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    Biological Meaning of Selfishness, Cooperation, and Altruism – Part 1
    By Gerhard Adam | May 18th 2009 01:54 PM | 17 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    It appears that there is still a bit of a controversy and disconnect between the ideas in evolution relating to selfishness, cooperation, and altruism. In this series of articles, it is my intent to explore each of these ideas and demonstrate how they may arise and the role they play in improving the evolutionary lot of various species.



    Interestingly enough, all these terms are only meaningful within the context of cooperation, since a selfish individual is one that acts against the cooperative group and an altruistic individual is one that willingly acts for the cooperative group (selflessness). Given these “loaded” terms and the emotional concepts they convey, it is useful to consider the actual biology at work.



    At root, living organisms are an emergent property of chemistry. Without chemistry no life can exist. Therefore whatever else we may envision regarding life, we must consider that all processes (known or unknown) must reduce to a chemical interaction.



    This leads to a major property of biological systems that is often ignored. Instead of considering selfishness, cooperation, or altruism, the primary property at work is one of “indifference”. It literally makes no difference from the perspective of the components involved what the outcome may be. A collection of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen atoms are indifferent to whether Carbon Dioxide is formed or Water. Their actions will be governed by proximity, energy, and a variety of quantum rules that have no intended outcome. Similarly, the chemical processes that govern biology are indifferent to the possible outcomes. A mutation to a gene may or may not be beneficial to the organism involved, but the gene itself is indifferent to the result.



    While it can be a novel perspective to consider biology from the gene’s perspective, it is completely incorrect. The components of a gene are essentially immortal (the atoms that make up the molecules), so there is no preferred outcome since they will continue to exist albeit in a different configuration. Therefore if we were to consider the gene’s perspective we would likely find that it is probability and the possibility of billions of chances that is governing outcomes (i.e. inheritance). A gene would be indifferent to the notion of expressing itself as the digits of a human hand versus a chimpanzee or a dolphin.



    If anything, it might be argued that the entire chemical process of biology is attempting to reach varying stages of equilibrium which are represented by conserved processes that are used and reused in a wide range of species. Once again, this isn’t to assign “intent” to the genes, but rather to indicate that all instability must either collapse or reach a point of stability whereby its future is then reasonably assured.



    Considering the example of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms, it isn’t their intent to form water, but if the conditions are right, they will do so. If conditions aren’t suitable, they are certainly not averse to existing in other forms. However, once such stability is achieved, it essentially becomes a fixture against which others changes can then occur.

    While the universe is moving towards increasing entropy, the constant bombardment of energy on the earth results in a perpetual pool of chaotic interactions, until some degree of stability is achieved which neutralizes the “randomness” and allows some progress towards harnessing this energy into more stable configurations (i.e. elements, compounds, and perhaps life).



    Perhaps it is this push towards stability which provides the necessary “drive” to create new forms and novel ways of expressing structures to capitalize on the abundant energy provided by the sun.

    Comments

    Becky Jungbauer
    we must consider that all processes (known or unknown) must reduce to a chemical interaction.
    I'm not sure if this is entirely accurate. At the quantum level, can you separate physics and chemistry?
    Gerhard Adam
    Certainly you can take it down to that level, but it really isn't relevant to the point in biology.  You're correct that quantum physics determines chemistry, and it is my assertion that chemistry determines biology.  That's all I was trying to say in my own klutzy way ....

    In other words, I should've said "all biological processes (known or unknown) ... "
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Gerhard, I like your concept of "indifference" in biology, it might be quite significant. I've been thinking for a while now that the apparently widespread focus on the driving motives of behaviour such as competition, procreation, etc, while important, are rather overstated. It's possibly more likely that the dominant drive in terms of time and effort is in the cause of comfort. A full belly and a warm place to lie down, in short, a state of indifference.   
    Gerhard Adam
    Steve, part of my thinking is that it creates a neutral base from which it becomes easier to allow "cooperative" circumstances develop.  Initially if I don't really care that you're there, then eventually perhaps we might inadvertently help each other, then we may move to a point where we do it more consistently, etc.  In short, it doesn't have to be a radical situation, but one where by avoiding the expenditure of energy necessary to engage in conflict, it gives rise to a more subtle change.

    In addition, in my view, I started to realize that sexual reproduction, by definition, requires cooperation.  Therefore unless we're talking about single celled organisms (with some notable exceptions like insects), the primary driver for sexual reproduction will be cooperation among members of a species (even if it's only of a short duration).
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis

    Yep. If the predominant urge motivating an organism is comfort, then the organism is predisposed in favour of cooperation rather than conflict or competition, while not ruling those out.

    Bloody hell Gerhard, you've reeled in a beauty on that other blog!

    Gerhard Adam
    Yeah ... I personally suspect he's not what he claims.  His talking points are all derived from special "creationist" arguments, so I'm not going to bother
    Mundus vult decipi
    logicman
    Gerhard:  I like where you are going with this.  In particular, I like the idea of indifference as a term of art.  For me, in linguistics, indifference is a state of mind in an observer where the observer makes no behavioural or cognitive reaction to a phenomenon.  In computer programming I use the term 'indifference function' for a function which extracts a pattern simply by excluding all irrelevant data.

    I was thinking of the domestication of dogs as an example of evolution towards cooperative behaviour, based on mutual indifference at an early stage.  A dog which stayed near a human camp could get scraps when the humans left, and the humans wouldn't be bothered by the attentions of the dog's enemies - or would be well warned about them.  The cooperation must have evolved mutually - there is no way that dogs evolved to serve the needs of humans.
    Natural selection will modify the structure of the young in relation to the parent and of the parent in relation to the young. In social animals it will adapt the structure of each individual for the benefit of the whole community; if the community profits by the selected change. What natural selection cannot do, is to modify the structure of one species, without giving it any advantage, for the good of another species; and though statements to this effect may be found in works of natural history, I cannot find one case which will bear investigation.
    Charles Darwin The Origin of Species

    Steve:  that certainly is a 'beauty' on the other blog.  Trolls are bad enough, but trolls who want to add their own thoughts to our statements are worse.  Aren't they called police officers?
    Gerhard Adam
    I also think the case of domestication is a quite special one.  In my own experiences, I've seen and dealt with "wild" animals and how impressionable they are, provided they are babies.  While the parents may be reserved and untrusting, the young are invariably quite amenable to interacting with people.  As a result, it isn't difficult to see how only a few generations would produce offspring that are quite ready to identify with a human group. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    Patrick

    Interestingly enough, if you think about the majority of human interactions, they are also largely indifferent.  If you consider how many people you encounter, versus those you actually interact with, you can see what I'm getting at.  Part of what I want to explore is that the specific issues of selfishness, cooperation, or altruism are actually isolated individual actions that only occur within small groups rather than populations at large.  So while you might have thousands of such actions, they are all ultimately separated from each other and only occur when a specific event or confrontation exists.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Gerhard, Jared Diamond has some interesting material on domesticating animals, I can't remember if it was Guns Germs and Steel or Collapse. Apparently most animals can be tamed in the manner you describe, but surprisingly few can be domesticated.
    Gerhard Adam
    Steve

    You're right, but once an animal has been tamed, then it becomes possible to control the breeding (if one takes the time).  Obviously there are numerous other factors that come into play, like the dog's group sense of belonging to a pack can be exploited, since their nature allows to them understand group "rules".

    Similarly with horses and other animals in that category, they understand the "rules" of the herd so that tendency can also be exploited.

    Predators like lions and tigers, don't have any such socialization, so there's no foundation on which to build a relationship between one of simply being "tamed". 

    Anyway, that's just my thoughts on that. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    jtwitten
    Taming does not necessarily make it possible to control breeding.  Reproductive success among tamed animals (not just captured ones) outside of their normal environment and interactions can be incredibly low.  The ability to control breeding is really what distinguishes domestication from taming.  Few animals can be tamed.  Even fewer can be domesticated.
    Gerhard Adam
    I understand, but the original context was only in speculating how human encounters with animals that are "wild" could have gradually transformed from one of "taming" the young to ultimately "domesticating" them.  Since it is clear that you can't "domestic" an intrinsically wild animal, then there needs to be some transition, and I was only suggesting how easily responsive many animals are when they are raised as young by humans.  Also, I don't know how you intended the word "tame" but I only mean it in the sense that an animal tolerates living with the humans and may be quite comfortable living with them.

    I personally suspect that there were numerous instances of precisely such encounters with some succeeding, and culminating in some of the domesticated species we see today.
    Mundus vult decipi
    jtwitten
    In my use of the word "tame", I refer to animals and human living together with direct and intentional interaction (e.g., a circus elephant is tame, but the squirrels in my backyard are not).  Some canine genetics researchers have suggested processes for the domestication of wolves that may diverge from taming the young.  Essentially, less aggressive wolves scavenge around human encampments, breed with each other, and create a subpopulation of relatively docile canines suitable for domestication.  Whether or not that scavenging state constitutes taming is definitional, but I don't think it meets mine.  In this instance, initially tamed animals would be more likely to be adults.

    Taming may have more to do with socialization skills and interspecies ability in mammals to communicate intent.

    Domestication is likely to be heavily dependent on genetic diversity and life history traits.
    Gerhard Adam
    "Essentially, less aggressive wolves scavenge around human encampments, breed with each other, and create a subpopulation of relatively docile canines suitable for domestication."

    I agree, since it seems unlikely that early humans would've been in a situation to isolate animals specifically for the purpose of "taming" them.  I'm envisioning the possibility that humans may well have handled these animals (or at least their young) and developed a sort of bond (or at least mutual acceptance).  If there was sufficient benefit to the canine group for such an association, it seems easy to consider that this becomes another sort of selection pressure to ensure that new members of the group abide by (or accept) this human-wolf relationship.  After all, if the young are reared with a familiarity around human groups, then each becomes more closely bonded over time, since the element of building trust is largely eliminated.

    This also seems plausible given the number of animals that willingly make homes with and around humans for no purpose other than the ease of acquiring food.  Gaining the animals is easy,  gaining their trust is where the difficulty begins.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Becky Jungbauer
    Predators like lions and tigers, don't have any such socialization, so there's no foundation on which to build a relationship between one of simply being "tamed". 
    On this point I disagree, Gerhard. Lions are the social butterflies of the cat family and live in prides numbering in the 20s and even 30s sometimes. As for tigers, they are more solitary so I can see your point (except for Tony the Tiger, who not only loves children but also lightly sugar-coated corn flakes).
    Gerhard Adam
    You're right Becky, I was being entirely too casual in my response in choosing such an obvious animal (and also one that obviously didn't fit the criteria).

    Also, Tony the Tiger is the exception because as near as I can tell, he's immortal.

    Besides, on your other post, I did warn you that I was on the negative side of the graph (forgot, never knew, and don't know anyone that does).
    Mundus vult decipi