Eat it, Rand.
March 21, 2005 7:38 PM   Subscribe

An evolutionary basis for altruism. These findings suggest that true altruism, far from being a maladaptation, may be the key to our species' success by providing the social glue that allowed our ancestors to form strong, resilient groups. Sharing isn't just caring, it's surviving.
posted by schroedinger (44 comments total)

 
Considering how much influence Realist IR theory has on diplomatic policy, the results outlined in this article would indicate it might be worthwhile to consider peaceful strategies of resolving conflict and international welfare programs a little more than hippie Idealist hooey.
posted by schroedinger at 7:41 PM on March 21, 2005


Ayn Rand must be doing cartwheels in her grave!
posted by papakwanz at 7:57 PM on March 21, 2005


Oh, woops, didn't notice the title of the post. Me dumb.
posted by papakwanz at 7:58 PM on March 21, 2005


I'm not sure if I trust this stuff.. anyhow, it seems impossible to demonstrate an 'inherent' possibility for altruism as separate from a learned, social behavior. Seems to me that altruism is possible but by no means natural.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 9:06 PM on March 21, 2005


BLF, what about it don't you trust? Yeah, the post should have indicated this is the evolution of a social behavior rather than something with a genetic basis. But it seems to me that all our genetics do is tell us to do what's best to survive and reproduce and we adapt what behaviors best work for this purpose. This article seems to indicate that's altruism (or enforced altruism, in the case of larger groups).
posted by schroedinger at 9:46 PM on March 21, 2005


Trivers and Toby and Cosmides have been saying this for a while.

I'd go into this in greater depth, but I'm a bit busy tight now, calculating how much to spend on toys for my new nephew.

Considering that on average my sister and I share 50% of our genes, and given that my nephew inherited precisely half of my genes from her, I imagine that the cost of any gift I give him should benefit him at least four times what it costs me --

-- discounting of course, the statistical probability that he will not live to, or wish to, procreate, and adding in that my brother-in-law's considerable wealth could in the future benefit my own progeny, should I convince a woman, who as an egg producer makes a much greater investment to bear and raise a live child than I do in making the few sperm and spending the three minutes or so procreating, to favor perpetuating my genes in a proggie --

-- of course, given my (relatively) advanced age compared to the natural life-span of humans and other medium sized vertebrates, it's very possible I'll not have any progeny of my own at all, which while cancelling out any potential benefit of propitiating my brother-in-law but would mean that my nephew may in fact be the only bearer of my (shared with my sister) genes, arguing for a larger contribution on my part --

-- and definitely ruling out any foolish appropriation of my resources as in adopting a proggie that would only superficially be my own, as it would not bear my genes, and therefore only a drain on my resources.
posted by orthogonality at 10:02 PM on March 21, 2005


"N THE aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami last year, people from the world's richest countries were falling over each other to make donations to help rebuild the lives of the survivors... Whatever the reason, conspicuous donation suddenly became the vogue."

I call bullshit. Especially with regards the US, but in general many other countries participated precisely for a small sliver of time, while it was fashionable, and then left. This article doesn't seem to me to be academically rigorous, only progressively wishful... which i support ethically, but not intellectually.
posted by yonation at 10:06 PM on March 21, 2005


Seems to me that altruism is possible but by no means natural.

*cough*

Naked mole rats (mammals) and eusocial behavior
• Evolution of eusociality in termites
The evolution of social behavior in microorganisms
posted by AlexReynolds at 10:27 PM on March 21, 2005


A serious comment on the "Eat it, Rand" part of the post and the similar comment: for years, evolutionary psychology, when applied to humans, has been viciously and unscientifically criticised by the academic left -- and specifically Gould, Lewontin, Eldredge and Rose -- Left as "bad science" because of its rejection of the "blank slate" model of culture for a belief in innate human behaviors.

How ironic it would be if the Left now found cause to embrace evolutionary biology, not because of the science, but because this aspect supports the beliefs they have put before the goal of following the truth to wherever it leads.
posted by orthogonality at 10:27 PM on March 21, 2005 [1 favorite]


How ironic it would be if the Left now found cause to embrace evolutionary biology, not because of the science, but because this aspect supports the beliefs they have put before the goal of following the truth to wherever it leads.

I wouldn't necessarily ascribe any particular abuse to one side. Shrewd politicians all over the spectrum understand inherent (evolved) human nature — easier to gain and maintain control over people when you know that the buttons you're pressing trigger deap-seated instincts.

Whether by spreading fear of people of different skin colors or sexual preferences, or inculcating in young people your own value system through intimidation and abuse (public schools, armed forces, etc.), manipulation and dominance is as ancient as Mesopotamia.
posted by AlexReynolds at 10:37 PM on March 21, 2005


AlexReynolds writes "I wouldn't necessarily ascribe any particular abuse to one side."

Er, sorry, my bad. I almost wrote, and should have written, "the academic Left" -- the names I mention are all of prominent biologists (except Rose? Rose may be a non-biologist) who shamelessly and shamefully attacked EO Wilson and sociobiology, because of their Marxists beliefs. I wasn't talking about politicians, who expect for those of the fundy right who attack evolution in any form, pretty much have ignored evolutionary psychology.
posted by orthogonality at 11:15 PM on March 21, 2005 [1 favorite]


Didn't Richard Dawkins say as much in 'The Selfish Gene' thirty years ago?
posted by Paragon at 11:51 PM on March 21, 2005


Not to mention nicely summarized by Rcihard Wright in the very readable, The Moral Animal.
posted by Dagobert at 12:27 AM on March 22, 2005


Dagobert writes "Not to mention nicely summarized by Rcihard Wright in the very readable, The Moral Animal."

Robert Wright. Wright unfortunately ends his book with a somewhat mystic nod to Teilhard de Chardin -- sorry, that's in his other book, Non Zero -- but that, and Wright being a journalist not a biologist, makes me somewhat prefer Dawkins, or closer to the source, Trivers.

Richard Wright wrote Native Son and Black Boy.
posted by orthogonality at 12:33 AM on March 22, 2005


Schroedinger, if altruism is "what's best to survive" then it's not altruism. We may be talking semantics here, but when I speak of altruism I mean not just giving, but demonstrably receiving nothing in return. This isn't that - it's just people not choosing the most selfish choice, and even then it is for their benefit. The game they mention where they have a chance of getting more money by cheating, I know that game from psych and the way to "win" that game is to choose the cooperative option every time - you both end up making more money or points or whatever.

AlexReynolds, I've read about social and collaborative behavior in animals, alloparenting and so on, and really it seems to me that it's all in the vein of the "greater good," which under moral theory is the greater good for the individual as well. True altruism would have died out long ago - clearly these configurations you've linked to have worked well for the creatures - then it's not altruism, it's going along with the plan so each mole survives.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:22 AM on March 22, 2005


"the academic Left"...who shamelessly and shamefully attacked EO Wilson and sociobiology, because of their Marxists beliefs.

How is it shameful to stand up for one's beliefs, even if those beliefs are mistaken? The truth should be able to fend for itself--in fact, that's the nature of science--falsification, not verification. What good is a theory if nobody attempts to test it?
posted by LimePi at 1:31 AM on March 22, 2005


In my backyard, I often get indian mynahs and pigeons roaming the lawn searching for things to eat. After a while, I noticed that one mynah sits on the fence and squawks obnoxiously when it spots a potential source of danger (usually me approaching the window to get a closer look). The other birds react to this by flying away.

This makes sense so far, right? The mynah is keeping an eye out for it's mate, right? Then one day I noticed the mynah was keeping lookout even though no other mynah was feeding. It was apparently keeping watch on behalf of the pigeons, relinquishing it's own chance to feed.

It took a while for me to ascertain that there were no other mynahs around, and that seemingly the only birds benefiting from the mynah's behaviour were pigeons.

I suppose selfish gene theory could account for this by hypothesizing that the 'bird' genes shared by both mynahs and pigeons were benefiting from one species of bird keeping lookout on behalf of another species of bird, but this explanation does not really fit what I've observed.

Of course, maybe I've overlooked something and there is no altruism at all in this situation; maybe this mynah just gets a kick out of sitting on the fence and squawking at things.
posted by Ritchie at 3:05 AM on March 22, 2005


Ritchie writes " I suppose selfish gene theory could account for this by hypothesizing that the 'bird' genes shared by both mynahs and pigeons were benefiting from one species of bird keeping lookout on behalf of another species of bird, but this explanation does not really fit what I've observed.

"Of course, maybe I've overlooked something and there is no altruism at all in this situation; maybe this mynah just gets a kick out of sitting on the fence and squawking at things."


If you take a beaver and put it into an empty cage, it'll go through the motions of constructing a dam, transporting fictitious stricks its mouth, slapping fictitious mud with its tail, shaping the fictitious dam with its paws.

Evolution has "found" dam-building to be so important to making a living as a beaver, it's made dam-building behaviors impervious to the evidence of the senses.

My sister's dog often "nests", pacing in a circle and pawing at the ground, before it sits. It does this even on oriental rugs woven tightly enough that even several minutes of pawing doesn't soften them up.

Terry Schiavo, despite having a higher brain that had literally atrophied and been replaced with liquid, still has a normal sleep-wake cycle, an ability to smile and cry and make noises that sound like distress, and even some orientating functions which cause here eyes to scan a room.

You may be able to tell when no mynah birds -- except the sentry -- are present, but we don't know if the mynah cam. Or perhaps he can, but that datum is appreciated by the behavioral circuit that causes him to be a sentry.

One can even argue that sentry behavior is so essential to the continuation of genes that a discriminating sentry behavior -- that is, one that ceased if no other mynahs were present, or if it appeared no other mynahs were present-- would be selected against in favor of an undiscriminating sentry behavior, because, over millions of years, there would be enough occasions that the discriminating sentry would fail when unseen mynahs actually were present, causing the predator of those mynahs bearing the discriminating sentry gene, while the undiscriminating gene, never ceasing sentry behavior, would be caught out less often.

The temptation is to attribute to mynahs what you see and think -- but you may or may not be a "good enough" model of a mynah. This "moral" can be extended: just because we think other humans do something for a reason -- or even that we ourselves do something for a reason -- doesn't mean that that's why we actually do it.

There are some very interesting examples of this in Antonio Damasio's various books, perhaps the best being a man with injuries to his frontal lobes, who could explain quite lucidly what sort of fore-thought and planning he needed in his life, but who was yet incapable of carrying out those actions. Indeed, the whole idea of "free will" is perhaps undermined. Descartes thought animals were soulless robots and so felt no compunctions about nailing his wife's pet dogs' paws to boards and vivisecting them -- but it may be that mynah birds and we too are, to some greater or lesser degree, "robots" or "zombies" too.
posted by orthogonality at 4:09 AM on March 22, 2005


LimePi writes " How is it shameful to stand up for one's beliefs, even if those beliefs are mistaken? The truth should be able to fend for itself--in fact, that's the nature of science--falsification, not verification. What good is a theory if nobody attempts to test it?"

Again, I was sloppy. They attack ed the theories not by testing them scientifically, but from a Marxist ideological point of view: they found the theories abhorrent for ideological reasons, then used their scientific reputations to attack sociobiology for being, essentially, immoral.
posted by orthogonality at 4:13 AM on March 22, 2005


Looks like this all boils down to a basic assumption about humans:
1) We are inherently flawed, selfish, greedy and corrupt and the good we do arises from that nature.
OR
2) We are inherently good and are prone do bad things at times.

I choose #2.
posted by nofundy at 5:10 AM on March 22, 2005


About the Mynah: Why couldn't the bird be using the opportunity to practice what it does out of habit? A dog pawing the ground and walking in a circle before it lays down sounds like a habit to me?
posted by Wong Fei-hung at 5:28 AM on March 22, 2005


Sounds like that wacky Russian Kropotkin
posted by infowar at 5:33 AM on March 22, 2005


Practically speaking, I think there's a case to be made that altruism doesn't really exist at all -- any example of giving brings something to the giver, be it future rewards, recognition, or "that warm fuzzy feeling" which is said to result from generosity.

Let's face it, some people find a certain pleasure in the act of giving. Some acts have an inherent emotional reward that can't be defined. Someone who goes out to revenge another gets a tremendous kick out of what he's doing.

Incidentally I don't think this really contradicts Rand, but it does point out that her thinking was pretty shallow after all.
posted by clevershark at 5:55 AM on March 22, 2005


Orthagonality, I'm a leftie, but not the science-hatin' sort of lefite. I sympathize with your frustration--people of any belief system who blatantly ignore credible scientific research because it doesn't fit in with their worldview are rather annoying.

Clevershark, I don't think anybody really does anything that doesn't give themselves some benefit. That's not how survival works. But from a sociobiological standpoint, "warm fuzzies" don't come into deciding what is or is not true altruism. True altruism is when an individual deliberately engages in an action that will decrease their own wellbeing and increase another's wellbeing. This study indicates that this behavior does exist in humans and probably has a good reason to. "Warm fuzzies" are like most emotions--they develop to encourage these positive behaviors the way orgasms are there to promote reproduction. I guess I feel getting warm fuzzies from sacrificing one's own life for another's doesn't make the action any less admirable than orgasms make sex less effective.

Anyway, my "Eat it, Rand" comment was in response to the "Altruism is never good and unnatural" view I've seen some of her devotees express.

Another thing worth noting about the study is how justice seems to be ingrained in the human psyche. In groups greater than 10 cooperation broke down unless there was someone there to punish the uncooperative. Additionally, in the money game people who felt the money offers were unfair were likely to reject the offer and screw both participants rather than take whatever they could get, which would logically be better than getting nothing at all.
posted by schroedinger at 8:49 AM on March 22, 2005


AlexReynolds, the examples you give of eusociality in naked mole rats and termites are not considered evidence of altruism. These organisms cooperate because they are so closely related to one another, and thus it is considered kin selection.
posted by amelliferae at 8:57 AM on March 22, 2005


orthogonality: if you mean Steven Rose, then yes, he is a biologist, neurobiology IIRC.
posted by biffa at 9:03 AM on March 22, 2005


Practically speaking, I think there's a case to be made that altruism doesn't really exist at all -- any example of giving brings something to the giver, be it future rewards, recognition, or "that warm fuzzy feeling" which is said to result from generosity.

My belief is that if one trains systematically in altruism, at first the actions of giving and so on are for ones own benefit as you describe, but overtime given enough familiarity, we are capable of benefitting others purely for the purpose of benefitting them.
posted by fadeout at 9:18 AM on March 22, 2005


Not to mention nicely summarized by Robert Wright in the very readable, The Moral Animal.

Robert Wright starts out Nonzero --- one of my favorite books --- with a quotation from Darwin that anticipates these ideas. (I don't have it with me right now and it's not available on the amazon book preview widget.)
posted by goethean at 9:32 AM on March 22, 2005


In any case I think it is specious to be decided on something which would require foreknowledge of events to come - i.e. you can't know whether it is altruism until you judge whether they gain from it at all in their future. Furthermore, I think we must be cautious in attributing to the "the human psyche" or soul or even gene the idea of altruism, when we know for a fact that it is learned socially as we grow up (it is possible it is not exclusively learned but we know that we are taught these things.) So - judgment is suspended, though I prefer to err on the side of caution.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:19 AM on March 22, 2005


schroedinger But from a sociobiological standpoint, "warm fuzzies" don't come into deciding what is or is not true altruism. True altruism is when an individual deliberately engages in an action that will decrease their own wellbeing and increase another's wellbeing.

Hmm, reminds me of Kant's take on morality - (paraphrasing) that nothing that doesn't harm the actor can never be a truly moral action...
posted by PurplePorpoise at 11:40 AM on March 22, 2005


orthogonality writes "for years, evolutionary psychology, when applied to humans, has been viciously and unscientifically criticised by the academic left -- and specifically Gould, Lewontin, Eldredge and Rose -- Left as 'bad science' because of its rejection of the 'blank slate' model of culture for a belief in innate human behaviors."


This is, itself, a representation of the debate that comes with its own ideological slant. Lewontin et al. have indeed presented scientific evidence to counter sociobiology. Lewontin is a professor of Evolutionary Genetics after all, and holds a named Chair in the subject. He has also argued that sociobiology has an implicit and explicit (conservative) ideological component to it. This is a separate argument from his scientific one, and is decidedly more populist and popular. It's fine to disagree with Lewonitin, and its fine to prefer the inherent conservatism of sociobiology over other theories of human evolution, but neither is a reason to pretend that there is no science being done by the side with which you disagree.

Here's a quick link to some of the many textbooks and popular books by Lewontin.
posted by OmieWise at 12:26 PM on March 22, 2005 [1 favorite]


OmieWise writes "and holds a named Chair in the subject."

by which I meant an endowed Chair.
posted by OmieWise at 12:44 PM on March 22, 2005


um, wasn't this the final thesis of freud's civilization and its discontents (1918)?
posted by 3.2.3 at 1:59 PM on March 22, 2005


Cooperation - manifestly - yields slightly better results. If it is not inherent in evolution, we should rewrite the code so it is.
Even casinos adapt.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:11 PM on March 22, 2005


Another feather in the neocon cap, this is.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:58 PM on March 22, 2005


Smedleyman, I think cooperation leads greatly improved results. Looking at natural state moral theory, the individual is persecuted by the strong and powerless to keep his or her own life, even. Cooperation among individuals leads to civilization, laws, and presumably the altruism people are citing as natural in human beings. In a sense it is the 'natural' thing to do, but more accurately it is simply the best course of action.

ParisParamus, I don't see how research in altruism is a feather for anybody's cap..?
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:57 PM on March 22, 2005


BlackLeotardFront, the general premise of modern conservatism is that a free market will lead to a good outcome. The general gist of the Leftists is that people need more government (a certain amount) because people, left to their own devices, will not treat the poor well.

So, on average, a natural altruism is pro-market, and anti-welfare state.

More importantly, another reason for the Left to wither and die. (and tick off most of Metafilter's constituents).
posted by ParisParamus at 4:05 PM on March 22, 2005


ParisParamus, read the whole article. Researchers found that cooperation breaks down in groups greater than 10--but when "punishers" were added to punish those who those who did not cooperate, cooperative behavior increased dramatically. Things need rules to work.

(Left to its own devices, a free market won't treat the poor well, but that's another discussion)
posted by schroedinger at 5:00 PM on March 22, 2005


ParisParamus - Sounds like an overextension to me.. Natural altruism could be argued for either side. For liberals one could say that a contribution to the state is a more effective altruism than simply helping one's neighbor. For conservatives it's the other way around. Evolution is nonpartisan. If the left or right decides to hijack a psychological/social tendency, it's on them, not altruism itself.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 5:05 PM on March 22, 2005


ParisParamus writes " So, on average, a natural altruism is pro-market, and anti-welfare state."

A brilliant example of the Naturalistic Fallacy, thanks Paris; "it exists that way in nature, so it must be right". Of course, body lice, plague, and infanticide exist in nature too. Real conservatives believe in institutions that smooth the rough edges of nature -- that was Hobbes's whole justification for an all-powerful state.

"Free-market" conservatives, unlike traditional conservatives, like to pretend they're all for a state of nature without government intrusions or market regulation -- at least until a big burly but underpaid blue collar worker says "screw your self-serving laws and your lawyers", clocks the free-market capitalist over the head, takes his wallet, and say, "so, how's this sort of 'de-regulation' of the laws against theft working out for you, Trump"?
posted by orthogonality at 5:06 PM on March 22, 2005


OmieWise writes "It's fine to disagree with [Lewontin], and its fine to prefer the inherent conservatism of sociobiology over other theories of human evolution, but neither is a reason to pretend that there is no science being done by the side with which you disagree."

Oh, don't misunderstand me. Richard Lewontin is a brilliant mathematical geneticist, no argument. That's why it's all the more galling that he lets his ideology blind him.
posted by orthogonality at 5:10 PM on March 22, 2005


And then, on the other side of the coin, the "blank slate" vs. "instinct" argument has primarily featured people on the fringes claiming the other side has dominance over a field. Leaving more sensible people in the middle to wonder what is going on.

But as a mentor once explained, the best way to make a name for yourself in a field is to pick someone else, then loudly and boldly shout "you're wrong!"
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:48 PM on March 22, 2005


Orthogonality are you really that dense, or is that just a lame attempt to troll ParisParamus?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 6:33 AM on March 23, 2005


ParisParamus: Speaking as a free-marketeer, I completely disagree with you.
Despite the delusions of many self-styled economists, free markets are only efficient in a world of perfect information and no speed limits on data transfer.
The reason free markets are good is because they require less coercion of the individual to prosper than other systems. A free market gives the individual the choice of how to allocate his resources, instead of forcing the individual to spend in other ways.

Point the second: if we saw evidence that altruism is "a natural outcome of evolution" or some such, it wouldn't necessarily bear on free markets. Such evidence could just as easily "demonstrate" that communism is the natural state of man, if that proved to be an equilibrium point. In fact, that's pretty much what Marx showed, that if the marginal price of goods continued to drop, there would eventually be no scarcity, and we might as well share the wealth. Then the communists tried to make the Word flesh and attempted to forcibly lower all their marginal costs and produced endless misery.

The neocons' idiotic attempt to forcibly instigate a "free market" (that is actually not) in Iraq bears more than a few resemblances to the Communist agenda, but bears no resemblance to an actual lassez faire-style free market. What do we get from these cretins? Corporate protectionism, currency manipulation, and deficit spending.

The conservative/liberal axis has been completely sidestepped. The debate has nothing to do with that anymore. Wake up to that fact.
posted by sonofsamiam at 7:55 AM on March 23, 2005


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