Teach The Controversy (Part 1): From “one for all” to “all for me”


While strolling through the merry lanes of cyberspace (The very fact I’m still using that word makes me feel old, fucking ‘web 2.0′) I happened upon this article. Yes, the National Trust has decided to include a Creationist perspective on the formation the the Giant’s Causeway – which, for those that don’t know, is made up of a lot of stone columns that stretch out to form, well, a causeway the size of which a giant might use. I do genuinely wonder what exactly their exhibit will look like, I mean on one side of the centre you’ll have display cases of rock samples, crystal formations, diagrams of volcanoes, tectonic plates and erosion, and on the other…

I hope you all also appreciate the execllent photoshop job I did there

Well that’s it, I’m convinced

… All I’m saying is it wouldn’t be the hardest exhibit to curate.

Now on the one hand I can understand the National Trust’s reasoning; the  zealous have a lot of time on their hands and usually someone willing to supervise while they use safety paper and crayons to write letters of complaint, and since an idiot and his money are soon parted, no one else is going to spend £15 on the muddy coffee and the sorry looking sandwiches that the National Trust so lovingly provides for its visitors. It’s big problem though, as this gives Creationists both a foot-in-the-door and an air of legitimacy, a “as recognized by the UK National Trust” badge to wave at anyone objecting to their nonsense. But I won’t dwell on that here, and instead will focus on one particular statement that angered me greatly; “We fully accept the Trust’s commitment to its position on how the Causeway was formed, but this new centre both respects and acknowledges an alternative viewpoint and the continuing debate” *clears throat*


The Creationist position is not an alternative view on how a geological formation came to be. OK, I suppose yes, it is a alternative view, in the literal sense that it is a view that happens to have been vomited forth into the world at some point, but it is not a legitimate view. It’s no more legitimate than my view that you’re currently reading this entry not on a computer or phone screen, but somehow using the bloated viscera of a beached Whale. But apparently that’s is good enough for the National Trust, so please explain your ingenious yet disgusting use of a rotting marine mammal in the comments section.

You'd think land would be pretty easy to avoid? I guess they were too busy listening to pod-casts XD

I bet you get great performance though… it comes with a pod-core processor after all… XD

This ‘alternative’ viewpoint fallacy really annoys me; that just because you’re idea is rejected by others with actual expertise, you’re somehow a maverick fighting a Machiavellian scientific kabal, that ignoring evidence makes you a free-thinking martyr. And it’s not just a religious thing, this same argument applies to every counter-the-evidence claims made by everyone from Mediums to Climate-change ‘skeptics’. To some up the truth of it all rather succinctly, and to use one of my favourite quotes, “To wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind Establishment, you must also be right”

But I thought, rather than have a little rant on this subject that has no doubt been covered elsewhere with much more grace and style, I thought I would try and educate a little by describing scientific debate taking place at this very moment. So, here dear reader(s) is an ACTUAL debate within evolutionary theory, namely

The evolution of human pro-sociality: group vs individual selection

From “one for all” to “all for me”

Nature is filled with examples of organisms apparently sacrificing themselves for the good of everyone else, from actively attacking predators to staying vigilant while everyone else forages and mates.  The prevailing theory of the evolution of this behaviour in the early 20th century was group-selection.  Group selection as it stood was essentially a Disney-version of evolution; one where particularly noble members of a species would sacrifice themselves for the good of the group (Possibly providing comic relief for a likable every-man protagonist). Such virtuous individuals aid group survival and thus their presence helps their species to prevail in the Darwinian thunder-dome we call Earth. All very nice, but in this form at least the theory suffered from a rather massive flaw. Essentially, as many a coward has discovered, reproduction favours the individual who stays behind the front line sipping cognac and bedding the local debutantes while others die in their place.

Any excuse for a Jurassic Park picture

Yeah, you go save the day, I’ll stay here and guard the car

Fast forward to the 50s and Game Theory began to develop. This lead to a major problem as, mathematically at least, the aforementioned gluttonous, whoring, cowards should out-compete the heroes in every possible situation; to skip briefly across the shore of scientific terminology for a second, such a population of altruists could easily be invaded by defectors to the point where cowardliness reaches fixation. Over evolutionary time, life in nature should inevitably decay into the Hobbsian war of all against all. But observations disagreed, not only do clear examples of altruism exist, but humans in particular flatly refuse to behave as selfishly as any model predicts. With a few exceptions, we’d much rather assist someone having a heart attack than steal their wallet. But why?

Help the weak, as long as everyone else is watching

Attention then turned to individual/gene level selection; meaning any apparent act of altruism or cooperation by an organism has to in some way benefit said organism. I’ve written previously about Kin Selection, but for those of you too busy to read another ramble about evolutionary game theory, people are nicer to people to whom they are related (and for those of you who did click the link, yes I part-lifted the opening paragraph from there, I see it as recycling). While this obviously explains why people care for their crying parasites, or ‘babies’ as some call them, rather than drown it instantly in the nearest puddle, it doesn’t explain why we cooperate and help others.

This is where two connected concepts come in; reciprocity and reputation. The former hypothesized we help others to ensure we get something back at some point in the future; it treats favours like money, I did x for you so at some point I will trade this for something I need from you. Its evolution relies on certain factors especially common to primate evolutionary history, specifically that we are long lived and tend(ed) to remain within relatively small, stable, groups. Indeed a recent model suggested that as long as there’s as little as a 7% chance you’ll meet someone again it’s still best to help them. Also, in actual experiments, just suggesting to participants that they will meet a confederate again is enough to significantly increase altruistic behaviour, tit-for tat as they say. Remove the shadow of the future however and it’s pretty much everyone for themselves.

“I’d love to help save your family, but I’m only here on holiday”

Reciprocity, or at least mutual self interest, has certainly been very successful in explaining a lot of cooperative behaviour in animals, particularly in the complex world of (non-human) primate societies. However one of the limiting factors in reciprocity as a stand-alone mechanism is that anyone could simply refuse to reciprocate. It’s a genuine risk and one that limits the level of cooperation. This can however be solved with the addition of reputation (Or more accurately, by accounting for indirect reciprocity). The principle is that by acting in a cooperative/altruistic/reciprocatory manner, you get a reputation for acting in such a way. The payback for your act of altruism doesn’t come from the target, but ‘indirectly’ from others watching. Gain a positive reputation by being altruistic and trustworthy, and  others more willing to help you as this reputation makes you a safe bet. Gain a negative reputation however, and soon others wouldn’t spit on you if you were dying of thirst, you cheating bastard! This interplay is nicely demonstrated in studies of friendships. At the beginning altruistic acts are cheap and usually returned almost immediately (for example buying someone a pint) but as two people build up a chain of reciprocity; i.e. are friends for a while, the acts become far more costly and may never actually be returned (for example moving a body). It’s no wonder we work hard to maintain close friendships, a lot of time and social capital has been invested in them.

Furthermore, we are incredibly sensitive to being watched by others, to the point that both eye-like images on a computer screen and posters of faces in a canteen have been shown to hugely increase altruistic and cooperative behaviour. In fact if you remind individuals there’s a God watching them, this too vastly increases their pro-social behaviour. You can also see the negative side of this in the growth of Slacktivism, or why ‘liking’ the plight of political prisoners or adding some dead baby as a friend isn’t going to make the world a better place. Facebook provides the perfect environment to get all the kudos for recognizing that bad things happen without the hassle of actually having to do something.

Fundamentally, indirect reciprocity and reputation maintenance mean you can commit an altruistic act without worrying about whether the target of your altruism will ever return the favour. It also means that if you’re going to do something heroic, make sure as many people as possible see you do it.

What do you mean “Let me just get my camera first”?

For the most part, a mix of reciprocity and reputation is exceptionally good at encouraging cooperation and altruism. This doesn’t mean of course that whenever someone is helpful they are actually thinking any of this, it’s that over evolutionary time our sociality has been shaped to implicitly take these concepts into account; as a species we’re naturally gregarious because our ancestors benefited from acting in such a way. As I said in the entry on Kin Selection, no one would dispute that parent’s care for their children more than the children of strangers, explaining the evolutionary origins of parental instinct, or here altruism/helpfulness, does not make such feelings any less genuine.

This is by no means an exhaustive trawl through the literature, but I’ve tried to place it in some sort of historical order. So this is our story up until now, early scientists noticed that some animals behaved altruistically and formulated hypotheses based on these observations which became the theory of Group Selection. Later, advances in mathematics, psychology and experimental methodology lead to new hypotheses that explained altruism, and especially in humans, far more effectively. This is the point, Group Selection in it’s initial form isn’t an alternative theory as one that has been debunked by more recent experimentation. It was fine when it was proposed, but after careful analysis and *cough* evidence *cough* it was found wanting.

And this is where our tale about human pro-sociality would end; Individual Selection supplants Group selection and the most likely theory and that’s it. However thanks to an additional, and uniquely human, pro-social behaviour, Group Selection has seen a resurgence in recent years. Because, for some reason, we humans just can’t keep our noses out of other people’s business (Part 2 coming soon)


About Myles Power (553 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

3 Comments on Teach The Controversy (Part 1): From “one for all” to “all for me”

  1. Brilliant article. I can’t believe the lengths that creationists are going to in order to get their story out there. I loved reading about our social evolution as well. I can’t wait to read part 2.


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