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October 17, 2004

Other considerations....

A year and a half back, when I read Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, I was pretty irritated by the constant implication (at least that was what I preceived it to be) that the authors' group selection paradigm was somehow more decent & congenial to liberal modern man than the alternatives, that is, individual/gene selectionism. Stephen Jay Gould, and to a lesser extent Dick Lewontin, attempted to leave the door open for "multi-level selection" as well, and some believe that is motivated by their communitarian political inclinations.

Not everyone would agree that higher levels of selection would imply something congenial to the "liberal" outlook. Here is William D. Hamilton (page 385, Defenders of the Truth):

'Liberal' thinkers should realize from the outset that fervent 'belief' in evolution at the group level, and especially any idea that group selection obviates supposedly unnecesssary or non-existent harsh aspects of natural selection, actually starts them at once on a course that heads straight towards Fascist ideology....

To be more specific, group selelction implies outgroups and ingroups. The interdemic process that drives much of the group selection described by David Sloan Wilson makes it clear that competition continues. Like a theist pushing the buck on the issue of primal causality to a causeless deity, "liberals" who champion group selectionism are simply passing up the baton of competition to a higher level of organization.

A more specific example that refutes the idea that group selection is somehow more enlightened than individual/gene selection (characterized by some as too libertarian or egoistic!) is David Sloan Wilson's defense of Kevin MacDonald. Avoiding the particular issues of MacDonald's thesis, I think it safe to say that the prescriptions to remedy the 'Jewish problem' that he proposes, that is, heightened group awareness among white gentiles, is not necessarily part & parcel of the mainstream liberal tradition. This is not to say that individual/gene selection is immune from such interpretations, as Dawkins himself had to deal with British nationalists making an argument in favor of ethnic consciousness extended from kin selection (see the recent ethnic nepotism posts).

The overall point is that one of the major problems with the naturalistic fallacy is that so many natural models are drawn from biology, a science that is less clear cut than physics (at least the Newtonian physics that is relevant for our lives day to day). Imagine a simple equation of fitness = goodness, but "fitness" if often contingent upon a host of conditions and contexts! The lack of a clear inferred chain of logic between is and ought is displayed by the reality that atheistic utilitarians like Peter Singer can argue for a Darwinian Left, while a center-right religiously oriented journal like First Things can also publish an essay that declares that conservatives need Darwin. Needless to say, both of these espousals of Darwin in the interests of oughts have their foes from within their own ideological camps.

In truth, what is going on is not a simple naturalistic fallacy, that is, nature -> values, rather, it is more likely to be nature + values -> public policy prescriptions in ends of values. Nature has a constraining influence, it clears the field of the vast majority of cognitively conceivable options.1 Nevertheless, values still remain in the driver's seat.2

1- Consider Communism. We consider it unworkable today, but it is workable. The Hutterites have been going at it for nearly 450 years now. There were constraints on the conditions under which a communistic system would work for human beings. Our natures are not infinately malleable, though they are flexible.

2- Which begs the question where values come from. Nature?

Posted by razib at 08:44 PM