Ideas that add up #170

The essence of group selection is this: “although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over 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. A tribe including many members who, from possessing a high degree of the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes, and this would be natural selection.”

These are not Wilson’s words, but those of Charles Darwin. “Darwin’s reasoning,” Wilson writes, “is impeccable.”

Review of Does Altruism Exist? Culture, genes and the welfare of others by David Sloan Wilson, in FT Weekend, May 9th, 2015

This kind of thing used to make good sense to me. Not now. I don’t like to disagree with a conclusion of Darwin’s, but the reasoning is not impeccable. It’s circular. And anyway, it’s just another statement of the by-now conventional view from inside the box. 

Inside the box, life is a story of ceaseless competition. The moral qualities that make a civilized man, inside the box, are patriotism, fidelity, obedience and so-on. Group values that promote “victory”, such as the willingness to sacrifice oneself “for the common good” – in war, for example – are lauded. From this viewpoint, a notional, tribal society is successful so long as it selects for the right, competitive qualities. And because it selects for the right qualities, it is therefore a good society. QED – by the in-the-box frame of reference.

Darwin and Wilson overlook the fact that the box is not particularly old and is not universal. For many many generations before there was a box, our forebears were selecting for qualities that make a cooperative, communal, environmentally well-adjusted animal. No need to agonize over the supposed mystery of altruism to grasp that. Unless of course you’re deep inside the box, and can’t figure why on earth anyone would appear to do something for nothing.     

Just guessing here, but where Darwin writes “well-endowed men”, I think he means those blessed by nature with the highest moral qualities…

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2 Responses to Ideas that add up #170

  1. Michelle says:

    Iʻm in awe, youʻre in the zone. Thank you for your writing.
    Hope the Sunzi is going ok!

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