The Earthling

Fittest of the Survivors

Let me admit at the outset that the TV show Survivor doesn’t perfectly mirror the dynamics of human evolution. For example: Archaeologists have scoured the African savannah in vain for evidence that our ancestors played dopey coconut games while surrounded by a film crew, a spectacle you may recall from the first installment of Survivor, this past fall. 

Still, the show does feature small groups of people living in low-tech conditions and playing for high stakes. And, as in human evolution, the game calls not just for competition but for cooperation—a subtle mix of. So the kinds of traits favored by the game should bear at least some correlation to the kinds of traits that human evolution favored. This means Survivor could provide valid data in a long-standing debate among evolutionary psychologists about the essence of human nature. OK, “valid” may be a reach—but what these data lack in validity they make up for in vividness. 

The debate in question is between the “individual selectionist” view, the dominant view within evolutionary psychology, and the “group selectionist” view, a minority view that has long been struggling for wider acceptance and that over the last few years has had some success on the public-relations front, thanks largely to journalists hungry for fresh angles. Alas for the group selectionists, Survivor cannot be counted among those PR successes.

At least, Survivor 1 sure can’t. Let me explain why, and then leave it for readers to decide whether Survivor 2, which debuts this Sunday, will have a similar effect on intellectual history.   

In, group selectionism is the idea that a significant part of human nature evolved “for the good of the group.” Group selectionists, compared to individual selectionists, expect people to be inclined toward purer, less discriminating forms of altruism. They don’t claim we’re all Mother Teresa, but they claim we’re a bit closer to that end of the spectrum than individual selectionists give us credit for being.

Individual selectionists, to be sure, think people are naturally inclined toward altruistic acts. But they generally expect these acts to fall into one of two categories: a) altruism bestowed on kin, which may indeed amount to; b) altruism bestowed on non-kin, which tends to be dished out selectively, with the (often unconscious) aim of getting eventual reciprocation in one form or another. 

Thus, individual selectionists aren’t surprised by the parent-running-into-burning-buildings-to-save-offspring type of altruism. But they expect soldier-jumping-on-hand-grenade-to-save-army-buddies type of altruism to be so rare that when it happens we make a huge deal of it and award the Medal of Honor. As we do.

Which brings us to Survivor. In theory, you can imagine two types of behavior on Survivor. In a heavily group-selectionist scenario, people would do things that are in the interest of their “tribe” even if that meant incurring much greater costs than their tribemates incur. They might, say, work to build a shelter without worrying much about whether their labors are being acknowledged, or whether other people are contributing comparably.

In a heavily individual-selectionist scenario, people would spend their energy in a less diffuse and carefree manner. Yes, they might work hard building a shelter, but they would make damn sure everyone knew about it. That way they could be “repaid” in one currency or another—maybe by elevated social status (which during evolution seems to have had a reproductive payoff) or maybe just by other people pitching in and matching their contribution. In the individual-selectionist scenario, disproportionate burdens are not gleefully shouldered, and selfish calculation is a recurring theme.

I am tempted to say, without further elaboration, “I rest my case.” After all, the winner of Survivor 1—the species that was left standing after many generations of winnowing—was the infamous Richard Hatch, now nationally known for his self-centered conniving.  When he did something for the “good of the group”—like catching fish, his speciality—he did everything short of calling in the Goodyear blimp to advertise it. And when his tribemates failed to show their appreciation—as when some of them voted against him at “tribal council”—he staged a work stoppage.

Richard’s story illustrates a big problem for group selectionists: The individual selectionist view of human nature can account for all kinds of adroitly “groupish” behaviors. After all, Richard won not as a tough loner but as a canny organizer. By appealing baldly to the self-interest of Sue, Kelly, and then Rudy, he covertly formed the “Tagi voting bloc.” This group, which probably featured the highest density of selfish calculation found anywhere on the island, was nonetheless cohesive week after week (until, near the end, the flighty Kelly went AWOL, a maneuver for which she eventually paid the ultimate price). As other islanders were cast into the dustbin of evolutionary history, these four stayed standing.    

The same story unfolds at a higher level of organization—in comparing the whole Tagi “tribe” to its adversary, the Pagong tribe. The Tagi were contentious, inclined to complain about laggards. The Pagong were a notably nicer, less judgmental group of people—more like you’d expect products of group selection to be.

And which group was more effective—the nice group or the meaner group? I hate to assign the class supplementary reading, but on this point I must direct you to an important anthropological monograph called Survivor, written by the show’s co-creator, Mark Burnett. (Its chapters are nicely labeled “Evolution One,” “Evolution Two,” etc.) Of the Pagong, Burnett writes: “Their beach, for lack of a better word, was a slum.” Meanwhile, those selfish Tagi “worked constantly to improve their way of life. The shelter had everything but a wine cellar.” It turns out that a lot of showing off and complaining—working conspicuously hard and handing out negative reinforcement to those who don’t—can lead to prosperous, powerful tribalism.

You might ask: But if human evolution wasn’t heavily shaped by group selection, then how do I explain the Pagong tribe’s mellowness? After all, its members were real human beings, products of real human evolution, so presumably they manifested real human nature.

Well, for one thing, though the Pagong were undeniably mellower than the Tagi, the difference wasn’t as stark as it seemed. Burnett writes: “Pagong was outwardly loving, but they were a duplicitous bunch. Jenna, for instance, sweet-talked Ramona one minute, then, as soon as the biochemist walked away, Jenna would grumble that Ramona was weak and lazy and should be voted off.”

You might still ask: But, even if neither group was a paragon of group-selected altruism, weren’t there some individuals who were more selfless than individual selectionists would expect humans to be? What about Sean, that nice young neurologist? And what about the show’s angelic heroine, the strong yet sensitive Gretchen? Don’t worry—I can explain away these uncooperative data points with.

Let me summarize today’s lesson. The spirit of selfless community that you would expect to see if group selection had been a big factor in human evolution didn’t suffuse either of the two tribes in Survivor 1. And the groups that featured the most selfishness—whether tribes or sub-tribal coalitions—actually achieved the most as groups. The reason is that enlightened self-interest—the kind that individual selection can produce—leads to cooperation. Yes, it is a grudging, calculating cooperation. It involves constantly monitoring—consciously or unconsciously—the payoffs you’re getting for your contributions and the contributions others are making. But it works.

Is this bad news? Some group selectionists seem to believe so. They think that they, unlike those cynical individual selectionists, offer an uplifting view of human nature and bring a message of hope for humankind. Personally, I find the group selectionist view of human nature—people as sheep, if you’ll pardon my caricature—a bit creepy. And I find the individual selectionist view of human nature in some ways uplifting, for reasons I’ve explained in my own recently published book-length message of hope for humankind. (OK, it’s guarded, qualified hope, but it’s hope.)

In any event, the test of a view of human nature isn’t whether it brings hope, but whether it comports with the way people actually behave. And so far, at least, behavior in the Survivor series has favored the individual-selectionist view of human psychology. Stay tuned.    

Disclaimer: I can already imagine the letter that an arch-group-selectionist might write in reply to this article. So let me try (in vain, no doubt) to do some pre-emptive qualification.

1)   No, I’m not saying that group selection is impossible, or that it played no role in human evolution. In fact, I don’t even say that in my book The Moral Animal, which some group selectionists view as an individual-selectionist tract. I’m just saying that a) human nature isn’t what you’d expect it to be if group selection had played a large role; and b) the sort of human nature individual selectionists expect to see can account for formidably cohesive group behavior.2)   Obviously, as I said at the outset, Survivor doesn’t come anywhere near mirroring the environment of our evolution. Still, it does show human nature being manifested under distinctively illuminating circumstances, and it documents the social consequences of different behavioral styles. In many ways, it is at least as revealing a view of how real people really act as you’ll get by examining the roomfuls of undergraduates that make up so many of psychology’s data points.