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.”

Richard Dawkins of the University of Cambridge, whose writings have reached millions, maintains that selection might not even reach such a high level of biological organization as the individual organism. Instead, he claims, selection operates on genes—the individual is the embodiment of the selection of thousands of selfish genes, each trying to perpetuate itself.

In the past few decades, however, group selection has made a quiet comeback among evolutionary theorists. E. O. Wilson of Harvard University and David Sloan Wilson (no relation) of Binghamton University are trying to give group selection full-fledged respectability. They are rebranding it as multilevel selection theory: selection constantly takes place on multiple levels simultaneously. And how do you figure the sum of those selections in any real-world circumstance? “We simply have to examine situations on a case-by-case basis,” Sloan Wilson says.

But the Wilsons did offer some guidelines in the December 2007 issue of Quarterly Review of Biology. “Adaptation at any level,” they write, “requires a process of natural selection at the same level, and tends to be undermined by natural selection at lower levels.”

Experiments with actual groups illustrate the point. Pseudomonas fluorescens bacteria quickly suck all the dissolved oxygen out of a liquid habitat, leaving a thin habitable layer near the surface. But some bacteria spontaneously develop a beneficial mutation. These group-saving individuals secrete a polymer that enables bunches of individuals to form floating mats. As a mat, all the bacteria survive, even though most of them expend no metabolic energy producing the polymer. But if the freeloaders get greedy and reproduce too many of their kind, the mat sinks and everybody dies, altruists and freeloaders alike. Among these bacteria, then, groups that maintain enough altruists to float outcompete groups with fewer altruists than that minimum number. The former groups survive, grow and split up into daughter groups. Thus, altruistic individuals can prosper, despite the disadvantage of expending precious resources to produce the polymer.

Perhaps the biggest change that group selection brings to evolutionary theory is its implication for so-called kin selection. What looks like group selection, some theorists argue, can actually be understood as genetic relatedness. Evolutionist J.B.S. Haldane pithily explained kin selection: “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.” In this view, altruistic bacteria in the Pseudomonas mats are saving close relatives, thereby ensuring the survival of most of the genes they themselves also carry.

Turning that argument on its head, the Wilsons assert that kin selection is a special case of group selection. “The importance of kinship,” they note, “is that it increases genetic variation among groups.” The individuals within any one group are much more like one another and much less like the individuals in any other group. And that diversity between groups presents clearer choices for group selection. Kinship thus accentuates the importance of selection at the group level as compared with individual selection within the group.

The Wilsons think evolutionists must embrace multilevel selection to do fruitful research in sociobiology—“the study of social behavior from a biological perspective.” When doing so, other investigators can keep in mind the Wilsons’ handy rule of thumb: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "What's Good for the Group".