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.
Altruism: Its Origin, Its Evolution, Its Discontents