The Group Mind in Darwin's Cathedral

Reading David Sloan Wilson’s contribution to the scientific endeavor of understanding religion, I developed a finer appreciation for the point he made with Eliot Sober in an earlier work, Unto Others, about how focusing on how a trait or behavior is adaptive for an individual, but only in the context of a group in which several other members can be counted on to share the trait or engage in similar behavior, overlooks a mechanism that would have been necessary for that trait or behavior to evolve. One might argue that religion benefits an individual within a group, but as long as the benefits are in relation to others in the same group who also believe in and practice religion, we have to assume that somewhere in evolutionary history the process of selection at the level of the group was more important than selection at the level of the individual (or selection at the level of the gene). The paradigm Wilson and Sober advocate is thus called multilevel selection. And justifying a sole focus on the individual by pointing out that individuals with the trait in question fare better on average than individuals without it, regardless of context, is what they call the averaging fallacy.

Evolutionary biologists have no trouble at all explaining altruism—behavior that benefits others at some cost to the individual engaging in it—in terms of either reciprocity or kin selection, whereby aiding a close relative benefits an individual who likely possesses the same “selfish” genes as the individual doing the aiding. To handle the fact that humans often engage in exchanges with strangers they’ll likely never encounter again, they point out that humans evolved as small bands of hunter-gatherers so this business of treating others as though future meetings weren’t all but guaranteed probably hasn’t affected us much genetically. That the dynamic scales up to civilizations of thousands and millions is just a happy coincidence. In this reasoning, they may be right. But as soon as you open the door to kin selection, you’ve entered a discussion of group selection whether you intended to or not. For what is a family but a group of individuals with at least some shared genetic difference from other groups. Kin selection implies competition between families. Families are groups. How could something like language evolve—what’s adaptive about an especially communicative individual alone on the savannah?—without selection at the level of groups? The question applies to almost all aspects of culture.

Wilson likes to use an analogy between groups composed of subgroups composed of individuals and eukaryotic cells made up of several organelles which likely developed independently, formed symbiotic relationships, and then somehow coalesced into a single unit. He doesn’t use the term group mind, but I find it helpful in conceptualizing how human’s unmatched capacity for culture came about through a process of selection. We have a unified and eminently coherent sense of our own minds that we refer to as consciousness. But this sense derives from the operation of several different parts of the brain (modules), which themselves derive from the firing of individual neurons. Just as neurons communicate with each other via transmitters, and modules among themselves via electro-chemical signals, individual humans communicate with each other via gestures, expressions, and language. The beginnings of these modes of exchanging information can be found in several non-human species. But for culture to have blown up the way it has for humans must have taken a runaway feedback loop built up from a foundation of individuals cooperating.

How can a capacity for culture be adaptive for an individual unless it’s in an environment with several other individuals with similar capacities? Civilization is the continued expedition of this group mind, whose computing power vastly supercedes that of the individual minds composing it. Wilson’s argument is that religion originally helped groups capitalize on this potential of group mindedness to outcompete other groups, pointing out how much of religion centers on fostering altruism toward others (of our tribe but not rival tribes) and subordinating our own selfish desires for the sake of some greater destiny. We may think of language and religion as organelles in the cell of society—or organs in the body of it. My question is, since it is a manifestation of tribalism, with built-in sanctions against free thought, can we encourage cooperation some other way?