How Evolution Could Sink (or Save) GM

GM might be saved by a societal version of group selection, which refers to the possibility that genes can stay in a population because they benefit the group, regardless of what they do to individuals. Already, the Hummer H2 (shown here) is a casualty of evolution: Tuesday, GM said it plans to sell off its Hummer line. (Image credit: GM)

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As General Motors files for bankruptcy, many in the country have been wondering what went wrong, and why everyone isn't pitching in to save the corporate giant that has its fingers in many other companies.

It would seem that the country should act as a collative and care about this. But the reality is that capitalism is like evolution by natural selection, and natural selection can be a harsh reality.

There are many forces of evolution, but natural selection, biologists feel, is the most important. It works like this: All sorts of variation is produced (think SUV, compacts, vans, and sedans) and then the environment (think free market) selects for some and ignores others. The ignored ones are dropped out of the gene pool (think showroom floor or metal recycling plant), and too bad for them.

In this biological (or economic) system, only the best adapted survive. So what if evolution is presented with something more sleek, in cool colors, or with tinted windows — if it takes too much energy (gas) to use, it will be selected against.

Natural selection operates on individuals, or individual automobiles companies because not all of them are going bankrupt, and that affects the future of the total gene pool, or automobile business. That's how biological life, and capitalist economies, have been shaped over generations.

But it's possible that another force of evolution could operate here. Group selection refers to the possibility that genes can stay in a population because they benefit the group, regardless of what they do to individuals.

It would be like SUV's surviving into eternity because we all chipped in to keep them rolling off the factory line even though no one drives them anymore.

Biologists disagree about the possibility of group selection. It just doesn't make a lot of sense. Why would people cooperate to do something that harms them individually? And could we do this to save jobs for people we don't even know?

In fact, evolutionary biologist Bobbi Lowe of the University of Michigan has pointed out that humans are not well designed to operate this way. We only pay attention to close friends and close kin because that's what was critical in our ancestral past when humans lived in small groups. We also don't plan well for the future because our hominid history was marked by uncontrollable, unpredictable environments.

"We evolved to strive for resources and seldom, if ever, found ourselves evolutionarily 'rewarded' for conscious restraint," Lowe has written. Instead, she claims, humans are designed by evolution to work well on the short-term, and forget about the more global view on conserving anything because we just can't do it.

The Governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, has recently pointed out that helping GM isn't really an empty attempt at group selection (although not being a biologist she didn't actually use the words "groups selection"). Instead, Granholm says that we are all in it together now because of the federal bailout. The infusion of our hard earned tax money means that each of us has a vested interest in keeping GM afloat. I other words, whether we like it or not, we now share genes in common with those working for the car companies.

Suddenly the GM crises is no longer far away and meaningless but in our own gene pool.

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Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link). Her Human Nature column appears each Friday on LiveScience.

Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves". She is a contributor to Live Science.