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The Group Mind Hypothesis 295

emotional traits of a group mind, those which, claims McDougall, emerge
from highly organized human societies, and which lead to heightened
individual abilities.

4 the contemporary defense of the group
mind hypothesis
I have noted that David Sloan Wilson™s recent revival of the group mind
hypothesis draws on his defense of group selection in evolutionary biol-
ogy. I will eventually turn to some of the complexities to the relationship
between these two views, but ¬rst I want to examine Wilson™s views in light
of our discussion so far in this and the previous chapter.
It is in his paper “Incorporating Group Selection into the Adaptationist
Program: A Case Study Involving Human Decision Making” that Wilson
develops his views of the group mind hypothesis most fully, and it is the
“case study” part of that paper on which I will concentrate in what follows.
Wilson™s focus here is on the literature on human decision making, par-
ticularly on human decision making in groups, and this case study review
is intended primarily to support the idea that human decision making has
evolved both by individual selection and by group selection. He begins
by distinguishing two ways

in which human decision making can evolve to maximize the ¬tness of whole
groups. First, individuals might function as independent decision makers whose
goal is to bene¬t the group. This is the way we usually think about altruism (Sober
and Wilson [1998]). Second, individuals might cease to function as independent
decision makers and become part of a group-level cognitive structure in which the
tasks of generating, evaluating, and choosing among alternatives are distributed
among the members of the group. . . . At the extreme, the role of any individual
in the decision-making process might become so limited that the group truly
becomes the decision-making unit, a group mind in every sense of the word.

Wilson illustrates the second of these alternatives with an example of deci-
sion making about food sources in honey beehives, going on to suggest
that although “we should not expect group-level cognition in humans
to resemble the social insects in every detail,” human social groups can
be said to constitute what he calls adaptive decision-making units. In the
framework proposed in this chapter, we can see Wilson here as positing
the existence of minimal minds in groups of animals, including humans,
where the focal psychological ability is decision making.9
It should be clear that it is only the second of Wilson™s alternatives that
represents the sort of emergentist view of group psychological properties
Cognitive Metaphor in Biology and Social Science

that I outlined in the previous chapter as part of the collective psychology
and superorganism traditions, and only in “the extreme” would such a
view support the group mind hypothesis. Insofar as the ¬rst of the alter-
natives Wilson presents states a view about psychology at all, it expresses a
version of the social manifestation thesis. Individuals have a psychological
character that confers bene¬ts on the group as a whole, and do so only
because of properties of that group, such as having a high proportion of
altruists, or imposing severe social costs for nonaltruists.
Wilson continues by discussing the second of these alternatives, equat-
ing it with the idea that groups are adaptive decision-making units, and
focusing on an assessment of the performance of group and individual
decision making. This discussion is aimed largely at offering support for
the idea that human decision making evolved in part by group selec-
tion. But before turning to that claim, and in light of the discussion in
this chapter so far, it is worth asking whether the phenomenon to be
explained by an appeal to group selection concerns the character of in-
dividual decision making or that of group decision making. Wilson seems
to imply that it is both when he says if “human cognition is a product of
group selection, we should expect individuals to be innately prepared to
easily ˜hook up™ with other individuals to form an integrative cognitive
network.” There is the formation of an integrative cognitive network, and
the innate preparedness of individuals to form such networks. But it is
only the former and not the latter of these that is directly relevant to the
group mind hypothesis, rather than to the social manifestation thesis.10
Much the same general point can be made about Wilson™s application
of the group mind perspective to understand religion. At the outset,
Wilson says that he aims to “treat the organismic concept of religious
groups as a serious scienti¬c hypothesis” and that his “purpose is to see
if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify
as organismic in this sense.” But he needs two things to be true if this
project is to lead to a defense of the group mind hypothesis.11
First, it is not just religious groups but religious ideas or something
appropriately psychological that must be adaptations (to get the mind in
“group mind”). Second, this psychology must attach not simply to the in-
dividuals in religious groups but to the groups themselves (to get the group
in “group mind”). Much of what Wilson says about the functionality and
adaptedness of religious groups could be true without either of these as-
sumptions being true. That is, religious groups could be viewed as organ-
ismic in nature, and be subject to natural (group) selection, even though
the processes that drive selection are either individual-level psychological
The Group Mind Hypothesis 297

or group-only nonpsychological processes. Moreover, it may be plausible
to think that some of these individual-level psychological processes, such
as those that produce feelings of devotion, of a deep sense of commit-
ment, or of Godly love, pretty much require social groups with the features
that religious groups have. If that is so, then we have a view more accu-
rately characterized by the social manifestation thesis than by the group
mind hypothesis.
Let us return to the examples of integrated cognitive networks and de-
cision making. We have already seen that both the collective psychology
and superorganism traditions had an emergentist view of the nature of
groups (and thus group minds): Groups are more than the sum of the
individual parts, and having a group mind is more than having a group
of individuals with minds. If Wilson is to keep with this aspect of these
traditions, then it follows that the integrative cognitive networks that he
postulates must be something more than individuals being innately pre-
pared to hook up with one another. Likewise, for his multilevel property
of decision making: Having a minimal mind with this focal ability must
be more than having individual members with this focal ability.
In some trivial sense, a club makes a decision (say, by majority vote)
about whom will be their next president simply by each of the members
publicly expressing a decision on this matter. Even though the decision
here is distinct from those of the individual voters “ since individuals by
themselves cannot elect a new leader “ if there is a group mind here it
is nothing over and above the minds of individuals. Given the indepen-
dence of the group mind hypothesis and the social manifestation thesis,
there must be something more to having a group mind than there being
individuals with socially manifested psychological characteristics. There
is a problem for Wilson™s views here, at least construed as reviving the
group mind hypothesis.
With respect to human decision making, he would seemingly need
to show that this functions at the group level by individuals relinquish-
ing their own decision-making activities. For it is only by doing so that
he could point to a group-level psychological characteristic that is, in
the relevant sense, emergent from individual-level activity. Now those
in the collective psychology tradition, and especially those writing from
1870“1895, did think that this happened. Yet they claimed that it typ-
ically led to a degradation of individual abilities. Crowds, for exam-
ple, had their own psychological character, one that involved the trans-
formation of autonomous individuals into members of madding crowds.
Wilson must distance himself from this aspect of the collective psychology
Cognitive Metaphor in Biology and Social Science

tradition “ and does so in his discussion of Irving Janis™s more recent
concept of groupthink “ since he aims to defend the view that groups are
adaptive decision-making units, that is, units that have properties that pro-
mote ¬tness. Thus, he must look for ways in which collectivities confer
bene¬ts. But if those bene¬ts are nothing more than bene¬ts to individu-
als, then collective behavior would seem to be explained by an individual,
not a group, psychology. If individuals can simply enhance their own in-
dividual decision making by forming groups of a certain character, then
we may have the beginnings of an interesting argument for the social
manifestation thesis, but are no closer to the group mind hypothesis.12
Thus far, I have argued that the group mind hypothesis has been run
together with the social manifestation thesis not only in the collective psy-
chology and superorganism traditions, but also in David Sloan Wilson™s
revival of those traditions within contemporary biology. Finally and more
brie¬‚y, I turn to the recent social sciences to explore whether such con-
fusion exists there as well. As I have mentioned, Mary Douglas™s How
Institutions Think aims, in part, to call attention to Ludwig Fleck™s ne-
glected notion of a thought collective, and examining Fleck™s own views
and their (belated) reception is revealing.
Fleck introduced the terms Denkstil and Denkkollektiv in a 1935 book,
¬nally translated and published as Genesis and Development of a Scienti¬c
Fact. Part of the excitement about that book within the social studies of
science community, and a chief reason for its eventual translation, was its
anticipation of much that was ushered in to the study of science following
Thomas Kuhn™s The Structure of Scienti¬c Revolutions. For Fleck, science is
always practiced within the con¬nes of a thought collective, “a community
of persons mutually exchanging ideas of maintaining intellectual interac-
tion,” with its own thought style. These provide the framework in which
“facts” are determined, and alternative thought collectives may represent
different and incompatible sets of facts. In short, Fleck is seen as antici-
pating some of Kuhn™s most in¬‚uential ideas “ that of a paradigm, of the
dependence of phenomena on paradigms, and the incommensurability
between successive paradigms. More generally, in ascribing a central role
to social dimensions to theory construction, hypothesis testing, and sci-
enti¬c change, Fleck made an early, decisive break from the positivist
view of science that Kuhn™s Structure called into question twenty-¬ve years
As condensed as this summary is, one can note immediately that
thought collectives are not group minds but the social context in which in-
dividual minds function. In Kuhn™s foreword to the English translation of
The Group Mind Hypothesis 299

Fleck™s book, he says that his own struggles with the book cluster around
“the notion of a thought collective,” saying that “a thought collective
seems to function as an individual mind writ large.” Although Kuhn does
not come straight out and say that the basic problem with the notion is
that collectives do not have thoughts, even if they are crucial to the having
of thought, this seems clearly one of the problems that Kuhn himself has
with the notion.14
If we turn to Douglas herself, what she sees as important in Fleck (and
in Durkheim) is the idea that “true solidarity is only possible to the extent
to which individuals share the categories of their thought.” Both Fleck and
Durkheim “were equally emphatic about the social basis of cognition.”
She concludes her monograph by saying that

Durkheim and Fleck taught that each kind of community is a thought world,
expressed in its own thought style, penetrating the minds of its members,
de¬ning their experience, and setting the poles of their moral understand-
ing. . . . individuals really do share their thoughts and they do to some extent har-
monize their preferences, and they have no other way to make the big decisions
except within the scope of institutions they build.15

What each of these expressions points to, and contrary to the title of
Douglas™s book, is not “how institutions think,” but how individuals think
(only) within institutional frameworks. Again, this is in keeping with the
social manifestation thesis, rather than the group mind hypothesis.
We have been led to the social manifestation thesis both by re¬‚ec-
tion on our two traditions and their contemporary revivals in the bio-
logical and social sciences. So I round out this chapter with some fur-
ther thoughts on that thesis that reach back to earlier discussions in

5 the social manifestation thesis
The social manifestation thesis says something signi¬cant about the na-
ture of cognition and its relation to individuals, but it is important to be
clear about what is signi¬cant here. It says that some psychological states
of individuals are manifested only when those individuals form part of a
social group of a certain type. Both the “social” and “manifestation” parts
of the thesis require further explanation.
One way of understanding this pair of notions is in terms of the idea
that individuals have their psychology transformed through social mem-
bership. We have seen that this view has been thought of as playing a
Cognitive Metaphor in Biology and Social Science

central role within the collective psychology tradition, where the rele-
vant social groups were “crowds.” Yet there are different ways to think
about individuals, cognition, and this process of transformation.
First, we may take an individual as a self-contained bundle of psycho-
logical dispositions, with membership in a crowd temporarily causing
some of these “ the irrational, the unconscious, the emotional “ to be
manifested, and those of the rational individual to remain merely dis-
positional. Here an individual™s social circumstances play a triggering
role in the expression of preexisting psychological dispositions. They do
not themselves bring about any new dispositions in individuals, just the
manifestation of dispositions already latent in the individual. What are
transformed are the dispositions that are manifested.
Second and alternatively, we can think of individuals who are normally
constituted by psychologically rational states as acquiring a new, distinct
set of psychological dispositions when they become part of a crowd. On
this view, the social circumstances change not simply what dispositions
become manifested, but what dispositions an individual has. Thus, being
part of a crowd brings about a more radical form of transformation of the
individual than is suggested by the triggering view. What is transformed
is the dispositions themselves.
These two kinds of transformation that social circumstances can bring
about in an individual contrast in roughly the way in which memory and
learning do in common sense thought. In the case of memory, our social
circumstances may cause us to manifest something we already have inside
of us, something that we already know; in the case of learning, those
circumstances change the knowledge structures that we have. The role
of the environment in memory is epitomized as the asking of a question,
while in learning it is the giving of instruction.
Despite this sort of difference, both of these conceptions of the social
manifestation thesis are continuous with the individualistic tradition of
thinking about psychological states that has been the focus of earlier parts
of Boundaries. This is because, on these views, an individual™s psychology
itself can (and should) still be understood in abstraction from that indi-
vidual™s social environment. In neither of these cases do the psychological
dispositions themselves become social, that is, become constituted by the
social circumstances in which they are manifested. Both views draw on a
conception of the role of social circumstances in cognition akin to that
held by strong nativists (Chapter 3), whereby cognition is internally richly
structured antecedent to, and independent of, social circumstances. And
they both accept a view of (psychological) dispositions as always being
The Group Mind Hypothesis 301

intrinsic to the bearer of the disposition. In Chapter 6, I argued that the
very idea of intrinsic dispositions sat uneasily with the prima facie exis-
tence of wide realizations of an individual™s properties. In effect, the argu-
ment there claimed that properties and their realizations are either both
individualistic or both wide, and thus that the width of the realizations
for at least some psychological properties implied that those properties
(including dispositional properties) were not individualistic. In light of
this, the idea of an individualistic but socially manifested property is an
unstable hybrid.
This places some conceptual stress on individualistic understandings


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