Cultural Group Selection

If genes that promote the welfare of a group over the welfare of an individual can be selected by group selection, how much more must group selection apply to cultural practices. When a population is structured in groups that compete with one another for resources and survive or perish as wholes, the behavior of the members of a group makes all the difference, because most of the genes selected by group selection contribute to a group's success by promoting helpful activities, particularly cultural practices. Practices that make for group cohesion and enable cooperative breeding by cooperative hunting, food sharing, and cooperative defense, for example, are candidates for group selection, because groups that do these things well on average will tend to succeed, even though the practices may be costly to individual members.

When a group-structured population is sparsely spread over an area, groups may compete only indirectly by exploiting the same resources, because they encounter one another rarely. The situation changes when the population becomes dense, because groups competing for limited resources and encountering one another frequently stand to gain from physical combat. Warfare becomes inevitable, because the stakes are high—land, hunting ranges, water rights, and fresh genetic material in the form of women and children, for example. Consequently, practices evolve that enhance a group's capabilities in warfare, like manufacture of weapons, distinctive costumes and markings, and coordination in battle.

If a group is big enough to have some division of labor and organized enough to collectively hunt, gather, care for offspring, and regulate sexual activity by instituting some form of marriage and punishing adultery, such a group is called a tribe. In many parts of the world, tribes have existed and still exist—Africa, the Middle East, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Amazonia, and the American plains, for example. Unless joined by larger forces, tribes engage in tribal warfare, in the form of raids, murder of individuals, skirmishes, and sometimes pitched battles. They take from one another whatever resources are vital: territory, animals (cattle, sheep, goats, horses), sometimes women and children (important as a hedge against inbreeding).

The more warfare evolves, the more it depends on cooperation. Artisans must be supported who invent and manufacture new weapons. Instructors must train warriors in new techniques. Some biologists and anthropologists argue that the cooperative activities of warfare also spurred evolution of other cooperative practices, only indirectly supportive of warfare, but benefiting the group in cohesion (e.g., nationalism), defense against weather (e.g., building houses) and disease (e.g., sanitation), and the gaining and use of resources (e.g., farming and trade). Agriculture made much larger groups possible, with more division of labor and more safeguards than were possible in tribes. In this view, evolution of the large societies we see today, such as nation states, were spinoffs from the evolution of warfare. This theory that warfare drove evolution of cooperative activities may prove ultimately to be oversimplified, but it has some face validity. Even in the United States today, many useful innovations are invented first by the military.

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