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Whence Altruism?
March 22, 2010 12:43 PM   Subscribe

A new study suggests that humanity's sense of fair play and kindness towards strangers is determined by culture, not genetics. Speculation: the finding may be directly related to the rise of religion in human history, as well as more complex economies. (Via).

On the other hand, perhaps we learned it from dogs. :)
posted by zarq (49 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Humans have culture just like apes and dolphins. Gawsh, who would have thought so?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:49 PM on March 22, 2010


I just got to the part of Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True in which he discusses how culture can shape genetics and operate independent of genetics, and how difficult it is to tell the difference. This is fascinating. Thanks!
posted by shakespeherian at 12:54 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nurture is nurture; film at 11!
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:54 PM on March 22, 2010


Kindness is contagious -- and I love to spread it around. You can never get enough sweetness and silliosity...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 12:56 PM on March 22, 2010


So we aren't hard wired to offer a minimum level of health services to the most vulnerable members of our civilisation. Go figure.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 1:02 PM on March 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


So is it safe to say that all the folks opposed to, say, universal healthcare that benefits strangers are essentially living according to stone age norms?
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:02 PM on March 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


silliioosiittii - that's finnish innit?
posted by infini at 1:03 PM on March 22, 2010


I just got to the part of Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True in which he discusses how culture can shape genetics and operate independent of genetics, and how difficult it is to tell the difference. This is fascinating. Thanks!

I read his blog. Haven't picked up his book yet. What do you think? Worth a read?
posted by zarq at 1:06 PM on March 22, 2010


Now we need to discover what gave rise to the overwhelming interest in American Idol. Was it
religiion, genetics, or the hive mind?
posted by Postroad at 1:06 PM on March 22, 2010


Was it religiion, genetics, or the hive mind?

It was religion. Specifically the someone-sold-their-soul-to-the-devil-and-damned-us-all aspects to American Idol.
posted by quin at 1:13 PM on March 22, 2010


That article on dog behavior rocked my world. I had never really thought about that before! Awesome!
posted by the_royal_we at 1:14 PM on March 22, 2010


The prevailing theory has been Kin Selection for smaller populations. Interesting article. I see this turning into (another) argument for constructivism against essentialism, although it is likely somewhere in between the two.
posted by EsotericAlgorithm at 1:16 PM on March 22, 2010


Fascinating. I'd love to see the outliers within each population -- there are surely people within large market economies that, either through conscious recognition or poor socialization, capitalize on most peoples' fairness. The cheaters. In other words, do bankers play the game differently?
posted by one_bean at 1:28 PM on March 22, 2010


After all, the Romans and Greeks managed created large, complex societies despite having a pantheon of gods who were not exactly paragons of virtue.

Yeah, obviously people in the pre-Christian world didn't give a crap about altruism.

If you wanna talk smack about ancient cultures, you gotta go through me
posted by oinopaponton at 1:31 PM on March 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


Haven't picked up his book yet. What do you think? Worth a read?

It's entry-level in a lot of ways (a lot of similar ground is covered in far more detail in The Red Queen, which I read not too long ago), but if you're interested in entry-level survey-course type info, it's very clearly-written an informative and gives a good cohesion to all of the different areas of science that inform our understanding of evolutionary theory. I also really like that he basically poo-poos the evolutionary psychologist camp, but I suppose YMMV on that point.

Thanks for the link to his blog-- I was unaware of it.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:34 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fact is, there were no hospitals in the ancient world. The first hospitals and institutional provisions for the poor came about with the rise of Christianity, and were duplicated and enhanced by the rise of Islam.
posted by Faze at 1:44 PM on March 22, 2010


Hrm... I will probably skip it to read Ridley's newest, then. Which won't be hard -- it's been sitting in one of my "to read" piles for the last few weeks. Thank you for saving me some time!

You're welcome! I only stumbled across Coyne's blog a month or two ago, but I've been enjoying his entries.
posted by zarq at 1:49 PM on March 22, 2010


It's a good book to have in your recommendation arsenal, though.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:52 PM on March 22, 2010


On a related note, culture affects expression of sociopathology, as well, which is shown to be strongly heritable. Average rates in the West approach 4%, as compared to ~0.03-0.14 in the East. (The latter study comes from rural Taiwan, IIRC.) I'm making an assumption of genetic consistency between the populations, I know... But then again, without that assumption, the article seems kinda moot anyway.

That we're genetically primed for altruism and social existence is fairly clear, from the ludicrous amount of neural hardware devoted to facial recognition, empathy, etc. We seem to keep a small population of sociopaths around, just as I keep a ten-pound sledge in my truck; it's total crap for everyday work, but there's nothing better when you need to brutally smash something up in a hurry.

The genes are ever there, while culture seems to determine what sort of humans we need.
posted by ActualStackhouse at 1:59 PM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Civilization needs more ten-ound sledge?
posted by Cranberry at 2:04 PM on March 22, 2010


sigh, ten-pound
posted by Cranberry at 2:04 PM on March 22, 2010


that oo
posted by infini at 2:09 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


@Cranberry Well, not where I'm living, thankfully :)
posted by ActualStackhouse at 2:10 PM on March 22, 2010


there are surely people within large market economies that, either through conscious recognition or poor socialization, capitalize on most peoples' fairness. The cheaters.

Or sociopaths. I'm sure plenty of them are attracted to careers which allow them to take advantage of people's sense of fairness, like sales and finance.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:18 PM on March 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


OK, I see that sociopathology was addressed up thread ...
posted by krinklyfig at 2:19 PM on March 22, 2010


Effin' savages. It's great that our global imperialist predation is wiping the suckers out, amirite?
posted by No Robots at 2:23 PM on March 22, 2010


The fact is, there were no hospitals in the ancient world.
No hospitals, those were invented in crusader era with problem of wounded soldiers far from home, but there were Asclepieia, temples of healing, for both poor and wealthy ill. They treated you and offered a healthy environment. If you could afford a sacrifice, nice, but not necessary.

Later the Cult of Asclepius was seen as competitor to Christianity and persecuted off.
posted by Free word order! at 2:31 PM on March 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


wait a minute, you have to remember that the indians had a surgeon a gazillion years ago, beta...
posted by infini at 2:40 PM on March 22, 2010


Tim Ingold is very good on the silliness of opposing genetic endowment and culture. An Anthropologist Looks at Biology (pdf).
posted by fcummins at 2:42 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fact is, there were no hospitals in the ancient world.

Sure there were, they just didn't call it that. The word homosexuality didn't pop up until about 1869, but you can bet men and women were knocking boots with people of the same gender before then.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:50 PM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


So when you're about to scream back at the person who pissed you off, just remember that getting angry just perpetuates anger as a social meme and that exposing that person to your anger will just reinforce their angry behavior. Or you could just do unto others..
posted by doctor_negative at 3:39 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pfft. I came to the same conclusion by watching this awesome Liberty Mutual commercial. Just do whatever that guy across the street is doing.
posted by Partario at 3:43 PM on March 22, 2010


"Human behaviors are often explained as hard-wired evolutionary leftovers of life on the savannah or during the Stone Age." <-- Is this really what scientists think these days? That concepts of fairness are genetic unless proven otherwise? (Sad shake of head at sociobiologists and their impact.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 4:16 PM on March 22, 2010


As far as captions go, this one makes me happy (forgetting the weird 'dogs's' thing):

Could dogs's strong sense of justice provide clues to the evolutionary roots of human morality? Shown here is a 3-year-old labrador.

Yes, good question. It really brings forth a lot of useful discussion topics. Also, here's a 3-year-old labrador.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 4:24 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


It was the dogs. The dogs invented it all, even Christianity (which was at least partially inspired by the philosophy of the Cynics, 'cynics' meaning 'dog-like')...

Wild canines exhibit altruistic behaviour - self-sacrifice, fair-play - that primates don't. But at some point, people and dogs started co-habiting. It's fairly obvious that we learned advantageous social behaviours from dogs.

In dogs these behaviours are largely built-in, but in humans theyr'e learned. Which I think partly explains why we value these behaviours more highly. Self-sacrifice is less natural to us than it is to a pack animal like a dog. I don't think you can come to an understanding of human behaviour and society without considering the symbiotic role that dogs have played (and their vested interests, to some extent. Don't forget, they went into space before we did.)
posted by chrisgregory at 4:35 PM on March 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


*tries not to think about the influence of cats on humanity*
posted by brundlefly at 5:09 PM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's a good book to have in your recommendation arsenal, though.

Thanks, good point! :)
posted by zarq at 5:11 PM on March 22, 2010


Might this help explain the failures of attempting to impose a market economy on places that aren't culturally acclimated to it?
posted by leotrotsky at 5:42 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


After reading the articles and the thread, I'm adding the Coyne book to my wish list. Thanks!
posted by immlass at 5:49 PM on March 22, 2010


Or sociopaths. I'm sure plenty of them are attracted to careers which allow them to take advantage of people's sense of fairness, like sales and finance.

Those guys are actually beings also known as The Grey Ones. They've lived among us since like, forever and their only goal is to suck all the good and nice out of the world. They're succeeding, too.

Too bad I misplaced my special sunglasses...
posted by dunkadunc at 6:02 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fact is, there were no hospitals in the ancient world. The first hospitals and institutional provisions for the poor came about with the rise of Christianity, and were duplicated and enhanced by the rise of Islam.

Christians also invented humor!
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:35 PM on March 22, 2010


Have to say, while I didn't see the full list of cultures studied, I do see a slight skew in the data set based on the graph alone, can anyone guess what it is?
posted by karmiolz at 6:38 PM on March 22, 2010


Somehow the major US party that ties itself most vocally and loudly to Christianity is vehemently opposed to health care for the poor, almost like they're ignoring the teachings of the dude the religion is based on. When I went to Vacation Bible School we had these books called red-letter bibles, with the words Jesus said in red. If you just read the red words, it all sounded pretty good. He said stuff like, "I was sick, and you cared for me" and "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." I don't claim to be a Christian, but it seems to me that taking care of the sick is exactly what the guy called for.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:56 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


A new study suggests that humanity's sense of fair play and kindness towards strangers is determined by culture, not genetics.

Yeah, but just imagine a culture that highly values backstabbing and kicking hapless strangers in the crotch.

That culture wouldn't exist for very long.
posted by dunkadunc at 7:32 PM on March 22, 2010


@karmiolz I'll admit to missing it. What do you notice?
posted by ActualStackhouse at 7:57 PM on March 22, 2010


Some analyses of mortality in the Stone Age — those 2.5 million years of living in small groups that ended just 200,000 years ago — estimate that one in seven people died in combat.

The Stone Age ended 200,000 years ago?
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 9:52 PM on March 22, 2010


*tries not to think about the influence of cats on humanity*

You think humans invented granaries themselves?
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:34 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I recently read The Ape in the Corner Office...a funny and critical look at human and animal behaviour. I highly recommend it!
posted by Calzephyr at 9:55 AM on March 23, 2010


I've read a good deal of literature on the prehistory of war, and this:

Some analyses of mortality in the Stone Age — those 2.5 million years of living in small groups that ended just 200,000 years ago — estimate that one in seven people died in combat.

seems a bit hard to believe. This smacks of bad pop-science reporting on Wired's part. Citation, please?

From all the literature I've read, the first real solid evidence of war among humans that we have dates back to about 19,000 years ago. This isn't to say that it wasn't going on beforehand, but we just don't have any real solid evidence- which makes me really suspicious of Wired's claim that 1 in 7 people died in combat during this strangely-defined Stone Age.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:12 AM on March 23, 2010


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