Open Discussion – March 2019

Mar 1, 2019

This thread has been created for discussion on themes relevant to Reason and Science for which there are not currently any dedicated threads.
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Open Discussion – December 2018

Open Discussion – January 2019

Open Discussion – February 2019

100 comments on “Open Discussion – March 2019

  • The March open discussion thread is now open.

    If you wish to continue any of the discussions from earlier Open Discussion threads, please do so here rather than there.

    Thank you.

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  • Even if she fails this time Ocasio-Cortez is doing exactly what is needed.



    Its like the USA has aged rapidly and most recently had a stroke depriving it of any concept of the left field of view. Even the centre is pretty absent.

    Until vision is restored, and ideas common in the rest of the world are considered in reasonable ways, the USA will increasingly fail in the onslaught from more pragmatic and pro-active states, until it ends up a picked clean and abandoned carcass.


    Latest reading  “Econocracy” Earle, Moran, Ward-Perkins.

  • @ phil  #2

    ….. Ocasio-Cortez is doing exactly what is needed.


    Case in point :  her performance at the Michael Cohen public hearing, focussing forensically on specific issues,  stood head and shoulders above the rest, even on the Democrat side, let alone the sorry spectacle of the Republican stooges.
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  • I see that in the UK voluntary euthanasia is still “do-it-yourself”, due to feckless and spineless politicians ducking the issue.

    A man with advanced motor neurone disease has died days after giving an interview to raise awareness of the effects of the incurable illness.
    John King, 77, from Worcestershire, died on Thursday after removing a mask he relied on for air to stay alive.

    After his diagnosis 18 months ago, the businessman had been fed through a tube and needed constant care.

    “I think I’m at the right point in my life to make the decision… I have no issue with it at all,” he told the BBC.

    The method of ending his own life did not constitute assisted suicide, he said.

    He died in a hospice with his wife Elaine by his side.

    The grandfather and father-of-two, from Sutton, near Tenbury Wells, said he had planned his funeral with the help of a local celebrant and did not want a “dour affair”, but a “celebration of his life”.


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  • Judging by Trump’s deranged performance at the CPAC conference yesterday, during which at one point he actually appeared to hump the American flag on the stage,  the pressure on him is becoming very telling.   Equally deranged were the audience applauding him.   That is one alarmingly divided country.
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  • Eddie,


    Two topics I never discuss,politics and religion 

    Perhaps this has much to do with the current state of affairs in the Catholic church and Islamic fundamentalism. I was brought up to believe that politics and religion were taboo in discussions in the interests of not insulting or upsetting our interlocutors but look where this has left us all; clergy and politicians who take advantage of this situation in their own best interests. I’m not saying we need to be confrontational or insulting with our friends and loved ones but what is really wrong with pointing out ethical violations and self serving behavior of clergy and politicians who are in positions of power? I see nothing at all wrong with it.

    In certain situations it is ethically correct to take aggressive action against people and institutions in power who are acting against the public best interests. Wars have been fought over this and all manner of civil disobedience as well. Sometimes this is the very way that we move society forward and increase our well being as collective action. If this is the case then why worry about a simple discussion?

    But still, let’s be nice about it at least to start. Devoutly religious friends and family and plenty of people in our society are operating under the influence of various ideologies, religious, political and economic, and will certainly survive having that pointed out to them and presented with alternative points of view. Although they may not accept an alternate point of view on the spot, these ideas sit in the back of one’s mind and eat away at the less ideal ideas that are currently in place.

    As V says, “Ideas are bulletproof”
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  • Eddie #9

    Two topics I never discuss,politics and religion because neither accomplishes anything but hatred,lies and division.

    I don’t know about religion, but I’d be very surprised if you never discuss politics. Politics is about the way society is managed. If you ever discuss education, healthcare, traffic management, the environment, crime & justice, gun control, international relations, trade, food safety, urban planning, public transport, roads, welfare schemes, anything you’ve heard on the news or read in a newspaper, or almost anything else affecting day-to-day life, you are automatically also discussing politics to a certain extent. Indeed, the very claim that you don’t discuss politics because it’s too divisive is itself a political stance that you are presenting here in public: what could be more political than suggesting that it is harmful for people to engage in political discussions?

    The reality is that discussing all those things I’ve listed above is essential in a democracy. The position that ordinary voters shouldn’t discuss politics is terribly dangerous: it leaves it to the rich and powerful, the career politicians, to make all the decisions about how countries should be governed, and in whose interests. It removes any sense of accountability from them and denies ordinary people a voice. No country can be considered a true democracy if non-politicians do not engage in politics. Yes, such engagements can be fraught, but the solution to that is not to disengage but to learn to discuss more constructively, to develop a real interest in ideas (other people’s as well as our own), so that the aim of such discussions is no longer to win at all costs but genuinely to explore different political approaches and reasoning.

    The German political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that political conversations were absolutely essential if there was to be harmony, enlightenment and true democracy. For Arendt, engaging in political conversations was an act of peace-making, in the sense that such conversations, properly conducted, allow everyone to be heard, everyone to make their case. For her, this political conversation was the basis of healthy society as a whole. It was the only way people could come to understand one another, divisions could be made less toxic and different views and approaches could exist peacefully side by side. And consequently, it was the only way that tyranny could be prevented.

    It is always the wrong people who benefit when ordinary, decent people opt out of sharing the political responsibility of helping to shape a better society.
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  • Two topics I never discuss,politics and religion because neither accomplishes anything but hatred,lies and division except for exposing the hatred, lies and division. 
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  • I’ve gotten really interested in zoology lately. Unfortunately, some zoology books and writers seem to still be under The Spell of Group Selection, (which, I think John Maynard Smith correctly pinpointed down to a confusion resulting from the Lysenko affair,) does anyone have any recommendations for academic zoology resources?
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  • Very much like the Arendt “quote”, Marco.


    Myself, I argue that any discussion on “doing morality” that doesn’t terminate in politics is a moral opportunity wasted.

    Its not the morality of how we treat our known neighbours that really counts, it is how we intend to treat and actually treat whole classes of people, that best betrays our moral fibre.

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  • I agree that any discussion of morality that doesn’t end in politics is a wasted opportunity.

    I just finished reading Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, and he points out that Humanism is the idea that morality consists in the maximization of human flourishing, as opposed to two other views of morality:  “theistic morality: the idea that morality consists in obeying the dictates of a deity, which are enforced by supernatural reward and punishment in this world or in an afterlife;” “The second is romantic heroism: the idea that morality consists in the purity, authenticity, and greatness of an individual or a nation… including authoritarian populism, neo-fascism, neo-reaction, and the alt-right.”  

    I think the only way to maximize human flourishing — public education, universal health care, public safety, economic security, etc., etc., everything encompassed in the Enlightenment, is through the democratic political process rather than through private philanthropy or charitable organizations—churches or other such groups, let alone dictatorships.  It so unfortunate that theistic morality and romantic heroism have become so seemingly (and I underline seemingly) popular today in many places in the world, not the least of which is the United States, but Pinker argues that the reaction is a temporary setback that will pass, and that the ideas of the Enlightenment will triumph in the long run perhaps even in the short run, and even in the most backward parts of the world.  Someone once said that in the long run we’ll all be dead, but the point is that the ideals of the Enlightenment are here to stay, and what a wonderful time to be living-this far into the age of the Enlightenment.  Although there is so much room for improvement, I don’t think anyone would want to go back even a few decades, much less centuries. 

    Pinker’s book is a treasure trove of facts that support a rational, scientific, progressive view of the world—all ideas of the Enlightenment. I predict I’ll use it as a reference for a long time to come.
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  • Hannah Arendt was a very interesting thinker, best known for coining the phrase “the banality of evil” after witnessing the trial of leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann for crimes against humanity.

    The excellent BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time devoted a session to her a while back, which is still available online (though probably only in the UK, unfortunately).

  • Michael 100


    I have The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now on my bookshelf and I do refer to both of them on a regular basis. Both books are chock full of data, history and interpretations that I value highly.


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  • Michael #20

    Oh good, I’m so pleased. Hope you’re finding it interesting.

    It’s a long-running radio programme here – each one with a panel of academics being quizzed on their specialist subject, whatever that may be. Much of its appeal lies in the fact that the subjects cover an enormous range, including sometimes quite abstruse topics. If you enjoyed the one on Hannah Arendt, you may be interested in some of the others in the vast online archive.

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  • I see that as well as the revolving White House door, Trump appointees are now queuing at the jail doors!
    US President Donald Trump’s ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort has been given a 47-month jail sentence for fraud.
    He was convicted last year of hiding millions of dollars of income earned by his political consulting in Ukraine.

    The charges stem from an inquiry into alleged Russian election meddling in the 2016 US elections.


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  • From phil rimmer: “Its not the morality of how we treat our known neighbours that really counts, it is how we intend to treat and actually treat whole classes of people, that best betrays our moral fibre.”

    That depends strictly on one’s definition of morality.  A person who is nasty toward his neighbors but feels morally superior because he has the proper attitudes toward classes of people is not a moral person, by my definition, even if he for example donates to good causes.  I prefer individuals who are kind to the people they come in contact with even if they have prejudices that I deplore
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  • Craig.

    We all like nice neighbours, but sometimes they’re just cranky (in mental or physical pain) or like me Aspie and socially duff. If a grumpy neighbour were known by me to have marched to stop fatuous wars or voted to lift the poor out of poverty or made an endowment for the building of hospitals in Africa, I would love every last grumpy bit of him.


    Local niceness earns you easy reciprocal niceness. I’m learning increasingly how to do it. It makes me less grumpy. But caring (and acting!) for the millions without expectation of reciprocal reward, is I argue, high moral achievement.
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  • Phil #24


    My innate niceness (I have been told I am too nice, by business men mostly) has been challenged many times, with little or no reciprocation, to the point where I now do things with no expectations. I make the decision to do the right thing without disappointing myself and it is freeing in its own way. I have also learned, in the process, to say no. It all makes me feel grown up and not have to try and remember who owes me what.
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  • Olgun #25


    Sorry, that wasn’t meant to sound so arrogant and all about me as it did on a second read for me. There is a practical way to get there is all I was trying to say.


    I also want want to add that I am still working on not getting annoyed by other drivers who don’t wave a thank you when I give them way!
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  • Ollie


    I was hoping you’d be grumpy in person to make my point about high morals. I always think of you as the one to think of distant others first.

    Grace in traffic is a daily challenge. Where I work sometimes there is a road with many parked cars on both sides and to get through the narrow way needs great foresight. How many cars behind me, how many behind her? Can we, they all fit in those gaps ahead? A real test for autonomous vehicles.

    Locals are really good at this now and we all take pleasure in moving efficiently passed each other, tucking in here and pulling forward to fit two, no, three behind, and so on. We wave cheerily and undoubtedly feel a little buzz of collective achievement.

    Woe betide an out of towner or a more elderly or less experienced driver though. Bewildered and reviled in equal measure we police our little community rather sternly.
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  • Language is tricky.


    “I was hoping you’d be grumpy in person to make my point about high morals. I always think of you as the one to think of distant others before any of us.”
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  • Vicki.

    He raises a good point. Most folk are well intentioned even those who have the temerity to disagree with me. Further, those less blessed with wisdom than myself are not going to go away. We’re in it together and understanding each other’s motives can only speed the inevitable compromise we’ll need.


    But, but, this isn’t simply a two sided problem. It isn’t just left and right folks. There is also the more sociopath few, rich enough to affect policy. The real movers and shakers.



    These folk are the naturally more callous. Its why they are the rich few. And its why accusations of dishonourable motivation is not so unreasonable. These are the people we need to tackle. They work however via the voting masses by buying political power to further their ends and obscure their tracks. It is mostly the right wing masses that have been misled by policies blaming brown people and immigrants and muslims for their own woes rather than the rich investing their ill-gotten gains off shore to the further impoverishment of the masses. But the “left” also (euro centre-right) have been substantially led further right by a fourth estate still substantially in the pay of big business and toeing a single economic narrative.

    In the next post I will point to a new UK publication by three UK economics graduates who make a very powerful case against the reliability of the standard narrative.

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  • Phil #27


    A regular Victor Meldrew at times.


    I get annoyed at other drivers but think up all the excuses I can as to why they didn’t reciprocate. I now thank them with a raise of the hand and a snarky thank you that they obviously don’t hear.
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  • @Phil

    But, but, this isn’t simply a two sided problem.

    I agree, and I won’t be holding my breath to see the same author addressing the issue from that angle. His conservative position is a moneyed and entrenched one, and I don’t see anyone in that position willingly putting it in jeopardy.

    No, I have no illusions, but I do agree that treating ‘the other side’ with contempt is a no-win position. I don’t see the national political dialogue improving anytime soon, since the 2020 election is looming, but maybe, maybe, depending on its outcome, we could use his argument as a jumping-off point afterwards.
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  • Vicki


    I feel I am in such a position, on a much smaller scale, within the Cyprus problem. I am not talked ng about between the Turkish Cypriots and their Greek Cypriot counterparts but within the TC community itself. In this battle I am right of centre…just.  We then have the left and the right taking chunks out of each other. Our FB page tends to attract the right but I was more interested in finding a ballance so I allowed known ‘lefties’ to join. I got some grief but tried to explain myself. I hoped the left, who preach love and unity, would have better moral values and not demonise their brothers and sisters. It did not take long for it to all fall apart with accusations going back and forth. I too joined in getting more and more annoyed that the left were letting me down by not claiming the higher ground. I tried messaging the ‘lefties’ that I thought I associated more with but in the end the messenger (me) got shot by both sides. I ended up banning the ‘lefties’ to bring us back to the real issue of the Cyprus problem. I believed it would only take one side to show some humanity to make a change. My experiment ended with no results.
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  • Oh, Olgan, I feel your frustration. I know that recognizing the points of each ‘side’ is what is needed, but it just sounds like a lame platitude. And it’s so slow!

    I wish I could send you a telekinetic hug across the Atlantic.
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  • Vicki and Olgun,  regarding your question of how to treat “the other side,” vis-a-vis the 2020 election and getting competing factions to find some common ground, here’s how I see this problem here in the U.S.  As I read what I wrote below I realize I’m rambling a bit, but I hope it comes together at the end.

    In the first place, I think people have very short memories. For example, people don’t remember that Bill Clinton left office with a surplus in the budget and a fairly stable world situation—not perfect, but not too bad. When George W Bush came into office, Clinton tried to warn him about Osama bin Laden, but W. didn’t want to hear about it, and before long we had 9/11. Maybe that would have happened under a Gore administration, but we know it happened in 2011 — and W “won” because too many people voted for Nader rather than Gore. Did I mention the economy?  During 8 years of Republican, Bush administration, policies we pushed the western world to the brink of economic collapse—remember Enron and company?  Remember “to big to fail”. And, we are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq – a war based on the lie of WMDs. Politics and morality go hand-in-hand — remember Abu Ghraib, and water boarding etc.? It took the Obama administration 8 years to make the economic corrections and restore some stability —all with no help from the Republicans. Under Obama, the US had the respect of the world. After eight years, you would have thought that we would want to continue the Obama era policies—and I keep reminding myself that the majority did—but instead we got a president who has made us a laughing stock and I won’t be surprised if we are plunged back into economic chaos and some sort of war before he leaves office, especially if he’s re-elected — I hope the Dem.s don’t blow it in 2020.  I know I’m oversimplifying, but the point is people seem to me to have short memories.

    The other problem is that most people don’t seem to understand how our political system works. People I come across all the time, don’t have any idea what the two major political parties stand for, and that it is the parties that run the machinery of government and set the agenda. People don’t understand that the Democrats are for progressive taxes, fair wages, equal rights, a good social safety net, strong environmental and business regulations, and other such policies, —dare I say it, Enlightenment policies. On the other hand, the Republicans want lower taxes, low wages, weak regulations, all the money to go to the top—nearly the opposite of what the Dems want. And yet, working people will go into the voting booth and cast ballots for candidates of both parties, they elect a president of one party, and a congress of another, and then wonder why nothing seen to work for them.  Again, I know I’m oversimplifying, but when people vote on the basis of personality rather than policies, we get the likes of Bush and Trump. 

    A few years ago I read a book, I think the title was Who Will Tell The People.  In it, the authors explained the importance of what they called “mediating institutions.”  Until the late 1970s, labor unions were very strong and played and important role in making the political system work for the labor class. I use to be a member of the United Auto Workers during the time when it still had a progressive Reutherite leadership. During the Carter and Regan administrations, the labor movement was nearly crushed, and the labor class lost that mediating institution.  The organizing role of the unions was replaced by fundamentalist churches under the leadership of luminaries such as Jerry Falwell, who gave us the moral majority’s Ronald Regan — remember the Iran contra scandal, and Oliver North?  Maybe someone from Australia can remind us about the Nugan-Hand bank. In my opinion, the TEA party, Sara Palen, and Donald Trump etc., can all be laid at the doorstep of the demise of the labor movement.

    The other day, I agreed with Phil that any discussion of politics that doesn’t tie in a discussion of morality is a wasted opportunity.  I don’t think it takes a strong imagination to see the connection between morality – from a humanitarian perspective – and progressive political policies, and vice-versa. Also, I agree with you that “treating ‘the other side’ with contempt is a no-win position,” but that’s a little hard when the other side is represented by the likes of Steve King, Steve Brannon, the alt right, the “good people” who marched with torches ice Charlottesville, etc.  I just wish there’s was a way for people to fully understand the differences between the two sides, and know on which side the bread is buttered. And, how to understand the principles of humanist morality.  I know I go on too long, but I’m not very good at reducing my thoughts to snappy one-liners.
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  • Michael, my wife and I share your contempt for today’s Republican party and those who support Trump.  She’s a very friendly, gentle person but finds it impossible to be nice to those on the other side – can barely stand to be around them.  I, on the other hand, recognize that people are complicated and can be wonderfully caring and altruistic to others but still have screwy ideas.  The basis for our contempts are different.  She primarily feels the immorality of that side, while I’m more disgusted with their stupidity.  She is less hostile toward those who are poor and struggling and more angry at those selfish people who are wealthy and support the man because their finances are improved (at the expense of future generations).  Me, I’m appalled at anyone who was so clueless as to not recognize him as a con artist of very limited intelligence and depth of knowledge right from the start.  The man is dangerous. I know that for religious people, in one respect he has been a positive force, in that he has stuffed the courts with anti-abortion judges, and so for them support for Trump might make sense, except that the man is so corrupt that it’s hard to understand how they can stand him.  And yet they turn out and cheer that sociopath like a rock star.  As an American, it’s damn embarrassing.  I can only be comfortable showing my face here because Britain and Europe don’t seem to be acting all that smart either lately.
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  • I feel it is my life’s work to get people to notice sociopaths. To notice that what the masses want is mostly irrelevant and anyway is often circumstantially manipulated by choice restriction and the use of simple alternative narratives. Our desire to be nice and at least tolerant of 99% of folk, (folk with a vote) is fine and necessary, BUT that doesn’t mean we have to be tolerant of our sociopaths. These folk will never reciprocate. The wiring for this is gone or was never there. These are the folk (essential in any society) who become our leaders, captains of industry and heads of state. They do this because they can focus single mindedly without the risk of emotional side-lining.

    Are sociopaths in some sort of conspiracy against the rest of us ? In some special interest areas, perhaps so, but not too consciously. Like all good salesmen they have to sell to themselves first. They have to live their schtick. The narratives of hyper-individualism, that of trickle-down, of government as self-serving cancer, and even of the innate safety of a written constitution have neatly evolved to both isolate and remove choice.


    The problem for all of us (but even in the time of Brexit and corrosive identitarianism/nationalism, especially the USA) the problem is not the manipulated choices of the more anxious, more deprived and more stolen from among the right wing masses, but the deflections of the kleptocrats, those high achieving sociopaths who allow/encourage others to be blamed in their stead, who are the authors of that very manipulation.

    The problem is mostly systemic, particularly in the structures of democracy and of the fourth estate. Even the left wing media (hugely dependent on corporate money) promotes the narratives the right critically depend on. I’ve detailed this often earlier and linked to books like

    Democracy in Chains

    Dark Money

    Thieves of State


    The Vanishing Middle Class

    Bad Samaritans

    Post Truth

    The Econocracy

    Creating Freedom

    Utopia for Realists.

    These books, mostly by academics, detail the systemic failures that sociopaths can exploit and use to create self serving political heft.

    In being nice to our neighbours, we shouldn’t rush to be nice to their idols, nor idolise our own preferred socipaths. (I’m quite sure AOC scores high on the Psychopath Personality Inventory. A good friend and one time writer here, a music therapist, is a clinical psychopath.) It is always the quality of ideas that really counts.

    In talking to the anxious right, the little guys and gals like us, we need to afford them an expectation of good (if misguided) intention. But the real first job for us is to notice the effect of sociopaths and then  expand the range of narratives beyond that narrow set endlessly fed us by them.The world is a big place and other countries do things differently. Indeed, once, to great effect, so did the USA.
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  • Mar 10, 2019 at 5:19 am
    phil rimmer says:

    In being nice to our neighbours, we shouldn’t rush to be nice to their idols, nor idolise our own preferred socipaths.

    Interestingly, those with humanist values seem to be able to have longer lasting stable partnerships!

    Humanist weddings seem to be replacing the old religious mumbo-jumbo forms of ceremony.
    Scottish couples who chose a humanist wedding are less likely to divorce than those who had other types of marriage ceremony, figures for the BBC suggest.

  • Craig

    Me, I’m appalled at anyone who was so clueless as to not recognize him as a con artist 


    Poverty makes people stupid. Measuring the IQ of sugar cane harvesters at two different times of year, one after the cane harvest when they get 60% of their annual income in one lump, shows that their IQ jumps 14% with their temporary wealth.

    Living on the edge of catastrophe brings folk to those desperate reliefs of hope against hope, scratch cards, religion and the promises of hucksters. Median family wealth in the USA is the same as for Greece. There is little safety net and some of the worst legislative protection for workers in the civilised world. American workers work harder than most and least profit from their efforts. They work 8 hours a week more than their German counterparts for the same average quality of life, but their median quality of life is well below the German median.


    Black folks have it worse than white folk (household wealth is $5 for every $100 of white family wealth). They are not even two paychecks from disaster.Why don’t they vote as stupidly as poor whites? They’ve been slaves before. Never again. Besides being part of the excuse for white poverty used by kleptocrats and knowing they are no such thing is more than a little off putting.

    You have to see how easily people are manipulated, how neglected and ill-educated to realise that there is little traction to be gained with these folk until you start to lift them out of their parlous state.

    Morality is self breeding. Kids tested for empathy drawn from a variety of countries displayed differences. All recognised when they as individuals were treated unfairly and complained, but only those from rich comfortable backgrounds cared about unfairness to others. Those from countries subject to famine and privations had probably been brought up by caring parents to keep any good fortune to themselves. You love your own kids first. Start to lift people out of relative poverty and watch their moral judgments be lifted also.
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  • Vicki #34

    Thank you Vicki. The offer of a hug did the trick.

    I was hoping it was going to be a quick process by discussion but it nice the word traitor was used it was actually going backwards. Maybe it needed more time to come about but I soon realised that most don’t have the skills to debate. Once all their learned one liners run out, so do they.
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  • Craig Wilson #36 said:  “I, on the other hand, recognize that people are complicated and can be wonderfully caring and altruistic to others but still have screwy ideas.”

    I agree. It’s difficult to reconcile. I too recognize that not everyone who thinks they agree with Trump’s -what to call it?, propaganda?- is ready to pick up a torch to defend statues of confederate generals, which were erected to reinforce Jim Crow culture.  Not all of then will chant anti-Semitic slogans … However, as you say they can voice some screwy ideas.  In addition to the hypotheses I put forward in #35 above, I would cite the book, One Nation Under God, by Kevin M. Kruse, who explains how the wealthy made common cause with American religion—religion, that included mainstream as well as American fundamentalist churches—to roll back the New Deal programs.  I would say that the voices of reaction are still active and successful enough that they can achieve an electoral college victory. 
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  • Kruse’s book is a fascinating and rather horrifying read, Michael. We remember the McCarthy witch hunts but not this monied rediscovery of the power of religion and once rebooted, putting it back in the hands of politicians. Adverts urging church-going with captains of Industry on the committee, the public placement of Ten Commandment monuments. The New Deal and the Government had been a tremendous and worrying success.


    Those same old-money forces even now are frothing at the mouth and seeing commie red at AOC’s Green New Deal.
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  • In the section of this site’s page under the heading “Social” there is a link to a book review published in The Washington Post.  The author of the review is Professor Jerry A. Coyne who reviews a recently (2/26/19) published book by Michael J. Behe, a proponent of Intelligent design but also who is described as a biology professor at Lehigh University  The title of Behe’s book is DARWIN DEVOLVES, The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution.  In his review, among other things, Dr. Coyne asks: 

    “Who, exactly, is the designer, and what evidence is there that this designer makes nonrandom mutations? Is the designer an immaterial god, in which case we need to know how this god violates the laws of physics by causing mutations, or is the designer material, like a space alien, in which case we must understand the physical methods whereby aliens change our DNA?”

    As Dr. Coyne points out, the answers to those questions are not found between the covers of Behe’s book.
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  • Michael 100 says:

    The author of the review is Professor Jerry A. Coyne who reviews a recently (2/26/19) published book by Michael J. Behe, a proponent of Intelligent design but also who is described as a biology professor at Lehigh University

    Behe is a well known writer of faith-based pseudoscience, who has enough knowledge of biology to write carefully deceptive sciencey sounding stuff, but which is all based on deliberately hidden theology and not based on scientific methodology.

    He is the creationists’ pet biologist and “expert witness”, in their failed court cases trying to push creationist junk into schools!
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  • Alan, what do you know about Lehigh University, where Behe is a “professor”?  Their web site claims it is a private research university.  Is Behe representative of the faculty, or is he an aboration?
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  • @ #50


    Very interesting. Thanks, Marco.


    Some of these ideas have bee developed into a very interesting hypothesis in

    “The Goodness Paradox”.Richard Wrangham.

    He argues that our “chimp” alpha male aggression was somewhat tamed and bred out of us by having the ability to both hunt in packs as with chimps but on acquiring language, non alpha males were then able to tacitly and fatally conspire against overly burdensome alphas. Human hunter gatherer communities grew to have less coercive alpha males than chimp communities.
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  • Phil, I recently read The Goodness Paradox.  Interesting book, with speculation that as a “self-domesticated species”, humans share certain characteristics with other domesticated species such as more juvenile characteristics compared with their ancestor species, less size differences male vs female, less aggression, and so on.  Where I think he goes wrong is the mechanism he sees responsible for the reduced aggression and increased cooperation that developed.  He postulates that overaggressive males got themselves murdered and therefore the genes responsible for dominance get reduced in frequency.  Doesn’t sound very efficient to me.

    My opinion is that the increased cooperation we humans exhibit is due to group selection, which I know is denigrated on this site but makes excellent sense to me.  Not even very complicated.  During hunter-gatherer days, which was the great majority of the time span of Homo sapiens, we lived in groups averaging 25 or so.  Most of those groups likely contained family members as well as mates and non-related individuals.  The groups who by chance or familial similarities were very cooperative, empathetic, and to some extent altruistic had a better chance of survival – building or finding safe shelters, providing food for all group members, protecting the group from human or animal predators.  Those where everybody was concerned only with number one had poorer likelihood of survival.  Group members who were outside the norm for their group – a sociopath in the group with a lot of cooperators or a saint in the selfish group – would live or die according to how the group did or didn’t prosper, but the result would be that in the next generation the percentage of humans with those genes promoting cooperation would naturally be increased.

    This is not what we mostly think of as the standard model of evolution – that is, that mutations occur and they either die out (usually) or they increase the chances of survival and have a chance of becoming the standard in a species.  This is more that the mutations have already occurred – promoting empathy, group identification tendency, and so on.  And I suspect that there are many, many genes that affect personality – some promoting empathy, others selfishness, shame, sense of duty, fearlessness, and so on.  So this form of evolution is simply the increase in frequency among genes that already exist.  Over the existence of Homo sapiens it’s easy to see how that would shape our personalities.

    I’d be happy to have a substantive discussion with those who disagree with that concept, as I think most of you do.
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  • Craig,

    This is always a good question to ask. And thanks for posing it. Why not group selection?

    Well, its complicated but really, really interesting. I am not a fan of group selection as you rightly surmise, but I am of multi-level selection, which I think has a lot more going for it.

    I start from a different question. We are clearly a species with widely divergent cognitive biases within it, so how does evolution work in such a way as to support a seemingly stable distribution of differences? Indeed we can identify four or five basic cognitive skews, all with genetic correlates, that in their common milder manifestation confer particular “talents” and that in their more severe expression (from say a double parental genetic dose and or environmental trigger) we recognise as mental illness.

    We know from things like the maths of game theory and observations of all parasites that exploiters and toilers will find a stable balance of coexistence and that evolution creates an escalating arms race of measure and countermeasure that finds little escape. The low empathy that are clever are the ones to survive. Dissimulation is the biggest problem for mankind and always has been. The sociopaths hide in plain sight. More they make themselves indispensable. Sociopaths start the protection racket that is the alpha male.


    Individual genes mutate one at a time, that is in one individual at a time, and must pay the immediate consequences of its dice throw. A newly incautious and kind individual may well be exploited by the in goup parasite before the virtue of the kinder mutation sees any group benefit and certainly before the individual may achieve a differential reproductive advantage for the new mutation.

    That mutuality that can emerge from supporting kin, however, makes perfect sense when viewed from the gene’s perspective. They are us…almost. Now here’s the thing. How do we know who “kin” is? No, that’s too easy. How do genes know who kin is? This is a genetic argument so far and it is genes have to confer a behaviour that predisposes primitive mammal us to our kin for all sorts of reasons, like nurturing and training. Well detection is primitive. Evolution is a bodger and whatever broadly gets the job done is it. For ducklings just hatched, it is what they first see moving. Usually mummy but once or twice it has been Konrad Lorenz and even a trailed blanket. Duck kin is what you see first moving. How do starlings detect huge cuckoo chicks from their own? They don’t. Pecking at their mother’s beak is how starlings know their kids….

    Humans don’t make these mistakes. We make slightly less stupid ones. Infants have chaotic brains that only start to stabilise and have all working parts after two. Children detect adults and copy faithfully what adults do. Its called over imitation. It would seem that the kin detector is primarily adults who feed you and show you about stuff. Better than anything simply moving.


    What this kin detector should be called is “as-if kin” detector and it means that those kin favouring behaviours that are genetically coherent will by this means be extend to those who appear to be kin by hanging around and showing an interest.


    “As-if-kin” gets us going as a bunch of social mammals albeit parasitised to a sustainable degree, but it is culture and cultural evolution that can take the reliable substrate of a genetically based working empathy and build it into an ever expanding franchise of the suffering, one that metaphorically at least, stands a chance of seeing the last prince strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

    I’ll come back to this in the next few days. I have two books worth of stuff to write about this, so it may be a few more posts. Alas I must go and be sociable now. Damned culture!

    PS Why not efficient? I thought it very efficient and highly plausible.

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  • Seems to me inefficient because some very aggressive individuals might dominate their hunter-gatherer group and prosper to more than offset any who were killed by other groups.

    Group selection implies that more or less everyone in a group suffers the same fate.  So any survival advantage by a mostly cooperative group would send more of their genes forward than a group who mostly gets killed off.  So assuming that most groups would have a fair number of kinfolks in it, it would be a form of kin selection as well as group selection.  But the basic selection mechanism would be group-survival based.

    I see one of the ways that evolution works is to set a proper balance of characteristics.  For example, body size to fit the environment.  Many genes are obviously involved in that work.  Likewise, the levels of empathy, cooperation, and aggression have optimal levels for survival and reproduction.  A hunter-gatherer group consisting of all sissies would probably be wiped out by predators, animal or human.  A group with all hyperaggressive individuals would be great at defending itself but horrible at delegating food gathering and getting organized.  In my hunter-gatherer group I’d want people who were cooperative and empathetic toward other group members but capable of hostility toward outside groups who might want to steal my food and women.  So my concept of hunter-gatherer group selection is that it was a method of fine-tuning all sorts of personality traits to ensure survival and reproductive success. And of course within the group you still want a certain degree of aggression and selfishness so that you have a better chance of surviving and producing offspring. The balance is what’s important.
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  • The statement from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science / Center for Inquiry, regarding the shooting in Christchurch perfectly captures my sympathy for the victims, and the horror at the senseless act of violence. 

    I am particularly horrified to learn that the shooters, on the other side of the planet from the United States, were inspired by the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, as well as statements made by this country’s current president (“good people on both sides” indeed!!).  In my opinion, the time is long overdue to repeal the Second Amendment.  I think it should have been done at the time of the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution.  According to a 1998 article published by the University of California at Davis Law Review entitled The Hidden History of the Second Amendment, by Carl T. Bogus, at the time of the drafting of the Constitution, the southern states insisted on the amendment because of fear of revolt by the slaves, and as a means of slave control.  The “well regulated militia” referenced in the Amendment was, in fact, the slave patrol.  Bogus, by the way, according to Wikipedia, is a Distinguished Research Professor of Law at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island.

    The repeal of this the Amendment should be a priority for all progressive people and the organizations which represent us.  Even if it takes a hundred years, it’s a struggle worth beginning now.  If not today – when?
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  • Craig.


    “Efficient” meaning “getting to what I would like to see” directly enacted is not a dispassionate term, nor one that displays any necessary mechanism.

    “As if kin” detection is the only genetic selector available (and its pretty good, it nets us new pacifying applications of oxytocin, for afferent c-tactile nerves for grooming, mirror neurons for training and spindle cells for enabling a consequential veto on our quickness to violence, etc.) This sustains very small groups necessarily highly related. It sees the evolution of empathy, that visceral ability to “feel into” the emotional states

    Genetic competition within groups is still very much a genetic selection pressure. The callous alphas will be sustained and given the “free ride” they get asthey follow typical host / parasite genetic evolutionary dynamics for parasites, needing near fully functioning hosts, creating a stable enough and sufficient delivery of  goodies. In such a stable state, progress into larger groups where as-if-kin  functions less reliably, as the stranger count goes up, the callous alpha males will more quickly single out those kinder and more exploitable individuals for disproportionate “use” reducing their reproductive fitness and enhancing the fitness of those “that look away”. Genetic election pressures in a compound group (containing host and parasite sub-species) actively work against sustainable larger groups able to expand into civility. This latter is the domain of cultural evolution and what makes “The Goodness Paradox” hypothesis so very exciting. It marks precisely a mode by which culture (language) can start to interact with the platform of genetic evolution.

    Epigenetics, the study of gene expression (caterpillars/butterflies, axalotl/salamander) has shown us that some species are particularly open to rapid adaptions. Humans and canids are both notably “breedable”. The Russian 50 year plus breeding study for aggression in silver foxes has the remarkable transition for notable to super aggressive and super soppy within just seven generations. What we are now suspecting with epigenetics is how it might create a new stable social paradigm, say, and working with other modes of phenotypic generation, enable, using a cast and moulding  interplay, a more robust actual genetic change matching the epigenetic expression.

    Next is the cultural level of evolution, playing a part in the above levels and super charging Darwinian processes (not genetic). Only now are we seeing the studies that show how remarkably stable these changes can be. For next time.


    Multilevel selection is the emerging set of theories that have real integrating heft, and properly account for our astonishing varieties as a species. We are way more diverse in appearance and culture and cognitive spread than our surprisingly uniform genes would imply.


    Sorry. Little tastes only.





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  • Craig


    I saw a program on mountains n gorillas. Agression was key factor for the silverback at the head of the group in its initial stages. As the silverback grew older, he was challenged by a bigger younger silverback. Our original silver back was sure to lose but the females all backed him and attacked the newcomer. It turned out their present silverback was very good with the babies and was fair to all the group and they wanted to stay that way. They trusted him.
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  • Phil, I understand multi-level selection to pretty much include group selection as part of its definition.  If you see it differently, please explain.  I know that Richard Dawkins has always rejected group selection  (unless he’s changed his mind) and it’s gutsy to express a contrary opinion on his site, but what the hell.

    And certainly individual or gene-level selection is the primary mechanism of species change.  Almost all physical and most mental characteristics evolve through gene-level selection.  But altruism is pretty much impossible to explain through individual selection.  The person who reduces his fitness by being unselfish, sometimes even to the point of dying for his companions, will not send his genes forward as often as those who are more selfish within his group.  The characteristics that arise through group selection, in my opinion, are pretty much all personality traits.  And how our genes configure our brains to favor certain personality traits is probably unknown except in general terms.  How in the world can our DNA cause us to feel empathy, or aggressiveness, or altruism, or selfishness?  Something to do with the configurations of the neurons in our brain and their connections plus control of hormones, I assume.  Maybe one day it will be explained, but I think we’re a long way from that.

    The characteristic of identifying with one’s group – that is, making the welfare of the group important to the individual, and sometimes doing things contrary to his own self-interest – is easily explained by group selection, and requires mental gymnastics to explain by gene-level selection.  Kin selection certainly plays a part in group selection, as I said before, because many groups presumably contained a lot of family members, but obviously within groups individuals probably identified with and protected all group members, not just family.  And the group-identification personality trait explains the “us vs them” tendency we all have even today to one extent or another.

    Homo sapiens as a species has been around for about 300,000 years, and for all that time until agriculture was invented and cities developed maybe 10,000 years ago we were living as hunter-gatherers in groups, so there was plenty of time for group evolution to work its magic.

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  • Olgun, I think that’s true of bonobos as well.  And it could have sometimes happened in groups of humans.  But today many ladies seem to like physically dominant males, such as athletes.  Many also like bad boys.  I don’t see women today flocking to bed mild-mannered computer programmers (more’s the pity) so I have trouble believing that shunning aggressive males was a universal evolutionary strategy.  Maybe some of the really awful and violent alpha males were kicked out or even killed within groups but in most cases I’ll bet that aggressive human males were the leaders of hunter-gatherer groups.
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  • Craig


    There has to be a sense of fairness in there otherwise the reign of only agression will be short lived with fewer offspring?


    Can we distinguish between knowing you are being altruistic and altruism in its bare form? I can’t help but go to ants with this. Who is being altruistic? The queen, confined to being an egg machine or the worker ants who work purely to feed and protect the nest?
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  • Craig

    “altruism is pretty much impossible to explain through individual selection…” [alone]

    Richard Dawkins would agree.

    Kin selection and as-if-kin selection accounts for most of the list of animals in the Wiki Altruism entry and has proved mathematically robust.

    Those more difficult examples of altruism, interspecies etc. are notably of high cortical clout like cetaceans who we now understand to have very high levels of sociability and may well be on the lower slopes of cultural evolution. These selectors may well be related to sexual attractiveness to mates (the most recent studies suggested they may have names and gossip about others) and the mis-identification of young. Most mammals act well towards young and neotenous appearances, wide big eyes in a small face is pretty standard mammal young detection. Saving near-by as-if-young may well be saving kin, In smarter social animals it could well get you laid.

    You have yet to show a viable group selection process that has worked when modeled by researchers. Cultures, however, have lots of evolutionary levers to pull. You also rather evade the issue of how pre-cultural animals identify each other. It is remarkably crude until well into the latter stages of mammal-ness.
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  • Olgun, altruism in bees and ants can be explained by the fact that I believe everybody in the hive or anthill has similar genes.  And those little guys operate by instinct whereas humans and to some extent mammals have the power of choice, so it’s a different mechanism.
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  • Phil, I don’t think it’s even all that complicated a selection process.  Take two hunter-gatherer groups.  One has mostly empathetic, cooperative individuals because of familial genetic similarity and because they chose other empathetic individuals to mate with or travel with.  The other group has more individualistic, selfish individuals.  A pack of wolves or other predators attacks the first one but is repulsed because that group is better at cooperating their defense.  That pack then moves on to the other group and kills everybody because they are less cooperative.  The one group sends its genes forward, the other doesn’t.  The gene pool therefore tends toward cooperation.

    Again, it isn’t that new mutations have occurred (although they could).  It’s just a shift in the percentage of those genes affecting personality.

    I’m not sure about the issue related to pre-cultural kin identification.  I assume siblings identify each other and parents and offspring by imprinting their smells and appearances, but I don’t know that it is important for the group selection process I’ve proposed, unless I’m missing your point.
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  • ” I assume siblings identify each other and parents and offspring by imprinting their smells and appearances,”


    Why do you think I led with the story of ducklings identifying parents and starlings identifying their off-spring? And then how humans do it? How does our amygdala do its friend, foe, don;t know thing? Our amygdala isn’t informed by our pre-frontal cortex processing visual cortex data streams. That would be too dangerously slow and useless in an little-formed infant brain. These things of genetic import are mostly bottom up processes…


    And how on earth does it work for groups?


    It works at the cultural level.
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  • Phil, I don’t see that the specific process of kin identification has any relevance to the mechanism I’ve proposed here for group selection.

    I believe that the mutation which is most relevant to this discussion is that which gave rise to empathy, and probably that came about because without it – without a mother bonding with her offspring and protecting them until they are able to take care of themselves – a species wouldn’t survive.   Empathy – feeling the pain (or pleasure) of another – probably has a similar mechanism to that of mirror neurons.

    And once that capability had been invented, it was extended and modified by new mutations to result in such characteristics as cooperation, group bonding, altruism, a sense of fairness, and so on.  My guess is that a huge number of genes are involved in crafting our personalities.  Almost no one is totally uncooperative, almost no one is always cooperative.  We all vary from one another in how empathetic we are.  The number and type of empathy-related genes that are switched on probably sets the degree of cooperativeness in each of us.

    Once again, those groups with more cooperative individuals sent all their genes into future generation more often than those more selfish groups, and therefore the next generation would have more tendencies toward cooperation and group bonding.
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  • Craig.

    The  self/kin/group detector process must be controlled by the genes that come to encode it, and it needs to work without our pre-frontal cortex and sophisticated minds. It needs to work as a bottom up process for every level of animal development.

    Group selection fails to reflect observations when run as mathematical simulations. It does not explain, as kin selection and as-if-kin selection do, why, say, chimp and other hunter gatherer groups have divergent but stable sub species of the callous and the kind, are only stable in small knowable bands. You can’t simply try and account for one feature. As-if-kin selection is not merely part of group selection, it is the entirety of it. More to the point it accounts for the observations until we can have recourse to epigenetic adaptions, cultural copying and the compounding effect of reforming our own selection pressures to allow genes to bolster the new contingent us.

    Empathy to the best of our knowledge comprises some thirteen elements of which mirror neurons are one component. Other elements include, oxytocin, a limbic system, an amygdala, an anteririor cingulate cortex, a prefrontal cortex, spindle cells, C-tactile afferent cells and hair follicles. It certainly emerged in its particular form in mammals because of pacifying infants for purposes of nurturing. Mirror neurons most probably work hardest in the young delivering muscle and skill training (including communications and social skills). Uniquely in humans they take part in an early period of indoctrination (probably due to our premature brains), a process educationalists know as over-imitation, where kids copy exactly what they are shown even when it is patently nonsensical.  This is the starting place of cultural evolution, where those more divergent and distinctive moral-like behaviours can flourish under their own selective pressures. One such I point to is the rapid emergence of keeping old people alive about 45,000 years ago.

    Your singular claim appears to ignore the problems I raised earlier. Sadly, I cannot spend much more time on this and can only urge you to revisit what I wrote earlier and challenge the specific problems raised.

    What is interesting about all of this is that a lot of the mechanisms in multilevel selection theory have only comparatively recently been uncovered and accounted for. Newly formed understandings of how brains and particularly human brains develop sophisticated behaviours emerge from these via the new disciplines of constructivism and neuro constructivism. These at last have the power to reveal why our situated cognitions and supporting cultures evolve the way they do, and from the dramatic and unique sophistication of humans we now look backwards to see emergent culture more clearly in cetaceans apes and elephants etc..
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  • Craig #66


    I don’t see it as different but part of the evolution. Empathy didn’t just mutate suddenly and it is not one thing. You are asking the same question as what is the self and the answer is just as complicated. At what point we started realising we are being empathetic is not a point but a continuation of a complicated mix of abilities. If conditions are right for water to flow downhill then it will.
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  • I don’t see the point of dragging “group selection” into this at all. Even traditional “individual selection” doesn’t happen, for the simple reason that even those rare individual organisms who clone themselves perfectly don’t inherit the traits of the parent directly (easy test: rip the leg off a stick insect and see if its descendants have five legs). They inherit it through the genes and biochemical machinery in the parent’s gametes.

    Another major point is that no cooperative phenotype can evolve without safeguards against exploitation, for the simple reason that any “suicidally cooperative” genes would drive themselves to extinction without insurance. That’s why kin selection and reciprocal altruism tend to be stronger explanations for biologically based altruism (as opposed to cultural ones). The former is really just selfish genery with insurance, so it’s ultimately beneficial to the genes themselves. The latter imposes a punishment system for freeriders and demands that the relationship be mutually beneficial, not outright altruistic.

    Competition between “groups” looks like a tempting target for natural selection until you consider the following: “groups” don’t reproduce. Like, not even metaphorically. Even if you lock a group together so tightly that no one can leave or join, even if you make the group’s structure as clearly rigid as possible, even if you want to make each generation such a Generation Xerox of the last that they’re basically clones of the former generation, you still wouldn’t have a plausible reproductive system on par with genetic ones. It’s harder than you think to find any “group” that could be stable long enough to act like our “individual” cloning stick insects… and that comparison alone is revealing because even perfect clones are only so because of the genetic inheritance.

    Of course culture adds a potent complication to the mix, especially considering the way ideas multiply and evolve within it. But in that case, I honestly think some kind of memetic selection, selection of ideas in the environments that are provided by our genetically evolved brains, would be a more plausible candidate for multilevel selection or for empathy and altruism enhancement, for the simple reason that ideas often are stable enough from brain to brain to act as replicating, inheritance-based parallels to genes.
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  • Olgun #53

    Marco, Phil
    What about the bonobo?

    Sorry, Olgun, I’m not ignoring you – just waaaaay out of my depth with the subject matter, and very much enjoying being a non-participating observer of the ongoing discussion!


    Zeuglodon, #73

    Also, I’m back after a long absence. Hello, everyone. It’s been years. 

    Excellent news! Welcome back 🙂

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  • Marco #74


    So am I Marco but what the heck. Need to get a few more cogs in my model of it. Trying to keep up with all the switches Phil keeps putting up. Love the mechanics of it.
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  • Zeuglodon … So it’s this group selection discussion that has yanked you back into action?  Great!

    Of course it’s all genetic.  One could also say that genes don’t live and die, individuals do, and it’s the survival and reproduction of individuals that drives the increase or extinction of gene mutations.  And you can say that groups don’t reproduce, but of course the individuals within the group do.  So any hunter-gatherer group that had a survival advantage because of its greater ability to cooperate and help the group survive would send any genes that made them more cooperative and altruistic forward, and any group that died off because it wasn’t cooperative enough wouldn’t have any further offspring.  The next generation would have more of the cooperative-related genes, percentage-wise.

    I’ve believed this and thought about it a lot for 10 years or so.  Here’s a link to a brief article that traces the history of the group selection controversy, including a mention of Richard Dawkins.
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  • Phil, the reason that kin selection doesn’t enter into my version directly is that group selection implies that everybody in the hunter-gatherer group would benefit from increased cooperation in that group, not just kin.  Even those who were not very cooperative would have a survival advantage, because they were members of the group, whether or not they were kin.  It was the overall cooperation that counted.  There is a kinship element in that most groups would have multiple family members, but a group consisting of unrelated individuals who by pure chance happened to all be cooperative would have the same survival benefit as any other cooperative group and send those genes conducive to cooperation forward.

    The Britannica article above mentions that Charles Darwin believed in group selection as the best explanation for altruism.  I’m in good company.
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  • Sorry Craig, that’s a truly terrible article. Try wiki on group selection. It gets the consensus about right and does a much more comprehensive job. Its reasonably up to date too, though there are some new ideas  and data still to roll in there.


    Jerry Coyne’s comment is particularly on the money. Simply, the hypothesis has been left way behind. It will suffer many further ignominies as it fails to deal with the new understandings of societies comprising numerous cognitive sub-species of human.
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  • Not with any great urgency. I’ve been inactive for almost five years, and both rediscovered/eyed up the site and revisited Dawkins’ books about a month ago. I’ve been wondering how to get back in for a while, and only recently just chucked myself at it regardless. This discussion is a familiar one to me, though, which helped.

    I don’t think you quite understand the problem with group selection, and it’s entirely due to the fact that either the thing’s just gene selection with a historically problematic name attached, or – if it’s going to be a multilevel selection theory – it’s incorrect. The former, because we already have a good term for cooperative behaviours that benefit other organisms as well as oneself (it’s called reciprocal altruism), with the added benefit that reciprocal altruism actually deals with an obvious objection (the freerider problem) AND fits the well-evidenced selfish gene theory. The latter, because as I said before with the stick insect example, individual selection doesn’t hold, and if individual selection doesn’t hold, then the much more nebulous and unlikely group selection certainly doesn’t.

    Everything you’ve described is much better addressed under reciprocal altruism, with the added benefit that we actually have an answer to the problem of freeriders under that theory. Genes which influence their hosts to behave cooperatively with others MUST have a way to avoid being driven to extinction by freeriders – parasites – who take advantage of you. The flipside of altruism is parasitism: one party pays a cost, the other benefits.

    Group selectionism doesn’t propose a way to address it. It just asserts that what’s good for the gene is good for the group. As I tried to indicate earlier, this isn’t even true of the good of individuals; if a gene can get further by screwing over its current individual host, then it will. That’s what happens in kin selection, which despite the similarity of names isn’t a theory about “the good of the family”.

    In any case, as I pointed out with my string of “even ifs”, groups just aren’t good candidates for a level of selection. Heck, individuals aren’t, because anything heritable about individuals is purely due to gene-level selection. Anything heritable about individuals is encoded in their genes, not in the individual’s own structure. Anything heritable about groups is encoded in their genes, not in the group’s own structure. And this is making the generous assumption that a group and an individual can be put on the same footing. Unlike individual organisms, groups are nebulous, unstable, and not bottlenecked in the same way individuals are through one germline. They certainly don’t have discrete generations like individuals do.

  • Phil, that isn’t a terrible article; it’s simply a brief description of the controversy, with limited detail.  The Wikipedia article is longer and more detailed, and since most evolutionists aren’t groupers, most – but not all – of the theories presented are anti-group-selection.  I love Wikipedia, but the articles are written by individuals who have their own opinions, of course.

    In the Wikipedia article, here’s a quote from E.O. Wilson (no relation): “In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals. But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals.” 

    That’s my point of view.



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  • Sorry, Zeuglodon, for some reason the system had decided your comment was spam. Perfectly understandable that you tried several more times to post the same comment, but that will have just reinforced the spam signals, which is why your next comment asking what was happening also got marked as spam.

    Anyway, as you can see, we’ve retrieved them now. Don’t worry if it happens again: we’ll always restore any wrongly spammed comments next time we’re online.

    The mods
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  • Hi Craig,

    “the articles are written by individuals who have their own opinions, of course.”

    That’s not how Wiki articles evolve. If you click on the “talk” page you can see how the its various editors and authors work together despite disagreements.


    The whole problem of group selection, as I pointed out earlier is getting started  against a single coercive “parasite male”. Mutations for “kindness” happen very occasionally in individuals and singly that thereby make themselves open to immediate added predation /exploitation, reducing their reproductive. fitness. There is no chance for a cohort of the kind to get a foothold so to speak.

    Unless, that is, a behaviour developed for quite other reason’s that can itself  emerge later as a generalised kindness. “As if kin” detection leading to necessary support of relatives, kids, nephews and nieces and “nephews and nieces” can emerge into avuncular kindness and indirect kindness in which you give to the parents of young children, maybe. We know that “protect/nurture young mammals” with cute faces (big wide eyes in a small face) is a hugely deep wired-in genetic behaviour to all mammals, transcending species.


    Group selection can be said to occur once in the realm of cultural evolution, but, until then, a single gene acting in its own interests helping what it reasonably imagines is itself in some other body is the start of a the covert development of the visceral equipment for empathy. The oxytocin release in a wriggling infant by stroking and licking its fur pacifies it for suckling. The same mechanism is used on an aggressive mate set on eating your pups because he doesn’t think they are his. The pacifying kit is still in place and gets used. We’re off!


    Still later we can talk about Ramachandran’s hypotheses regarding aesthetics where the crudeness of our many evolved detectors (these are all subconscious in humans) flower in our cultural lives, shaping them in profound ways……
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  • phil rimmer says:

    Mutations for “kindness” happen very occasionally in individuals and singly that thereby make themselves open to immediate added predation /exploitation, reducing their reproductive.

    Richard explains it in “The Selfish Gene”, that the reason why “group selection” does not work, is because the genes of self sacrificing individuals eliminate themselves for the gene pool while protecting the “selfish” individuals who make no contribution to the preservation of the group.  This expands the proportion of genes for selfish individuals, so eventually there are no altruistic individuals in the group and it cannot compete with a group which does contain altruistic “team-player” individuals.

    The counter to this, is “Kin Selection”, where self sacrificing individuals protect multiple  COPIES of their own genes in relatives.

    Richard goes on to explain that there is a balance between the numbers of altruistic individuals and the number of selfish individuals, where a level beyond a low percentage of selfish individuals is detrimental to the survival and reproduction of the whole gene pool.

    There are many implications from this.

    Like social insects in a hive, the cells multicellular organisms (or colonial organisms), could be considered to have self sacrificing cells protecting their kin in the rest of the organism.

    There may even be political implications where more than a certain level of selfish Trumpoids, will bring down a state or an empire, if a high proportion of altruistic individuals are killed off being “heroes” in wars, while the selfish “corporal bone-spurs brigade” hide at home, exploiting the situation for their own benefit. (Like parasites in a bee-hive, posing as “fictive kin” can help them in this activity).
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  • Alan, madness to disagree with Richard on his named website, but I do.

    Here’s the logic.

    Most traits aren’t clearly affected by group selection.  They are controlled by the conventional method of evolution – mutations occur and the few that increase survival or reproduction have a chance of becoming common or universal in that species.  Here we’re talking only about certain personality traits in humans, although similar changes presumably have occurred in all pack animals.

    Postulate that there are a bunch of genes that affect personality traits and those genes are already present in all or most all humans.  Hundreds of genes or more, my guess.  Some individuals have more of the alleles of those genes promoting empathy, group bonding, cooperation, altruism, and so on than other individuals.

    During hunter-gatherer times (which were more than 90% of the lifespan of the Homo sapiens species) we lived mostly in bands or groups averaging around 25 or so.  Often many of the band members were related, so there was some commonality of genetics due to kinship.  But even if the band members weren’t related, pure chance would result in some bands having a lot of cooperative individuals and others have mostly selfish individuals.

    The groups with mostly cooperative members would likely have survival advantages – feeding everybody, fighting off predators, finding better hunting grounds, etc. – and so presumably would tend to produce more offspring than those bands with selfish members.

    I quoted E.O. Wilson above: “In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals. But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals.”

    Within a cooperative group, everybody would have a survival advantage.  Not just the cooperative individuals but also any outliers who were more selfish – even sociopaths.  So maybe one a-hole would send his genes forward, but the majority who were empathetic and cooperative would send their genes on, and so the next generation would thus have more of the alleles promoting the qualities related to cooperation.  An altruistic individual might lose his life in protecting the group, and an outlier individual who was selfish (a “parasite”) might even compete better than other individuals within that group, but it would be the overall level of cooperation that counted in terms of group survival advantage.

    The groups with mostly selfish individuals would have a survival disadvantage and some of those groups would be wiped out completely, in which case none of the band members – even the cooperative ones who were outliers – would send their genes forward.

    Over time, the resulting human gene pool would change in the direction of cooperation.

    Seems logical to me.  Look forward to hearing objections to the above.
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  • Somehow you are managing to miss the totality of the problem. You are positing an already half solved problem with a population sufficiently possessing altruistic genes to enjoin the Battle Of the Genes you describe.

    But how do you get to this?

    How does the altruistic gene/gene cluster get started?

    Starting another tack here…

    Do you know anything of cultural evolution? Have you read Dan Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”.


    Ollie, Alan…. thanks for the inputs.
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  • Phil, I think I can guess how genes controlling empathy came into being.  Any animal unable to care for itself at birth must have a mother devoted to protecting and feeding it.  For any species capable of non-automatic choices – that is, an animal not operating purely on instinct – empathy of the mother for the infant would be the best way of insuring survival of offspring.  Certainly human mothers have passionate empathy for their young.  Without it, our species wouldn’t survive.

    So I assume empathy came about in that way.  And not unlimited empathy for every individual, mostly for the offspring, but some for other family members and even unrelated individuals.

    The degree of aggression is something that needs to be regulated on an individual basis.  It wouldn’t do for all individuals to be hostile toward every other individual, and it wouldn’t do for all individuals to be submissive.  A balance would be best for the species.  So I can see controls on aggression being a function of multiple genes, and that would come about through traditional gene-based evolution.

    So I can see genes of some of those personality traits arising through gene-based evolution, including controls on the degree of empathy, altruism, and so on.

    And once those personality genes were in place, group evolution could work to help groups to compete with each other.

    Certain we all have different levels of aggression, empathy, altruism, group bonding, and so on.  We know that the genes controlling those qualities exist, to the extent that they control those qualities, which I believe strongly is the case. So it wasn’t group evolution that created those genes, but it regulated their expression, in my opinion.
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  • Craig Wilson

    Here is a Wiki quote of part of the relevant section from The Selfish Gene.

    Dawkins says that his “purpose” in writing The Selfish Gene is “to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism.” He does this by supporting the claim that “gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals.” Gene selection provides one explanation for kin selection and eusociality, where organisms act altruistically, against their individual interests (in the sense of health, safety or personal reproduction), namely the argument that by helping related organisms reproduce, a gene succeeds in “helping” copies of themselves (or sequences with the same phenotypic effect) in other bodies to replicate. The claim is made that these “selfish” actions of genes lead to unselfish actions by organisms. A requirement upon this claim, supported by Dawkins in Chapter 10: “You scratch my back, I’ll ride on yours” by examples from nature, is the need to explain how genes achieve kin recognition, or manage to orchestrate mutualism and coevolution. Although Dawkins (and biologists in general) recognize these phenomena result in more copies of a gene, evidence is inconclusive whether this success is selected for at a group or individual level. In fact, Dawkins has proposed that it is at the level of the extended phenotype:[8][15]
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  • Why, latterly, genetic?

    Why not epigenetic mechanisms like the silver fox?

    Why not cultural?

    We now know cultural artifacts can be astonishingly stable because of human neotony. Born prematurely with nearly all our brain growth and wiring ahead of us, humans babies are spectacularly incompetent compared even to chimp babies. We evolved (genetically!) to be super dependent on adults for our long childhood. We copy adults (as if kin) faithfully using their brain to keep us safe. But this gives us the essential tool (good, accurate enough copying) to uniquely be able to form cultures.

    In thirteenth century Chins in one region women learned how to weave particularly fine cloth. By this means they became the breadwinners. By the fifteenth century their skill was got by everyone and their enhanced ability to earn was lost. In the 1980s China’s one child policy coincided with sex determining ultrasound scans. In all of China, female foetuses were terminated by preference the record showed, except in this one region where girls were kept as often as boys. Cultures can be astonishingly capable

    Multilevel accounts are rich and powerful and explain far more observed behaviours.


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  • At last I have found video of some of Vicky Horner’s experiments with chimp and human kids. What may be one of our last major and crucial genetic evolutions (lactase retention and sickle cell aside). This may relate to the mutation in GABA transportation effects in the medial PFC which seem to have happened a few million years ago) and which may reduce access to semantic knowledge with the result, in children, to lead them to doubt their own certainty about the world and force them follow the adult lead.

    I’ll post the link next…
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  • “An altruistic individual might lose his life in protecting the group, and an outlier individual who was selfish (a “parasite”) might even compete better than other individuals within that group, but it would be the overall level of cooperation that counted in terms of group survival advantage.”

    You’re glossing over the problems I outlined with this scenario. A group with parasites would be overrun within a few generations as the altruists were driven extinct by their more exploitative alternatives, who benefit without paying any costs. It doesn’t matter if, after a few generations of “groups” as opposed to generations of the individuals within them, you want a majority of groups that promote altruism: groupiness would be self-destructive in the first place. That’s why kin selection and reciprocal altruism are necessary to any kind of biological altruism; they bring the benefits back into the equation (genetic benefits to the relative in the first case, mutual benefit to the cooperators in the second, with a way of denying parasites any special advantage via punishment).

    And you’re still glibly talking about groups as though it were obvious what a “generation” for a group would look like, similar to a generation of individuals or generations of genes. It really isn’t. That’s a major problem, because any kind of unit of selection requires a stable entity, that can be copied, that can inherit the phenotype of the parent, and that can be fixated in a larger pool of such discrete copies. Groups fail every single one of these tests: they fragment and reorganize, they never bud daughter groups exactly like themselves, they can only inherit individual gene fragments (or, in the case of humans, cultural artefacts passed from hand to hand or brain to brain), and groups merge and split so that drawing a firm line between them for even one generation, never mind several, is a futile task.

    Even “individual selection” doesn’t have most of these problems, and yet individual selection is still not on the cards because, as I have repeatedly stressed, they owe their inherited features purely to selection at the gene level. Traits aren’t selected for; the genes are selected for, and the traits are the reason why in a particular environment and ecological area. Are you trying to claim that a particular hunter-gatherer group behaves like a cloning stick insect? The very idea should be enough to cut down any confidence in group selection being feasible.

    Heck, look at bees. You might want to argue that altruistic hives outcompete selfish hives. Or are we saying hives of altruistic bees outcompete hives of selfish bees? Is this hive selection? Of course not! Unlike “groups”, hives really do behave like respectable individual organisms, with their genetic material firmly bottlenecked through queen bees who bud off the hive and found daughter hives of their own. The entire hive contains the same genes because the bees are close kin, each bee like the cell of an individual organism, all cooperating for mutual benefit.

    So is kin selection just group selection where everyone happens to be related? Not at all. Kin selection is simply a form of gene selection. It doesn’t have anything to do with hives outcompeting other hives. It doesn’t have anything to do with a “good” hive outcompeting a “bad” hive. The adaptations of particular bees accumulate so that altruism benefits the genes.

    Why is this different from group selection? Because kin selection ticks the boxes needed above. A hive is a stable entity (bees can’t defect to other hives capriciously, nor are there many generations of individual bees from mother to daughter within each hive before it separates), it can be copied via the genetic bottleneck of a queen bee leaving to found her own hive, she and her hive then inherits the phenotype of the parent hive through the genes she alone carries, and there is a sense in which hives can be considered as discrete entities that can replace other hives in a population.

    Best of all, kin selection explains how a hive-like family could come about in the first place, without presupposing them. We have a beautiful range of intermediates in nature, from lone wasps who provide food for their young and then abandon them, through wasps who band together with their sisters to raise their collective brood, to social bees and wasps of varying levels of intimate cooperation and complexity, all daughters of a queen founder.

    Yet we don’t speak of “families” being selected throughout. After all, a hive is about as close as we’ve gotten to several organisms acting like one cloning stick insect, and I’ve already pointed out over and over why individual organisms are not selected. You can’t have a scenario where, in a hive, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals whereas groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals. Put like that, it’d never work. The hive would never evolve in the first place. It’d collapse back into individual competition. If you want sociality at all, especially altruistic ones, you need safeguards against internal collapse by selfishness. Group selection has no such mechanism, so it can’t work.

    Likewise, you can’t have a scenario where, in a stick insect, selfish alleles beat altruistic alleles whereas groups of altruistic alleles beat groups of selfish alleles. You wouldn’t have a stick insect to begin with, if that were the case. But cells in a body, and their alleles, are copies of each other (shades of kin selection again), so there’s even a hint of kin selection leading to the evolution of multicellular organisms. There’s no point calling this individual selection, because the individual is the thing you’d need to explain in the first place (think: why would cells band together to mutual benefit, or even risk themselves for each other’s benefit?).

    Of course, between unrelated individuals, you’d need some other way to balance any kind of altruism. Hence reciprocal altruism, where any parasites or cheaters are punished to negate any special advantage they’d get from mutual interactions. With that problem dealt with, reciprocal altruism – specifically the genes responsible for it – could become fixated in the population at large. That would pave the way for group living, because it enables altruism to be rewarded without a way for parasites/cheaters to undermine the group from within.
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  • Oh dear, that penultimate paragraph doesn’t read as well as I’d hoped. Let me try and clarify: a single stick insect can be considered a “group”, so to speak, of cells, or more specifically of the genes within those cells cooperating. I used the word “alleles” – alternative versions of a particular gene – simply to indicate that the genes differ compared with, say, those of another stick insect, or “group”. I almost put “selfish genes beat altruistic genes”, but thought that might lead to an irrelevant confusion with the selfish gene theory, which isn’t the same as a “selfish gene” (i.e. a gene for selfishness). Let me try again.


    “Likewise, you can’t have a scenario where, in a stick insect, selfish cells beat altruistic cells whereas [stick insects/groups of altruistic cells] beat [stick insects/groups of selfish cells]. You wouldn’t have a stick insect to begin with, if that were the case. But cells in a body, and their alleles, are copies of each other (shades of kin selection again), so there’s even a hint of kin selection leading to the evolution of multicellular organisms. There’s no point calling this individual selection, because the individual is the thing you’d need to explain in the first place (think: why would cells band together to mutual benefit, or even risk themselves for each other’s benefit?).”
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  • My birthday is coming soon and, as a present to myself, I thought I would ask the assembled company here: Why do modern politicians constantly fall for the idea that a certain media mogul is their Alfred Hugenberg?

    Frankly, it beggars belief given the certain modern media mogul’s history alone.  Though I believe his recent track record is a giveaway of another kind too …

    Yet they all do.

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  • Happy birthday, Stephen.


    Is Rupert the Kingmaker now lining up Paul Ryan for future glory after sufficient training of a few years of consolation, multi-million compensation and corporate fellatio?
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  • Thanks Phil.

    Unfortunately I have not focussed on Ryan, so I can’t answer your question.  It’s clear that Trump is a busted flush, so no surprise that US Kingmakers are preparing heirs presumptive.

    More of a concern is that some Republicans are still backing Trump. He has to be propped up of course, if he is to remain basically functional – i.e. in order to continue defending American Aristocrats’ pots of gold, and their privileges such as corrupt higher education routes into high society, a second tier of ‘justice’, and so on …

    Surely, as this picture of the vacuity of the American Dream, so-called, has been thrown into sharp focus in recent months there will be no politicians who will risk years of future censure by actually working to defend, and extend, the corruption of US society.  Yet such politicians do indeed exist.

    Meanwhile, Britain’s Labour Party is abandoning its members, its voter base (if polls are to be believed) and its conscience – leaving British working families to the lottery of deregulation by international capital, the break-up of the United Kingdom and the loss of major market access sure to trigger a major, decade (decades?) long recession, by supporting Brexit.

    Labour are doing this even though the original vote was only supported by 26% of the population then, less now.  As if that wasn’t enough, we also had a referendum corrupted by anti-social media propaganda, some of it generated abroad, the fact that voters were clearly lied to during the referendum, the fact that the referendum was not binding, and the fact that no one voted for what the Government is offering.

    I have racked my tiny brain over these phenomena, and I have searched for facts, and I’m forced to conclude that propaganda – the kind that denies facts and expert opinion – is the single biggest factor.

    Yet I am still confused.  It is perfectly clear from the US mid-term election results, and British polling of voters, that the hard-right narratives are losing ground. Significant numbers of voters are not fooled, many are even switching despite the onslaught of Unicorn hope and fear of ‘the other’.

    As if this were not enough we have, on record, the fact that certain leading media organisations are criminal in history, who thumb their noses at a civil society and deny even basic human rights – because winning is all that matters, and never mind if what they’re winning makes them poorer too … because it’s clear that what they offer is less freedom for all, in the end.

    But, just as clearly, many politicians are either not getting the message or they’re simply denying the truth. Setting aside those who live in bubbles, which I admit may be a bigger fraction than I can see, they too must be being persuaded.

    Those Kingmakers are actually selling stale goods – but the politicians are still buying. As extraordinarily stupid as that sounds.

    Or did I miss something?

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  • Zeuglodon, you wrote: “Even “individual selection” doesn’t have most of these problems, and yet individual selection is still not on the cards because, as I have repeatedly stressed, they owe their inherited features purely to selection at the gene level.”

    Depends on your definition of “selection”.  The reason Darwin used the term “natural selection” was its similarity to artificial selection, which is a synonym for selective breeding.  Selective breeding refers to the selection, by humans, of plants or animals for their desirable qualities, such as flowers displaying a beautiful color or cows that produce a lot of milk, and preferentially breeding those plants or animals, in order to gradually alter the following generations for the better.  Natural selection implies that nature does something similar by preferentially selecting those individuals of a species which have characteristics promoting survival and reproduction, and that those characteristics, if inheritable, may come to predominate in the succeeding generations.  A gene may be a strong and wonderful gene, but unless the individual carrying it survives and reproduces, it will be lost.  They are not competing directly with other genes within the plant or animal carrying them, so it’s hard to see how they could be “selected”, except at the level of the individual.  Going back to Darwin’s original conception, “selection” implies survival and reproduction of individuals.  However, that’s not a critical point, because we’re talking semantics here.  The important thing is that we understand how the basic process of evolution works, regardless of the buzz words we use.

    I’ll respond to other points in your comment when I have time to do so.
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