Rebranding Group Selection

Nice post over on Falkenblog, Evolutionary Self Interest is Relative, which links to an excellent video on misunderstandings about the current iteration of group selection.

The video make it quite clear that much of the debate over group selection, like many other arguments, boils down to semantics. Both sides are essentially in agreement but due to terminology are unable to recognize it. Obviously some rebranding is in order. Multilevel selection is a far less loaded term, even if it sounds too much like multilevel marketing to be appealing to me.

The discussion of isolation and the success of psychopathic males among water striders leads to an obvious parallel with closed and restricted borders in human society. The option to flee is limited so the success of antisocial behaviors is enhanced. It’s hard not to think of N. Korea in that regard, but any border restrictions will have similar effects. The rising xenophobia in China is a very worrisome sign, as well as the increasing US measures against expatriation and immigration.

There is also an excellent point made about the size of the pie when talking about relative fitness that applies equally well to economics and economic policy. People prefer to be a destitute king of shit mountain rather than a wealthy poor person just because they have more than the next guy. Redistribution is based on the idea that the pie won’t change size, yet there is no basis for this assumption, and unfortunately, absent inter-group competition, little evolutionary reason for it to matter until extinction.

The video is about an hour long but worth the time for the human implications alone.

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Group Selection and Macroeconomics: The Irresistible Urge to Aggregate

A critique of group selection got me thinking. Proponents of both group selection and macroeconomics suffer from the same problem: The inability to understand or imagine the emergence of complex behavior solely from the individual level (or genes within the individual). Both confuse a convenient concept with physical reality, proposing ethereal constructs devoid of any possible physical mechanism of action.

The human mind just isn’t very good at juggling large numbers of elements simultaneously. That limitation prompts mental shortcuts that work well enough in the situations in which the human brain evolved – small groups of people – but can go wildly astray when pushed beyond those limits. When people struggle to conceive of complex relationships they automatically start thinking in aggregates, even giving the aggregates properties possessed by none of the component individuals (the populist conception of the wisdom of crowds is an example). It reduces the processing load but ultimately leaves people stuck in abstraction, unable to understand the underlying mechanisms, and in some cases denying their existence.

The “economy”, the “government”, the “market” and the “military” don’t exist. They aren’t real things you can touch or see or that can knock your car into a ditch, but convenient ways to think about things that are too complex to be readily manipulated in the human mind. But these aggregates are themselves flawed models of the world, upon which further models are built. Much of the confusion in mainstream economic circles is caused by this irresistible urge to aggregate. Whether it’s because of indoctrination or simply from being paid to make models and being unable to do so without aggregating, the result is a quick divorce from reality.

When viewed at an individual level the idea of a slump in demand is preposterous. Everyone on earth, at every point in time, wants something more or different from what they have. Demand is unlimited. If nobody is buying it’s because the current price is too high or what they want simply isn’t for sale (much of what I want falls into that category). At the individual level the only possible effect of any effort to increase the mythical aggregate demand is to induce people to buy things they don’t want, don’t need, or can’t afford – otherwise they already would have bought them. If the point of economic policy is to improve the lives of individuals that result hardly seems conducive.

The “government” can’t do anything unless at least one individual takes action to bring it about. The “military” doesn’t kill anyone, individuals make choices to do so. The “economy” can’t be altered without forcing individuals to do things they didn’t want to do. Keeping those distinctions in mind radically alters prescriptions for change.