Multilevel Selection Theory

bee2imagesDavid Sloan Wilson is a persuasive proponent of multilevel selection theory.  His 2007 article entitled: “Multilevel Selection Theory and Major Evolutionary Transitions:  Implications for Psychological Science” is a good synthesis.  The main argument is that when between-group selection dominates within-group selection, a major evolutionary transition occurs and the group becomes a new higher level organism.  Within groups, altruistic behavior is selectively disadvantageous, but it may be favored between groups and thus counteract the within group selection.  The big question is whether or not this between group selection is always weak so that it is unimportant.  The answer seems to be that between group selection is only rarely strong, but that does not mean that it is unimportant. Wilson states: “All species of eusocial insects are thought to be derived from only 15 original transitions.”    It is thought that it occurred only once among primates to create humans.

A major transition requires mechanisms that suppress conflicts among individuals-internal social control mechanisms.  In humans, moral systems guarded egalitarianism that characterized hunter-gatherer societies.  Members’ motivation to punish selfish behavior results in high levels of cooperation.  Moral intuition comes first and is only partially overridden by moral reasoning.  Multilevel selection theory explains why ingroup favoritism and outgroup hostility are the hallmarks of social psychology.

The human transition enabled our ancestors to cover the earth as a single species. This transition has three major implications.  First, Wilson compares our capacity for rapid cultural adaptation to our immune systems. This is to say that it is complicated and sophisticated.  We do not understand it now.  Second, music, dance, art, literature, and religion are adaptations that might play an essential role in defining groups and fostering cooperation. Third, cultural evolution can create psychological differences among people which are no less profound for being cultural rather than genetic.  Richard Nisbett has pointed out that “psychologists who choose not to do cross-cultural psychology may have chosen to be ethnographers instead.”

Richard Nisbett in Geography of Thought provides interesting insights into such differences.  He divides the world into Easterners and Westerners.  Easterners have difficulty in recognizing changes in objects, while Westerners cannot recognize changes in backgrounds.  Eaterners believe that the world is complicated and inscrutable.  Westerners believe that they can understand the world. Westerners create simple and useful models that can be tested, but tend to focus on the object and slight the possible role of context.  Westerners are particularly susceptible to the fundamental attribution error–thinking other people’s actions are explained by what they are, while my actions are explained by circumstances.  The table below sets out some more distinctions.

Easterners Westerners
Medicine holistic object oriented, interventionist-surgery
Law/Engineering more engineers/less lawyers more lawyers/less engineers
Debate avoid conflict–meetings ratify consensus attempt persuasion, faith in free market of ideas
Science Japan 2 Nobel prizes in 90s US 44 Nobel prizes in 90s
Contracts Tentative agreed upon guides for future-changeable Fixed-deal is a deal
International Relations ambiguity of causality so that they insist on apology even if seems to be their fault
Society as cells of organism aggregate of individuals
Human Rights shared rights-continuous substances individual rights-units
Religion both/and-can be Buddhist and Christian right/wrong-one Calvinist hell

2 thoughts on “Multilevel Selection Theory

  1. Pingback: Evolution for Everyone | Judgment and Decision Making

  2. Pingback: Obliquity and In Pursuit of Elegance | Judgment and Decision Making

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