problem.”).

And Dawkins is right about that, but…

A selfish free-rider would have no such luck with a group of zealots. The zealots cooperate with each other, yes. Feverishly so. But they will turn on their one of their own in a heartbeat if any member stops acting on behalf of the group’s sacred ideals (and by “sacred” I mean “willing - or even eager - to protect & defend group ideals even - or especially - at individual cost.”).

So a group of zealots live their whole lives defending their sacred norms, which at the individual level is irrational. But if everyone is doing it, and if the group punishes any violators, then there is no free-rider problem. If a selfish person comes in and tries to take advantage, he would be outed as a violator immediately.

Under this framework, selection would happen at the group level, and that would overwhelm selection at the individual level. (Some even argue that over thousands of years, these dynamics would affect the gene level - as in making humans more prone to behaving zealously).

Which is not to say all humans are just ISIS or Borg. Rather, that we all inherited some traits that could make us behave or think irrationally tribally, and that in some conditions this trait would become quite noticeable (as in wars or politics or sports).

If all this is true, then Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene” is only part of the story. Other evolutionary biologists - like David Sloan Wilson - argue for this. (And Dawkins and his supporters say they are wrong).

Anyway, this is the heart of the “split” between supporters of evolution.


(Stephen Matheson) #3

Oh good grief what does theism have to do with multi-level selection? Please.


(Richard Suttles) #4

A few books on this…


(Richard Suttles) #5

Stephen- I was just attacking the mindset that evolution is an “atheist versus religious” battle. It isn’t. I know.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #6

These kinds of questions bounce around in my head too. What if compassionate Christians are just being enablers for people eager to “work the system” (that’s the closet conservative in me talking).

Game theory and “prisoner dilemma” scenarios are fun to work out, but in the end it seems like our attempts to “help God out” with our own social engineering attempts always ends up making things worse. That said, I think there is much to be said for open-eyed compassion. Our objections to a troubled (or free-riding) person using a gift resource poorly should be centered on a loving concern to help raise that person from their situation (something that may take considerably more investment from us than a one-time handout). We shouldn’t instead us it as an excuse to refrain from all charity entirely. Sure, there’s a time and place for tough love. But that generally implies availability, even if not always a free handout.

All that said, the tribal drive sure is strong. That’s why gangs are so prominent. You tend to try and find that family somewhere. If it won’t be forthcoming from established society and your own biological family is absent / non-functional - you tend to go with what works.

It seems to me that Christ thumbs his nose at such evolutionarily-valued things like personal survival and reproductive success. In that Spirit, I think Christ takes a loving glance at our “evolutionary gold standard” that excites so many, and then turns “childless” (on the world’s terms) towards a cruel cross and declares “this way beats your way”. [which is not a commentary on “how great” the cross is, but instead an indictment on how pathetic our ideals have been - those principalities and powers.] And he ends up having more spiritual children than just about anybody else one could name. So how does it work when so many zealots peacefully lay down their arms and realign their zealotry with that?


(Jay Johnson) #7

A few resources. Although MLS has been invoked to explain the evolution of cooperation, Coyne and most evolutionary biologists reject the theory.

http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F1089-2699.12.1.17
“For the good of the group? Exploring group-level evolutionary adaptations using multilevel selection theory.”


(George Brooks) #8

@Richard_Suttles

What is the “official” response to the existence of altruism in honey bees (or termites, or wasps, or ants) ?


(Richard Suttles) #9

Another resource about the disagreement between Coyne and Wilson…


(Jay Johnson) #10

Thanks for that link. I followed it to another article that had a good summary of MLS. From the article:

The basic Tenets of MLS Theory
The basic tenets of MLS theory are easy to state in words without requiring mathematical equations (see Wilson 2015 for a concise book-length account). (Editorial comment from Jay: I just have to ask, how “concise” is a book-length account? haha)

  • Natural selection is based on relative fitness. It doesn’t matter how well an organism survives and reproduces in absolute terms; only that it does so better than other organisms in its vicinity.
  • Social behaviors are almost invariably expressed among sets of individuals (groups) that are small compared to the total evolving population. Thus, almost all evolving populations are multi-group populations . The groups form, dissolve, and are connected to each other in diverse ways, depending upon the species, which is collectively referred to as the population structure .
  • Natural selection among individuals within any given group tends to favor self-serving behaviors such as free-riding and active exploitation in all their forms, which increase in frequency compared to group-serving behaviors such as altruism and the provision of public goods for the whole group. This is a basic matter of trade-offs. Behaving for “the good of the group” requires members to spend time, energy, and risk on each other’s behalf, which lowers fitness within the group compared to members who don’t perform the services. Even the provision of a no-cost public good is merely neutral as far as within-group selection is concerned. There are no fitness differences in a win-win situation.
  • If group-serving behaviors don’t evolve (and are frequently opposed) by within-group selection, then they must evolve by between-group selection; in other words, the differential contribution of groups to the total evolving population. As Edward O. Wilson and I put it in the conclusion to our 2007 article “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology”: Selfishness beats altruism within groups, altruistic groups beat selfish groups, and everything else is commentary.

From the same article I referenced above:

Earlier I stated that there are no fitness differences in a win-win situation. By definition, a public good that can be produced at no cost to the provider is neutral as far as within-group selection is concerned. Any amount of variation among groups (including random variation) is sufficient for a no-cost public good to evolve by between-group selection, because it is not opposed by within-group selection. While the concept of a no-cost public good might be biologically unrealistic, there are many examples of public goods that can be provided at extremely low cost, including various forms of third-party rewards and punishments (Sober and Wilson 1998 ch 3). The conditions for the evolution of low-cost public goods are permissive because opposing within-group selection is weak, although not absent.

Collective decision-making is another example of a low-cost public good. It is well documented in the eusocial insects (e.g., Seeley 2010), where high relatedness within groups (=a large amount of genetic variation among groups) also allows the evolution of costly altruistic behaviors such as non-reproductive castes and suicidal predator defense. Once we realize that collective decision-making is a low-cost public good, we can predict that it will occur in a much wider range of groups such as fish schools, bird flocks, and ungulate groups, whose members are not and need not be closely related to each other (Couzin et al. 2011; Sontag et al. 2006).


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #11

I think Dr. Wilson has changed his point of view as indicated by his book, The Social Conquest the Earth. I heard him say in an interview that some individuals may be selfish, the clear majority are not.

The reason by the self gene is a myth rather a fact is because Life is NOT a ZERO game, which means working together is a much more effective evolutionary strategy than selfishness. This is not the result of mind games. This is the result the study of the facts.


(Christy Hemphill) #12

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