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167 9 THE SUPERORGANISM CONCEPT AND HUMAN GROUPS Implications for Confronting Religious Violence David Sloan Wilson Comparing a human community to a single organism has an ancient history. It is how religious believers often describe their own communities and how scholars of religion such as Emile Durkheim also described them. It is reflected etymologically in words such as corporation, in phrases such as the body politic, and in the legal designation of corporations as individuals. Despite its ancient pedigree, however, this superorganismic conception of human society was eclipsed by individualistic schools of thought during the middle of the twentieth century, including methodological individualism in the social sciences and rational choice theory (a form of methodological individualism) in economics, which makes individual self-­ interest a grand principle for explaining all aspects of human behavior and society. As the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “There is no such thing as society, only individuals and families.”1 Theories of religion were also influenced by methodological individualism during this period, with Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge as prominent examples.2 A renaissance of evolutionary thinking in relation to human affairs during the last three decades has revived the concept of human groups as superorganisms and placed it on a stronger theoretical foundation than ever before. In this essay I will first review what it means to take the superorganism concept seriously for human groups. Then I will 168 David Sloan Wilson review implications for confronting human violence at all scales and in all kinds of groups, including but not restricted to religious groups. 1. A Brief History of the Superorganism Concept in Evolutionary Thought The Judaeo-­ Christian worldview that preceded Darwin’s theory of evolution assumed that God created a harmonious universe at all scales, from the tiniest insects to the stars in heaven. At first, Darwin thought that his theory of natural selection could explain all examples of design in the living world that had been attributed to a Creator. On further reflection, however, he came to a disturbing realization. If natural selection favors individuals that survive and reproduce better than other individuals, it would seem to select against traits that are regarded as morally virtuous, such as altruism, honesty, and bravery, which almost by definition benefit others at the expense of the morally virtuous individual . Unless he added something to his theory, he could explain only the evolution of individual-­level adaptations such as the sharp teeth of the tiger or the thick fur of the polar bear, not group-­level adaptations such as individuals working together to produce a common good.3 That “something” was not far to seek. Darwin realized that social behaviors are almost always expressed in groups that are small compared to the whole evolving population, such as a colony of bees, a flock of birds, a troop of primates, or a human tribe. While it is true that benefiting others at the expense of oneself would be selectively disadvantageous within a single group, it is equally true that a group of cooperators would robustly outcompete a group whose members cannot pull together. Natural selection can be imagined to operate at two levels: among individuals within groups, favoring self-­ serving behaviors in all their forms, and among groups in a multigroup population, favoring cooperative behaviors in all their forms. Darwin’s elaborated theory of two-­ level selection is easy to understand and has the potential to explain the evolution of group-­ level adaptations, but it also has some major limitations. First, not only is group-­ level selection required to explain the evolution of group-­ level adaptations, but it must be strong enough to outweigh opposing selection within groups. Otherwise, selfishness prevails. Second, even when cooperation within groups does evolve by between-­ group selection, it can often be used in destructive competition with other groups. Group-­ level selection does not eliminate conflict so much as elevate it to the scale of between-­ group interactions, where it can potentially take place THE SUPERORGANISM CONCEPT AND HUMAN GROUPS 169 with even more destructive force than before (Darwin was curiously silent on this implication in his own writing). The only solution to this problem would be to add another level of selection (among groups of interacting groups), turning two-­ level selection theory into multilevel selection (MLS) theory (something that Darwin was also silent about). Given these limitations, Darwin’s theory can explain the evolution of higher-­ level adaptations only when special conditions were met, which might be quite restrictive...


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