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See Inside January 2009

What's Good for the Group

Does natural selection drive evolution at levels higher than selfish genes and fertile individuals?

Want to start a brawl at an evolution conference? Just bring up the concept of group selection: the idea that one mixed bag of individuals can be “selected” as a group over other heterogeneous groups from the same species. Biologists who would not hesitate to form a group themselves to combat creationism or intelligent design might suddenly start a pie fight to defend the principle that “it’s every man for himself.”

Yet Charles Darwin himself argued for group selection. He postulated that moral men might not do any better than immoral men but that tribes of moral men would certainly “have an immense advantage” over fractious bands of pirates. By the 1960s, however, selection at the group level was on the outs. Influential theorist George Williams acknowledged that although group selection might be possible, in real life “group-related adaptations do not, in fact, exist.”

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