India, Pakistan and Survival

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall / Who is the Fittest of Us All?

The question, starkly posed, could be the following: Which country, India or Pakistan, has the better chance of survival, and why?

In fact, the question is just an artifact to extend a discussion we have been having on this blog about the relationship of tolerance to survival. Our engagement with the issue has been at the very basic level of understanding but the very fact that we have been debating it leads us on to better and more sophisticated arguments. This, I strongly believe, is the beneficial outcome of discussions and conversations on a blog like this.

It is only because of our discussion that I paused to read more carefully an article that in the normal course I might have skipped over. Our discussion provided the hook that made me look for material that supported or qualified the arguments we had been making at our lay level.

The article, in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books (October 14, 2010), is a review (Is Goodness in Your Genes?) by H. Allen Orr of a book (The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness) by Oren Harman. The book is about George Price, “a brilliant figure who performed fundamental work in the 1970s on several problems in evolutionary biology, including altruism.”

The review begins by posing the fundamental question that puzzles all who start to grapple with Darwin’s notion of the survival of the fittest. If we substitute ‘tolerance’ for ‘altruism,’ the question gets to the heart of the discussion that has been progressing on this blog:

If animals, including human beings, evolved by natural selection—a merciless process in which organism struggles against organism and all that matters is outcompeting everyone else—how could altruism arise? How could natural selection promote, or even allow, behavior that is costly to the individual that performs it but that benefits someone else?

The answer out of this dilemma has been posited before and the notion is the same that we have touched upon in our discussion: that we should look at evolution not just at the level of the individual but also at the level of a group:

In the twentieth century, two big developments marked attempts to understand the biology of altruism. In the first, V.C. Wynne-Edwards, author of Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior (1962), argued that evolutionary biologists had partly misconstrued the biological level at which natural selection acts. Though selection might often involve competition among individual organisms, Wynne-Edwards maintained that it often involves competition among entire populations of organisms. Under this so-called group selection view, altruism seems easily explained. Within a group, selfish individuals (ones who, say, reproduce rapidly even when resources are limited) might outcompete altruistic individuals (ones who slow reproduction when times are tough). But among populations, things are different. A population comprised of selfish individuals will likely ultimately deplete its resources and crash to extinction, whereas a population comprised of altruists will not deplete its resources and will survive to another day. Natural selection acting at the group level might therefore sustain altruism in animals. Though many biologists were skeptical of group selection—especially as the models offered were mostly verbal, not mathematical—no fully convincing alternative seemed available.

The second big theory (that I will gloss over in this post) was that of ‘inclusive fitness’ in which W.D. Hamilton argued that:

what matters under natural selection is not the fitness of this or that individual (where fitness is measured roughly by the number of progeny an individual produces) but the fitness of an individual averaged together, in a certain way, with the fitness of its relatives. Inclusive fitness could explain all manner of previously puzzling acts of animal altruism.


In search for an explanation for the existence of altruism, the first major contribution had shifted the focus from the individual up to the group; the second major contribution shifted it down from the individual to the gene.

The contribution of George Price in the 1970s was to show (via the Price Equation, a mathematically rigorous formulation) that it is possible to:

partition evolutionary change in a trait into the possible effects of natural selection acting simultaneously at multiple biological levels, e.g., the species, population, organism, gamete (sperm or egg), and gene.

The reviewer comments that the result of the Price Equation is  at the same time very simple and very surprising – “quite a miracle.”

One can also use the Price Equation to study animal behavior, including altruistic behavior. Doing so reveals that accounting for altruism biologically does not require one to choose between believing that natural selection acts within groups or between groups. Instead, selection might act simultaneously at both levels, with selection within groups favoring selfishness (individuals that are selfish will out-compete those that are saintly) and selection between groups favoring altruism (groups including many cooperative individuals will do better, as a group, than those including many uncooperative individuals). Whether or not altruism evolves depends on the relative strengths of these conflicting forms of selection.

Crucially, the Price Equation showed that group selection arguments for altruism need not be offered tentatively or apologetically; they could be offered with mathematical precision.


It was at this point that the India-Pakistan comparison suggested itself in the context of long-term survival. The hypothetical extension of the logic discussed above is as follows:

It is quite likely (As Ahmed Kamran has been arguing in his series on the orientation of Islam in Pakistan) that the most intolerant group within Pakistan, the Taliban, would survive and come out on top as the fittest organism in that environment. But this struggle for supremacy would so enfeeble the organism that its survival as a group would be at stake.

This argument presumes, of course, the existence of ‘other’ groups that may or may not be favorably disposed towards the first. If we take India to be that ‘Other,’ as many Pakistanis insist it is, then we can examine the implications of the fact that India is a more tolerant organism than Pakistan. No one would dispute this although there could be arguments about how much more tolerant it is. This is irrelevant to our discussion because in the evolutionary perspective even marginal differences would be crucial to the outcome.

Hence the conclusion that is now open for discussion: A viciously intolerant group would survive and emerge on top in Pakistan weakening it to a degree that it would be unable to compete while India, either forced to be more tolerant because of peculiar initial conditions or lucky to be so because of wiser leadership, would ultimately dominate the region. Is there an exit ramp off this highway for Pakistan?

The book review is accessible in full only to subscribers but NYRB should be available in many good libraries. Excerpts in italics are quotes from the review. Another review of the book, with full access, is now available here in the Nation.


  • neel123
    Posted at 23:14h, 25 September Reply

    There is no escape for Pakistan, simply because it is in a suicidal mode, it has a death wish that has no cure.

    Otherwise it would not be in a destructive race with a many times larger and fundamentally stronger India.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:11h, 27 September

      Neel: Pakistan is a collective comprised of many groups engaged in a struggle amongst themselves for survival, each maximizing its perceived self-interest. Some of them, Taliban included, do not really care if Pakistan survives as an entity or not. There are other groups that say they care for Pakistan but whose actions belie their words. These are the groups that have encouraged the destructive race and nurtured the Taliban as well. Yet other groups have fallen for the rhetoric of these groups and not raised their voices against either kind of destructive race. When you deconstruct the process like this it helps to make sense of the madness. When the groups that do not care about the entity known as Pakistan begin to dominate, the result naturally comes across as a death wish from the perspective of those who wish Pakistan to survive and do well.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:15h, 27 September Reply

    I think you have characterized the taliban group incompletely. While they are intolerant towards other groups they are very altruistic towards individuals of the same group. That altruism is ofcourse not tolerance because they all share the same ideology. It is altruism in every other sense of the word – extending a helping hand etc. Looking at them that way, they have the capability to outcompete other groups and still survive strongly as the last group.

    But this struggle for supremacy would so enfeeble the organism that its survival as a group would be at stake.

    I did not understand why it would enfeeble the “organism”. I’d appreciate a clarification.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:34h, 27 September

      Vinod: I did not characterize the Taliban incompletely. The insight of the Fisher Equation was that evolution works at all levels simultaneously. Therefore, our interpretation of the outcome of the evolutionary process depends on which level we are interested in. If we are more interested in the Taliban and less interested in Pakistan, we can celebrate the fact that Taliban will survive and emerge on top because of their greater altruism within their group. If we are more interested in Pakistan and less interested in the Taliban, we can be apprehensive that the process that would lead to the emergence of the Taliban on top would grievously weaken the ability of Pakistan to survive.

      Given the title of the post, I had thought it obvious that our organisms of interest were Pakistan and India. Those who care more for the Taliban have nothing to worry about.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:54h, 27 September

      Yes. I got a bit confused by the terminology in the body of the post. Now I’m clear. If the group in question is Pakistan, as it indeed is, then there is inadequate altruism in the group as long as taliban-like thinking holds sway.

  • Kamran
    Posted at 12:23h, 29 September Reply

    Application of Price Equation in the ‘struggle for existence’ and on the ‘survival of fittest’ of individuals and groups simultaneously at different levels is a very interesting formulation. It may be argued that it simultaneously applies at multiple levels i.e. one, at individuals among themselves, two, at the level of ‘groups of individuals’, and three, at the level of ‘aggregates of different groups’ (nations or countries) level.

    Applying it to the India & Pakistan question, certainly in the later the group of individuals (a silent, passive majority) that still espouses the altruistic views of a tolerant living in peace and harmony with other groups, even if they are differing from them, is fast losing ground and power to the growing number of increasingly dominant intolerant groups (vocal and aggressive minority), not willing to allow intellectual space to other groups. To one group the country as it exists in its mind is on self-destructive mode while for the other it is the creative reconstruction mode. As the state is becoming a party in this struggle, its ability to run ‘business as usual’ on neutral grounds is seriously impaired, and in between, we are witnessing a social anarchy creeping in.

    Here I do not fully agree with Neel that India may sit comfortably complacent. Though, still better than its neighbor in the west, it has yet to safely cross the crucial intersection where it may well take the turn towards a relapse of ‘reaction’ and may yield to the increasingly dominating ‘intolerant’ and aggressive group in its midst.
    Leaving it aside and returning to Pakistan, I agree with Vinod that Taliban phenomenon has its own dynamics. Ironically, it has a strong undercurrent of providing a channel for economic and social emancipation of long suppressed rural poor. A few diehard Lashkar activists usually arrive in a town, arm and equip the otherwise a long humiliated youth of suppressed classes of society with automatic weapons, twin-cabin Toyotas, and much needed political and social empowerment to feel like holding their new fate in own hands and free to settle scores with their enemies including the symbols of social injustice and tyranny and a notoriously corrupt police. Talibans make them owners of the economic assets abandoned by hurriedly fleeing rich and overlords. No wonder ANP representing the later is now in full conflict with these rag-tag guerillas. And in return what do they ask for? A cut in the village revenue, insistence on observing Islamic Sharia rituals and physical appearance, which they in any case hold dear to them, if not occasionally practicing. This is the phenomena that we are witnessing more or less in parts of Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and many other sub-Saharan African countries. Even the minerals and diamond wars in Africa are being fought with youth armed bands raised in similar fashion. It is also not much different from what we had seen in the tropical jungles of South East Asia and Latin America in the 1960’s and 1970’s, albeit with different ideology and a book of different colour in hand.
    Unfortunately, this aspect of economic and social emancipation is not something that is to last for long as it did not last in the glimpses of social revolutions of the previous century. These are only means to achieve an objective of initial success and creating a wider support base. The Talibans and Lashkars themselves contain sufficient weight against any meaningful social progress and emancipation of people and it does, or soon will, overpower the common men.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 14:24h, 30 September Reply

    A complete review of the book (The Price of Altruism) referred to in this post has now become available in The Nation:

    And here is a description of the groups engaged in a struggle for survival in Pakistan and what it is doing to the country seen as a meta-group. Given the picture painted, it is worth discussing who is likely to come out on top, the implications for Pakistan and for South Asia, and what needs to be done (and by whom) to change the trajectory for the better (better from whose perspective?):

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