Kevin MacDonald, Ph.D.
Two Comments by David Sloan Wilson
Selfish Groups and Adaptive Fictions: Two Themes Addressed by Kevin MacDonald Worth Defending
This is David Sloan Wilson, the "leading advocate of group selection theory" mentioned in Shulevitz's article on Kevin MacDonald. The reason I did not return her phone call (she only made one) is that I was out of the country. I think that Kevin is being unfairly criticized. In fact, it is shameful how quickly those who are sensitive to being demonized are willing to demonize others. Even evolutionary psychologists, who have experienced their share of persecution in academic circles, seem more concerned to protect their own reputations than to defend the work of their colleague.
I have read Kevin's first book and will shortly read the other two. When I do, I won't be shy about commenting on them. I have also had numerous discussions with Kevin about his work. The reason I do not regard Kevin's work as anti-Semitic is because he is developing a general theory of human social groups, of which Judaism is an example. The theory includes two major themes that are well worth defending. The first is the theme of groups as corporate units that care about their own welfare much more than the welfare of outsiders. This theme has a long history in all branches of the social sciences. From psychology we know how easily individuals make Us vs. Them distinctions. From anthropology we know how many traditional societies draw a moral circle around themselves and regard outsiders as literally nonhuman. Evolutionary views on groups as corporate units are complicated. Group selection, the process that would explain the evolution of adaptive groups at face value, was largely rejected in the 1960's. I think that the rejection was unwarranted and that group selection has been a strong force in human evolution (see E. Sober and D.S. Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Harvard University Press 1998). However, even evolutionary biologists who remain skeptical about group selection, such as Richard Alexander, John Hartung, and John Tooby, manage to think about groups as corporate units in more individualistic terms. Thus, there is much more agreement about the concept of selfish human groups than about group selection.
The second theme concerns the adaptive value of human belief systems. A naïve brand of evolutionary epistemology claims that it is always adaptive to perceive the world the way the world really is. If so, then evolution would become a simple substitute for God as the agent that endows our species with the ability to know. Unfortunately, there are countless ways that even outrageously false beliefs can produce behaviors that are adaptive in the real world, which is the only criterion of success as far as evolution is concerned. Thus, a sophisticated evolutionary epistemology must deal with the problem of adaptive fictions, which makes knowing an unnatural act or natural only in certain contexts.
I interpret Kevin's work as using Judaism as an exceptionally well-documented culture for which these two themes can be examined (along with a number of secondary themes). In my work I use other groups to study the same themes, including Christian faiths such as Anabaptism and Calvinism (No one has yet accused me of being anti-Anabaptist or anti-Calvinist). Sports teams, business corporations, and political movements provide other fine examples of selfish groups and adaptive fictions.
Shortly after I finished Kevin's first book I happened to read The Slave, a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I was impressed by the correspondence between the two books. The Slave is about a devout young Jewish man who, during a period as a slave, falls in love with and marries a gentile woman. When he is freed and returns to his Jewish community, the only way he can bring his wife with him is for her to pretend that she is deaf and dumb.
This love story takes place against the background of a Jewish community that springs up on the estate of an inept Polish nobleman who has hired Jews to manage his affairs. In no time, the Jewish community is churning out goods at unbeatable prices, even Catholic artifacts which strictly speaking is against the law. At the same time, there is always the threat of violence from the resentful Poles. The main difference between Singer's wonderful novel and Kevin's scholarly book is that Singer portrays the Jewish community as less cooperative than does MacDonald. According to Singer, Jewish communities, like other communities, have their share of individuals who are dedicated to feathering their own nests, even at the expense of their group.
I would like those who regard Kevin's work as anti-Semitic to read The Slave and tell me how the two books differ from each other in their essential messages (alternatively, they can explain to me why Singer is anti-Semitic). Until then, I will continue to regard Kevin as a valued colleague who is addressing fundamental questions about human groups from an evolutionary perspective. There is a great need to understand both the bright side and the dark side of our groupish nature, to expand our moral circles as widely as possible and to suppress the Us vs. Them mentality that is so easily triggered in our species.
David Wilson's Second Fray Comment
It is frustrating for me to read so much nonsense on the subject of group selection, especially in a dialogue on fringe science. It is also instructive that the graduate student who informed Judith of group selection's respectability asked to remain anonymous. I can clear the air on the subject of group selection but it will require a bit more than a Fray posting. I hope that the editors of Slate will provide me the opportunity.
The purpose of this post is to comment on the MacDonald quote that ended Judith's article. She found it antisemitic but I see symmetry. To rephrase the passage in abstract terms: Group A is threatened by group B and exaggerates the threat to its own members. Group B is threatened by group A and exaggerates the threat to its own members. As long as we stick to a general theory of what I called selfish groups and adaptive fictions in my earlier post, we are on safe and very important scientific ground.
Judith's rendering of the passage was "those scheming Jews, the evolutionary justification for anti-Semitism." Consider the following two statements:
1) Individual A is justified in destroying individual B because individual B behaved selfishly toward individual A.
2) Group A is justified in destroying group B because group B behaved selfishly toward group A.
The first statement is not morally acceptable at the level of individual interactions and the second statement is no more acceptable at the level of group interactions. Furthermore, truly selfish individuals/groups don't require justification to prey on other individuals/groups, any more than a lion requires justification to prey on gazelles. If Nazi Germany acted as a selfish group, the most exemplary behavior in the world would not have protected the Jews. I would therefore challenge a statement of the form "Nazis were antisemitic because of what Jews did to them." If only groups were so morally principled!
This brings us to the general concept of morality: What unites individuals or groups into a single moral community that rewards good conduct and punishes selfishness? Hint: multilevel selection has something to do with it.
David Sloan Wilson
Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
Binghamton, New York 13902-6000
tel: 607-777-4393 fax: 607-777-6521