Re: Group Selection

Aaron Lynch (
Wed, 17 Feb 1999 14:59:58 -0600

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 17 Feb 1999 14:59:58 -0600
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Group Selection
In-Reply-To: <>

At 10:50 AM 2/17/99 -0500, Nick Rose wrote:
>Aaron wrote,
>>Hi Nick.
>>I actually take up the article by Wilson and Sober in my
>>JoM paper section 13 - Massively Cooperative Propagation.
>>(There is also a Hutterite section in TC that I wrote
>>before the BBS article.) Hutterites exemplify a kind of
>>meme group selection rather than gene group selection.
>>Massively cooperative propagation is to some extent the
>>opposite of centralized communication: a large number of
>>memetically similar individuals cooperate in spreading the
>>meme to new individuals--children in the case of
>>the Hutterites.
>My point was that the reverse explanation appears simpler.
>e.g. ...a large number of genetically similar individuals
>cooperate in spreading the gene to new individuals
>--children in the case of the Hutterites. I don't find
>switching gene (in wilson and sober) for meme (in your
>post) at all convincing. [but I've said this before]

Hello again, Nick.

As I'm sure you'll agree, the principle of parsimony (Occam's razor) does
not call for choosing a theory *solely* on the basis of simplicity. Rather,
it favors the simplest explanation consistent with observation and data. In
the case of the Hutterites, we have the cultural equivalent of a fossil
record: a recorded history of the movement and its literature. Chapter 1 of
_Hutterite Society_ (Hostetler, 1974) clearly documents that the idea of
communal living, sharing of goods, and detachment from family ties were
founding principles of the first Hutterite colonies. Moreover, those early
colonies were formed evangelically from populations that would not have had
any special level of inbreeding. Clearly, the communalism preceded any
genetic homogenization that emerged as a result of the isolation that set
in later in reaction to persecution. Therefore, a special level of genetic
homogeneity is not a reasonable hypothesis in explaining the communalism.
It is interesting to note that Wilson and Sober (1994) do not cite
Hostetler at all.

>IMO You need to justify using a memetic argument here -
>otherwise it looks like you're trying to rewrite
>sociobiology. Are you saying that all cultural behaviour
>which promotes having children is memetic? Or do you
>accept that biology can underlie some of these behaviours?
>If the latter where do you 'cut the joint' between
>sociobiological and memetic behaviours?

I am not trying to rewrite sociobiology. Nor am I offering such a broad
generalization as saying that all cultural behavior that promotes having
children is memetic--my view allows for both genetic and memetic influences
on cultural behavior that promotes having children. On the other hand, I
will say that it was largely an historical accident that sociobiology
emerged before memetics did.

>If Hutterite culture can be explained in sociobiological
>terms (even if that requires new Group Selection) doesn't
>it precisely undermine Hutterite culture as an example of

I do not see any good sociobiological explanation of Hutterite culture that
is consistent with what we know about the actual history of the Hutterites.
Yet even if there were equally viable theories from both memetics and
sociobiology, I would see no reason to automatically defer to the
sociobiological. I am curious, however, as to why you might be inclined to
favor the sociobiological. Even as it is a well established theory for many
phenomena (e.g., social insects), this does not make it well established on
a case by case basis in phenomena where cultural transmission is already a
proven factor.

When you start to consider such things as the Hutterite belief in the
imminent apocalypse, memetic explanations (e.g., Lynch, 1996) apparently
stand completely unchallenged by sociobiology. A purely sociobiological
theory may appear simpler on some level, but it lacks the explanatory power
needed to handle such phenomena as the Hutterites. Perhaps you will
eventually find this more convincing, as you consider additional evidence. :-)

Hostetler, J. 1974. Hutterite Society. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press.

Lynch, A. 1996. Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society. New
York: Basic Books.

Wilson, D.S., and Sober, E. 1994. Reintroducing Group Seleciton to the
Human Behavioral Sciences. Behaviorabl and Brain Sciences 17, 585-654.

--Aaron Lynch

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