Functional Group selection

The basic idea of group selection theory is that the logic of natural selection acting at the level of individual organisms can also be applied to the level of groups (of course, if these groups are highly functional, behaving rather as super-organisms). Group selection is a proposed mechanism of evolution in which natural selection acts at the level of the group, instead of at the level of the individual. Group selection may also be defined as selection in which traits evolve according to the fitness (survival and reproductive success) of groups.

Applied to human species, group selection imply that cooperation – and its functional synergies – become the driving force in human species evolution. Group selection is said to occur when the traits of groups that systematically out-reproduce competing groups eventually come to characterize the species.

When two tribes of primeval man came into competition, (other things being equal) the tribe which includes a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who are ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, will succeed better and conquer the other” (Charles Darwin).

Although a high standard of morality could give only a slight advantage to each individual man over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.” (Charles Darwin)

The tribe in which the majority of the members show a high degree of courage, altruism, loyalty, self-help and sacrifice for the common good, will be victorious over other tribes (that show less these qualities).” (Charles Darwin)

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.” (David Sloan Wilson)

Cooperative human groups as super-organisms

Each living system has to live in a ever-changing environment. How does it manage this? To maintain its persistence, a living being has two complementary ways: One is to adapt to environment – this means to increase its “fitness”, its ability to face the challenges of its environment. This means to increase its homeostatic abilities in facing its ever-changing environment. (to better understand what homeostasis is, read my article Cognition and Intentionality – the artisans of evolution) The homeostasis of an organism is brought forth by the cooperation between its cells. The adaptation to environment is all about cooperation inside the organism. The second way is to reshape the environment to become more conducive to its well-being (niche construction). The reshaping of the environment is brought forth through cooperation between the living beings constituent of that environment.

Adaptation is all about cooperation. If adaptation is about cooperation, cooperation is about synergy and its effects. Synergy is a fundamental and ubiquitous aspect of the natural world. Synergy, broadly defined, refers to cooperative effects produced by processes that co-operate together. Symbiosis is a highly coherent cooperation that produce organism-like organization, where the cooperative living beings become increasingly inter-dependent. Inter-dependency, as everything in nature, is a process of never-ending negotiation and mutual accommodation between the living beings, that brings forth an organism-like cooperative organization/ superorganism.

Why do individuals cooperate in ways that produce teamwork, which, in turn, leads to inter-dependency? What compels them to subordinate their interests to the interests of the whole? The key factor for explaining cooperative phenomena as symbiosis lies in functional synergy and its bioeconomic consequences for differential survival and reproduction in a specific context.

Organism-like organizations of various kinds become units of selection and evolution. This means that the evolution of the organisms part of this organism-like organization starts to be shaped by the functional requirements of the whole. The symbionts start to evolve adaptations that serve the functional needs of the partnership as an emergent whole. An example is the army ant sub-majors: their large size and long legs are morphological adaptations that reflect their role in the army ants’ division of labor.

The super-organism is a specific biological organization above the level of individual organisms. It represent an important aspect of the evolutionary process and have had and still have an important role to play in the ongoing evolution of human society.

Closely related with close-knit group cooperation is the notion of functional group selection and downward causation. Downward causation refers to the selective influences that have shaped the evolution of cooperative phenomena. It refers to the fact that the functional properties of the whole become a selective screen, a significant influence on the differential survival and reproduction of the parts. The synergies that result from cooperation reinforce the cooperative behavior. This reinforcement selects and guides the evolution of morphological and psychological characteristics relevant to that specific cooperation. Over time, cooperators co-evolve toward increasing efficiency of their functionality within the whole.” (Peter Corning)

Human evolution was strongly shaped by group selection, hence we have evolved moral commandments and psychological predispositions that help us to orchestrate and enjoy our participation in group activities. We have evolved to be complementary, to have different roles in a human community. We are wired to be part of a community.

It was the bioeconomic payoffs associated with various forms of social cooperation that produced the ultimate directional trend over a period of several million years, from the earliest bipedal hominids to modern Homo sapiens.

The dominant theme of human evolution have been the expansion of various modes of cooperation which have been rewarded with commensurate bioeconomic benefits. The thesis here is that increasingly potent (and selectively advantageous) forms of social cooperation have given our ancestors their competitive edge.

A human group can be characterized as a “collective survival enterprise”. We meet our basic survival needs through elaborate networks of social cooperation. We likely never will know the full story of our evolution as a species, although we are gradually adding more details to the outline. However, there is reason to believe that behavioral changes in the direction of greater social cooperation were the main driver that shaped our evolution as a species.

An oft-used illustration of this dynamic is the adoption by evolving hominids of the controlled use of fire. This is a uniquely human cultural invention and is still a major factor in our ongoing evolution. The earliest strong evidence for the use of fire by our hominid ancestors is identified perhaps 400,000 years ago. Beside being a powerful symbol of group cooperation, the controlled use of fire by hominids had enormous long-term benefits. Over the course of time, fire was most likely used as an effective means of defense against predators; it was a source of warmth that facilitated migration into colder climates; it might well have served as an insect repellant and as a means for obtaining honey from bee hives; it probably became a weapon for driving and capturing prey animals; it was a means for shaping and hardening tools; it could be used for conditioning the environment (as in slash and burn horticulture); and, not least, it enabled our ancestors to add to their diets many foods that would otherwise have been toxic, indigestible, or infectious if eaten raw. With the acquisition of fire, our ancestors were able to greatly expand their niche, which in turn changed the selective forces to which our ancestors were subject: cooperate or die. Fire became another focal point of social cooperation. Fire-keeping was a collective good that required a division of labor – for gathering firewood, fire tending, fire transport, and, eventually, fire-making. In other words, this primordial hominid technology, like most human technologies, was at once a source of bioeconomic benefits and a generator of social cooperation and social organization that shaped our biology.

The point of this article is that merging into functional groups is advantageous in terms of survival and thriving. A functional group of humans will always out-compete individuals alone. Those who will prosper in the future, no matter what that future will look like, will be the cooperating groups. Whatever the challenges of the future, cooperators will have a clear evolutionary advantage compared to non-cooperators. In our VUCA world, we have to survive and thrive in new ways, different from those that have been successful so far. As an ant-hill is smarter and has better capacities to deal with its environment than an ant alone, humans organized in communities will be better equipped to deal with future challenges than single individuals.