Evolutionary Group Selection and the Risks of Climate Change
Nature has a new article about research from Yale’s Dan Kahan on how we choose to accept or deny climate change arguments less on our scientific literacy and more on the beliefs of those with whom we share close ties (The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks). The study tests what it calls SCT, for “science comprehension thesis”. SCT predicts that those who score higher on numeracy, the ability to make use of quantitative information, will exhibit more concern for the seriousness of climate change than those who don’t. These predictions, however, are unsupported. The study then applies CCT, or cultural cognition thesis, which posits that “individuals form perceptions of societal risks that cohere with values characteristic of groups with which they identify.” The study describes the two groups that this application of CCT applies to, hierarchical individualists who will be less concerned with climate change risks and egalitarian communitarians who will be more concerned. The data support this thesis.
I find it interesting that the study notes that we take on the views of the groups with which we identify, and then asserts that views of climate change risks depend on whether we are hierarchical individualists or egalitarian communitarians, as if these are the two main groups we can divide individuals into, and that individuals organize into groups around these, and not other, behaviors or characteristics. Another interesting thing is what this division contributes to our understanding of the political mind. I have been reading, and commenting on, Jonathan Haidt’s six moral foundations, around which he distinguishes liberals from conservatives. With this climate change study and CCT we add another node to the calculation, that which has hierarchical individualists and egalitarian communitarians at each end of the node. The description that the study’s authors and CCT give to hierarchical individualists also has a lot in common with George Lakoff’s take on conservatism, which I have also written about in earlier columns. As this column’s investigation into the Political Mind continues, it will have to explore how these, and other approaches, cohere or contradict, in laying out a fuller understanding of what goes into our political beliefs.
The study also dovetails nicely with two other books I am currently reading, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind; and somewhat peripherally, Murray Rothbard’s Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. I’m on Chapter 11, Mercantilism and Freedom, where Professor Rothbard comes down hard on “quantophrenia” when discussing the influences of Bacon, Petty, and Devenant. The Austrian School of Economics, of which Rothbard is an adherent, eschews the heavy reliance on metrics and modeling in economics, and prefers to apply reason to human economic activity. The climate change study that indicated how little humans are persuaded by data seems to complement well with the Austrian school belief that economic models and statistical methods, in a word “data”, are insufficient to understand human economic thought and activity. It would be interesting to see if our resistance to data correlates with an instinct that causes us to understand either that data alone is not enough to understand our world, or that we cannot comprehend the data well enough to trust our analyses, or perhaps that we comprehend the data, but we do it intuitively. Gail Collins writes in Mr. Edwards and the Shrimp that on the surface John Edwards was an attractive candidate–in other words, the data emanating from John Edwards was attractive–but that “Voters’ gut instincts are generally pretty good,” and they rejected him; in other words, we understand more than the data shows.
I’m about halfway through Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, where he talks about group selection. In evolution, through individual selection, individuals adapt and evolve through natural selection. In group selection, groups can also evolve and adapt through natural selection. Haidt notes that in the 1970’s, group selection was heresy, and bringing up the subject is still able to “start a brawl at an evolution conference” (Individual versus Group in Natural Selection.) But group selection, rebranded as multilevel selection, is becoming more accepted, due to the work of E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson. Haidt presents ideas and evidence in favor of group selection; he talks about humans having crossed a threshold to become ultrasocial, which few other animals, even social animals which live in groups, have crossed. (Among those which have crossed are a few species of shrimp, aphids, thrips and beetles, along with wasps, bees, ants, and termites.) A key feature among ultrasocial creatures is the need to defend a shared nest. As humans, our territoriality, lengthy childhood requiring care and protection, and living under threat from neighboring groups, gave us the background for the leap to ultrasociality. Haidt references Tomasello on shared intentionality, the ability of small groups of humans to cooperate by having a shared mental representation of a group task at hand, and then adjusting our own actions in concert with the actions of others in the group to achieve our goal. Surveying the data, Haidt hyothesizes that shared intentionality began with Homo heidelbergensis around 600-700,000 years ago; ultrasociality developed and must have been in place before humans wandered out of Africa 50,000 years ago.
Haidt’s views on reason and intuition, consistent with those from Kahneman mentioned in the Nature article on climate change, where we act based on intuition, and use reason mostly to persuade others; and his views on the importance of groupishness in humans, both reinforce the conclusions in the Nature article. We maintain beliefs that are consistent with our group, so as to not to look bad to the other members of our group, and that extends to our beliefs on the risks of climate change; then, rather than using reason to analyze the data on climate change in order to come to a conclusion, we use reason to reinforce our prior beliefs.