Fittest of the Survivors

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Jan. 24 2001 9:00 PM

Fittest of the Survivors

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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. 

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

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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.