In recent years evolutionary theorists have been engaged in a protracted and bitter disagreement concerning how natural selection affects units such as genes, individuals, kin groups, and groups. Central to this debate has been whether selective pressures affecting group success can trump the selective pressures that confer advantage at the individual level. In short, there has been a debate about the utility of group selection, with noted theorist Steven Pinker calling the concept useless for the social sciences. We surveyed 175 evolutionary anthropologists to ascertain where they stood in the debate. We found that most were receptive to group selection, especially in the case of cultural group selection. The survey also revealed that liberals and conservatives, and males and females, all displayed significant differences of opinion concerning which selective forces were important in humanity’s prehistory. We conclude by interpreting these findings in the context of recent research in political psychology.Peter Turchin:
A particularly interesting recent study is the one by William Yaworsky, Mark Horowitz, and Kenneth Kickham, Gender and Politics among Anthropologists in the Units of Selection Debate, published a month ago in Biological Theory. It’s interesting because it addresses the question of group versus kin selection, which is of course one of the most dividing issues in evolutionary science.Related:
Yaworsky and colleagues obtained 175 surveys from evolutionary anthropologists who served faculty in graduate programs in various universities (which means that they are training their own graduate students). Their analysis of the questionnaires showed that there were very striking differences between different groups of anthropologists. Liberals were much more likely to disagree with the statement that tribal conflict was a principal evolutionary force that shaped human behavior. Conservatives, on the other hand, thought that tribalism was a fundamental human trait. They also tended to agree with the notion that homicide was frequent in early human societies.
The differences between male and female evolutionary anthropologists were even stronger than between different parties. Women were very resistant to the ideas that tribal conflict was an important selective force and that homicide was common in prehistory. [. . .]
And I expect that the questions of the importance of between-group competition and the frequency of lethal violence in prehistory will eventually achieve the same level of consensus. It may take many decades, but my hunch is that it will happen more quickly than that.
In fact, it’s already happening. The data of Yaworsky and colleagues show that 80 percent of respondents disagree with Pinker’s assertion that group selection is a useless concept. A similar proportion thinks that group selection is an important process, and 55 percent consider group selection as a more important process than kin selection. In contrast, among the professors who trained this cohort of respondents, the previous generation, only 8 percent were strongly in favor or “leaned” towards group selection. We are winning!