Altruism’s Bloody Roots: Cultural and Genetic Selection for Altruism in Humans

Kevin MacDonald


Altruism and the question of group selection continue to generate heated debate among biologists. Because there are so many misunderstandings of these issues, it’s worthwhile discussing how they relate to my writing on group evolutionary strategies. A recent paper, by Sam Bowles, “Altruism’s Bloody Roots“, argues that group selection could have evolved among humans as a result of between-group competition. Bowle’s paper is based on data showing high rates of violence and genetic variation in Stone Age groups. A computer simulation showed that selfless groups eventually predominated over groups composed of selfish individuals. (Another recent paper, co-authored by E. O. Wilson, rejects the now traditional idea that kin selection is the root of eusociality—social forms in which animals like bees and humans have division of labor and altruism [see here]. This is compatible with Bowles’ results, but goes quite a bit further in its rejection of kin selection and is not necessary for the following discussion.)

Bowles’ model is explicitly compatible with cultural group selection. The theory of group competition presented in the first chapter of A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy is phrased in terms of cultural group selection. That is, the theory does not depend on genetic tendencies toward altruism, but rather on the ability of humans to monitor and punish free-riders and defectors. This is not merely theoretical. For example, traditional Jewish groups had strong internal controls that enforced group-oriented economic behavior (e.g., not competing with monopolies controlled by other Jews; Ch. 6 of PTSDA) and punished “informers”—the practice of Mesirah which  prohibited informing on other Jews to the non-Jewish authorities. Mesirah continues to operate in the contemporary world, particularly among Orthodox and Haredi groups—a recurrent theme on TOO.

Bowles maintains that there must have been genetic selection for altruism because fear of punishment itself implies altruism: “I might hope that someone would punish you, but why should I do it? You might hit back. The idea that I can exert order on you presupposes the idea that someone is altruistic.”

But this misrepresents the costs of punishing cheaters in altruistic groups. The cost of punishment of free-loaders and defectors in human groups is quite low because it need not be done by individuals. Because of the human ability coordinate actions and assess others’ reputations via uniquely human explicit processing (see here, p. 11), we are able to develop posse-like groups able to impose penalties on cheaters at little cost to any individual. The costs are spread to pretty much the entire group. This dramatically lowers the barriers to creating groups that can get rid of free loaders and informers; it eases the path to group selection, but only for humans.

Reputation is a social, not an idiosyncratic, phenomenon. That is, reputation consists of explicit representations of the past history of others that are held by a significant group of people. The costs of transmitting reputation are minimal, but reputation raises the cost of defection because it makes it unlikely that a defector will receive indirect reciprocity in the future (Semmann, Krambeck, and Milinski, 2005). In effect, the non-cooperator is ostracized in future interactions, not only with the people with whom he has had direct dealings, but also with those among whom his reputation as a non-cooperator has become known.
Reputation is also likely to lower the cost of punishing because the behavior of defectors can be quickly and widely known at minimal cost, thereby facilitating measures that spread the costs of punishment among the cooperators. “Posse”–type coalitions of punishers are able to inflict punishment on defectors while sharing the costs. Indeed, the ethnographic record shows that people readily band together to prevent despotic domination and free-riding. Human hunter-gatherer groups exhibit an “egalitarian ethic” in which people band together to circumscribe the power of leaders and punish free-riders
(Boehm, 1997, 1999; see also Smith, 2003). Low-cost forms of social control, such as gossip and withholding social benefits, are usually sufficient to control would-be dominators, but more costly measures, such as ostracism and execution, are recorded in the ethnographic literature.
Similarly, social controls operating within historically important groups are able to punish free-riders and enforce high levels of within-group charity (MacDonald, 1994 [A People that Shall Dwell Alone; D. S. Wilson, 2002; Darwin’s Cathedral]). For example, among Calvinists in 16th-century Geneva, those who violated religious norms were subjected to an escalating set of penalties ranging from private “brotherly admonitions” from the pastor, to public forms of shaming, and finally to excommunication which would mean expulsion from the city (D. S. Wilson, 2002).
In modern states, the police and the judicial system are empowered to punish non-cooperators. The costs for these enforcement institutions are not borne by individual punishers but are widely shared as a result of tax collection systems that are enabled by explicit processing. That is, the system depends on prospective defectors making explicit calculations of the possible costs (e.g., likelihood of a prison sentence) and benefits (e.g., likelihood of financial gain) to their actions in a situation with a host of features that were not recurrent over evolutionary time (e.g., electronic surveillance methods, legal mechanisms to enforce payment of taxes, etc.) (MacDonald, 2008).(See Evolution, psychology, and culture,” pp. 218-219)

Kin selection is not necessary in this model, but groups of kin would certainly have lower thresholds for altruism and higher thresholds for defection. (As critics of Wilson’s recent argument against kin selection have noted [e.g., here], the fact that altruism is possible without kin selection doesn’t mean that kin selection is not in fact important in at least some cases of real world cases of altruism. Indeed, it would astonishing if it wasn’t important.) The argument, then,  for the evolution of individualism typical of the West (see here, p. 21ff) is that kinship is relatively less important than reputation in cementing cohesive, altruistic groups—hence the deadly effect of  threats to reputation that plays such a huge role in motivating White guilt. Whites are being shamed into extinction. To oppose multiculturalism as a model for the West is to remove oneself from the moral universe created by the culture of critique and facilitated by the unique reputation-based eusociality of the West and its commitment to moral universalism. Not coincidentally, all the movements analysed in The Culture of Critique were essentially moral indictments of the West.

On the other hand, kinship clearly plays a very large role the theory of collectivist groups—pretty much the rest of the world. Traditional Jewish groups are a paradigm of kinship-based eusociality (see here, p. 229ff).

In any case, it’s clear that a tightly organized group able to rid itself of free riders and informers would also get rid of selfish genotypes and evolve in the direction of a group whose altruism would have a genetic basis. The process would have the same logic as Cochran and Harpending’s example where the Chinese got rid of genes for non-conformity by doing away with non-conformists. As Cochran and Harpending note, these selective processes have happened very quickly, certainly within the last 10,000 years.

The co-evolution between human explicit processing and changing the gene pool by getting rid of free-riders would be an example of gene-culture co-evolution. In the case of the Jews, a result of these selective processes is the ethnocentric fanatics of the West Bank settler movement and their supporters in the Diaspora who increasingly dominate the Jewish community—the logical endpoint of selection for kin-based eusociality. In the case of the West and its reputation-based eusociality, we have ethnomasochistic Whites flagellating themselves into extinction for fear of being called a “racist” (definitely bad for one’s reputation). So it goes.

In the battle between kinship-based eusociality and reputation-based eusociality, right now the kinship-based strategy is winning hands down. The West is allowing itself to be overrun by other peoples—many of them with cultures pre-disposed to kinship-based eusociality, such as the Muslim cultures taking root in Europe. And facilitated by a hostile Jewish elite that is the paradigm for kinship-based eusociality.

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