This is diablog 6 between David Sloan Wilson (DSW, head of The Evolution Institute and author of Does Altruism Exist?) and me (JB).

1. JB: You’ve called teamwork humanity’s “signature adaptation.” But you’ve also said that in evolution “selfishness beats altruism within groups.” Let’s examine those statements alongside Christopher Boehm’s work on egalitarian paleo-economics.

2. DSW: Christopher Boehm is a major architect of the new evolutionary synthesis that my work also represents. He posits a shift in the balance of power whereby would-be subordinates can suppress wannabe dominants (“reverse dominance”). Once it becomes difficult to succeed at the expense of teammates, succeeding as a group (teamwork) becomes the only option.

3. DSW: In multilevel selection terms, disruptive within-group selection is suppressed so that between-group selection becomes the primary evolutionary force. But the motivations that evolve from such a process need not look altruistic. A person can view teamwork as a form of selfishness, caring only about his or her share of team gains or the public good that is created. Mapping altruism defined in terms of motivations onto altruism defined in terms of action is complex (see Does Altruism Exist? Chapter 5 Psychological Altruism).

4. DSW: The conditions for the genetic evolution of human teamwork still shape teamwork in modern-day groups. In other words, if a balance of power doesn’t exist, then at least some group members are likely to adopt disruptive self-serving behaviors. Teamwork requires social control, for us no less than for our distant ancestors.

5. JB: Yes, a balance of powers, or balance of interests, is key. It means certain kinds of selfishness don’t win in human groups (if they’re to be sustainable). It’s useful to distinguish selfishness that’s group-harming from selfishness that’s not (see Two Kinds of Success).

6. JB: Either group-disrupting selfishness is suppressed (policed, punished), or the group weakens itself. And groups that don’t prevent “parasitic” self-maximization perish sooner.

7. JB: You’ve called human cooperativeness the latest major evolutionary transition. We’ve evolved to be uniquely dependent on non-kin cooperation in teams, and that complicates simple “selfishness vs. altruism” thinking. Benefitting the team whose survival is necessary to your own can have both selfish and altruistic aspects. And group-harming self-maximization can be self-undermining.

8. JB: Our interests often aren’t easily disentangled from the interests of others. It’s a common error to see concern about the interests of others as “niceness.” But collective survival requires teams with “ruthlessly cooperative” rule enforcement (see Golden Punishment Rule).

9. JB: Evolutionists understand how genetic relationships complicate selfishness. For example, “kin selection” and “inclusive fitness,” explain altruism toward genetic relatives. Perhaps our innate need for teamwork creates a non-genetic equivalent, a kind of economic inclusive fitness. Division of labor needs viable others to collaborate with, so our interests logically include the interests of those significant others.

Inclusive economics is in our nature. But economists often — unnaturally — exclude its logic.

Earlier diablogs covered: (1) evolution’s score keeping (relative fitness), (2) its built-in team aspects, (3) its self-destructive competitions, (4) its blind logic, (5) and how division of labor complications.


Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.