Cultural Group Selection

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Cultural Group Selection


The concept of group selection is controversial in both the natural and social sciences. In contrast to the standard social science assumption of methodological individualism and the biological assumption of the gene as the relevant unit of selection, group selection posits that distinct evolutionary and selection pressures may operate at the level of the group rather than the individual level. As a result, group selection argues that it may be possible for social rules and biological traits to evolve and persist that cause individuals to act altruistically, that is, in ways that are good for others or the group as a whole, but detrimental to particular individuals within the group. In group selection models, the relevant level of selection for some questions is thus at the level of the group (family, firm, cultural group, nation) rather than among the constituent individuals that compose those groups.

The concept of group selection gained some intellectual currency in the 1960s and its leading modern advocate in the social sciences was F. A. Hayek. These early naïve group selection models were swept aside by the rise of selfish gene theory as the dominant paradigm in evolutionary biology. Selfish gene theory argues that altruism is not an evolutionary stable strategy as an a priori matter because selfish individuals will have the incentive and opportunity to free ride by accepting the benefits of others altruism without bearing the costs. Those with selfish genes will prey on the altruists in the population, thereby rendering the altruistic tendencies unfit for survival and replication. Critics of cultural group selection have similarly argued that those models are similarly suspect because cultural rules and practices are similarly subject to erosion by free riding by selfish individuals who comparatively benefit from refusing to abide by socially beneficial rules (such as prohibitions on fraud or theft) followed by others. Both critiques thus conclude that group selection models lack appropriate microfoundations that ground group level selection in the incentives and interest of the individuals that compose the group and thus should be selected against in the population.

Subsequent analysis, however, has concluded that the plausibility of group selection models is an empirical question, not a priori question. Group selection rests on a tension between two competing forces that push in opposite directionsintragroup selection, that is, competition among different individuals within a given group, versus intergroup selection, or competition between different groups. Intragroup selection promotes individual selfishness and free riding in seeking to appropriate a disproportionate share of the social surplus. Intergroup selection, by contrast, promotes altruism within a given group because it benefits the group as a whole in competition with other groups (and thereby indirectly benefits each member of the group), even though altruistic individuals contribute more to the group than they personally receive in exchange.

In reconciling these competing pressures, the plausibility of a group selection model thus rests on three basic operative conditions. First, the genetic trait or cultural rule must promise sufficient benefits to the group that the members of the group will benefit from adopting it when compared with groups that do not adopt the rule or practice, that is, a social surplus is generated. These rules may be invented consciously or may simply arise by accident.

Second, there must be some mechanism for between-group competition to occur, that is, for groups with superior traits or practices to displace others. This competition and displacement may occur through warfare and conquest by the more successful group, migration from the less-successful group to the more successful, or imitation of the more successful by the less successful.

Third, the group must be able to restrain free riders that will dissipate the social surplus generated by the beneficial trait or rule. It is not necessary to completely eradicate free riding (which will be virtually impossible given the individual incentives to free ride), but simply to reduce it to the point where the overall benefits to the group are sufficiently large such that the benefits of retaining the trait or practice are large enough to offset the costs imposed by free riders. Social norms against antisocial behavior, legal and political institutions such as police forces that prevent theft, and constitutional institutions that encourage positive-sum wealth creation activities rather than zero-sum redistributive activities (or negative-sum rent-seeking activities), can all be viewed as mechanisms to limit the ability of free riders to dissipate the social surplus.

SEE ALSO Altruism; Collective Action; Cooperation; Determinism, Biological; Determinism, Genetic; Hayek, Friedrich August von; Microfoundations; Natural Selection; Norms; Sociobiology


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Todd J. Zywicki