Haidt 2012

From Projecting Power

Haidt Ch. 9: Why Are We So Groupish?[edit]


Chapter 9 of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt delves into the concept of groupish behavior in human nature. Haidt argues that while individuals have selfish tendencies, they also possess a groupish overlay that promotes cooperation and working for the common good of a group. He presents evidence supporting the idea of group selection and highlights how competition between groups has shaped human behavior, leading to a mix of selfishness and selflessness in society. Haidt emphasizes that understanding human groupishness is essential for comprehending morality, politics, and religion, as it influences our behaviors and interactions with others.

Main Argument: Groups that succeeded in coalescing and cooperating outcompeted groups that couldn’t get it together. This concept, called “group selection”, was falsely convicted and unfairly banished from scientific circles in the 1970s. Reason doesn’t drive morality, therefore it must be cultivated through evolutionary intuitions and learned behaviors we develop as children where we learn to apply these intuitions to our particular societal and cultural circumstances.

While humans are often selfish, and a lot of our behaviors can be traced back to motivations of self-interest, humans are also groupish. Humans love to take on group identities and work shoulder to shoulder under identities such as teams, clubs, leagues, and fraternities. Understanding groupism is key to understanding morality, politics, or religion. When humans are said to be groupish, the author means that human minds contain several mental mechanisms that align with our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. The author believes that while individuals competing with individuals rewards selfishness, groups also compete with groups. This requires some form of strategic cooperation, and winning teams have individuals that work for the good of the group even when they could do better by slacking, cheating, or leaving the group.

Victorious Tribes:[edit]

  • In The Descent of Man, Darwin made the case for group selection, raised the principal objection to it, and then proposed a way around the objection.
  • The example Darwin talks about is of two tribes: one of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, another of selfish and contentious members. The first tribe would succeed better and conquer the other. Hence, the tribe rich in these qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes.
  • However, Darwin also discussed the free rider problem, which is the main objection against group selection: How within the same tribe did a large number of members first become endowed with these social and moral qualities, and how was the standard of excellence raised?
  • When groups compete, the cohesive, cooperative group usually wins. But within each group, selfish individuals (free riders) come out ahead. They share in the group’s gains while contributing the least.

The solution to this lies in multilevel selection. Multilevel selection refers to a way of quantifying how strong the selection pressure is at each level, which means how strongly the competition of life favors genes for particular traits.

  • The suicidal self-sacrifice genes are more favored at the group level, but are very strongly opposed by selection at the individual level. Once humans had the minimal ability to band together and compete with other groups, then group-level selection came into play and the most groupish groups had an advantage over groups of selfish individualists.
  • In many effective groups, such as armies, there are structures in place to suppress selfishness. Any time a group finds a way to suppress selfishness, it changes the balance of forces in a multi-level analysis. Individual-level selection becomes less important, and group-level selection becomes more powerful.
  • For nearly a hundred years, people accepted this claim of certain behaviors being “for the good of the group”. However, these claims were naive because individuals that blindly followed the selfless strategy would leave fewer surviving offspring and would soon be replaced in the population by the descendants of free riders.
  • In 1996, this loose thinking was brought to a half, along with almost all thinking about group selection.

A fast herd of deer?[edit]

  • In Adaptation and Natural Selection (1996), George Williams told biologists how to think clearly about adaptation. He viewed natural selection as a design process, and rejected the idea that there is a conscious or intelligent designer.
  • Williams noted that adaptation at a level always implies a selection process operating at that level, and he warned readers not look to higher levels (such as groups) when selection effects at lower levels (such as individuals) can fully explain the trait.
  • Per Williams, to force ourselves up to a group-level analysis, we would need to find behavioral mechanisms whose goal or function was clearly the protection of the group, rather than the individual.
  • While Williams did say that group selection was possible in theory, he devoted most of his book to proving his thesis that “group-related adaptations do not in fact exist”.

Exhibit A: Major Transitions in Evolution[edit]

  • Life on Earth underwent a “major transition” around 2 billion years ago
    • Cells became more complex–developed internal organelles which worked together instead of competing
    • Single-celled eukaryotes spread throughout the oceans
  • A few hundred million years later: some eukaryotes develop ability to stay together after cell division and form multicellular organisms
    • Also suppresses competition because each cell only reproduces if the organism as a whole reproduces
  • Whenever a way to suppress free-riding emerges, natural selection at the higher level wins out over selection at the lower level
    • Favors most cohesive “superorganisms”
  • Fittest groups pass on their traits
    • Genes created selfless group members which constituted a selfish group
  • Groups used new forms of technological innovation
  • Some groups are ultrasocial: live in very large groups with internal structure around division of labor
    • One key feature: need to defend a shared nest
    • Two other features: need to feed offspring and intergroup conflict
    • These three factors applied to humans
  • Group selection leads to group related adaptations

Exhibit B: Shared Intentionality[edit]

  • Chimpanzees rarely work together
  • In an experiment conducted on chimps and human toddlers, both did equally well on assigned tasks, but chimps failed social challenges whereas children aced them
  • Humans developed shared intentionality: work together to overcome challenges or towards a common goal
    • Increased early humans’ ability to hunt, gather, raise children, and raid others
  • Tomasello: human ultrasociality arose in two steps
    1. Ability to share intentions in groups of 2-3
    2. Natural selection favored group-mindedness: shared social norms, beliefs, institutions, goals, etc.
    • Created selection pressures within groups
  • Humans’ “shared defensible nest” is our moral communities

Exhibit C: Genes and Cultures Coevolve[edit]

  • Only around 600,000-700,000 years ago where hominids began to cross over into shared intentionality
    • Most likely Homo heidelbergensis that made this cross
  • Richerson and Boyd argue that cultural innovations evolve similarly to biological ones; you can’t study one without studying the other
    • Thus, cultural innovations around morality might have led to genetic responses, ultimately leading to ultrasociality
  • “Tribal instincts hypothesis”: human groups have always been competing with neighboring groups
    • Groups with cultural innovations that allowed them to cohere better usually won
  • Example: body modifications like tattoos and piercings might have started off as a way to establish a sense of community by creating a physical resemblance/commonality
  • “Self-domestication”: groups selected those who conformed to social and group norms best
    • Selected friends and partners based on “ability to live within the tribe’s moral matrix”
    • Created friendlier, gentler humans and conditions for peaceful coexistence

Exhibit D: Evolution can be fast[edit]

  • Human evolution did not slow in any way 50,00 years ago, but instead increased in pace, reaching a peak around 12,00 years ago. Massive environmental and cultural change should be accounted for “in our attempts to understand who we are, and how we got our righteous minds”
    • Stephen Jay Gould from a 2000 interview, “natural selection has almost become irrelevant in human evolution” because cultural change works much faster than genetic change.
      • Gould add in the same interview, “there’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.”
    • However, the results of a study by Soviet scientist, Dmitri Belyaev, through his selective breeding process of foxes, was able to selectively bred for tameness and saw success in as few as ~30 generations.
  • The question surrounding the rate of change in the human genome has been answered by geneticists, who claim that genetic change accelerated since 50,00 years ago.
    • we can notice how lactose tolerance and altitude acclimated populations
    • Cultural influence can outpace genetic co evolution, but is still possible "selection pressures will apply and there could be some additional gene-culture coevolution"

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