Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard, is a highly respected pillar of modern evolutionary biology. Check out this link for a summary of his many contributions to our understanding of life and humankind.
I recently read Wilson’s latest book The Social Conquest of Earth and greatly enjoyed parts of it. Wilson’s writing is clear and compelling as he tackles THE BIG QUESTION: How did a single primate species (If you’re reading this, you’re a member of that species) so quickly conquer the world? But I was surprised to see that much of Wilson’s argument is built on the foundation of group selection, also called “multilevel selection.”
Group selection attempts to explain how traits (for example, altruistic behavior) that are costly to individuals, but beneficial to larger groups, can persist. Why doesn’t natural selection, which acts on individuals, eliminate such “maladaptive” traits? If it pays (evolutionarily) to be selfish, why do humans routinely perform selfless acts? As applied to humans, group selection is the idea that groups composed of cooperative altruists are able to outcompete groups of selfish people, increasing their populations, and fostering the spread of altruism.
Most scholars view group selection as highly unlikely or, at best, a very weak force in the evolution of human cooperation. It’s not a bad idea, just not as parsimonious an explanation as inclusive fitness or kin selection: “The concept that altruistic behavior can be selected for if it increases the probability of survival of close relatives” (Relethford 2013:148) – and for the vast majority of our evolutionary history, we lived in societies composed almost exclusively of close relatives.
This week, E. O. Wilson reiterated his support for multilevel selection in a New York Times piece called “The Riddle of the Human Species.” It’s a short summary of the argument detailed in his book. For a counterpoint from Jerry Coyne, professor of biology at the University of Chicago, please see this post at Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website (the linked post also includes links to previous posts on this topic of group selection).
I highly recommend these resources for anyone interested in anthropology and the evolution of human behavior. As stated, I think kin selection is a better explanation for the evolution and spread of altruism than group selection, but remain open to the possibility of new evidence. What do you think? Did multilevel selection, as argued by Wilson, play a role in the social conquest of Earth by Homo sapiens?