Sunday, May 8, 2011

Group Selection Explains "Why We Celebrate a Killing"?

In an otherwise thoughtful piece in the New York Times on the reactions to Bin Laden's killing, Jonathan Haidt throws in a weird flourish
There’s the lower level at which individuals compete relentlessly with other individuals within their own groups. This competition rewards selfishness.

But there’s also a higher level at which groups compete with other groups. This competition favors groups that can best come together and act as one. Only a few species have found a way to do this. ...

Early humans found ways to come together as well, but for us unity is a fragile and temporary state. We have all the old selfish programming of other primates, but we also have a more recent overlay that makes us able to become, briefly, hive creatures like bees. Just think of the long lines to give blood after 9/11. Most of us wanted to do something — anything — to help.
last week’s celebrations were good and healthy. America achieved its goal — bravely and decisively — after 10 painful years. People who love their country sought out one another to share collective effervescence. They stepped out of their petty and partisan selves and became, briefly, just Americans rejoicing together.
The claim seems to be that the origins of these reactions in group selection means that displaying these reactions now is "good and healthy" because group selection benefits groups? Not the best argument, I would say.


Greg Frost-Arnold said...

I think you're right. But I also wanted to pick on one other part of the quotation: "all the old selfish programming of other primates" would be disputed some or perhaps even many -- Frans de Waal would be leading this charge. Our two closest relatives are chimps and bonobos (we are phylogenetically equidistant from each). Chimpanzees, in several straightforward ways, display selfish behavior. (Though even there, we sometimes see them doing things to help others without any obvious benefit to themselves.) But bonobos just are not as selfish. So calling our unselfish tendencies a recent overlay seems a stretch.

Jason Antrosio said...

Thank you for this post, but I would disagree that this is an "otherwise thoughtful piece." As Greg Frost-Arnold comments here, the non-human primate example is particularly ludicrous, and it's hardly the only problem. Haidt's comments are a diversion from a real analysis of the celebrations. I wrote about this in my blog-post "Anthropological responsibilities on bin Laden celebrations":

Anonymous said...

There seems to be quite a lot to celebrate about Nazi Germany, it seems, according to Mr. Haidt's sharp, sharp analysis. It's quite hard to take this seriously.