Tagged: multi-level selection

On Killing Kids


Mark S. Smith’s The Early History of God is a remarkable piece of scholarship. I was recently asked what I read for fun and had to admit that I have been on a trajectory towards reading books that have, on average, more footnotes than text. J.P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans kindly moves the notes to the end of the volume. Smith’s Chapter 5, Yahwistic Cult Practices, and particularly Section 3, The mlk sacrifice, are illuminating on the widespread belief that killing children could propitiate the gods. This practice was likely widespread among the Western Semitic peoples, including the Israelites and Canaanites (Smith’s preference for Western Semitic is to lump the two together ca. 1200 BC because they appear to have been culturally the same, possibly made distinct after the compilation of OT following the Exile).

I recently argued with some young street preachers about violence and horror in Yahweh’s name and by His command while waiting outside a rock shop in Old Sacramento. Human sacrifice came up, too, with the apologetics being that, despite the fact that everyone was bad back then, the Chosen People did not perform human sacrifice and therefore they were marginally better than the other people around them. They passed quickly on the topic of slavery, which was wise for rhetorical purposes, because slavery was widespread and acceptable. I didn’t remember the particulars of the examples of human sacrifice in OT, but recalled them broadly to which they responded that there were translation and interpretation errors with “burnt offering” and “fire offerings of first borns” that, of course, immediately contradicted their assertion of acceptance and perfection of the scriptures.

More interesting, though, is the question of why might human sacrifice be so pervasive, whether among Yahwists and Carthiginians or Aztecs? On Patheos, Chris Hallquist comments on the brilliant Is God a Moral Compromiser? by Thom Stark (free PDF!) that runs through the attitudes concerning the efficacy of human sacrifice for achieving military goals. And maybe you can control the weather or make your crops grow better. Killing one’s own kids sets up a dilemma for evolutionary psychology in that it immediately reduces your genetic representation. So the commitment to the gods must override the commitment to family and its role as a proxy for biology. Sacrificing other people’s children is less incomprehensible, though it does affect the tribe and larger political constructs as well.

Looking at the story of Abraham and the emergence out of the Yahwistic cultic mlk, we might see even more evidence of the effect of multi-level selection overriding the individual’s biological urges. Order, obedience, tribal practices, and one’s identity as part of the group overrule preservation and familial bonds, and society gradually emerges as the lawmaker and orchestrator of human interractions.

Chinese Feudal Wasps

waspsIn Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, the author points out that Chinese feudalism was not at all like European feudalism. In the latter, vassals were often unrelated to lords and the relationship between them was consensual and renewed annually. Only later did patriarchal lineages become important in preserving the line of descent among the lords. But that was not the case in China where extensive networks of blood relations dominated the lord-vassal relationship; the feudalism was more like tribalism and clans than the European model, but with Confucianism layered on top.

So when E.O. Wilson, still intellectually agile in his twilight years, describes the divide between kin selection and multi-level selection in the New York Times, we start to see a similar pattern of explanation for both models at far more basic level than just in the happenstances of Chinese versus European cultures. Kin selection predicts that genetic co-representation can lead an individual to self-sacrifice in an evolutionary sense (from loss of breeding possibilities in Hymenoptera like bees and ants, through to sacrificial behavior like standing watch against predators and thus becoming a target, too). This is the traditional explanation and the one that fits well for the Chinese model. But we also have the multi-level selection model that posits that selection operates at the group level, too. In kin selection there is no good explanation for the European feudal tradition unless the vassals are inbred with their lords, which seems unlikely in such a large, diverse cohort. Consolidating power among the lords and intermarrying practices possibly did result in inbreeding depression later on, but the overall model was one based on social ties that were not based on genetic familiarity.

China represents the opposite in the continuous flow of power to related individuals as the number of political units filtered down from thousands to just a few over several hundred years during the “Axial Age“. It was kin selection all over the place though the rapacious nature of those affiliations would later lead to the rise of bureaucracies and the institutionalization of professional management with less allegiance to any family line.

But the existence of both models as successful transitional societies points to the failure of any exclusivity of one model versus another. Either we are somewhat kin selective, somewhat multi-level selective, or just too contingent to make such sweeping claims. The data has to sort it out and the only thing we can really be certain about is the contingent nature of science itself.