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    Altruism: Its Origin, Its Evolution, Its Discontents
    By Steve Davis | May 3rd 2009 02:00 AM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Altruism has had a lot of bad press in recent times. It’s been used, abused, manipulated and misunderstood. Let’s look at some background.

    It all began with a paper submitted by WD Hamilton in 1964 in which he put forward a view of altruism that was packaged into a concept called inclusive fitness. Inclusive fitness became the bedrock of selfish gene theory, because it was assumed that it solved “the problem” of altruism, a problem that had to be solved for evolution-as-selfishness to get off the ground. But it led to unforeseen problems of its own.

    In a footnote to The God Delusion Richard Dawkins revealed “I was mortified to read in The Guardian that The Selfish Gene is the favourite book of Geoff Skilling, CEO of the infamous Enron Corporation, and that he derived inspiration of a Social Darwinist nature from it.” Just what did he expect? It was all part of a tactic by Dawkins to show that he had no social Darwinism about him personally, and I can accept that at face value. There is nothing in any of Dawkins’ works to suggest otherwise. But he still deserves criticism, because in the introduction to the 2006 edition of TSG Dawkins refers to an instance in which his colleague John Maynard Smith had been accused of a similar complicity in regard to the rise of Thatcherism, a modern variant of social Darwinism.

    Dawkins smugly recounted Maynard Smith’s response as though it also absolved him of all responsibility; “What should we have done, fiddled the equations?” (The reference is to the mathematics that led to Hamilton’s equation for inclusive fitness.) Now I would not accuse anyone of dishonesty in this matter given that there’s no point in fiddling with an equation about nothing. (see “Hamilton’s Rule or Hamilton’s Folly”) And in the normal course of events we would not hold scientists responsible for facts about the natural world that they might uncover. But what Hamilton, Smith, Dawkins and all who followed did fiddle with however, is the conclusions they reached after consideration of the equations.

    The general conclusions they reached are; that altruism is no more than selfishness in disguise, that altruism is gene-driven, that altruism will only spread through kin transfer of the gene or genes concerned, that altruism evolved to benefit genes only, and that altruism needs to be redefined to mean any act that decreases the altruist’s ability to survive and reproduce and which increases the recipient’s ability to survive and reproduce.

    In reaching these conclusions all regard for the scientific method was jettisoned. Instead of collecting data then forming a hypothesis, the hypothesis was stated and the search for data then commenced. (This was made abundantly clear by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene p98; “We shall have to discover, by observation and experiment in the wild, how closely real animals actually come to achieving an ideal cost-benefit analysis.” Remember that was written in 1976, twelve years after Hamilton’s paper was published. Selfish gene theory had in the meantime been given credibility by the concept, yet it was still just an idea in a few peoples’ heads. I’ve seen several references to “countless” studies that have since validated the hypothesis, but the few actual examples I’ve seen cited can more reasonably be interpreted as altruism/unit distance rather than altruism/unit relatedness.)

    This is why Dawkins deserves criticism over accusations of social Darwinism. There is no doubt that selfish gene theory, which sprang from Hamilton’s fallacious inclusive fitness concept, helped inspire social policy based on survival of the fittest. And if Dawkins and his predecessors had shown more regard for scientific principles they might have avoided going down that particular path in the first place.
    The extent to which inclusive fitness (the proposition that altruism is spread by genetic descent,) this house of cards, has come to be perceived as an edifice of substance is quite astounding. So imposing has it become that even those who dispute its significance do not dispute its right to a place at the table, and have even taken on some of its rhetoric.

    Since inclusive fitness gained traction in the 1970s, countless volumes of scholarly works have been produced to claim its victory over “the problem of altruism.” When you think about it however, it’s a particularly hollow victory. For what’s happened is that altruism has been redefined to suit a purpose, (the new definition being a form of altruism rarely found in nature,) a mathematical model has been proposed that purports to show that this new form of altruism is really selfishness in disguise, then victory has been declared. Selfishness is the winner, the driving force of evolution.

    What’s happened in summary is that an imaginary form of altruism has been declared a significant force in evolution because a mathematical model says that it can be. Sorry, not good enough. It might be good enough to base a few careers on, but its not science. And did you spot the sleight-of-hand? During this farce the really existing “altruism problem” of kindness, goodness, selflessness, has been quietly and conveniently pushed out of sight.

    The problem so-called, has not been solved at all, for it leaves unresolved the questions as to whether goodness in any form, be it kindness or cooperation, has played a significant role in evolution, and how goodness first originated. These are not difficult questions to answer. Let me restate that. These are only difficult questions to answer for those held captive by the ideology of individualism. Ideologies, as we know, have a way of distorting reality or blocking out certain realities. The only way that a fantastic, outlandish concept such as inclusive fitness (remember that they believe a cake should be cut in portions proportional to relatedness!) could have the prestige it now enjoys is by its adherents blocking out certain realities. What can those realities be?

    Life began when complex molecules came together in cooperation, to perform the functions that we now consider to be characteristics of life.

    Cooperation therefore preceded evolution. We do not have to look to evolution to explain the origin of cooperation. It undoubtedly underwent further development through evolution when different forms of cooperation came into being, but cooperation as a concept is linked to life itself, not to evolution.

    Cooperation is a form of goodness, but how prevalent is it in nature? Well, we see cooperation between molecules, between cells, between organs, between organisms, between groups, and between groups of groups. How much cooperation do we need to see before conceding its significance? How blind do you have to be to ignore cooperation as a factor in evolution?  And it’s not hard to see that once cooperation was pulled into the evolutionary process and evolved into different forms, that it’s just one small step to altruism in the accepted meaning of the word, that is, kindness for its own sake. One small step that is, when a particular condition is satisfied.

    Acts of kindness occur when people (and other animals) see themselves as being part of a greater entity. It is that reality that the advocates for individualism cannot accept. If organisms see themselves as being part of a greater entity, then that’s all that’s needed for group-based trends to appear. And it doesn’t matter what their genes think about it at all!

    Another feature of this that the gene-centrics cannot accept is that altruists do not see their actions as a loss. Despite the gene-centrics tying themselves in knots trying to explain how organisms work out relatedness and proportions and costs, the fact is that there is no cost-benefit analysis. The explanation is simple. For the altruist there is a net outcome of zero because the action is internal to the greater entity, it’s merely a transfer of material or energy within the group just as the functions of metabolism take place within a cell. 

    If you need more proof that the altruism discussion has drifted off into the realms of fantasy, how about this, attributed to Dawkins:
    “Consider a pride of lions gnawing at a kill. An individual who eats less than her physiological requirement is in effect behaving altruistically towards others who get more as a result. If these others were close kin, such restraint might be favored by kin selection. But the kind of mutation that could lead to such altruistic restraint could be ludicrously simple. A genetic propensity to bad teeth might slow down the rate at which an individual could chew at the meat. The gene for bad teeth would be, in the full sense of the technical term, a gene for altruism, and it might indeed be favored by kin selection.”

    Now you can give that behaviour a label if you like, but don’t call it altruism. Imaginary scenarios like this have become the hallmark of selfish gene theory because the last thing needed is actual data from the wild. And has Dawkins really thought about what he’s saying? A gene for bad teeth being favored by kin selection?  A gene for bad teeth would be targeted by natural selection! There’s no argument for inclusive fitness contained in that little gem.

    But let’s not trivialise the subject by getting over-excited by the inane details of inclusive fitness. Instead we should ask where those details came from; what’s the general flaw in the idea? One direction we should look is the underlying reductionism. Now Richard Dawkins has rather foolishly defended reductionism by quoting Peter Medawar, who allegedly made a comment to the effect that reductionism is a valid process because it’s the most efficient form of analysis, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. I think Dawkins has made a mistake here. No intelligent person could make such a thoughtless comment. Ernst Mayr tried to put them on the right track when he said; “The claim of gene selection is a typical case of reduction beyond the level where analysis is useful.” (Keep in mind that inclusive fitness is all about gene selection.) The logic was obviously too subtle for Dawkins so I’ll spell it out slowly.

    Let’s say I have rising damp in my walls. When I see a building consultant about fixing the problem, do I want him to fill me in on the behaviour of hydrogen and oxygen atoms and the particles of which they are composed? No-one can dispute the importance of these particles in the composition of water, but is that relevant to my problem? Can a nuclear physicist fix my rising damp? Obviously not, because that’s not the level at which the action is taking place, the very point made by Mayr. I can almost hear the Dawkins camp screaming “But genes affect behaviour!” Unfortunately for that response my little analogy, while not entirely watertight, is still pretty good.

    Yes, genes do affect behaviour, but only to a similar extent that hydrogen and oxygen influence the behaviour of water. The properties of water result from the combination of the two, neither of which plays a dominant role in the outcome. An organism displaying altruism is formed not only by a package of genes, none of which play a dominant role, but also by its environment, (including culture) which further waters down the influence of genes. Just as the total properties of the water (not its constituents) contribute to rising damp, so also the total properties of the organism (not its genes) contribute to behaviours. Behaviour is so complex, subject to so many factors, even including past experience, that the assumption that it can be explained, even in very general terms by gene selection, is just laughable. As Herbert Gintis has said “the genetics of social behavior is for the most part unknown.”

    Legend has it that EO Wilson was unimpressed by inclusive fitness when he first encountered the concept, but after two days of searching for a flaw in the argument, he conceded defeat and became a convert. He should have asked himself this question; what sort of person sees altruism as a problem?

    The short answer is a sociopath, but it’s a little more complex than that. Altruism was seen as a problem because no place could be found for it in the established theoretical foundation of evolution. But instead of asking what’s wrong with the theory they took the incredible step of asking; what’s wrong with altruism? That step was illogical and irrational, and that pattern of thought became typical of all the theory that followed.


    Steve Davis
    Hey Patrick! You said elsewhere that you were looking for "some ideas to steal" regarding a possible link between biological evolution and language evolution. So here's one for you - The Co-evolution of Language and Altruism, because they both needed a sense of belonging to a greater entity. And if you pick it up and run with it I won't see it as a loss, I'll look on it as a transfer within the greater entity! 
    Steve:  perhaps altruism and language co-evolved through a mirror-neuron mechanism.  I'm suggesting that hearing speech perhaps fires mirrors of the neurons used to produce speech as part of the decoding process.  Similarly, the haptic sense could be mirrored - by watching an object being manipulated one gets a sense of what the object feels like, without ever having touched it.  Perhaps by extension, there could be 'feel-good' mirror neurons through which we can 'feel' when someone else is happy.

    I wouldn't be surprised if there were mirror neurons connecting language to all emotions.  How else could mere words move people to laughter, tears bravery and yes, altruism.
    I consider the current institutionalized altruism to be a curse upon the world and self destructive. I appreciate your work but found it hard and contradictory at times to follow. A smoothing by a considerate editor would help.

    I consider the current institutionalized altruism to be a curse upon the world and self destructive. I appreciate your work but found it hard and contradictory at times to follow. A smoothing by a considerate editor would help.

    what sort of person sees altruism as a problem?

    The short answer is a sociopath,

    That is only because you have a priori defined altruism as good, and opposition to it as "sociopathic".

    As you've pointed out, even defining "altruism" isn't all that clear-cut. Much of the opposition to altruism comes from the very slipperiness of the word. In some senses, it is a perfectly healthy thing, but it has become perverted into the idea that "selfishness" is evil and that a man's proper role is as a slave to the nebulous notion of "the greater good".

    Steve Davis
    Fortunately for human communication words do have meanings, but when those with hidden agendas muddy the waters then problems can arise. Instead of seeing this article as clearing up the misunderstandings you've attempted to muddy things further.
    Fortunately for human evolution people have seen altruism, cooperation, etc, as being "good" because these actions contribute to survival for individuals and society. This was the origin of morality. Moral standards are those that contribute to the health of society. Check out Hayek on this, he had a very realistic view of social evolution.
    Because altruism contributes to a healthy society, anyone who regards it as a problem is a sociopath.   
    I'm not muddying things at all.

    You have, in this article, objected to someone's definition of the word "altruism", but you've never actually provided your own definition of it. Statists have expanded altruism to the point that "sacrifice" is deemed a good, even when it actively damages the survival of individuals and societies. A lot of people who oppose "altruism" are opposing that twisted version of it, and your bald assertion that we are sociopaths does nothing but demonize us. It cuts off debate, because no one need concern himself with the arguments of "sociopaths".

    Ad hominem is no way to prove your point. If you'd like to define what you mean by "altruism", then we can discuss whether it truly is a good thing or not. You might be surprised to find me agreeing with you. But you don't have to do that, now that I'm safely classified as a "sociopath".

    Gerhard Adam

    I think it's important to remember that this isn't about humans alone, but rather the principle of altruistic behavior as it relates to all living things.

    Different human societies have held different values regarding the role of the individual, so it's somewhat simplistic to suggest that there is a singular meaning associated with altruism, or that such a definition is even pertinent without identifying the culture you're referring to. 

    I would argue that it is largely irrelevant what value people assign to altruism, or even the degree to which different viewpoints want to take it.  What is relevant is that it exists in biological systems, and therefore the question needs to be legitimately asked ..... where did it come from, and what is the evolutionary value it having it?

    Altruism is "good" from the perspective of the survivor, but this should NOT be interpreted as being an assessment of cultural meanings that may apply it in a wide range of ways.  In general, the use of the term "altruism" is intended to show behavior that is not exclusively selfish nor self-interested.  It indicates the ability of an individual member of a species to give up resources to others within a group, even if that means that the original individual doesn't maximize their potential use of those same resources (or does without).

    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    "sacrifice" is deemed a good, even when it actively damages the survival of individuals and societies.
    I think you should explain that, it's new to me.
    You speak of the "nebulous notion of the greater good." There's nothing nebulous about it. As a libertarian you'll be familiar with Hayek, check out his take on it. But then, I seem to remember that his view on the matter has him offside with the radical fringe.  Is that the case?
    You could also check out The Social Contract in which Robert Ardrey explained that the healthy societies from an evolutionary viewpoint are those that protect both the diversity that comes from individuality and the conformity necessary for social cohesion. It's the latter that libertarians just can't get their head around.
    the healthy societies from an evolutionary viewpoint are those that protect both the diversity that comes from individuality and the conformity necessary for social cohesion.
    Steve:  thanks!  You just gave me something I can work with.  Your phrase neatly captures the antagonistic forces at work in a naturally evolving language - the diversity that arises from new coinages and the conformity necessary for communication.  In fact, in the terminology of my copious notes, rules of grammar are rules of conformity to the socially and naturally evolved  norms of language.
    Gerhard Adam
    So I help you now and I look like a helpful mom which makes you and others that hear about me being a helpful, unselfish mom likely to help me down the road.  Pretty good investment I'd say.  I don't even have to think about it.
    Yes, the concept of reciprocal altruism is often used to describe the social interactions as you've described.  However, the complicating factor is in determining whether such behavior is evolutionarily stable or whether it can be "invaded" by a group practicing a defector strategy.

    It would appear that (as suggested by game theory) that any cooperative group must also maintain the capacity to punish "cheaters", in addition such groups are not beyond exploiting those that would let them by being "cheaters" themselves. 

    In addition, one has to examine the concept of reciprocal altruism within the context of the various social groups with which an individual identifies.  We expect behaviors to be different when one is engaged with members outside of their group versus in it.  Such groups may range from something as small as the family unit to neighbors, to religious organizations, places of employment, and ultimately the nation.  Each represents some group to which an individual will have some degree of commitment.  From this, the level of altruism will emerge.  For example, if we consider the nation as a group, an individual may participate in the military (as an act of altruism for that group), but it is inconceivable that they would participate arbitrarily in just ANY military.  Clearly their act of altruism is bounded by their identity to a particular nation and not simply as a generally altruistic act among humans.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "In reaching these conclusions all regard for the scientific method was jettisoned. Instead of collecting data then forming a hypothesis, the hypothesis was stated and the search for data then commenced."

    Since when has this ever been contrary to the scientific method? Was Einstein wrong in formulating relativity when the data that confirmed it wasn't available until 1919, for example?

    Steve Davis
    The scientific method is exactly as I've outlined. The difference between Einstein and the gene-centrics is that Einstein was right, they were wrong. There's nothing sacred about the scientific method. It's merely a refined, more rigorous form of trial and error. You can by-pass it and be lucky, (or inspired) or you can by-pass it and make a mockery out of science as the gene-centrics have done.
    Richard Dawkins doesn't ignore cooperation at the level of genes. he even uses a rowing boat analogy to explain how genes had to work together: Comparing individual genes to oarsmen, he pictures a situation in which the coach of the team must experiment with different crews in order to find the best combination. The best oarsmen, the coach
    discovers, are not best in all conditions, but their success depends on the general performance of the team.

    Gerhard Adam
    Which illustrates precisely why the premise of the "selfish gene" is nonsensical.  First we postulate that they behave selfishly, and then attribute the ability to cooperate on selfishness.  Yeah ... that makes sense.

    What's even better is that now we can put little hats and uniforms on them .... cute ... but it's simply wrong. [BTW ... the "coach" is natural selection, so that makes even less sense within the context of the "oarsmen" analogy, especially since you don't get to pick a new team].
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Isn't it amazing Gerhard, how Dawkins can mesmerise readers.
    Anonymous has referred to a passage from Dawkins that should have alarm bells ringing everywhere, that should have readers thinking "Hang on a minute, this idiot is taking me for a fool!" yet Anonymous thinks the passage supports the gene-centric view!
    So you want me to take your "how Dawkins mesmerises" and "Hang on a minute, this idiot is taking me for a fool!" and "alarm bells ringing" as scientifically justified arguments explaining your view, your perception of actually what is wrong with his argument, according to you? Is that how a person who actually knows the subject would argue? Your article seems to me just a lot of hot air.

    Gerhard Adam
    The primary point is that one doesn't get to make the claim that "selfishness" is the core trait of natural selection and then invoke cooperation and altruism as simple manifestations of "selfishness".  It's a kind of cynical extension of the argument that doesn't work.

    One of the reasons why it is invoked is because it is based on human guilt.  You do someone a favor or cooperate, but certainly you recognize that this might help you in the future, so Dawkins&crew, play on your sense of guilt by calling that motivation "selfish".  It isn't merely a good rationale to engender future goodwill, no ... it has to be "selfishness".

    Of course, that means that in every organism, we now have to view such actions as "selfish" despite the fact that most such biologists aren't prepared to grant these creatures "consciousness" or "conscious awareness", but we're going to assign them the trait of specifically being "selfish".

    Again, this creates a bit of a problem, because it is hard to argue that a creature that is supposedly incapable of being aware of itself, or others, is suddenly capable of acting in a way to specifically benefit itself at the expense of others.  Bear in mind, that we're still talking about the explanation being used to explain cooperation and altruism.

    Then, more specifically let's continue and attribute all of this to the genes, despite the fact that the gene lacks even the most rudimentary power to ensure that it is expressed.  So, again, we have an entity that lacks basic power or control over itself, and yet we will attribute "selfishness" to it to explain how it manages to propagate into an unknown and unseeable future.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    "Your article seems to me just a lot of hot air."
    Well, I've actually taken the trouble to write an article on the subject, so how about you take the trouble to refute it.
    After all, if it's only "a lot of hot air", a refutation should be like a romp in the park for you.