Haidt, TRM, chs. 9 & 10

In chs. 9 and 10, Haidt begins his defense of his third principle of empirical moral psychology:

(III) Morality binds and blinds.

The other two (with my interpolations), already defended in the book, are:

(I) Intuitions come first [in moral thinking] strategic reasoning [to moral conclusions] second

(II) There’s more to morality [moral thinking] than harm and fairness.

In Ch. 9, he argues that, despite his insistence that we are “selfish” in our moral thinking (as with our “Glauconian” tendencies to appear good, but not necessarily by way of being good, in competition with others) we are also “groupish” in important aspects of our moral thinking in that we are inherently motivated to preserve the group or relate to the group in certain ways.  This functionality is consistent with, and best explained by, natural selection working at the group level (as against the directly genetic/sexual level and the individual-organism level).  Group selection (of which genes have the most copies of themselves passed along) occurs when the strongest determiner of the extent to which a gene gets copied are features of groups or communities of individual organisms.  Though there is broad agreement that group selection is possible (we can be the agents of it in breeding bacteria or chickens), the extent to which this occurs in the natural evolution of species is controversial.  As Darwin recognized, the barrier to group selection occurring (given a group feature relevant to genetic-level advantage) is the problem of free riders.  Individual organisms can advantage their genes (and at the affective/motivational level, themselves) at the expense of or in competition with the genes of others in their group by free-riding – i.e. failing to play their part in the cohesive, group behavior that confers genetic advantage to the genes of all members in the group (in competition with individuals not in groups or in competition with other groups).  For example, the Glauconian soldier might work to appear self-sacrificing, but not actually be (lagging behind without others suspecting lack of effort, he is more likely than his military comrades to pass along his genes).  

Because, several generations ago, biologists embraced group selection without considering that group genetic advantage is often just a by-product of individual-organism-level genetic advantage (perhaps evidencing “hivish” behavior at the level of ideology, wanting a functionally seamless explanation of group-cohesive behavior that is generally considered admirable), there is presently – still – a strong working assumption against the idea of group selection (in humans and in other creatures).  However, this does not rule out the idea that group selection is the best account of why and how certain group-oriented motivational and behavioral features of human beings are as they are (even though, in principles, these features would work the same way no matter how they came about).  This chapter presents evidence for group selection having occurred in the course of the evolution of life on earth and, in particular, group selection having produced various group-oriented motivational-cum-behavioral traits in humans that make us different from other primates (making us 10% bee-like and only 90% chimp-like).  I find that Haidt makes a prima facie compelling case for the importance of group selection in the evolution of multicellular organisms, in the evolution of hive creatures like bees and ants, and in the evolution of such human traits as being able to share common plans (thus allowing for the kind of public norms that are necessary for sophisticated language and culture – and hence scales of cooperation and thus gene-level advantage (and individual affect/motivation level advantage) not otherwise achievable.  The broad details of these cases are fascinating.  I suspect that evolutionary biologists and psychologists are warming to the idea of group selection, but this is just speculation (I wonder to what extent Haidt is still arguing against a dominant, received view).

In Ch. 10, Haidt explores some ideas that he has distilled into what he calls “the hive hypothesis.”  The idea is that one of the group-selection-created mechanisms that developed in humans is the ability, in the right conditions, to ignore their intra-group competitive instincts and “lose ourselves” (temporarily and ecstatically) in something “larger than ourselves.”  The focus here is on our collective (group-oriented, anti-self-oriented, anti-competition-oriented) emotions, (motivations, behaviors).  These were first described theoretically by Emile Durkheim (founder of sociology) – he described the “collective effervescence” of ecstatic dance, especially in religious ritual.  Three kinds of such emotion:  awe, collective joy, collective love.  Three familiar ways of triggering “the hive switch) or these emotions (and associated motivations/behaviors):  experiencing the grand scale and beauty of nature, taking hallucinogens, going to raves.  Plausibly, the hive switch operates through the prior mechanisms of oxytocin (a hormone that promotes trust in those in close proximity to ourselves) and our mirror neurons (that allow intention-reading).  These are recruited for the kind of group bonding and empathy that promotes sorts of group cohesiveness that were selected for.  By analogy, corporations are like “super-organisms” or hives (like hive insects, they out-compete their individualist cousins in many niches).  They can be run better if we incorporate hivishness in their organization.  Because hivishness can be utilized on smaller scales and because it is often egalitarian we don’t have to worry that hivishness in political organization is always dangerous and immoral (though it can be – Italian fascism as clear example).  However, our hivish mechanisms are tuned up for parochial altruism and so are not necessarily so well-suited for promoting universal altruism, the brotherhood/sisterhood of humankind, etc.  There is both good and bad to our hivishness.



So far:  human beings (a) care more about moral reputation or looking good (in competition with others in their groups) than being good (we are “Glauconians”) and (b) much of our moral thinking starts with intuitions about what seems right/wrong good/bad to us and proceeds to ad hoc rationalization that often functions more to make us appear moral to others (and in our own eyes) than to motivate moral attitudes and behaviors.  In this chapter and this section of the book, it is added to this perhaps-cynical-seeming picture that we are groupish as well as selfish.

From a functional standpoint, at any given level, the question is whether, relative to some group (of individuals, of genes), intra-group competitive mechanisms for securing resources (in feeding and organism, in passing along as many copies of a gene as possible) swamp group-against-individual or group-against-group competitive mechanisms for securing resources.  In this sense, at least conceptually, individual genes could be either “individualistic” or “groupish.”  And similarly for individual organisms (in any given functional respect).  Using the word “selfish” here just confuses things because the original meaning of selfish concerns motivations that are either concerned with the individual or otherwise in competition with other-oriented or group-oriented moral desires/motivations.

Even at the level of affect, desire, motivation, ‘selfish’ can be a confusing descriptor.  The important distinction is, again, functional.  It is not a matter of content.  An intrinsic desire can mainly function to threaten moral practice or be a part of or promote moral practice.  Often, ‘selfish’ is attached to former even when the content of the desires is strongly other-directed (think of a mother in competition with others caring and seeking resources for her child, not the children of others, even to the point of risking her life and long-term well-being).  

The idea of natural selection operating at the level of groups has gotten a bad reputation.  Though at one point, this was deserved, it is no longer.  Natural selection should now be thought of as a multi-level phenomenon and, in the case of humans, the gene-selection forces sometimes operate most strongly at the level of group features not features of the individual organisms (particularly group cohesiveness and other things that make it possible for a group to cooperate smoothly and on larger scales).  One of the main tasks of this chapter is showing why this is so (even though, in principle, our “groupish” emotions, motivations, and behaviors could be explained or have come about in some other way).


Introduction to the idea of group selection.  It is important that, in order for gene-selection to operate at the group level as against the individual-organism level, there is a “free-rider” problem to be solved, since, in most cases, individual organisms are adapted to pass along their own genes in competition with other individual organisms, including other individuals in the groups through which they live.  Though (a) more cohesive groups with self-sacrificial roles that help group functionality might be more likely to persist than less-cohesive and less-similarly-self-sacrificial groups, (b) each individual in a group does a better job of passing along his or her genes than he or she would otherwise by shirking his self-sacrificial duties but reaping the benefits of adequate levels of cohesiveness and role-specific self-sacrifice (in this, he is in competition with the other members of his group).  In order for genes to turn out type-identical copies of themselves via the mechanism of [a], the mechanism of [b] has to be weak enough.  Or, looking at it another way, only if there is a sufficiently-strong gene-copying advantage to [a] will the individual-level adaptations of [b] be selected against so that free-riding is sufficiently minimized for [a] to be realized.  In this way, it is possible for group-level selection to shape individual-organism-level traits.

Darwin proposed that group selection is enabled, and the free-rider problem overcome, in humans by the following social-life-oriented traits:  (i) the social instincts (the desire to be with others of one’s species rather than go it alone), (ii) reciprocity (the desire to help others as long as they help you in return), (iii) intense concern with the praise and blame of others and (iv) the capacity to treat duties and principles as sacred (part of our religious nature).  According to Darwin, individual-level selection produced these traits.  In any case, traits produce by individual-organism-level selection will be “recruited” to achieve group-level advantage (for all members of the group) in passing along their genes.


The story of how biologists got too excited and sloppy with the idea of group selection in the early 20th century.  Many, perhaps most, things that might plausibly-enough be explained by group selection are better explained by individual selection.  We have fast herds of deer not because the slower herds got eaten but because slower members of each herd, in competition with others in their group, got eaten.  Backlash:  the idea of group selection is banished from the field.  Group selection, and the idea of multi-level selection in general, is still controversial.  The rest of the chapter provides evidence in favor of group selection operating on human groups (and other groups), thus explaining some of our traits (some of the basic, intrinsic desires and basic tendencies of response and motivation that evolution or nature bestows upon us).

The rally-around-the-flag patriotic or nationalistic reflex is one example of a groupish mechanism.  You would expect group-level selection to produce something like this.  But it could be that we got this by chance or that there is some hidden individual-organism-level adaptive challenge and selection that produced it.  However, we have lots of such group-oriented tendencies and they are well-explained by group-level selection.  Here’s the evidence.


You need multi-level, groups-of-individual-organisms-level selection to explain the evolution of eukaryotes (nucleus-possessing) cells from prokaryotes.  And similarly for the evolution of multi-cellular organism from eukaryotes.  And similarly for the evolution of specialized hive sociality (as in many bees and ants).  These sorts of major transitions (to another, higher level of selection) are very rare in evolutionary history.  Evidently, they require very specific conditions (probably conditions of hardship in which it became indispensable for individual-level survival and the copying/passing along of genes, to coherent together and cooperate as a group).  Something like: really gene-copying-advantageous possibilities in coordinated/cooperative behavior and the presence of mutations that eliminate the specific forms of intra-group competition that constitute a free-rider problem, relative to some specific ecological situation that may itself be rare.

Humans.  Like ants, we are not only social but hyper-social in this sense:  we live in very large groups that reap the potentially-huge advantages of specialized roles and the division of labor.  The adaptive challenge for hyper-sociality appears to be the need to defend a shared nest (along with dependable sources of food within foraging distance).  This seems to be a common factor in all of the distinct instances in which hyper-sociality evolved (in bees, ants, termites, some species of shrimp, some species of beetles, etc.)  And there are two other relevant adaptive challenges:  the need to feed offspring over an extended period of time and emerging conditions of inter-group conflict.  These super-charge the selection pressure for hyper-sociality. Applied to humans:  we are territorial creatures with a fondness for defensible settlements, we give birth to needy offspring, we are under threat from neighboring groups.  Not all of these conditions hold for chimps, but they began to hold for homo sapiens and we came out of Africa at least a little bit like nesting bees.  And we may have created cultural conditions that created group-level selection pressures that made us even more so (as with the development of agriculture and the rise of large cities as opposed to small-ish tribes of hunter-gatherers).


Michael Tomasello:  “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.”  His experiments (with two-year old humans and chimps) indicated that the humans do much better than chimps at tasks that require reading and responding to the intentions of the experimenter.  Hypothesis:  “at some point in the last million years, a small group of our ancestors developed the ability to share mental representations of tasks that two or more of them were pursuing together.”  This goes above and beyond being able to read intentions of others (mirror neurons).

Another nice quote (Haidt):

“When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated these expectations, the first moral matrix was born.”

Haidt characterizes moral matrixes as types of consensual hallucinations.  And this is pretty much what makes us human (what makes for our distinctive way of achieving some measure of hyper-sociality).  

According to Tomasello, after this step, an important second step occurred:  armed with the basic shared-intentionality trait, collaborative groups got larger and larger (due to group-level competition).  “Natural selection [began to] favor increasing levels of… “group-mindedness” – the ability to learn and conform to social norms, feel and share group-related emotions, and, ultimately, to create and obey social institutions, including religion” (Haidt).  Once this happened, you had selection pressure within groups that selected against non-conformists; and selection pressure between groups that selected for great cohesiveness in the group…  Sophisticated language happened only after these steps in shared intentionality (effect not cause).

Another nice quote (Haidt):

“If the key to group selection is a shared defensible nest, the shared intentionality allowed humans to construct nests that were vast and ornate yet weightless and portable.  Bees construct hives out of wax and wood fibers, which they fight, kill, and die to defend.  Human construct moral communities out of shared norms, institutions, and gods that, even in the twenty-first century, they fight, kill, and die to defend.”


Homo heidelbergensis was mostly likely the first (600,000 to 700,000 years ago) to “cross the Rubicon” to shared intentions and shared norms and institutions (i.e., sophisticated, cumulative culture).  Evidence:  tools (like well-crafted, balanced spears with stone tips) and hearths that seem to be used for collectively butchering, cooking, and sharing animals.  We look to have cumulative culture, teamwork, division of labor.  From this point on, humans are changing the nature of the evolutionary process in that they begin to live in an environment, and be subject to selection pressures, that are partly of their own making.

Pete Richardson and Rob Boyd:  cultural innovations evolve in much the same way that biological innovations evolve and the two streams of evolution are entwined.

I’m a bit skeptical of the idea of cultural evolution.  Unlike in the case of evolution:  (a) the source of generated change is non-random (people figuring stuff out, doing different things, this getting copied by others) and (b) though there is the relevant “success condition” of passing on copies of culturally-produced items, there does not seem to be any one dominant (and “blind” or non-intelligent) selection process for determining which get passed on (again, it is people figuring stuff out, seeing what works and what does not, what is appealing and what is not, etc.).  I just don’t know if this process – however it goes – merits a strong analogy with biological evolution and natural selection.  Off-hand, I see the ebb and flow of popularity (and mimicry) – loosely correlated with our strongest motivations in relevant circumstances – sometimes producing things that are better than what went before (but better in a things-meaning-something-to-us sense, not anything like a survival-and-reproduction or passing-along-many-copies of genes sense).  However, I think the key claim here is simply that cultural innovations creates conditions that can become part of the “selection matrix” for biological evolution (you don’t need to call patterns of cultural change and advancement ‘evolution’ in anything other than a loose sense).

Example of biological/cultural “coevolution”:  the first cattle-keepers had good food to feed their small children (small children can digest lactose but the expression of the relevant genes got turned off early in life in our ancestors), but this condition, of our creation, created selection pressure in favor of mutations in which the lactose-digestion genes stay on rather than getting turned off early in life.

Main Richardson and Boyd thesis (hypothesis; the “tribal instincts hypothesis”):  cohesive, share-intention groups stumbled upon powerful cultural innovations that super-charged cohesiveness.  Candidate:  the adoption of symbols, often markings on the body (that carried costs), to advertise group membership.  This made it easy to know who to trust and cooperate with, who shared our values and norms.  Once these initial cultural innovations were adopting, there was selection pressure in favor of individual, psychological characteristics that were suited to this “proto-tribalism.”

Here are Richardson and Boyd:

“Such environments favored the evolution of a suite of new social instincts suited for life in such [proto-tribal] groups, including a psychology that “expects” life to be structured by moral norms and it designed to learn and internalize such norms; new emotions such as shame and guilt, which increase the chance that the norms are followed, and a psychology that “expects” the social world to be divided into symbolically marked groups.”

People lacking these traits, or not possessing them as strongly, were shunned and could not find mates.  This process is sometimes referred to as the “self-domestication” of humans (the process is analogous to how dogs, cats, pigs became domesticated – only the friendlier ones approached our camps and got our scraps).


“… early humans domesticated themselves when they began to select friends and partners based on their ability to live within the tribe’s moral matrix.  In fact, our brains, bodies, and behavior show many of the same signs of domestication that are found in our domestic animals: smaller teeth, smaller body, reduced aggression, and greater playfulness, carried on even into adulthood.  The reason is that domestication generally takes traits that disappear near the end of childhood and keeps them turned on for life.  Domesticated animals (including humans) are more childlike, sociable, and gentle than their wild ancestors.”

Conclusion (Haidt):

“Even if group selection played no role in the evolution of any other mammal, human evolution has been so different since the arrival of shared intentionality and gene-culture coevolution that humans may well be a special case.”


In this section, Haidt argues that group-selection-type evolution can occur quickly (several dozen generations can produce lots of new traits and new social structures).  He is arguing against the view that human evolution stopped about 50,000 years ago, basically when we came out of Africa and started to spread out over the world.  I suppose if this were so there would be less opportunity for group selection to have shaped us in profound ways (and that this is his point here in taking issue with the not-much-human evolution past 50,000 years ago thesis)?  Anyhow the view he is attacking, until recently the received wisdom, is false (Haidt):

“The actual speed of generic evolution is a question that can be answered with data, and thanks to the Human Genome Project, we now have that data…  it is possible to distinguish random drift from cases in which genes are being “pulled” by natural selection…  genetic evolution greatly accelerated during the last 50,000 years.  The rate at which genes changed in response to selection pressures began rising around 40,000 years ago, and the curve got steeper and steeper after 20,000 years ago.  Genetic change reached a crescendo during the Holocene era…”

The conclusion:  since evolution can be fast, it is quite possible that human nature was altered in just a few thousand years, somewhere in Africa, by group selection during particularly harsh periods.  Haidt:

“… imagine that 95 percent of the food on earth magically disappears tonight, guaranteeing that almost all of us will starve to death within two months… [Something that may have happened, at least in a mild form, and almost certain happened in dramatic fashion around 74,000 years ago, when humans almost went extinct, probably due to the eruption of the Toba volcano in Indonesia.] Who among us will still be alive a year from now?  Will it be the biggest, strongest, and most violent individuals in each town?  Or will it be the people who manage to work together in groups to monopolize, hide, and share the remaining food supplies among themselves?”

This section seems a bit of a mess (or I’m missing some important points) – his main point concerns simply evolution, including group-selection-driven evolution, sometime occurring very quickly.  But he is clearly concerned to press points about the role of cultural innovation in perhaps turbo-charging this process for humans.  And he is concerns about the evolution of his “moral foundations.”  The following is a quote that speaks to this latter thing.

Haidt (p. 251):

“I don’t think that evolution can create a new mental module from scratch in just 12,000 years [the Holocene era], but I can see no reason why existing features – such as the six-foundations…, or the tendency to feel shame – would not be tweaked if conditions changed and then stayed stable for a thousand years.  For example, when a society becomes more hierarchical or entrepreneurial, or when a group takes up rice farming, herding, or trade, these changes alter human relationships in many ways, and reward very different sets of virtues.  Cultural change would occur very rapidly – the moral matrix constructed upon the six foundations can change radically within a few generations.  But if that new moral matrix then stays somewhat steady for a few dozen generations, new selection pressures will apply and there could be some additional gene-culture coevolution.”

I’m not sure just what Haidt’s point is, here.  Is it that different sets of moral norms could result in genetically different humans (and humans that are morally different, despite sharing the six foundations in some measure, at a genetic level)?  I’m not sure how plausible this is (if this is his point).  Though the hypothetical pattern here is plausible (and could well be real), it would seem to apply more to the evolution of the six foundations (or whatever the basic psychological-cum-behavioral elements of morality are, if Haidt has some of this wrong) than to subsequent genetic evolution (that would shape these moral features in different ways in different eras or for different communities).  The least crazy idea along these lines is that rule-of-law cultures dominated by the nation-state and trade create selection pressures that favor the existence or expression of certain genes/traits as against others, so that different groups of humans are better or ill suited for certain “configurations” of the six foundations in a moral matrix.  But that’s pretty controversial and could certainly provide fodder for racism.


Group selection need not operate via tribes of people wiping each other out in warfare (though this is how Darwin imagined it going).  The issue is how well one tribe of humans as against another functioned to turn resources (good food, sturdy shelter, etc.) into children (i.e. copies of the genes of each member or the average member).


10.0 INTRO

William McNeill:  the “muscular bonding” hypothesis.  Moving together in time as a mechanism that evolved long before recorded history for shutting down the self and creating a temporary superorganism.  Example:  soldiers marching and singing (and how this plays a role in allowing them to sacrifice for each other in battle).  The profound experience, however horrible, of fighting with comrades in battle.


Last chapter:  how we are 10% bee as well as 90% chimp (of a Glauconian sort regarding our virtue in the eyes of others).  The hive hypothesis:  human beings are conditional hive creatures.  In more detail:  we have the ability, in the right conditions, to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves in something larger than ourselves.  This ability is “the hive switch.”  It is a group-related adaption than can only be explained by between-group selection.  It is an adaption for making groups more cohesive.  If this hypothesis is true, it has enormous implications for how we should design organizations, study religion, and search for meaning and joy in our lives.


Europeans when they explored the “new world”: universally, tribes of people would come together, dance around a fire with abandon to the beat of drums, until exhausted.  European reaction:  disgust.  Barbara Ehrenreich: this is a “universal biotechnology” in action that functions to bind groups together.  Agrees with McNeill that this is a form of “muscular bonding.”  It fosters love, trust, equality.  In Western civilization:  ancient Greek Dionysus cult, early Christianity as a danced religion (dancing was suppressed in Christianity starting in the Middle Ages).  Hypothesized that Europeans gave up on doing these things with the rise of individualism and more refined notions of the self (earlier on) and then the changes of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.  End result:  WEIRDos.

How to understand these desires/emotions/behaviors?  Emile Durkheim (founder of sociology):  social facts as “equally real” and worthy of study on their own terms as individuals and their relationships.  Durkheim:  homo sapiens exists socially at two levels:  as an individual relating to other individuals and as a part of larger society.  There are distinct “social sentiments” for each level.  First level binds us to others:  honor, respect, affection, fear.  These, says Haidt, are easily explained by individual-level selection pressure.  But here is Durkheim on the second set of sentiments (emotions):

“The second are those which bind me to the social entity as a whole; these manifest themselves primarily in the relationships of the society with other societies, and could be called “inter-social”…  The first [set of emotions] leave [s] my autonomy and personality almost intact…  When I act under the influence of the second [set of sentiments]… I am simply a part of the whole, whose actions I follow, and whose influence I am subject to.”

The most important “inter-social” emotion is what Durkheim called “collective effervescence” – the passion and ecstasy that group rituals can generate.  This emotion (a) can be triggered, in part or in a weak form, by the mere congregation of people.  It involves this:  (b) “our vital energies become hyperexcited, the passions more intense, and the sensations more powerful.”  These emotions (c) “pull us into the realm of the sacred” and insodoing (d) make the self disappear and collective interests dominate.  Durkheim believed that our movement back and forth between the sense of the sacred embodied in this emotion and the emotional tone of ordinary, day-to-day existence (the profane) gave rise to our ideas of gods, spirits, the heavens, an objective moral order.

Much of this is quite vague.  The functional elements are pretty clear, as is the kind of behavior that leads to and sustains the emotion (“muscular bonding” to the group through collective rhythm, dance, etc.).  But the account of the emotion itself is all over the place so far.  Unfortunately, though there are clear elements worth being picked out, there is nothing like a clear, coherent account of what is going on here at the emotional level.  I suspect that what is required is a fine-level-of-detail account of what is being responded to and how – and a contrast with a similarly fine-grained account of what is being responded to and how in the case of other emotions or desires.  

The idea of a loss of sense of self (see more below) makes sense if you think of it in terms of the absence of responsiveness to the objects of one’s other desires/emotions and being deeply positively affected by not simply the successful mimicry of the movement, but being part of the movement of all taken as a collective thing or as one object.  I also find it fascinating that collective ecstasy is a more powerful suppressor of potentially intra-group competitive desires than is familiar concern with public norms, emotional and other punishment from others upon violating them, etc. (which, as we have seen, can be and often is accommodated by the intra-group or individual-level competitive self via Glauconian tendencies).  You don’t “lose yourself” in your duties, but you do “lose yourself” in collective dance and ritual (and in other things as well, since the relevant emotion can be attached to other things as well, sophisticated creatures that we are).  This is rich stuff, but hard to capture – at the level of emotions or desires, anyway – in precise terms.



Haidt (p. 264):  

“The emotion of awe is most often triggered when we face situations with two features:  vastness (something overwhelms us and makes us feel small) and a need for accommodation (that is, our experience is not easily assimilated into our existing mental structures; we must “accommodate” the experience by changing those structure.).  Awe acts like kind of a reset button:  it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns…  Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch, along with collective love and collective joy.  People describe nature in spiritual terms… precisely because nature can trigger the hive switch and shut down the self, making you feel that you are simply a part of a whole.”

Is Durkheim’s “collective effervescence” collective joy – or perhaps collective love?  I’ll assume it is the former and that, therefore, what is being put forward is a threefold distinction in the hive switch (or the emotions that trigger or partially constitute it)…  I find these sorts of emotions hard to understand, partly because I am such a WEIRDo.  But we also need a good not-so-poetic way of describing things.  We might broadly distinguish:  (a) stimulus, (b) affect, (c) characteristic thought, (d) characteristic motivation-response (and hence characteristic tendency in behavior-response).  Plausibly, emotions are constituted by these things and have a certain “functional architecture” (maybe similar to that of Haidt’s moral foundations).  Here is a first-shot general characterization:  intense positive feeling, in response to larger physical or social wholes of which one is a part, associated with the thought that one is merely part of this whole and that being part of this whole is of the utmost importance – with the potential motivational and behavioral upshot that one’s desires or motivations with respect to other things are temporarily “blocked” or “minimized.”  It is easy to see how, applied to the group that one survives in, group-selection-pressure might “shape” such an emotion and functional module.  Such a module would allow for the suppression of intra-group competition.  

(Some good contrast objects:  (i) getting “lost” in a task or in another person [a different kind of feeling of “loss of self”] and (ii) the emotion and motivation of duty, another sort of “competitive impulse overriding” functional module.)

(The kind of “reaching” for thoughts and words to describe such experiences or their significance – or the reaching to “justify” them by reference to their being in response to appropriate objects – would seem to be a personal-meaning-level kind of “bullshit cognition” side effect of such hive-switch emotions.  This is incidental to the competitive-desire-suppression functionality that would be relevant to group-level selection pressure.)


Hallucinogens produce similar emotional experiences.  I have to do this sometime.

10.3.3 RAVES

Ditto, in spades.  The drug-induced hive switch plus emotion-guided, trial-and-error instrumental reasoning and technology for achieving sensory overload.  Like the wild dancing of the “savages” that the Europeans encountered in the New World.  I have to do this sometime.


What are the biological/psychological “raw materials” that might have been “recruited” to make hive switches?

First, oxytocin – your brain secretes this when you have intimate contact with another person, producing affection and trust.  Functionally, this supports parochial altruism.  So could be put to good use via group-level selection.  (Plausible hypothesis.)

Second, mirror neurons – sets of neurons do the same thing whether we are reaching for something (say) or simply seeing another person reach for something.  The firing seems responsive to signs of intentions, plans, or goals, not just physical action.  Monkey’s have mirror neurons and they help them read the intentions of other monkeys.  Having mirror neurons is clearly a prerequisite to Tomasello’s “shared intentionality.”  In humans, mirror neurons have much stronger connections to emotion-related areas of the brain.  Haidt (p. 273):

“Just seeing someone else smile activates some of the same neurons as when you smile.  The other person is effectively smiling in your brain, which makes you happy and likely to smile, which in turn passes the smile into someone else’s brain.”

Some functionality relevant to group selection:  Tania Sanger’s experiment.  We empathize conditionally – with folks we think are nice or pro-social (or have conformed with our particular moral matrix).


Corporations are, functionally, akin to super-organisms (multi-cellular organisms, hives).  They need to minimize free-riding and be cohesive and, if they can do these things well, tremendous advantages can be realized.  Though you can run a corporation via the homo economicus motivations (“transactional leadership”), you can also try to take advantage of our hivish nature and activate pride, loyalty, and enthusiasm among employees (“transformational leadership”).  Hivish employees work harder, have more fun and are less likely to cause trouble.  The work of Kaiser and Horgan.  A transformational leader must (Haidt): “construct a moral matrix based in some way on the Authority foundation…, the Liberty foundation (to make sure subordinates don’t feel oppressed…), and, above all, the Loyalty foundation…”

Specifically, some lessons:  (a) increase similarity, not diversity (create shared values and common identity across racial, ethnic, sexual identities), (b) exploit synchrony (exercise classes, singing together, etc., (c) create healthy competition among teams, not individuals.


What about fascism?  Isn’t hivish political behavior dangerous and morally awful?  It can be.  But.  The hivishness in ecstatic dance usually produces a sense of equality.  And we can have strong hivishness in smaller groups without going full hive at the nation-state level if this is too dangerous.  Hivishness is, however, inherently parochial.  These functional modules are designed to promote cohesiveness within groups (and often suspicion of outsiders).  The hive switch is not a switch for universal love or anything like that.


6 thoughts on “Haidt, TRM, chs. 9 & 10

  1. I haven’t (yet) read your post all the way through, so you may address this later on, but I’m stuck on this passage:

    The idea is that one of the group-selection-created mechanisms that developed in humans is the ability, in the right conditions, to ignore their intra-group competitive instincts and “lose ourselves” (temporarily and ecstatically) in something “larger than ourselves.” The focus here is on our collective (group-oriented, anti-self-oriented, anti-competition-oriented) emotions, (motivations, behaviors). These were first described theoretically by Emile Durkheim (founder of sociology) – he described the “collective effervescence” of ecstatic dance, especially in religious ritual. Three kinds of such emotion: awe, collective joy, collective love. Three familiar ways of triggering “the hive switch) or these emotions (and associated motivations/behaviors): experiencing the grand scale and beauty of nature, taking hallucinogens, going to raves.

    I don’t see the connection between awe and hive switches–or, between awe and hives of any kind. In fact, it seems to me that awe is a solitude switch, or at least often is. When you experience awe, you might “lose yourself” but in doing so, you don’t establish a connection with anyone else. You just lose yourself, full stop. Alternatively, you don’t “lose yourself,” you tune everything else out and go further into yourself. The same thing is likely to be true of hallucinogen use and raves. I don’t know a great deal about raves, but I was interested in them at one point, and one thing that struck me about them was how paradoxically solitary they were as activities: it was possible, in a rave, to be surrounded by thousands of people but lose yourself in solitary experience. (I suppose you could go back and forth, between solitary and hivish experience, but a purely solitary response is at least possible.) Again, my experience with them is limited, but I was also struck by the melancholy undertones of certain raves. It wasn’t all ecstatic merging with the collective. It was something else. Durkheim’s interpretations of these phenomena strike me as a little tendentious and unsubtle, and if Haidt follows Durkheim, I’d probably end up saying the same thing about his.


  2. That is a good point – thanks. I address related issues regarding these emotions in my more-detailed, section-by-section summaries and commentary (in particular, I mention both motives of duty in ethics and the emotions and motives involved in “getting lost” in a creative process as relevant contrast objects to distinguish the putatively “groupish” emotions from, both content-wise and functionally). In general, I think we need better, more precise categories for studying these emotions. Here is one relevant point that addresses what you say about the way in which these emotions can be self-absorbing rather than group-oriented: perhaps sometimes what is relevant, at the functional level, is simply that competitive motivation and behavior is reduced by drawing one’s rapt attention to one object or experience that does not particularly demand much in the way of action to maintain (it befalls us more than we achieve it). I agree that the feelings/thoughts of “being part of something larger than oneself” (whether nature or the group of people that one is with) does not always fit the phenomena.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A thorough and interesting summary, Michael. I don’t think I’m going to have that many comments—but we’ll see as this goes along.

    I thought chapter 9 was the densest and most difficult so far, even though its topic is one I have researched and written about myself over the past year. I think it’s interesting that the endnotes for this chapter span 15 pages, nearly twice as many as for any other chapter and three times the typical number. This topic—group selection in evolution—is controversial, and Haidt knows it.

    I suspect that evolutionary biologists and psychologists are warming to the idea of group selection, but this is just speculation (I wonder to what extent Haidt is still arguing against a dominant, received view).

    I’m hardly an expert, but my impression is that they are warming, yes, but there’s still a big chill in the air. Look at Steven Pinker’s hostile attack on group selection that I’ve referenced here a time or two before. And check out the comments, from a set of big name authors. Most of them side with Pinker. These include Richard Dawkins, John Tooby, Daniel Dennett, and Jerry Coyne. The writers in favor of group selection are the usual suspects: Herbert Gintis, Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, David Sloan Wilson, Jonathan Haidt, and Joseph Henrich. (Henrich’s reply is by far the best, I would say.) The fact that they are the usual suspects suggests that they’re still a small group.

    As for the opponents of group selection, they strike me as mostly being ossified 1960s–1980s evolutionists, many of whom have committed themselves to the unfeasibility of group selection in print (e.g.; Dawkins). They mostly have what I might call a bad attitude about the theory they’re criticizing. They don’t seem to take it seriously, and they especially don’t seem to take seriously the theoretical problems it is aimed at addressing. To take John Tooby’s comment as an example (for no better reason than that it’s the one I’ve reviewed most recently), he writes:

    Those new to the group selection debate may not know how truly problematic thinking was about these issues before George Williams and a new generation of evolutionary scientists ushered in the genic selection revolution [1] [[references works by Williams and Dawkins]]. For those (still) not exposed to this revolution or [[not]] working before it, group selection was mostly just a terminological placeholder for a ubiquitous, promiscuous, fuzzy evolutionary teleology that permeated both scientific and popular thinking. This luxuriant, pervasive, unanchored teleology choked off productive evolutionary reasoning…

    He goes on in this vein for a couple of paragraphs: he and his pals in the 1960s and 1970s cleaned the Augean stables of muddled-headed group selectionist thinking and thus cleared the way for a renaissance of rigorous growth in evolutionary theorizing. Then:

    Readers might detect a note of testiness here and there in the responses to these proposals.

    No shit.

    The reason why is that those who have worked long and hard to clear out the jungle, and to lay a rigorous foundation for modern evolutionary biology see this progress jeopardized by the rhetorical conflation of faulty or implausible (and dormant) ideas with these new models.

    But the truth seems to be that despite his talk of clear and rigorous thinking, (and I should say that Tooby obviously is deserving of enormous respect,) he doesn’t seem to really understand what is being proposed. He certainly never addresses the critical issue. For instance, he assembles a list of points on which he says that individual and group selectionists agree. The last two points are:

    (6) agree that traits can evolve in which a functional phenotype is expressed across individuals or by a group; there are innumerable examples, including hive architecture, waggle dancing, group hunting, or hunter-gatherer sharing as risk pooling;
    (7) agree that traits cannot evolve that cause an average net decrease in individual fitness (other than by kin selection).

    He doesn’t define “functional group phenotypes,” but from his subsequent discussion it appears that he refers to individuals acting (functioning) jointly. In other words, he means cases like the two chimps (not) carrying either end of a log, as opposed to the fast herd of deer (which is really only a herd of fast deer). He goes on to insist that this is fully explainable by individual selection: individuals jointly carrying a log get much more done than they could independently, thus enhancing the fitness of each partner. His example: joint action magnifies benefits, like four people jointly contributing $1 to buy a single lottery ticket with an expected value of $16 instead of individually buying four tickets with an expected value of $1 each. He thinks individual selectionists regard this as a case of individual selection, because it can be explained in terms of enhancing individual fitness, but group selectionists think it is a case of group selection because the benefits only accrue to groups that manifest the joint behavior; or to put it another way, it is group selection because only a group can act thus jointly. Thus, he supposes, the two sides talk past each other.

    But this isn’t it at all! It is true that examples of the kind Tooby talks about are sometimes given as examples of group selection, even though in an obvious way individual level fitness gains are sufficient to explain them. But the paradigmatic examples of group selection require that groups compete as groups and that genes (in the case of genetic evolution) spread through the population as the result of whole groups, in which the responsible genes are frequent, surviving substantially better than other whole groups, in which these genes are rare. The obvious, if extreme, example is group warfare in which losing groups are exterminated. Clearly the genes that promote success in such group level struggles need not provide individual level fitness gains of any kind. They may indeed be maladaptive from an individual point of view (contrary to Tooby’s point (7)). A propensity to fight without regard to self-preservation is hardly fitness enhancing at the individual level! But it may nevertheless spread through a population in a group competition context where groups most of whose members have this propensity wipe out other groups most of whose members don’t.

    This example illustrates two important further points missed by Tooby’s account. First, typically the traits in question in group selection aren’t “functional group phenotypes” at all. That is, they aren’t group traits, but pro-group traits. A group of self-sacrificing warriors need not act jointly; their sacrifices can be completely independent. They are in this way more like a herd of fast deer than like two chimps (not) carrying either end of a log.

    Second, in most cases the potential for free riding is essential to the argument that group selection is operative. Two chimps (not) carrying either end of a log can’t free ride: both carry or the log doesn’t move. And so with Tooby’s own examples. This is just why, in his examples, it is so clear that individual level selection is sufficient to explain the evolution of the supposed group traits: to gain the enhanced benefit, it is necessary to manifest the trait. But a large band of warriors is not made much less fearsome by the presence of just a few malingerers. Thus, for most pro-group traits, what is fitness-enhancing is to be member of the group, whether or not one manifests the pro-group trait, and there is positive individual selection pressure against manifesting it. That is, the trait is not individually fitness enhancing, but the opposite (again contrary to point (7)). And this is just why group selection is necessary to explain its evolution.

    If it weren’t for such cases, nobody would be talking about group selection. So it is odd of Tooby to conduct his somewhat lengthy reply almost as though this issue didn’t exist. When he does finally bring himself to consider it, he simply asserts that no traits have arisen through group selection in the face of opposing individual level selection, and returns to accusing group selectionists of fuzzy-headed, promiscuous, pre-1960s thinking that is breaking down the methodological rigor and good scientific practice that right-minded evolutionists worked so hard to establish.

    However, in my view what is fuzzy-headed is to continue to hope that mechanisms like kin selection and reciprocal altruism can somehow explain human altruism and groupishness in spite of the methodologically rigorous arguments by Henrich and others, which show that they can’t. Evidently, holding out such hope is just Tooby’s strategy. Which is why I suspect that he has not taken the problem seriously or thought it through. I suspect this, in fact, of most of group selection’s opponents.

    What is ironic is that Tooby’s accusations of fuzzy-headedness and lack of rigor among group selectionists—at least the ones I’ve read—are foundationless. There is nothing unrigorous about their arguments or claims. Group selection theory is based on the same Price equation as provides the foundation for the kin selection theory that Tooby thinks is exemplary. Thus his opposition comes across, to me, unfortunately as simple closed-mindedness. This is too bad, because once taken seriously, group selection theory expands our view of the scope of evolution considerably. The “major transitions” that Haidt talks about are a case in point; without multilevel selection theory, they could not have been conceptualized. (Wilson and Wilson’s papers are particularly good here.)

    Well, this is my first comment, and it’s already long! So I’ll stop here. More to follow.


  4. Thanks, David P. – what you say here is all helpful, as you are more knowledgeable about the group selection debate than I am. Seems that we are very much on the same page on this issue. Feel free to enlighten us more as you see fit!

    It would be nice to see a detailed thought-experiment – or better an interpretation of an actual case – is which group selection pressures outpace individual selection pressures. It is striking to me that, in the transition from individual cells or colonies of cells to multi-cellular organisms what turned out to be adaptive is an arrangement in which individual-cell-level competition is almost entirely suppressed. Similarly for true hive behavior – it seems plausible that, in that case, individual selection no longer drives the course of genetic evolution. If Haidt’s speculations are right, humans may be unique in that we exemplify an unlikely equilibrium of individual and group level selective forces.


  5. Michael,

    Just a couple of more comments. First,

    I’m a bit skeptical of the idea of cultural evolution. Unlike in the case of evolution: (a) the source of generated change is non-random (people figuring stuff out, doing different things, this getting copied by others) and (b) though there is the relevant “success condition” of passing on copies of culturally-produced items, there does not seem to be any one dominant (and “blind” or non-intelligent) selection process for determining which get passed on (again, it is people figuring stuff out, seeing what works and what does not, what is appealing and what is not, etc.). I just don’t know if this process – however it goes – merits a strong analogy with biological evolution and natural selection.

    I understand your skepticism, though I am gradually becoming convinced. And I think the point you identify is the key one. Any notion that cultural development is “evolutionary” by analogy with Darwinian natural selection assumes that the process is a great deal more blind than we are accustomed to supposing. This is what appalled me so much about Hayek’s theory of cultural group selection in The Fatal Conceit. If one is used to thinking of cultural change taking place by people over time discovering a series of better and better mousetraps, each of which has pride of place for its time because it is recognized as better (maybe initially only by the brightest of us), then the notion of “natural selection” of culture must seem off. This isn’t natural selection; it’s artificial selection, selection by intelligence. For it to be anything like Darwin’s process, innovations should be selected because they in fact allow those who adopt them to succeed better in their purposes, even though they don’t necessarily realize why. Also, the innovations should have a lot to do with happy accident rather than with design. None of this may seem very plausible to us, who now live in a relentlessly growing technological society.

    I think a lot of the evidence for cultural evolution by a kind of natural selection is indirect. It explains things that are otherwise hard to explain, such as the development of cultural practices that are hard to put down to intellectual insight (like nardoo processing) and the fact that cultural attainments—even quite vital ones that are seemingly simple, like canoe building—can be lost, which shows that they aren’t as obvious as they seem.

    Also, a reason to take cultural evolution seriously is that genetic group selection is not very plausible. Haidt doesn’t talk about this (perhaps because he is wedded for some reason to the genetic group selection idea), but really the key objection to group selection is that it requires (a) stable group membership, (b) high similarity within groups, and (c) substantial variation between groups. It is not the free rider problem, pace Haidt. The free rider “problem” is just the fact of within group selection, which nobody disputes. The question is which selective force is stronger, that within groups or that between groups. And the big problem is that unless the three criteria I just named are met, within group pressure will be stronger—in other words, free riders will out compete team players. And the thing is, all human groups are genetically pretty similar. There is in fact nearly always more genetic variation within a human group than between it and another group. Also, people (typically but not always women) are constantly being exchanged between groups. These objections do not apply to cultural group selection, however. Cultural variation between groups is often quite large. Conformity to cultural norms within the group is often quite good. And exchange or transfer of persons between groups doesn’t matter to cultural group selection, since the newcomer typically adopts the cultural norms of their new group. It is cultural evolution, therefore, that is the Great White Hope of group selection theory.


    I’m not sure just what Haidt’s point is, here. Is it that different sets of moral norms could result in genetically different humans (and humans that are morally different, despite sharing the six foundations in some measure, at a genetic level)? I’m not sure how plausible this is (if this is his point). Though the hypothetical pattern here is plausible (and could well be real), it would seem to apply more to the evolution of the six foundations (or whatever the basic psychological-cum-behavioral elements of morality are, if Haidt has some of this wrong) than to subsequent genetic evolution (that would shape these moral features in different ways in different eras or for different communities). The least crazy idea along these lines is that rule-of-law cultures dominated by the nation-state and trade create selection pressures that favor the existence or expression of certain genes/traits as against others, so that different groups of humans are better or ill suited for certain “configurations” of the six foundations in a moral matrix. But that’s pretty controversial and could certainly provide fodder for racism.

    I do think he means to say there could be genetically different people as the result of social selection under the influence of different, culturally evolved social norms. For instance, hunter-gatherers are mostly all relentlessly egalitarian, but with the scaling up of societies after the development of agriculture came increasingly hierarchical regimes. If a certain people covering a certain geographic region became highly hierarchical in their political organization, and this went on consistently for a couple of thousand years, that might be enough generations to cause genetic changes favoring the Authority/Subversion foundation. Perhaps if the hierarchical order prevails so strongly, it would viciously eliminate rebels and subversives, and perhaps a condition of thriving and having a lot of children in such a place would be buying into the hierarchical order. We could think of Egypt under the Pharaohs, for instance (though I’m just making this up, of course).

    This isn’t impossible in principle. If the domestication of cattle can induce genetic changes making us lactose tolerant, I don’t know why the institution of hierarchy might not make us genetically more authority-minded. But I would like to see some real evidence. Milk is an important food source, and food is food! The survival advantage is clear and strong. The causal connection between accepting authority and having a lot of kids is not so clear, and it’s hard to believe that its influence could be very consistent over time.

    Haidt worries about the racism charge, and his response (429, n. 86) is peculiar. In the end he says any genetic effects would be small in comparison with culture! Well, if the influence of genes is not very important, why are we talking about his at all?


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