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Peter Singer, Group Selection, and the Evolution of Ethics

In 1981 the philosopher Peter Singer published a book titled The Expanding Circle – Ethics, Evolution and Moral Progress. The book was inspired by EO Wilson’s Sociobiology – The New Synthesis, because although Singer claimed to find fallacies in Wilson’s book, he saw Wilson’s work as nevertheless providing a sound basis for exploring the evolution of ethical behaviour. Singer saw the need to republish with added notes in 2011 due to the appearance of fresh ideas on the subject.

In Chapter One “The Origin of Altruism” he began well with; “Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human” but the rot set in with “Wilson has called altruism ‘the central theoretical problem of sociobiology’ because it has to be accounted for within the framework of Darwin’s theory of evolution. If evolution is a struggle for survival, why hasn’t it ruthlessly eliminated altruists, who seem to increase another’s prospects of survival at the expense of their own?” The regurgitation that followed, of all the tired arguments presented by the gene-centrics as they attempt to explain the impossible – altruism within a Darwinian framework – was not what I had expected from a thinker of Singer’s calibre, but that’s exactly what he did.

Here’s an example of that, found in the very first instance he gave to explain animal altruism from the Darwinian view. After telling how birds will give warning calls that expose the caller to higher risk but allow others in the group to seek safety, he continued “If, as we would expect, birds who give warning calls are eaten at a higher rate than birds who act to save themselves without warning the rest of the flock, how does such altruism survive?” This was all leading up to the ultimate mistake, the gene-centred view of evolution, but did you detect the initial flaw that prepares the unwary reader for the ultimate? The example was based on assumptions for which no evidence was given. There is no evidence that sentinel birds are killed at a higher rate. There is no evidence that sentinels are even at slightly greater risk. Sentinel birds position themselves in trees in relative safety compared to others in the flock that are feeding on the ground. It’s the ground-feeders and stragglers that are targeted by predators. It was also assumed that altruism can die with the altruist; that altruism is genetic in basis.

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  1. Clarence Williams says:

    Why should I read anything Singer has to say if he so egregiously misunderstands inclusive fitness and the thousands of researchers who have answered his questions?  Altruism fits very nicely within inclusive fitness.  Group selection is also a force to be reckoned with in Darwinian natural selection…just a much weaker one.  E.O. Wilson told us why himself: death rates between groups is so much less than between individuals.