In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Group Selection

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Origins of the Group Selection Controversy
  • Empirical Studies
  • Species Selection
  • Group Adaptation and the Superorganism
  • Major Transitions in Evolution
  • Shifting Balance
  • Cultural Group Selection

Evolutionary Biology Group Selection
Andy Gardner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0101


The basic idea of group selection theory is that the logic of natural selection acting at the level of individual organisms can also be applied to the level of whole groups of organisms. Exactly what this means and whether it is a useful way of thinking about the biological world remains very controversial. Indeed, the development of the group selection literature often appears to have been driven as much by confusion and misstep as it has by informed reasoning. Although careful and considered foundations were laid in the nineteenth century by Charles Darwin, his contributions to the theory of group—or multilevel—selection were largely ignored and, in the twentieth century, gave way to a naïve view that ordinary natural selection leads inevitably to adaptation for the good of the species as a whole. Since the 1960s, progress has proceeded in fits and starts, with a gradual consensus building that adaptation at the level of whole populations requires that selection has been acting at a between-population level and that population-level adaptation tends to be eroded by the action of within-population selection. This development in understanding has led to an interest in conceptualizing and quantifying the action of selection at the between-group and within-group levels in a range of theoretical and empirical scenarios. However, no consensus has emerged as to how group selection and related concepts are to be formally defined. Accordingly, the theoretical literature is characterized by repeated returns to first principles and repeated reinvention of the wheel, rather than steady, cumulative, and collaborative progress. And this failure of theory has led to an empirical literature that is very patchy, with some neat studies in the laboratory and in the field being motivated and conducted within a multilevel selection framework but with little sustained progress through long-term interplay of theoretical and empirical research. As a research program, group selection has certainly enjoyed much less success than its competitor—the theory of kin selection—which appears to describe exactly the same phenomena in an alternative but exactly equivalent mathematical and conceptual language and has been shown to have enormous scientific utility in relation to biological topics as diverse as sex ratios, parasite virulence, and the evolution of altruism. But group selection does logically appear to provide a superior conceptual framework for understanding the evolution of group-level adaptation and so-called major transitions in individuality (e.g., from unicells to multicellular animals to eusocial insect “superorganisms”), and perhaps also the evolution of human culture, which, if it is Darwinian at all, may be best conceptualized as being a property rather of social groups and institutions than of individual persons. Moreover, group selection is of strong interest to philosophers and historians of biology, as well as to biologists of a philosophical and historical bent.

General Overviews

The literature on group selection has been inordinately focused on simply establishing what group selection is and whether it plays any meaningful role in the natural world. Multiple overviews have been published over the last sixty years, often in book form but also as influential review papers.

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