“For now I see peace to corrupt no less than war to waste.” John Milton, Parasise Lost, 1667

Imagine being a crew member on a merchant ship setting sail for a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean during the 18th Century. There will be storms and the constant threat of pirates during the 7-week journey. The sailing is sponsored by merchants who want the cargo to arrive safely, the ship’s owner who wants to preserve his investment by the arrival of his ship intact, and the captain and crew who wish to arrive safely where they will be paid and continue their lives. All factors favor cooperation by everyone on the ship in the mission of operating the ship properly on the high seas and delivering its precious cargo safely to the opposite shore.

Each person on the ship has one or more assigned jobs. Presumably the assignments are made on the basis of ability for the needed tasks. It won’t matter that one crew mate is an excellent runner, or hunter, or mountain climber, or jungle explorer, for on the ship these abilities don’t matter as he will be measured by his performance of assigned tasks. Each crew member’s fate will be affected by the quality of his crewmates and the manner in which they all work together to navigate the ship safely to port. When each mate discharges his task with competence and cooperation the entire endeavor is helped, and the prospects for a prosperous outcome for all mates is improved

This situation is a simple way to introduce the concept of “group selection theory.”  During the voyage all people aboard the ship will either live as a group, or die as a  group. This is a more extreme example of a tribe either entirely living or dying during  conflict with a neighboring tribe, but the concept is easier to grasp using the sailing  hip example because the ocean is deep and unforgiving with a history of taking entire  crews to the ocean bottom.

With the ship analogy in mind let’s consider the tribal situation; after all, the tribal setting our ancestors had to survive for millions of years. If a tribe is in chronic conflict with a neighbor tribe the losing tribe might be decimated. This prospect has a message for individual members who pride themselves as being proficient in some irrelevant realm. An individual with a talent for basket design, for example, will have a useless talent when there are more compelling needs for warrior talent.

So what makes a good warrior? There are the obvious factors of strength, agility and
other skills. Two other factors deserve special attention: altruism and intolerance.

Altruism is defined as a willingness to forego individual payoffs in order to achieve a payoff for another individual or group of individuals. Two explanations are commonly offered to account for the existence of altruism. First, if the cost to the altruist is small, and the benefit to the other person is great, and if the interactants have recurring relationships, then it is easy to imagine that a series of such acts can yield benefits to all participants if there are several such interactions with opposite sign. (The “sign” of the interaction refers to which person is the recipient of the altruistic act.) Notice that this dynamic does not require that the two people have a close genetic relationship.

The second explanation for altruistic acts requires that the two individuals be closely related. J. B. S. Haldane famously quipped that he would willingly give his life for two first cousins, or four second cousins, etc., in answer to a question about altruism. The calculus of genetic payoffs of this type is now called “inclusive fitness” and it states that our brains are designed to recognize when a sacrifice is likely to confer a greater benefit than loss to our genes, present in our near relatives as well as in oneself.

Finally, there’s a “group selection” theory that can account for altruistic acts. If a tribe is at risk of being decimated by a rival, and if the home tribe is desperate, then there’s logic in some individuals making high risk attempts to turn the tide of battle. It’s not necessary for the hero to be closely related to his fellow tribesmen since all of them will either survive or be killed depending on the outcome of the battle. This is analogous to ship mates dealing with an emergency at sea which requires heroic action to save the ship and all its crew. The genetic relationship of the sailors is irrelevant to the need for action.

A heroic warrior can be seen as an altruist. He risks his life in order to save the tribe because saving the tribe also saves the hero. Genes that predispose to this form of altruism should be selected for by evolution whenever tribes live in chronic conflict with their neighbors. The prediction is borne out, at least in game theory simulations (Choi and Bowles, 2007). Since the altruistic acts benefit only those in the home tribe it has been referred to as “parochial altruism” (“parochial” refers to a concern that is narrowly restricted, or a way of thinking that is “provincial”). The notion that genes predisposing for “parochial altruism” will evolve when tribes are in conflict is based on “group selection theory.”

There’s an interesting aspect to the way in which this kind of parochial altruism is elicited, which has also pointed out by Choi and Bowles (2007) as well as Wilson and Wilson (2007). It pertains to intolerance, an unwillingness to overlook individual or group differences. For example, if fellow tribesmen dress one way and someone is seen dressing another way (not incorporated into tribal rituals), the non-conformist will not be tolerated. Perhaps there were instances in our evolutionary past when a brave member of a neighboring tribe sneaked in to assess tribal strengths and weaknesses in preparation for later warfare. Such a person would be noticed as a “stranger” who dressed differently. A tribe whose members were tolerant might merely shrug and leave the stranger alone, whereas a tribe with intolerant members can be expected to challenge the stranger and demand an explanation of who he was and what he was up to. Clearly, if tribes are in chronic conflict conditions favor genes that predispose to intolerance. Thus, conditions of chronic conflict should increase the incidence of two types of genes: those that predispose to “parochial altruism” and those that predispose to intolerance. The game theory simulation by Choi and Bowles (2007) show that indeed both genes increase their representation in hypothetical gene pools that are in chronic conflict.

decisively overwhelms opposing tribes that it creates a form of peace that lasts for several generations. The evolutionary forces that selected genes for intolerance and parochial altruism are relaxed, and in their place are new forces that reward the opposite genes. During peace genes are selected that predispose to tolerance and selfishness. Again, this dynamic was demonstrated to exist in the simulations by Choi and Bowles (2007). Wilson and Wilson (2007) as well as Turchin (2007) have suggested this scenario as a way to understand the fate of empires. Indeed, this is one way to view the decline and fall of civilizations.

It seems ironic that war and peace elicit genes with opposite traits. How can these reversals be achieved? Two modes are possible. Either the population evolves in a way that changes the representation of “genetic types” or the individual members take readings of an ever-evolving social setting and automatically adjust their attitudes and behaviors. Both modes are based on gene expression, but the latter is more sophisticated. Just as the immune system takes readings of pathogens in the blood and adjusts its activity accordingly, the brain is capable of reading social  situations and adjusting its activity in an adaptive manner.

There are two important clarifications for this use of the term “adaptive.” First, something is adaptive if it helps the genes for it to survive better. Second, the specified change is adaptive (for the genes) provided the current setting is similar to the “ancestral environment.”

The first clarification conveys the message that behaviors that help genes survive may not be in the best interests of individual welfare. Consider the switch from peace time to war time; the individual is expected to become intolerant and hateful, and he is expected to sacrifice his life through heroic acts that protect the home tribe. His fellow tribesmen may benefit by this heroism, but not the hero.

The second clarification has become important in modern times because tribes have been replaced by nations consisting of members from many genetic backgrounds. Japan is one of the few nations that has preserved its genetic purity, so there may be some genetic sense for the Japanese to engage in extreme acts of heroism (e.g., kamikaze heroics). It is also noteworthy that the Japanese in peace time have one of the lowest crime rates in the world. For them, the current environment resembles the ancestral one in important respects. But for most other nations the populations are so genetically diverse that the genes are foolish to create individuals willing to become loyal patriots ready to fight to the death for the Fatherland.

If humans were capable of sanity they would mock patriotism for the pointless suffering it inflicts upon humanity. Patriotism has always been pointless from the perspective of the individual, but it is now also pointless from the perspective of the group. Yet, it cannot be eradicated since it has been so crucial to genetic survival for so many generations.

What a pathetic situation humans find themselves in. Anyone who mocks patriotism, who points out that it serves no purpose, will be branded “unpatriotic” – and their message will not be heard. The need to enforce patriotism has been so strong for our ancestors that they created a mythical entity to help enforce it: God. This creation was instigated by the genes, of course, since they were the beneficiaries of behaviors that secured their survival at the expense of individuals. Since the modern “state” is an outgrowth of primitive tribes, governed by chiefs and their helpers, it can be said that the church and state were meant to work together. The 18th Century struggle to separate them was motivated by a subconscious realization that individuals were the victims of this collaboration. The separation of church and state is a historical aberration, doomed to a short existence. Every humanist should be sad that the few bastions of 20th Century sanity are doomed to revert to their former evil state in the 21st.

In trying to understand the rise and fall of empires it will be wise to keep in mind the possibility that they are related to the rise and fall of genes that predispose for parochial altruism and intolerance. Other factors deserve consideration. Most of the forces causing empires and civilizations to rise and fall are based on evolutionary changes to the genome that require an understanding of the different levels of evolutionary selection. This chapter introduced the concept of “group selection.” We must also consider selection at the level of the individual and the gene. This is the goal of the next chapter.

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