Steven Pinker and a Multilevel Perspective Evolutionist in a Ring with a Judge


Mark Sloan 1-8-2015

Imagine in one corner we have Steven Pinker touting the advantages of a brazenly gene level selection perspective (no second rate individual level selection perspective for him!) and in the other we have the challenger, the multilevel perspective evolutionist (MPE). Guided by their chosen perspectives, who will propose the scientifically ‘true’ hypothesis regarding the primary selection forces for the biology underlying human unselfish behaviors toward non-kin? And who will fail, deceived into error by their chosen perspective?

Pinker comes out with “Kin altruism!” plus “The other classic form of altruism” (Pinker 2012), reciprocity, specifically self-interest motivated reciprocity. These are the obvious selection forces from the perspective of “selfish genes”. As Herbert Gintis describes this position “Pinker is simply reiterating Dawkins’ message of a half-century ago that we are the selfish product of selfish genes.” (Pinker 2012)  But what about unselfishness toward non-kin not related to self-interest motivated reciprocity, what is the primary selection force for that? “Kin altruism again!” says Pinker.  Since we evolved among close kin, we tend to unconsciously treat people around us as if they were close kin. So what selected for unselfishness toward non-kin, not related to self-interested reciprocity, is kin altruism with an error prone kin detector.

In conclusion, Pinker dismissively addresses the group level selectionist’s perspective “They have claimed that human morailty, particularly our willingness to engage in acts of altruism, can be explained as an adaptation to group-against-group competition.” And “The more carefully you think about group selection, the less sense it makes, and the more poorly it fits the facts of human psychology and history.” (Pinker 2012)

Now our multilevel perspective evolutionist (MPE) speaks, “The most relevant criteria for the scientific truth of a hypothesis about unselfish behavior is explanatory power. If what-must-be-explained is only an ambiguously motivated behavior such as “people sometimes act unselfishly toward non-kin”, there will not be just one, there will many reasons for such behavior and therefore many hypotheses that ‘explain’ it. As a practical matter, it is impossible to discern between such hypotheses and they are more accurately called speculations.”

“But if what-must-be-explained also includes the circumstances ‘when’ that unselfishness occurs and specifically ‘how’ that unselfishness is motivated, then we have enough data that must all be explained that we can conclusively discriminate between competing hypotheses. Unfortunately for the gene selection perspective, kin altruism plus self-interest motivated reciprocity cannot explain even half of these ‘whens’ and ‘hows’. In sharp contrast, all these ‘whens’ and ‘hows’ are elegantly explained as adaptations for either in-group cooperation or group-against-group competition.”

Our MPE continues, “How much do we know about ‘when’ our moral sense makes its subconscious, near instant judgments, and ‘how’ it motivates moral behavior, including unselfishness? Quite a bit.”

“Moral Foundations Theory (Graham 2012) shows that, cross culturally, there are at least five categories of circumstances that can trigger our moral sense to make a judgment. Those categories are fairness/cheating, care/harm, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Kin altruism plus self-interested reciprocity can explain the fairness/cheating and care/harm triggers. But loyalty is often in reference to a group, authority refers to a group’s authority, and sanctity refers to what is sacred to a group. See the pattern? These categories are threats to our group’s cohesion and cooperation relative to other groups, not direct threats to our kin or our self-interested reciprocity. Kin altruism and self-interested reciprocity appear to have little to no explanatory power for them.”

“Then, what is kin altruism and self-interested reciprocity’s explanatory power for ‘how’ our moral sense motivates ‘moral’ behaviors? The emotions triggered by our moral sense, our moral emotions (Haidt 2002), are here taken to be compassion, loyalty, gratitude, anger, disgust, contempt, shame, guilt, and ‘elevation’ (a synthesis of satisfaction and pride). Compassion, loyalty, gratitude, and anger are readily explained by kin altruism and self-interested reciprocity, provided this kind of loyalty advances one’s self-interested reciprocity. Loyalty to one’s nation, however, appears inexplicable by Pinker’s hypothesis. (Pinker says such loyalty must be due to social coercion.) However, kin altruism and self-interested reciprocity appear to have little to nothing to do with disgust, contempt, shame, guilt, and ‘elevation’. If the selection force for our moral emotions was just self-interested reciprocity (plus kin altruism), then the direct rewards of that reciprocity are all that is needed to motivate that reciprocity. Disgust, contempt, shame, guilt, and ‘elevation’ would not only be superfluous, but show that moral behavior is not motivated by the direct rewards of self-interested reciprocity but by emotions which can easily motivate behaviors that are not in our best interest and even result in our death. Kin altruism and self-interested reciprocity appear to have little to no explanatory power for these last five of our moral emotions.”

Our MPE concludes with “From the group selection perspective, the ‘obvious’ hypothesis is that our moral sense’s primary selection force was the benefits of cooperation in groups. This hypothesis elegantly explains all the categories of circumstances when our moral sense is triggered, as well as all our moral emotions. The categories of circumstances when our moral sense is triggered are those that threaten either purely in-group cooperation or risk defeat, due to reduced internal cooperation, in competition with other groups. Our moral emotions all motivate behaviors that are elements of known cooperation strategies. Compassion, loyalty, and gratitude motivate unselfish behaviors that initiate or maintain cooperation. Anger, disgust, and contempt punish other people’s (and sometimes our own) bad behavior. Shame and guilt punish only our own bad behavior. ‘Elevation’ rewards cooperation of all kinds whether other benefits are obtained or not.

Into the ring steps the Judge. “It has been established that 1) the ‘obvious’ selection forces from the gene level selection perspective, kin altruism and self-interested reciprocity, have poor to no explanatory power for most categories of circumstances when our moral sense is triggered and for most of our moral emotions and 2) the ‘obvious’ primary selection force from the group selection perspective, the benefits of cooperation based on reciprocity, has wonderful explanatory power for all of the ‘whens’ and ‘hows’ of our moral sense. Therefore, I do solemnly declare that, based on its markedly superior explanatory power of the group selection perspective’s ‘obvious’ hypothesis, the group level perspective is, in practice, much superior to the gene level selection perspective for understanding the biology underlying our moral sense.”


Grahama, Jesse, Haidt, J., et al. (2012). Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism. Available at

Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, & H. H. Goldsmith (Eds.), Handbook of affective sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (pp. 852-870).

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