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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 206

Nichola Raihani — The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World

The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World (book cover)

Cooperation is the means by which life arose in the first place. It’s how we progressed through scale and complexity, from free-floating strands of genetic material, to nation states. But given what we know about the mechanisms of evolution, cooperation is also something of a puzzle. How does cooperation begin, when on a Darwinian level all that the genes in your body care about is being passed on to the next generation? Why do meerkat colonies care for one another’s children? Why do babbler birds in the Kalahari form colonies in which only a single pair breeds? And how come some coral wrasse fish actually punish each other for harming fish from another species?

A biologist by training, Raihani looks at where and how collaborative behavior emerges throughout the animal kingdom, and what problems it solves. She reveals that the species that exhibit cooperative behavior — teaching, helping, grooming, and self-sacrifice — most similar to our own tend not to be other apes; they are birds, insects, and fish, occupying far more distant branches of the evolutionary tree. By understanding the problems they face, and how they cooperate to solve them, we can glimpse how human cooperation first evolved. And we can also understand what it is about the way we cooperate that has made humans so distinctive and so successful.

Nichola Raihani is a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor in Evolution and Behaviour at University College London, where she leads the Social Evolution and Behaviour Lab. An evolutionary biologist by training, she won the 2018 Philip Leverhulme Prize in Psychology for her research achievements, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology. She has also worked in the BBC Science Development Team, and appeared on several podcasts and radio shows, including BBC Radio 4’s “Hacking the Unconscious” and “Thought Cages.” She lives in London with her family.

Shermer and Raihani discuss:

  • Darwin’s Dictum: All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.
  • What view is Raihani’s book for or against?
  • the problem to be solved: why are people kind to strangers? (i.e., origins of empathy, altruism, and kindness),
  • why we don’t need “divine command” theory to explain real morality, which can be derived through evolutionary theory plus philosophical ethical systems,
  • evolutionary origins of cooperation: from single cells to nation states,
  • evolutionary cooperation in the modern world: when we help strangers in the modern world we are following ancient rules of thumb that worked well enough in a world in which meeting someone for the first time was a reasonably good indicator that you’d meet them again,
  • Peter Singer’s expanding circle,
  • self-domestication (Richard Wrangham),
  • bonobos vs. chimpanzees vs. humans,
  • the “natural family” is more diverse than conservatives and Christians think,
  • Joe Henrich’s WEIRD theory of religion and the family,
  • evolution of religion,
  • individualistic vs. collectivist societies,
  • collective action problems and how they are solved in the real world,
  • the nature of human nature: in addition to being selfish, competitive, and greedy, we also harbor a great capacity for altruism, cooperation, and charity,
  • individual selection vs. group selection.
From “The False Allure of Group Selection” by Steven Pinker

E. O. Wilson: “In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals. But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals.”

Steven Pinker: “The first big problem with group selection is that the term itself sows so much confusion. People invoke it to refer to many distinct phenomena, so casual users may literally not know what they are talking about. I have seen ‘group selection’ used as a loose synonym for the evolution of organisms that live in groups, and for any competition among groups, such as human warfare. Sometimes the term is needlessly used to refer to an individual trait that happens to be shared by the members of a group; as the evolutionary biologist George Williams noted, ‘a fleet herd of deer’ is really just a herd of fleet deer. And sometimes the term is used as a way of redescribing the conventional gene-level theory of natural selection in different words: subsets of genetically related or reciprocally cooperating individuals are dubbed ‘groups,’ and changes in the frequencies of their genes over time is dubbed ‘group selection.’

Natural selection could legitimately apply to groups if they met certain conditions: the groups made copies of themselves by budding or fissioning, the descendant groups faithfully reproduced traits of the parent group (which cannot be reduced to the traits of their individual members), except for mutations that were blind to their costs and benefits to the group; and groups competed with one another for representation in a meta-population of groups. But everyone agrees that this is not what happens in so-called ‘group selection.’ In every case I’ve seen, the three components that make natural selection so indispensable are absent.”

From Dr. Shermer’s The Moral Arc

A cell, or body, or organism—a survival machine—is the gene’s way of surviving and perpetuating itself. The problem is that survival machines scurrying around in, say, a liquid environment like an ocean or pond will bump into other survival machines, all of whom are competing for the same limited resources. “To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food,” says Dawkins. But there’s a difference between a survival machine and a rock. A survival machine “is inclined to hit back” if exploited. “This is because it too is a machine that holds its immortal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve them.” Thus, Dawkins concludes, “Natural selection favors genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and of different species.” Survival machines could evolve to be completely selfish and self-centered, but there is something that keeps their pure selfishness in check, and that is the fact that other survival machines are inclined “to hit back” if attacked, to retaliate if exploited, or to attempt to use or abuse other survival machines first.

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This episode was released on September 4, 2021.

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