(By Eric Falkenstein) I'm rather fascinated by the concept of group selection, which seems rather important in explaining human behavior. I don't think it explains everything, but a lot. Steven Pinker just wrote an
criticizing it, and it is pretty good. His basic point is that unlike ants, human soldiers need a lot of prodding to kill themselves for the commonweal. Kin selection and reciprocal altruism, for Pinker, are sufficient to explain the superficial altruism one sees in society In the comments section Herb Gintis replies, and he's an economist with a long interest in this debate; he favors the importance of group selection.
I think a lot of this gets down to the envelope theorem
, because if self and group selection mechanisms are operating, you will find something optimal for the self given the optimal group behavior, will also be optimal for the group given the optimal selfish behavior. That is, take y*
to be the optimal output, and x* to be the optimal value of x for any value of a
So, as with economics, it is often difficult to find easy tests. That is, I'm sure for most instincts, one can rationalize them with selfish and groupish incentives. I think a key proof would involve showing that if you are competing with other individuals, it is not an equilibrium for there to be no coalitions; a coalition would outperform those not acting in concert, the way a collusion in Texas hold 'em can dominate non-colluding players. Thus, it should be hard wired to collude because it is a dominant strategy if no one else is doing it, and perhaps even if everyone is doing it.
In a tenuously related observation, Dan Dennet responded with an especially cynical focus. First, he says to drop the 'group' prefix because it seems to support some 'vague and misguided ideas' that Dennet does not like. As Jonathan Haidt emphasizes patriotism and religiosity of group selection, one can presume that's what Dennet is afraid of there. He then suggests adding the word 'design' into the selfish selection mechanism because the 'intelligent design' community has stumbled upon a good description of how biologic systems appear (ie, like they are designed, as admitted by Dawkins and Pinker), and he hates 'Intelligent Design'.
This is what reading George Lakoff
does to people's thinking, gets them to focus on manipulating metaphors and focusing on higher truths as opposed to discussing ideas at hand, and that is a path to cynicism and nihilism. I agree that the big picture matters and very occasionally one has to be insincere or misleading to help a higher goal (eg, not overly criticizing your leaders when fighting Nazis and the battle is in doubt). But if you make them your primary focus you have simply become a shill for whatever big idea you chose years ago.
Consider the genius Lakoff's idea to rebrand taxes as community dues
, an idea that didn't work because while we don't mind paying dues for clubs, unlike taxes, dues are voluntary. But because he's is so partisan he doesn't see the stupidity of his suggestion, and it has gone nowhere. Lakoff's latest riff on branding the health care fight, is especially funny because this master of language writes the following, which I could not decipher:
There is another metaphor trying to get onstage -- that the individual mandate levies a health care tax on all citizens, with exemptions for those with health care. The mandate wasn't called a tax, but because money is fungible, it is economically equivalent to a tax, and so it could be metaphorically considered a tax -- but only if the Supreme Decided
Where the first metaphor would effectively kill the Affordable Care Act, the second could save it.
As George Orwell noted, the enemy of clear language is insincerity, and here he does want a mandate and all it implies, but does not want to say so.