Does Division of Labor Complicate Evolution's Trade-Offs?

Division of labor creates a need for others. And it logically connects your interests with the interests of those needed others (which complicates evolutionary trade-offs). 

This is diablog 5 between David Sloan Wilson (DSW, head of The Evolution Institute and author of Does Altruism Exist?) and me (JB). Earlier diablogs covered: (1) how evolution keeps score (relative fitness), (2) its built-in team aspects, (3) its self-destructive competitions, (4) its blind logic.


JB: “Relative fitness” is a key evolutionist idea, but it’s quite abstract. So let’s examine a concrete resource like food, in a team-hunting situation that complicates self-centered fitness gains.

To be logically viable, food allocation should fuel teammates enough to perform effectively in future hunts. Hence, selfish consumption hits logical limits. Not sharing enough food with teammates could hurt your own survival chances.

Does it make evolutionary sense that some organized groups relying on division of labor face similar logical limits to selfishness? In such organizations, as in organisms, the survival of the parts depends on the health of the whole. And relative fitness differences don’t arise, or perhaps can’t get too large?

Despite evolution being unintelligent, Orgel’s Second Rule applies: “Evolution is cleverer than you.” Its blind trial-and-error processes can create amazing “solutions.”

DSW: Your use of the word “logical” seems to be based not on logical relations but on a “good outcome,” which you seem to define as “good for me over the long term, without regard for others.”

Other criteria for defining “good outcome” are possible, e.g., “better than others in my group” or “best for my group.” It is plausible that a person could be guided by any of these (or other) criteria. Why do we observe people using some criteria and not others?

Presumably, there’s a Darwinian contest among criteria. A multilevel analysis of this contest shows that pure within-group selection would favor the “better than others in my group” criterion; pure between-group selection would favor the “best for my group” criterion; and mixed within- and between-group selection might favor the “good for me over the long term, without regard to others” criterion (with flexible criteria depending upon the social context).

I’d like to stress that the “good for me over the long term, without regard to others” criterion is far from culturally universal. It looms so large in our culture because of the currently dominant economic paradigm and its view of our species as Homo economicus, omniscient, entirely self-regarding, absolute utility-maximizing agents. But Homo economicus is a fiction that might well end up ruining society — the very outcome that the fictional Homo economicus would have enough sense to avoid!

To summarize, your very concept of “logical” needs a multilevel evolutionary perspective. 

JS: You’re right...“logical” or “rational” usually entail assumptions about desired outcomes. But my intended assumptions + logic = “If my survival is desirable, and if surviving requires collaboration, I can’t ignore the interests of teammates.” It would be illogical (counterproductive to my survival) to hog food so that my team was too weak to hunt well.

Focusing on relative fitness obscures this sort of logical (absolute) limit on self-maximization.

In any self-deficient species, self-interest becomes entangled with the interests of needed others.

For the next post in this diablog series, click here (Paleo-Economics Shaped Our Moralities). 

Earlier diablogs covered: (1) how evolution keeps score (relative fitness), (2) its built-in team aspects, (3) its self-destructive competitions, (4) its blind logic.

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

The world and workforce need wisdom. Why don’t universities teach it?

Universities claim to prepare students for the world. How many actually do it?

Photo: Take A Pix Media / Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Many university mission statements do not live up to their promise, writes Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, a university designed to develop intellect over content memorization.
  • The core competencies that students need for success—critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and cross-cultural understanding, for example—should be intentionally taught, not left to chance.
  • These competencies can be summed up with one word: wisdom. True wisdom is the ability to apply one's knowledge appropriately when faced with novel situations.
Keep reading Show less

What the world will look like in the year 250,002,018

This is what the world will look like, 250 million years from now

On Pangaea Proxima, Lagos will be north of New York, and Cape Town close to Mexico City
Surprising Science

To us humans, the shape and location of oceans and continents seems fixed. But that's only because our lives are so short.

Keep reading Show less

Sooner or later we all face death. Will a sense of meaning help us?

As a doctor, I am reminded every day of the fragility of the human body, how closely mortality lurks just around the corner.

Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash
Personal Growth

'Despite all our medical advances,' my friend Jason used to quip, 'the mortality rate has remained constant – one per person.'

Keep reading Show less

3 mind-blowing space facts with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson dives into the search for alien life, dark matter, and the physics of football.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: 3 mind-blowing space facts | Big Think | dotcom
  • Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joins us to talk about one of our favorite subjects: space.
  • In the three-chaptered video, Tyson speaks about the search for alien life inside and outside of the Goldilocks Zone, why the term "dark matter" should really be called "dark gravity," and how the rotation of the Earth may have been the deciding factor in a football game.
  • These fascinating space facts, as well as others shared in Tyson's books, make it easier for everyone to grasp complex ideas that are literally out of this world.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…