Group Selective Benefits of Brutality

August 12, 2014 § 3 Comments

Jonathan Haidt starts a lecture titled “The Groupish Gene” with an argument in favor of abandoning Methodological individualism” in Economics and Social psychology …

Next the paradigm is linked to the unit of selection

…by the end of the talk  Group selection (GS) or Multi level Selection (MLS) is used to explain both death as punishment for apostasy in Islam (Irtidād) and Elinor Ostrom’s findings on how common fisheries can be managed successfully.

And yes ….eusociality is not caused by haplo-diploidy but by shared defensible nests…

Before I forget the apostasy bit, lets see how best I can word the argument

“Groups that evolved to have rituals whereby apostates were killed (that had mindsets, fixed during their life span vis-à-vis this matter and which mindset can be argued to have been coded for by genes???) had more advantage, reproduced better and we are descended from them and hence share those sentiments (the urge to kill murtadds).”

I fail to see how the proponents of GS can maintain the possibility of such an outcome, since its appeal seems primarily based on the fact the it best explains why “virtue” will be selected for.

Haidt keeps using the term groupishness. If MLS is a better explanation for emergence of groupishness its not clear what all is subsumed under that term.

If there is ever a wish that lay people should be exposed to arguments among high profile academicians this whole correspondence following Steven Pinker’s essay contra-group selection on (Edge.org) surely answers it.

One of the simplest yet most incisive of responses was written by Nicolas Baumard of University of Pennsylvania.

He started by the following simple query:

Let’s grant that group selection is theoretically possible and let’s assume, at least for the sake of discussion, that it had an impact on human evolution; what would this really predict about human psychology?

Now individual selection does not exclude selection of moral behavior.

So the debate is not between a theory that predicts that humans are moral (group selection) and a theory that predicts they are not (individual selection), but between two theories of morality: one based on sacrifice for the group and the other one based on individual interests……. Is morality utilitarianist or contractualist?

To illustrate the inadequacy of utilitarianism a hypothetical case by moral philosopher Judith Thomson is put forward:

“A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.”

Let us bracket the question as to weather the response to such a question/situation is a discrete trait that can be selected for and if the same doctor will consistently (non randomly ) opt for the same solution. While ants and bees would agree to kill the young individual in the interest of the group, Baumard points out that, we humans, disagree.

Now in terms of our ideas of just punishment if again it were not just a spandrel what would we expect of GS? If punishment is a utilitarian trait, preferred sanctions should have evolved for their effectiveness as deterrents.

But taking a case like death penalty Baumard argues that:

Although many people claim that their opinion about death penalty is based on efficiency (partisans argue it deters crimes, opponents that it has no effect), several studies have shown that, many people would actually continue to support death penalty even if it had no deterrent value.

People support death penalty first and foremost because it seems to them that it is the only proportionate penalty for certain crimes (murder, rape, etc.), not because they see it as a useful tool to deter future crime.

If humans punish to restore fairness rather than to help the group, a preference or support for death as punishment for apostasy, is not something we’d expect.

But if we imagine societies who on average lack an immediate gut revulsion to this punishment, can any fruitful speculations be made about what sort of selective advantage such average instinctual preferences may lend them.

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§ 3 Responses to Group Selective Benefits of Brutality

  • I think that in the case of punishing apostasy, if we were to look at it strictly from a Selfish Gene perspective, the person who enforces the punishment risks direct physical conflict, reducing their personal survival chances.

    Dawkins raises this issue himself, when he notes that a monkey screams when it sees an approaching predator, which alerts the other monkeys, but attracts attention to himself.

    So some behaviors we see among groups enhance group survival, and only indirectly individual survival within the group.

    I imagine group morality would concentrate on those areas where selfish interest most obviously conflicts with group interests, which is why treachery – pretending to support the group, while in fact opposing it – is univerally regarded, not just with anger, but outrage and contempt.

  • Greg Zeng says:


    led me to this url.
    “this talk on why its useful to abondon ” shows me that you have ESL or LOTE (Languages Other Than English). So it makes reading your post very hard.

    Islamic suicide or Japanese Kamikaze bombers seem perfect examples of individual sacrifice for the greater good. Are you claiming that they never existed?

    • holynose says:

      These posts are mere notes on curiosities encountered on the web, not presentations of concluded thoughts. The Kamikaze instances do occur, the question is are their frequencies significant enough to support group selective behavioral models as superior to models based on gene/kin selection

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