Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Why do Humans Form Groups? A response to Jonathan Haidt’s book "The Righteous Mind"


As you may already know I use this blog to promote the Resource-Patterns Model of Life (RPM), a model which has been developing in my thought for most of my life. But you may not know that I struggle with failure to reach anyone. I have not found anyone who shows me that they understand my model by echoing, to my satisfaction, lessons offered by the model.

I see my work cut out for me when I read a book (or watch a podcast) in which the author (or speaker) argues well in a field which overlaps my model — but the argument suggests the author’s ignorance of my model because this author would have given at least a passing nod to RPM as they presented their argument — just as we would expect an author to give at least a passing nod to Darwin’s theory if that author were constructing a new argument concerning evolution of species.

Survival of Groups in an Evolutionary Setting

My case in point is Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. During the past three months I read through this book again in order to participate in a group discussion of the book. Previously, several years ago, I had listened to an audio recording of the book. It is a good book. But what particularly caught my attention in this recent reading was in Part III of the book: Haidt’s treatment of our human propensity to form groups. Haidt gives a helpful review of the history of the science of group formation, a review which includes Darwin and Dawkins among others. Then Haidt lays out his own understanding of groupishness, adding his points to the work of his predecessors.

But, as I see it, Haidt and his predecessors seem to overlook what is perhaps the most important mechanism of natural selection: access to food. Food is not universally available. Rather, living things can survive only in particular places where essential resources e.g. food can be accessed. The places and patterns in which nature has distributed these essential resources determine where life can grow. That is why I named my model the Resource-Patterns Model of Life.

As evidence for how Haidt and his predecessors miss what I claim is important, I will now expand upon two topics, each of which seems central to Haidt and his predecessors in their understanding of natural selection. These two topics are: (1) competition and (2) the free rider problem. I will point out how each of these topics is not so crucial, how it loses its place among the few most important topics in natural selection when compared with the topics introduced by Resource Patterns.

1(a) Competition vs Luck

Haidt and his predecessors make frequent mention of competition, as if competition between individuals determines the survival and hence reproduction of those individuals. But this view stands upon an assumption which they do not recognize or spell out.

As I see it they assume that resources are equally available to all the individuals under consideration. With such equality of opportunity assumed among individuals, Haidt and his predecessors focus upon differences in the internal makeup of the individuals, differences which make them more or less fit to survive, differences in competitiveness for instance. So an individual which was disposed to competitive snatching of any resource within reach, even if that resource was already claimed by another individual, would in this view be more likely to survive.

But suppose instead that necessary resources are distributed variably, in some places but not in other places, in patterns which may or may not be discerned by the individuals. In such a setting some individuals will have easy access to what they need while other individuals will have no chance to find what they need. Survival will depend upon these external circumstances, regardless of variations in the internal makeup of the individuals. As such survival will appear dependent upon

  • blind luck, to those individuals unable to discern any pattern, or
  • appropriate action in relation to the resource patterns, to those individuals able to discern the patterns.

1(b) Competition vs Cooperation

The emphasis upon competition, which Haidt and his predecessors seem to assume, also draws attention away from cooperation, a factor which depends upon the properties of both the individuals and the environment. Suppose a setting in which:

  1. individuals are all given the same (or similar) needs and abilities.
  2. the environment offers first a meager resource pattern which can support survival of only a very few of these individuals if, as we suppose at the outset, there is no coordination of the individuals’ actions
  3. but this environment also has another resource pattern, huge by comparison with the first, but difficult to access such that this resource may be exploited only by a group of the individuals, a group in which those individuals have discovered, or fallen into, cooperative behavior.

Thus we have supposed a set of circumstances in which groups of individuals can survive well if and only if the individuals comprising those groups take on specific roles which combine in a way which enables exploitation of the huge resource pattern in the environment. A competitive disposition in these individuals will not help survival as much as a cooperative disposition.

2 Free Rider vs Distributed Private Choices

As I understand Haidt and his predecessors, they assume that free riders in a group can reap benefits from the group without paying the costs of productive participation. These free riders may gain a reproductive advantage relative to productive members by having more time and energy to seek a mate. Then according to Darwinian evolution the offspring of these free riders will themselves be disposed to free riding; the success and coherence of the group will be doomed. So in the long run individuals in the species will not be disposed to form groups.

This view stands once again upon an assumption which Haidt and his predecessors do not address, as far as I know. They assume that there is essential stuff freely available in the group, essential stuff which can be taken to the benefit of a free rider. And, to the extent that assumption is true, I agree: Free riders could destroy any disposition toward groupishness in a population.

But, contrary to that assumption, we in Western civilization can see in the societies that surrounds us that access to free essential stuff is usually limited and policed. Governments which supply pools of free essential stuff typically have rules limiting access. And private parties which offer support or charity also police their offers, being ready to institute new rules if abuse becomes apparent.

To drive home this point it may be helpful to consider an example of a group which may have no freely available stuff at all. Consider the situation which I have described many times elsewhere, in which Living Things (LTs) called tabletop critters develop a stable and prospering existence for themselves by forming a line of trade between two large deposits of water and sugar, which are the only two resources which the critters need to survive. This is pictured in Figure 1, and you can get a longer description in Section 2.2.

Figure 1. Tabletop critters arranged for productive exchange with neighbors

Our group in this situation consists of those who live somewhere between the water and sugar and who have formed stable, mutually-beneficial trading relationships with their neighbors. Through these relationships the group members fill all of their needs. So the individuals in this group have no reason to create a pool of publicly available stuff. We see that it is possible to form productive groups in which free riding poses no threat to continuation of the group.


Why and how do we humans organize ourselves into groups? Jonathan Haidt builds an informative treatment of this question in his book The Righteous Mind. But Haidt’s treatment overlooks the principal force which drives formation of groups. That principal force is the gain which can be achieved wherever our environments presents us with large and difficult challenges, challenges which can be overcome only if we individuals take on specific tasks and organize ourselves into groups which act as wholes. These whole entities can exploit Resource Patterns which would otherwise be out of the reach of us as individuals. When seen in this light neither competition between individuals nor the propensity of some individuals to free ride can overwhelm the benefit of inborn biases which lead to group formation.

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