Jonathan Haidt is a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia and a bit of a woo-ish self-help guru. He’s also known for attacking New Atheism. In an essay on “Moral psychology and the misunderstanding of religion” at Edge, for example (drawn from his first book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom), Haidt accused the Gnus of superficiality in their treatment of religion and of “polluting the scientific study of religion with moralistic dogma and damaging the prestige of science in the process”. Sam Harris provided a characteristically acerbic response on Richard Dawkins’s site, including the following:
Haidt concludes his essay with this happy blandishment: “every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing.” Surely we can all agree about this. Our bets have been properly hedged (the ideology must be “longstanding” and need only have “some” wisdom). Even a “new atheist” must get off his high horse and drink from such pristine waters. Well, okay .
Anyone feeling nostalgic for the “wisdom” of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there’s nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to “suppress selfishness” and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren’t the only culture to have discovered “human flourishing” at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.
But I digress. Haidt has published a new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, which he summarizes in the TED talk presented below.
His thesis is that spirituality, religion, and true human altruism (in which individuals sacrifice themselves for others who are unrelated, as with soldiers at war) are all the products of evolution, and came about by group selection. He sees humans as Homo duplex, a conflicted bundle of the profane and sacred, with the profane instantiated by our luxurious everyday lives and the sacred represented by our spiritual longings—a “staircase” upward—that Haidt sees in his own students.
At 7:00 he asks the question, “Is the staircase a feature of evolutionary design? Is it a product of natural selection, like our hands? Or is it a bug–a mistake in the system? This religious stuff is just something that happens when the wires cross in the brain. . . ?”
His answer, of course, is yes—the Staircase to Spirituality was built by evolution. And that evolution occurred evolved by group selection: those groups that were more spiritual/altruistic/religious than others reproduced themselves better (spawning other, similar groups), so that even if religion or altruism caused an individual loss of fitness (reproductive output), those traits would still spread via a higher “fitness” of religious than of nonreligious groups.
Haidt first gives cachet to this controversial form of selection by saying that Charles Darwin accepted it. Well, perhaps Darwin did, but not as the main engine of evolution. And since Darwin’s time, our understanding of the limitations of group selection have caused that process to lose considerable support: because of its theoretical weaknesses and lack of evidence for group selection in nature, few evolutionists now see it as important. Haidt notes that E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, will cause the gospel of group selection to sweep the planet, but I doubt it.
Haidt then presents three examples of things that evolved by “group selection,” in which the “free rider problem” (i.e., selfish individuals within groups would take over before the more altruistic groups could reproduce themselves) is supposedly solved. One is the invention of “superorganisms,” like the first cells that absorbed bacteria, becoming mitochondria-containing “superorganisms” that proliferated. (He shows a cartoon animation how these cells might drive out the selfish individuals.) But this isn’t really a case of a disadvantageous trait propagated by group selection: it’s a case of a new symbiotic “organism” having higher fitness than other organisms. There is no “altruism” involved here, and even if there were, the cases of “altruism” which so motivate Haidt—those in humans—don’t involve such symbiosis.
Haidt then promotes the example of eusocial wasp colonies as a case of unselfish groups (in eusociality, workers are sterile and are obviously sacrificing their own fitness). As we’ve seen previously on this website, wasps and other eusocial insects like bees almost certainly arose not via group selection, but via “kin selection.” Their “altruism” is not true altruism because sterile individuals actually gain in fitness because, though sterile themselves, they pass on extra copies of their own genes by tending the highly related queen. This is kin selection caused by an increase in inclusive fitness. Eusocial insects are not a good analog for “true” human altruism, in which humans are supposed to help unrelated individuals at the cost of their own fitness.
Well, did “true” human altruism evolve by group selection?
First of all, we need to know whether humans do indeed sacrifice their fitness with no potential gain for themselves. This is undoubtedly true in cases like policemen and firemen, but in other cases what looks like “altruism” may simply be a way to get benefits at a slight risk to oneself. We may help relatives at our expense, but if that behavior evolved (and it certainly did in the case of parental care), it probably evolved by kin selection, not group selection.
And we may help others in our social group, but that may well have evolved not by group selection, but by a form of individual selection that occurred by reciprocal altruism. That is, if we evolved in small social groups in which individuals recognized and remembered each other, then there can be an individual advantage to helping another group member if that member remembers you and one day returns the favor. This can occur by simple Darwinian individual selection, as has been known since the work of Robert Trivers in 1971. (There is other biological evidence that reciprocal altruism evolved by individual rather than group selection.)
Note that reciprocal altruism is not really “true” altruism because the “sacrificing” individuals actually benefit in a long-term Darwinian sense (i.e., they pass on more of their genes) by their temporary loss of fitness, which eventually is more than repaid. “True” altruism in humans constitutes only a fraction of all cases of “helping behavior”, and is probably the byproduct of faculties evolved to help others in small groups, not an evolutionary adaptation in itself. Is the human desire to go to war an evolved phenomenon, in which those societies who contained “genetically warlike” individuals replaced those who were less bellicose? Or do soldiers serve because they’re conscripted, and have no choice—or have had patriotic instincts instilled in them since youth? Modern warfare may be a cultural rather than an evolved biological phenomenon.
Further, I know of no evidence for “true” altruism in any other species in which one can rule out the action of kin selection or reciprocal altruism. If, as Haidt maintains, group selection is so efficacious in promoting the evolution of true altruism, why do we never see true altruism in nature? Why does “altruism” inevitably involve helping kin or getting reciprocal benefits from group members? The inevitable conclusion is that group selection hasn’t been successful in promoting the evolution of traits, like true altruism, that are disadvantageous to individuals but good for groups. The old nature-show bromide that “evolution involves benefiting the species” is simply wrong.
At any rate, here’s Haidt’s presentation with its three-minute summation: “We evolved to be religious . . We evolved to see sacredness all around us, and to join with others in teams that circle around objects, people, and ideas.”
That’s facile and misleading, and not just because he assumes without evidence that religion is simply a form of evolved altruistic behavior. It is Haidt, not the New Atheists, who is damaging the prestige of science by distorting it to buttress people’s idea that religion and spirituality have been placed in our genome by evolution.