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Post No.: 0203groups


Furrywisepuppy says:


‘Cultural group selection’ occurs because there’s inter-group competition. Group selection is basically natural selection but played out between groups rather than individuals. And via this inter-group competition, we developed ways to enhance intra-group cooperation. To beat other teams, teammates must be solid within their own team.


Some cultural innovations and gene-culture co-evolved traits (read Post No.: 0120 for more on gene-culture co-evolution) help specific groups to be more successful than other groups. Firstly, the ‘conformity bias’ leads people to adopt whatever’s the local norm around them, and this leads to those types of norms stabilising within that group (e.g. if most people within a group are egalitarian, self-interested, monogamous, polygamous or whatever then just about everybody in that group will soon adopt that same norm).


This results in various different, segregated, groups appearing, each with a different culture, and then when those different groups clash and compete against each other, those groups whose norms make them stronger as a group tend to survive and triumph over those groups whose norms don’t make them quite as strong (e.g. even though some individual volleyball players are exceptional, if they’re overly selfish or otherwise don’t play well within their own team then their team will likely lose against a team that does play cooperatively well together). And if there are strategies that make a team work well together and win, then we’ll often see that behaviour being imitated by other teams until it becomes an inter-group norm too (e.g. teammates hugging each other regardless of who scores). This is cultural group selection in action.


Inter-group competition results in those cultures that better encourage its own members to support the greater good of the group being able to out-compete and thrive against those cultures that don’t support the group (groups with too many individualistic or otherwise uncooperative members). Via random or trial-and-error cultural evolution – the more successful cultures (those that allow a group to cooperate more effectively and thereby out-compete other groups) will spread and get passed on. Therefore those religions that convinced their followers to do things that benefited the group allowed such groups to culturally out-compete other religions/groups that didn’t or didn’t as much.


Uncooperative individuals can possibly survive and even thrive within groups that contain otherwise a majority of cooperative members, but this is a free-rider strategy and is therefore not a strategy that the majority of a group can take otherwise the entire group will suffer overall in the face of inter-group competition. It’s like, within a country, a relatively few people can avoid paying their taxes and personally benefit from doing so – but if everyone in that country did so then that country would suffer overall in the face of international competition (e.g. how would they collectively pay for an adequate national defence, public infrastructure or education for the economy?) It’d be to the detriment of everybody within that group individually and collectively. Leeches cannot be greater than what their hosts can provide! Free-riding is present regarding collective action problems, public goods and the tragedy of the commons, but as long as those who are uncooperative are in the minority compared to those who are cooperative then a group can manage to survive.


So whilst selfish individuals can beat altruistic individuals within groups – altruistic groups beat selfish groups between groups. Altruistic groups coordinate for the benefit of the group overall so can beat divided and/or selfish ‘groups’ of individuals who infight or don’t care for each other as much. Groups can easily beat individuals (divide and conquer), and cooperative groups tend to become greater than the mere sum of their parts. This all highlights that, to understand behaviours, we cannot just look at selection pressures at the individual level but at the social group level too because sometimes the best strategy for one level is not for the other (e.g. you can serve yourself but harm your species).


Then, like with the process of genetic natural selection, cultural selection will result in a highly cooperative and coordinated cultural group, and therefore the cultural trait of cooperation, dominating – today, we see that successful societies contain a multitude of cultural adaptations that lead them to function and succeed well as a group (e.g. laws that the vast majority of people within a group obey, for if the vast majority didn’t then it’d create internal chaos). And this applies even in highly densely-populated groups with far greater than ~150 people (‘Dunbar’s number’ – the hypothesised cognitive maximum number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships with). Woof!


Note that we may find some small, isolated tribes that still exist in this world that survive without governments or therefore the enforcement of ownership rights to land/possessions, by being totally individualistic, by being absolute equals, by completely curbing internal competition and/or by being utterly insular and automatically hostile towards any outsiders – but we must note that these lessons don’t necessarily apply for societies that are much larger and more complex. Such strategies can only work in small communities where everyone personally knows each other closely, knows the reputation of each other and can watch over everyone else to prevent any free-riders taking advantage of the rest (hence the hypothesised Dunbar’s number). These tribes are becoming ever more endangered too hence their group selection strategies are fragile rather than robust. I doubt most people will want to give up their mod cons to live like them either!


Successful religions have mechanisms in place to discourage non-cooperation and encourage cooperation. Charity and helping the poor improves ingroup harmony. Fasting can help the rich empathise with the poor. In fact, most orthodox religious commandments/tenets promote internal peace and harmony (e.g. do not kill, steal, covet, commit adultery). Specific rituals, practices and traditions can unify a group with shared experiences and commonalities too.


Group boundaries are arbitrary though – shall we be loyal to members of our own town/city, county/region, country, continent, to all members of the same species, all mammals, all animals or to all life on Earth? Humans might not be the only (human-like) intelligent species in this galaxy, and humans might encounter completely genetically-unrelated and powerful adversaries to fight against one day that will make all this human infighting seem extremely myopic?! High levels of intra-group cooperation and low levels of intra-group (to the death at least) competition are probably overall better for the human specie’s survival in the long run/bigger picture?


Some religious phenomena are inherited vertically from parents/elders, and some are copied horizontally from peers. Some religious phenomena started from a single source and then evolved, spread and diversified over time from there, and some independently evolved from multiple sources and then possibly blended together later. The process of inheritance or diffusion, with modification, gives rise to the array of different cultures we see today.


Geographic transmission generally matters more than social transmission – in small, spread-out religious groups, the location of a church (or the local environment, events, culture, community) affects sermon content more than the denomination of the church. When we study religion as a culture, we must remember that it’s not the only cultural influence in town! Non-religious cultural influences also shape religious cultures, which adds to the complexity and diversity of religions across the world. Context (e.g. warfare, ecology, politics, economics) shapes religions too (e.g. maritime gods are more prevalent in island cultures).


Successful religious groups grow in size, create offshoots, usurp other groups and get copied by other groups; whilst unsuccessful groups fizzle out, create schisms, get usurped or stay small. Traditions are going to eventually create counter-traditions and different branches/sects/denominations in a way that’s inevitable based on the dynamics of cultural transmission. So even though they’re not freely supposed to or intended to – religions evolve too because religions also face selection pressures (they’re just cultural memes like any other after all). Traditions, beliefs and practices are supposed to be immutably upheld across the generations but cultural mutations and extinctions do occur, hence e.g. the diminishing of popularity of some religions and the introduction of new religions over time, although it can be very difficult for new religions to compete against the already-popular ones because of network effects, or the popular tend to stay or get more popular.


One culture can triumph over another by violently displacing it (e.g. via conflict) or by out-surviving it (e.g. by having better agricultural techniques). Another way is through ‘demographic swamping’ (e.g. out-breeding another group, having greater immigration into than emigration out from a group, and/or groups simply imitating a group that appears to be more successful than them. However, it can often be difficult to figure out what exactly made such a group successful, so envious groups tend to copy an attractive group wholesale e.g. not just their technologies but also their fashions, music and movie culture, etc.). There’s no single explanation for a group’s success though – historical and social context, environmental conditions and pure fluffy chance (e.g. a natural disaster) all play a role in whether individuals, groups and cultures survive, thrive, dwindle or die out.


Humans are generally such good cultural creatures that cultures can succeed by selecting norms that get people to act for the benefit of the group even when it’s costly to the individual e.g. being a soldier and knowingly being at direct risk of personally dying for the greater good of one’s nation. This is terrible from the perspective of the individual’s rational self-interests (a rationally self-interested person from an individualistic standpoint would rather want other people to put their lives on the line for them than the other way around) but, all else being equal, a group that has members who are willing to fight and die for their group is going to triumph over another group that hasn’t. Historically at least, if there weren’t enough people being so altruistic then their groups would’ve been defeated by other groups who did have members who’d die for their groups. And therefore we see the values of bravery, heroism, sacrifice and valour, and the ideologies that support martyrdom, culturally survive – even if many of those (usually young and fit people) who practised these values often died bearing no direct genetic offspring of their own.


So one of the reasons why religions look the way they do now is because they serve as ingroup adaptations – they compel the adherence of putting the interests of the group before peoples’ own individual interests. Close-knit communities where individuals will at least somewhat sacrifice their own selfish objectives for those of the group will out-compete disintegrated or divided communities. Those religions that have norms that best served their own group were the ones that best survived and thrived over time. Religion therefore makes sense in the light of cultural group selection and cultural evolution.


But whilst a religion (and pressures to conform in general) will benefit its own ingroup overall – religions can create tensions between groups (e.g. between different religious sects) and can impact on the rights of individuals that don’t fit the norm within a group (e.g. if someone has a sexuality that’s not condoned by their religion). Religious people tend to be happier, maybe because of the benefits of having a tightly-knit community with shared moral norms, but tightly-knit communities can also present dangers when it comes to viewing outgroups or any members who don’t or cannot fit in. Religion enhances cohesion between ingroup members but can therefore result in prejudice or hostility against outgroup members. Conformity for the sake of cooperation can be pushed too hard or inflexibly that any individual or group who or that doesn’t conform to the ingroup norms are discriminated against or punished in one way or another.


Furrywisepuppy believes that it’s therefore about finding that balance, of trying to square the conflicting interests of conformity and freedom, and somehow supporting your own group at the same time as not discriminating other groups.




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