Philosophy of Cognition: Topic11

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A Brief Intro[edit]

An alternative way of looking at the evolution of cognition is the so-called group selection theory. When discussed about modules as adaptations, we implicitly assumed that we were talking about adaptations for the individual. That is, they increase in some way the chance of survival and reproduction of a class of individuals.

Conversely, group selection or multilevel selection theory posits that there are adaptations that are good for the group, not for the single individual or class of individuals. The most well-known example is altruism. Altruistic behaviors have been always a kind of puzzle. Why should one sacrifice herself for somebody else’s good? What’s the rationale behind such a self-defeating behavior? The answer is that altruistic behaviors are benefiting the group. Why? Imagine two distinct groups of hunters. One is composed by genuinely altruistic people ready for sacrificing themselves for the common good. The other is composed by scroungers, who don’t care about the common good and are scarcely collaborative. Which group would you join? Theoretically speaking, the best choice would be to join the group of altruistic people, because it would be certainly easier to hunt and find food.

Now, coming back to the evolution of cognition, we may argue that most of our distinctive cognitive traits may be considered adaptations at a group level. Why? Because cognition would serve a specific purpose: the evolution of culture. In turn, culture would enable our ancestors to create and maintain large and quite sophisticated group of people not necessarily related by blood, and thus boosting the chance of survival and reproduction for the members of the group (it’s easier to kill a big animal if being in a large group).

The major limitation of group selection doesn’t deal with the idea that cognition might not favor single individuals, but groups. Rather, it deals with the idea of group selection itself. In topic 9 we have said that evolution has a specific meaning and it can only be applied, if four ingredients are present: heredity, competition, variation, heredity, multiplication. Do groups compete? Yes, indeed. They also vary. In a way, they are also inherited. However, one group of a certain type doesn’t produce another group of the same type. In this sense, groups cannot be considered as evolving units. But, if they are not evolving units, that also means that there is nothing like a group adaptation.


Find an example which group selection can fairly explain.


Why is group selection important?

What is the major shortcoming related to group selection?

Compulsory readings[edit]

Recommended readings[edit]

D. S. Wilson (2003), Darwin's Cathedral. The University of Chicago.