I want to point to a exceptionally lucid and well written expostion by David Sloan Willson et al. and pass on the opening paragraphs of their article that frames the context for understanding how group level selection operates at multiple levels, from cells to societies to the entire earth system. I strongly recommend reading through it slowly and carefully. If that seems a bit much, skip down to the section titled "The earth system as the ultimate unit of selection.' (added note: for a comprehensive game theoretic analysis of evolutionary dynamics within and among competing groups see Cooney et al.)
Darwin’s theory of evolution is celebrated for its explanatory scope, prompting the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky to declare in 1973 that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. However, what became the “modern synthesis” can also be called the “great constriction.” The study of evolution was confined almost entirely to genetic evolution, relegating the study of human cultural change to other disciplines.
It was not until the 1970s that evolutionary thinkers started to go back to basics by defining natural selection as Darwin did—any process that combines the triad of variation, selection, and replication—irrespective of the proximate mechanisms. The first mathematical models of cultural evolution were based on population genetics models developed 50 y earlier.
Today, the study of cultural evolution in humans and other species is in full swing —and these advances in basic scientific knowledge have practical applications. In this article, we will first review major developments in our basic understanding of human cultural evolution. Then, we will show how they can be applied to a diversity of positive change efforts, no matter what the scale (e.g., from the individual person to global governance) or topic domain. We elaborate for the topics of complex systems science and engineering, economics and business, mental health and well-being, and global change efforts.
Here is the text from the section near the end of the article titled "The earth system as the ultimate unit of selection.'
The earth system as the ultimate unit of selection.
We have seen that multilevel selection is like a perverse alchemist who turns gold into lead. Self-preservation—a good thing—becomes disruptive selfishness. Helping kith and kin—a good thing—becomes cronyism and nepotism. The welfare of my nation—a good thing—leads to international conflicts. Thriving economies—a good thing—leads to overheating the earth. Nearly everything that is pathological at higher scales can be traced to behaviors that are prosocial at smaller scales.
The only solution to this problem is for policies to be formulated with welfare of the whole-earth system in mind. This is not sufficient by itself, as we will elaborate below, but the basic logic of multilevel selection reveals that it is necessary. There is no invisible hand to permute lower-level interests into higher-level welfare other than our own conscious efforts.
Superficially, it might seem that selection at the planetary scale is impossible because our planet is not competing with any other planets. What makes planet-level selection possible is a decision-making process that makes planetary welfare the target of selection, orients variation around the target, and identifies and replicates better practices, realizing they will be sensitive to context. This is how conscious cultural evolution takes place at smaller scales, as described in the previous sections, and can also take place at the global scale.
The concept of the whole earth as a cooperative system and the primary social identity of an individual was beyond the imagination only a few centuries ago. Nevertheless, when it comes to cultural evolution, the past does not predict the future. Given the myriad forms of globalization that have taken place during the last century, it is difficult not to consider the whole earth as a single system that must transition from CAS2 (“survive”) to CAS1 (“thrive”). Human social groups are nearly always socially constructed. To say “I am first and foremost a human being and citizen of the earth” is no more difficult than to say “I am an American” or “I am a Christian.”
Many people have already adopted a whole-earth ethic, which does manifest as action to a degree—but they do not have a common and authoritative theoretical framework to invoke and from which to derive effective policies. This is in contrast to neoclassical economics and its elaborate mathematical justification of the invisible hand metaphor. Multilevel selection reveals the invisible hand metaphor to be profoundly untrue. It is simply not the case, in economics or any other policy domain, that the lower-level pursuit of self-interest robustly benefits the common good. However, multilevel selection does lead to another, more legitimate conception of the invisible hand metaphor. We must act in two capacities: as designers of whole systems and as participants in the systems that we design. As designers, we must have the welfare of the whole system in mind, which is the opposite of the invisible hand metaphor. As participants, we can indeed respond to our local concerns without having the whole system in mind. Put another way, selection at the level of whole systems is the hand, which winnows the small set of lower-level behaviors that benefit the common good from the much larger set of lower-level behaviors that undermine the common good.
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