Review of Austrian Economics, 13: 81–95 (2000)
2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers
“Was Hayek Right About Group Selection
After All?” Review Essay of Unto Others: The
Evolution and Psychology of Unselﬁsh Behavior,
by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson
TODD J. ZYWICKI
George Mason University School of Law, Arlington, VA
Abstract. One of the most controversial aspects of Hayek’s social theory was his acceptance of the concept of
cultural group selection. The publication of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselﬁsh Behavior
provides an opportunity to revisit this much-maligned component of Hayek’s thought. Sober and Wilson are
concerned with biological group selection, but much of their argument is equally applicable to cultural group
selection. This essay revisits Hayek’s views on cultural group selection in light of the model proposed by Sober
and Wilson. Comparing their model to Hayek’s model suggests that group selection theories are more plausible
than traditionally thought and that their viability in any given situation is an empirical, not an a priori, question.
So long as there are beneﬁts to a group from greater levels of altruism and cooperation, and so long as free rider
problems can be mitigated, group selection models are plausible.
JEL classiﬁcation: K00.
One of the most controversial aspects of Hayek’s writings on social theory was his accept-
ance of the concept of “group selection.”
The concept of group selection has proven itself
equally controversial in the ﬁeld of evolutionary biology. In both ﬁelds of study, group
selection theories have been roundly criticized as at best trivial in importance and at worst
fundamentally wrong-headed and obscurantist.
But perhaps this obituary for group selection is premature. Elliott Sober and David Sloan
Wilson certainly believe that to be the case. In their new book, Unto Others: The Evolution
and Psychology of Unselﬁsh Behavior, they offer up a spirited defense of the concept
of group selection in the context of evolutionary biology. Biological group selection and
Hayekian cultural selection theories have been closely related throughout their histories and
thus haveshareda common fate.
To the extentthat Soberand Wilson have provided aviable
model of group selection in evolutionary biology, therefore, it is worthwhile revisiting the
issue to see whether it provides insight and support for Hayek’s views on cultural evolution.
I would like to thank Steven Horwitz and Paul Rubin for comments and suggestions on prior drafts of this essay
and George Mason University School of Law and the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University for
ﬁnancial support. Any errors or omissions are the author’s.