The evolutionary basis for pro social behavior in humans remains a controversial topic. In particular, the question of how large-scale human cooperative activities like social, cultural, political and economic systems might have evolved through natural selection processes is a fundamental one. Of particular ontological and epistemological interest is the appropriate unit of selection for individual and collective altruistic and pro-social behavior because these behaviors enable the requisite complex organizing that under girds human systems. Interestingly, this question is also at the center of a theoretical dispute in evolutionary biology that erupted as a consequence of the cover article in the journalNature written by a group that included the prominent evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson. The dialogue continues with Wilson's new book: The Social Conquest of Earth.
The Nature article, "The evolution or eusociality," by mathematical biologists Martin A. Nowak and Corina E. Tarnita as well as Wilson purports to describe the mechanisms whereby altruism and eusociality - social collectives like insect colonies where adult members are divided into reproductive and non reproductive castes -emergence through evolutionary selection. In particular, the question addresses is whether kin selection, the idea that altruistic behavior has survived evolution because it supports the genes of closely related others through a mechanism called inclusive fitness, is even necessary to demonstrate the presence of altruism a hallmark of human evolutionary development.
Although unstated, the ontological question addressed in the article is whether evolution acts on the gene alone, or whether it also acts at the group or community levels, a process called multi-level selection. Wilson argues that kin selection and the mechanism of inclusive fitness, where indirect fitness associated with the survival of related individuals is counted along with the direct fitness of the individual, is unnecessary to explain the emergence of altruistic behavior. A five stage evolutionary process is proposed. A key prerequisite in this theory is the differentiated access to resources - in particular, a “defensible nest” - which provides survival advantage to members of the group.
To read more about the implication of this argument, go here.