The Selfish Gene, the Group, the Logic of Multilevel Selection and Multi-culturalism.

Statue of Confucius on Chongming Island in Sha...

K'ung fu tzu (Confucious)


In a couple of posts on this blog I have commented that during the riots I noticed some outrageous comments, taking the ‘race angle’ on the riots. Since I had watched footage that gave the lie to this I said my piece in replies on a couple of web pages I encountered whilst tracking down other information, thinking that the posts would not survive the ‘editorial’, which is usually the case with the right wing and the anti-Islamist sites I have left comments on.

After posting I see the infamous, “Your comment is awaiting Moderation.” sign, and a day later it’s no-where to be seen.

Except on this occasion, where it was left in place, with the following somewhat barbed comment,  “I thought I would include Ms. Miller’s comments to illustrate the mindset of the opposition.” multiculturalism equals peace. Love is hate, up is down, etc”

Naturally there were several follow up comments and I responded and had a conversation with some racists. Which apart from putting me into a grumpy mood for several days, did at least show me where they were getting their self justifications from. In the replies, apart from the usual:  ‘Ug my brain urts, dem different from me, don’t like dem’  kind of replies, it became clear that the these self justifications were being drawn from a particular scientific perspective, that of Socio-biology.

Being the curious sort I did a bit of research, and as I read, and since the science of complexity and systems theory came up, a few ideas came to me, specifically about why the far-right are so awfully wrong about it all. So I wrote them down, sorry it’s a bit long but there you go. I have tried to break it up into sections to make it a little more digestible.


The Science of Socio-biology and related disciplines have become a battle ground, with regard to groups and a concept known as multi level selection. There is a great resistance among some to consider groups as distinct from and in competition with, each other, in the context of groups of Human beings. Historically this appears to derive from a moral repugnance of racial ideologies, with which there is a clear relationship.

For the most part this repugnance derives from the experience of the Holocaust, which as well as having a powerful impact on those who survived it, and those soldiers who relieved the camps, had an extreme, and for all practical purposes, unquantifiable effect on the perspective of politicians, religious leaders, historians and scientists particularly in Europe, but also around the world. This was to some extent amplified by the emergence of the civil rights movement, which provided further challenges to what remained of racist ideology in the 1960’s, and was further embedded as a social norm by the implementation of anti-discriminatory, and anti-oppressive values and practices throughout society. With today racist ideology of all kinds thankfully reduced, (in western democracies at least,) to nut job fringe movement status which almost no-one takes seriously.

Another point to add is that scientists, despite their avowed commitment to objectivity, are prone to defend pet theories which the evidence contradicts. It is my belief that this arises out of an unreasonable reliance on those aspects which are clearly objective, I.e. ‘A was observed,’ and a reluctance to consider that looking for A all too often misses the possibility that B, might have been a better thing to observe in the first place.


For evolutionary science, the  issue of how species differentiate, and how one sub-species survives, whilst another does not, are particularly significant themes. Linked to this there are issues about how groups interact with each other, in competition over resources. There are various arguments which centre on the activity of Dawkins, ‘selfish gene’.

 Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene. New York City: Oxford University Press.

This is the idea that genes seek to perpetuate themselves over all other genes. So the selfish gene seeks to survive, to replicate itself, and to ensure the survival of its replicated copies, including variant mutations, and from this the strongest survive, and ultimately evolve, given enough opportunities to copy themselves. There is a problem evident in various animal species, however for the concept of the selfish gene: Altruism.

Intuitively altruism doesn’t sit well with the idea of the selfish gene, although interpretations have been formulated to reconcile them, usually centring on the theme of how co-operation, serves the selfish genes interests. Altruistic behaviour towards offspring is straightforward enough, as that perpetuates the genes survival, in the form of it‘s copies or descendants, but altruistic behaviour towards others with more distant relationships is problematic, as it is less clear how this perpetuates the genes survival.

Early theories suggested that Altruism radiated outwards, weakening as the relationship to the source became more distant. So that offspring would be favoured over siblings, and siblings over cousins, cousins over second cousins, tribe members over other tribes, one people over another people. Which has an attractive neat logic to it, except of course it is easy to recognise how this can become a justification for genocide, oppression, stereotyping or just plain exclusivity. As a result of this association, this idea fell out of favour.

In my mind I have tagged this concept ’concentric kinship altruism,’ I have no idea whatsoever what socio-biologists call it, although I am aware that there are a number of variants. This however is an inadequate explanation of altruism as it is expressed in the real world. Failing to explain why total strangers will act in utterly altruistic ways towards others they have no immediate genetic relationship to. Why would a parent adopt a child of a complete stranger, even if they had none of their own, based on this model, would they not nurture their siblings or cousins children instead? Why will millions of people in a time of austerity, give money to help people they have never met and likely will never meet in the horn of Africa? And characters like Mother Theresa are completely inexplicable to this model.

A brief look at the animal kingdom suggests that altruism has a close association with intelligence. By this I don’t mean intelligence as measured by intelligence tests: an aspect of psychological assessment, currently under intense scrutiny regarding their validity.  Rather the broader and significantly more demonstrable distinction between single celled organisms at one end of the spectrum, and humans at the other.

Dawkins model works well for single celled organisms, and in many ways continues to work well as organisms become more complex. However co-operation and mutual effort begins to take a hand as single celled organisms clump together to make more complex forms of life. Though strictly speaking not altruism, it suggests at least the seeds of altruism. The ‘Selfish Gene’ explanation of this is that through cooperation the gene increases it’s chances of survival and replication, and in a updated preface to his book Dawkins claimed that the phrase, ‘The selfish Gene’ could be substituted with, ‘The Co-operative gene’. Though for many readers applying this substitution to some passages of his book tends to stretch the imagination.

To cut a long argument short so to speak, higher animals show more altruistic behaviour, than lower animals. Bacteria show no noticeable altruistic behaviour. Worker ants sacrifice their individual opportunities to procreate in order to facilitate the procreation of their ‘parent gene’ via queens and drones. Dogs can be quite altruistic within their pack, even if it consists of humans. Apes seem particularly prone to altruistic behaviour, caring even for sick and old members of their troop, which from a selfish gene point of view are just a drain on resources. This suggests that altruistic behaviour has a purpose for groups. This theme is taken up by D.S. Wilson and his co-author E.O. Wilson (no relation)


D.S. Wilson and his co-author E.O. Wilson (no relation) have become well-known in circles interested in such things, for the quote, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” This quote appeared in their paper:

 D.S. Wilson and E.O. Wilson (2007) “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology.” (The Quarterly Review of Biology > Vol. 82, No. 4, December 2007 )

Elsewhere in this paper they say:

“The fact that all evolutionary theories of social behavior (sic) must assume the existence of multiple groups (defined by particular traits and analyzed consistently by the logic of multilevel selection) is a major conceptual simplification that should be welcomed rather than resisted. “

As an aside this is a contradiction of their own earlier criticism of parsimony by others in the same piece, which they might have been better advised to avoid. It might however be questioned if it represents a simplification at all? Or if it represents a harmonisation with complexity theory and systems theory which they also make earlier reference to in the essay, and which might have some interesting implications.

More simply put the Two Wilson’s (No relation) are arguing that if single celled organisms co-operate in groups for the good of all the groups members in competition with other similar groups, and therefore evolve into multi celled organisms, in competition with other multi-celled organisms, and that socio-biologists apply this concept to groups formed by higher level organisms such as wildebeest for example, why then should humans be a special case?

Which is to be fair, a good question?


To quite a lot of people however, this is tantamount to reintroducing the concept of race, I.e. allowing the possibility of stereotyping groups of humans as having traits different from each other, and has drawn significant criticism. I am unclear if this criticism is deserved or not on the basis of the content of the cited paper? Perhaps I will find time to read some of their other work at a later date. The work of the Wilson’s (no relation) has also drawn the attention of far right political groups, who appear to see in it a renewed scientific justification for their ideology.

Unfortunately the Wilson’s (No Relation) have not made life easy for themselves by offering support to a somewhat more suspect character Professor Kevin MacDonald, who has come in for sever criticism for work arguing that  Judaism is a ‘survival strategy’, which has endowed undue influence on Jews. (also attracting the support of neo-fascists in the process) MacDonald himself, despite affirming the reality of the Holocaust, did himself no favours by giving evidence in support of Holocaust denier David Irving. The main criticism of MacDonald is that the ‘traits’ he uses to define Judaism, are tantamount to stereotyping.

It seems to me that these political overtones create a difficult set of tensions that are themselves complex and difficult to disentangle. The Wilsons (no relation) take refuge in ‘science’ and the evidence supporting their position for the most part.

The Wilson’s (No Relation) introduce the concept of the altruistic group, and it seems clear that altruism is a particularly key concept, creating with selfishness a pair of opposites Daoists would recognise instantly.


It seems appropriate to note here that I believe there is a distinction and an interaction between Genetic altruism and Psychological altruism. Broadly speaking Genetic altruism is instinctive, driven primarily by the inbuilt propensity to develop the parent-child attachment bond. As a child grows this attachment bond is generalised to others, good parental attachment, leads to good social relationships in adulthood. Psychological Altruism is essentially rational, the value of caring for and cooperating with others seen by the individual as a logical behaviour. Even though sometimes the logic might be tenuous and at times based on religious faith. Which doesn‘t invalidate the act of reasoning, only the foundations the reasoning is based on.

The main interaction between these features tends to rest on ‘good enough’ attachment between child and primary caregiver in the ‘critical phase’ of infancy, which allows management of anxiety to be sufficiently sophisticated to allow rational thought in the individual, particularly in the context of relationships.

I would argue that animals capable of more than simply responding to the impulses of ‘Breath, eat, drink, sleep and copulate, raise young, begin again’ use altruistic behaviour to construct alliances and loyalties between group members. As biological sophistication increases the level of altruistic behaviour also appears to increases. In apes this seems to have developed a high level of sophistication, e.g. ‘If I look after the old and sick, when I am old and sick I will be looked after.’ Intelligence, and particularly emotional intelligence would seem to be essential features of this. E.g. the child of the sick mother is grateful to the older carer for nurturing the mother in illness and offers care herself when the carer becomes ill. Which requires relatively sophisticated thinking skills concerning relationships.

There are many critics of the two Wilson’s (No relation) theory: one perspective I found most enlightening was the work of  Frans de Waal:

(2009) The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, Harmony books, New York.

In which he describes strong evidence of altruistic behaviour within Chimpanzee and Bonobo troops. Frans de Waal is sceptical about multi-level selection and has said: reported here,

“I don’t believe much in group selection except as a variation on kin selection. Reason (many times given to DS Wilson) is that in all of the primates there is plenty of outflow of genes. Half the group migrates at puberty, either males or females. I have trouble seeing how group selection could work under such circumstances, so stick with individual selection and inclusive fitness most of the time.”

This suggests to me that where Wilson and Wilson (No Relation) argue for multiple levels, that their conception of this concerning group altruism operates well when related to species such as Eusocial insects. As it stands however it doesn’t translate well to the social interactions of apes or for that matter humans, and I would suspect other social animals with high intelligence such as Dolphins for instance. As I noted earlier, an objection to identifying humans as distinct or different from other animals is raised by the two Wilson’s (no relation) in their paper, as a reversion akin to old religious views that endowed humans with a soul as distinct from other animals.

However it occurred to me that if multilevel selection explains the behaviour of animals much less complex than humans, that it might be a fallacy to assume that the same level which applies to ants for instance applies in the same form to higher mammals, to apes and humans for example. Clearly the particular nature of the altruism expressed in ant colony’s is distinct from the co-operation evident between single cells in simple multi-celluar creatures. Rather it seems reasonable to consider that the idea of ‘multiple levels’ implies a hierarchy, in which different subtleties to the rules apply at different levels of complexity. I think I should add at this point that I believe that it is hard to overestimate the complexity of human relationships. If they were not so complex an end would have been put to war a long time ago.

In this model when apes appear to be operating altruistically at a next higher level than other animals, the rules for evolutionary progress are distinct from those operating at lower levels. Given this, we might conclude that Humans may well operate at a higher level still.  A complication however might be that any genetic propensity towards Altruism in Humans might be difficult to conclusively separate out from cognitive altruism.

I would argue this in this way: In the Ape troops studied by de Waal  the dispersal of genetic material via migration of youth from the home group represents a next level complexity in altruism, and may well have been replicated in human societies in a more sophisticated and at times it has to be said, less savoury way, through royal alliances based on marriage. I would argue this as follows: by dispersing into adjacent groups the departing youth are serving the interests of the species as a whole in ways which have a direct benefit on the home group. The departure not only prevents genetic inbreeding, but also establishes kinship relationships between the home group and the surrounding groups, and with those relationships a diverse set of other relationships, which create and maintain interdependence and extended loyalties, between groups. This offers a high level survival strategy which helps manage conflict when it emerges between groups, over  resources.

In their argument the two Wilson’s (no relation) introduce the concepts of complexity theory, and systems theory. This raises two factors: First no system is truly a closed system, with real life systems lying alongside, overlapping and nesting inside each other: The Wilson’s (No relation) model is argued to be complex, and as such the system can be regarded as operating on the edge of chaos. Second, as a complex system we might also conclude that altruism/selfishness might well function as a strange attractor in human relationships, possibly specifically the Lorenzo attractor, creating a pattern replication, with variance, at each subsequent level of increased complexity. The pattern variance might well be seen as modulated by the relative significance of altruism and selfishness at any given level of the model.

From a socio-biology perspective as things become more complex, how altruism is expressed in order to manage conflict changes, in ways which sometimes appear at odds with how it was expressed further down the scale of complexity. At a relatively low level of complexity ants function almost as if they were a dispersed body, altruism is expressed by members of the colony working for the colony, contact with other colonies is either avoidance or outright war, except for the exchange of genetic material, e.g. queens and drones, and no kinship ties appear to be established. At a much higher level of complexity, in apes contact with other troops, may at times be wary, but altruism is expressed through the establishment of kinship ties associated with the sharing of genetic material, but also through other relationships, such as friendships. In chimpanzees, individuals leave groups and join other groups for a time, or permanently.

Ok so I know that’s a couple of seriously wordy paragraphs, but then I am talking about complexity and chaos so what do you expect.

If kinship ties break down, altruism between groups can also break down this can be viewed as turbulence in the system, such turbulence if left unchecked can lead to a runaway reaction, e.g. war, (Which Chimpanzees are also occasionally prone to as well as humans, and interestingly Ant‘s and other Eusocial insects.) Provided turbulence is managed adequately through a self check mechanism e.g. kinship ties, loyalties and  even democracy,  macro level species wide altruism would seem to be a potentially normal high order survival strategy for groups functioning at high levels of socio-biological complexity. A further order of complexity might even extended this into planetary wide altruism which could be seen as a high order survival strategy, serving the interests of individual, group, species, and eco-system simultaneously. As I have thought about this I have wondered if it matters if a distinction between innate and cognitive altruism matters one jot the logic of survival this offers.

Therefore it is entirely reasonable to argue that because cognitive sophistication in apes and subsequently humans, (and possibly dolphins and whales) is significantly greater than other species, that altruism is functioning as a ‘peacemaker’, seeking to manage the turbulence created by conflict over resources, to enable advantage to all, at a species level, at a minimum in a local environment. This offers up the possibility of considering, that when turbulence is not too great that humans co-exist quite nicely, with relatively porous group boundaries, and it is only when those boundaries become too defined that ‘war’ breaks out. Or put another way peaceful co-existence, interaction and extended relationship ties across groups, is the innate ‘natural state’ for humans.

There are those who would argue that conflict between groups simply arises over resources, and it cannot be denied that in some instances this is true, however in the context of altruism as a function of multilevel selection operating at it‘s highest level, it could also be argued that war represent’s a breakdown in the development or maintenance of kinship ties, loyalties, the alliances and the perception of shared advantage, between groups . In this context issues such as multiculturalism function in exactly the same way as kinship ties, except elevated to a higher level, operating between very large groups. Extended interdependent relationships built on mutual advantage, dispersed loyalties and strengthened alliances between very large groups, elevates diplomacy and multi-culturalism from political concepts to genetically inbuilt, cognitively enhanced very high level survival strategies.


If we are to accept the two Wilson’s (no relation) Argument that altruistic groups out perform non-altruistic groups, then offering this possibility of additional levels we might conclude that altruistic species, e.g. Chimps outperform non-altruistic species, in local contexts. If the altruism of chimps is seen as symbolic of the progenitor of Human success, e.g. the Ramapithecus common ancestor, then it is the human capacity (not necessarily always expressed as well as it might) for species wide altruistic behaviour in local contexts, which has promoted humans to become the most wildly successful species the planet has ever seen. Perhaps it was this species wide altruism that allowed us to outperform Homo Sapiens Neanderthalis, without the serious interspecies conflict most archaeologists appear to agree never occurred.

With the advent of globalism, such species wide altruism in local settings, expands by at least an order of magnitude, creating a scenario where multicultural exchange and integration are a next level manifestation of the altruistic behaviour evident at lower levels of complexity, extended into the context of the very large group. This is completely at odds with the interpretation of multi-level selection projected onto such theoretical work by the far right. Rather it suggests that the implosion of Nazi Germany with a unified world turning against it was precipitated by the innate inter-group altruistic response of other groups observing the tragedy unfold.. As was the moral revulsion and antipathy towards racist ideology, of those groups through the 1960’s to the present day. In this context ideas that multi-level group selection imply isolationism as a ‘survival strategy’ are fundamentally flawed, and unsupported by the anthropological evidence.

Interestingly the human species also seems capable of not just species wide altruistic endeavour, but also cross species altruism. At one level this is evident in our co-existence with Wolves (ultimately dogs), cats,  horses, various birds, which whilst they can be seen as ‘tools’ of  humans rarely occupy such a simplistic role for the humans involved. If you doubt this watch a shepherd with his dog, it isn’t just a working relationship, particularly with the best pairings involving dynamics such as friendship and genuine love on both sides. This implies that concern for other species and the environment is yet another extension of the innate capacity of humans to work altruistically.

Using this model ultimately multilevel selection grounded in systems and complexity theory, can be applied to understanding the psycho-biological advantages of altruism, in terms of extended  and very large groups, including entire species, valuing diversity, encouraging multi-culturalism and ultimately even the maintenance of ecosystems. As such the work of the Wilson’s (no relation) can be argued to lead towards a theory of altruism in very large groups, that underlines the value of multiculturalism and environmentalism as very high level survival traits, within a theoretical framework that harmonises with not only systems theory and complexity theory, but also complex systems theory.

As such it seems to me that multi-level selection should not cause anxiety to the vast majority of us who abhor and oppose fascist racist ideology, rather we should welcome it as a further scientific refutation of the validity of racism, which would help further marginalise those who seek to subvert science in order to cling to a lost world of bias and privilege.


About Transremaxculver

An entirely fictitious username I created for posting on 'alt.religion.scientology', Scientology is something of which I am highly critical. For those of you who don't know, the Church of Scientology have a habit of making life very uncomfortable for even the most legitimate of critics, which is why this username is completely anonymous. Anyway I have become quite fond of this username, and although it has to some extent outgrown it's original purpose, I think a blog is perhaps the right place for me/it to continue to grow and develop.
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