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    Group Selection And Altruism Among Humans
    By Gerhard Adam | August 30th 2012 08:00 AM | 52 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    There is little doubt that there is an abundance of evidence regarding the role of cooperation among social animals and it is mentioned here as a precondition for the discussion of group selection and altruism; specifically in humans.

    While many of the elements that constitute human behavior are present in other animals, there is little question that humans represent an extremely unique existence.  Beyond even the obvious differences regarding intellectual capacity, humans represent a eusocial mammal that exploits an extreme division of labor, such that it is human society that operates to support human existence, rather than the capabilities of any individual (1).

    It is clear that no single human possesses sufficient knowledge or capability to replicate that which society has accomplished, and it is equally clear that the intellectual and technical achievements of human society are the result of a unique ability to exploit skills that may occur in only one individual and yet be able to propagate those benefits throughout a worldwide society.

    As a result, human endeavors that pursue various scientific or technological objectives aren't merely beneficial to individuals or small social groups, but add to and expand benefits to the entire group.  In fact, it would be impossible for many of our modern scientific and technological advancements to occur without specialized subgroups prepared to act on the knowledge.

    Consequently it is fair to say that human achievement is a group effort, and is dependent on the "intelligence" and survival of the group rather than the individuals in that group.

    This marks a major departure from comparison to many other species, because humans exemplify group selection as a criteria for survival.  Most genetic influences are largely irrelevant in selection of the group's success, because individuals are readily replaced.  In the same way that the human body is not compromised by the loss of individual cells, neither is the human society compromised by the loss of individual members (2).

    This change marks a radical departure from the fitness objectives of most biological species.  In short, while many animal groups depend on individual survival for cohesion of their various social groups, in humans, individual fitness has almost no consequences to the group.

    In this respect one can readily acknowledge that individuals may even choose to ignore their own biological fitness objectives and voluntarily avoid producing offspring.  To the best of my knowledge this is completely unique to humans and serves to illustrate precisely how far removed human social evolution has placed the individual from a dependency on such biological objectives.

    Therefore if an individual's death doesn't compromise the group's potential for survival, and an individual's genetic contribution to future generations doesn't compromise the group's survival, it becomes clear that the objective of individuals in such a group is to maximize their individual benefits while in the group.  Their influence extends beyond simple genetics, such that the advancement of the group, provides individuals a kind of "immortality" only realized, in most species superficial genetic contribution to the future (3).

    Another factor that supports this view is that humans are among the few animals that do not have regularly visible reproductive cycles.  They can essentially reproduce at will compared to the rigid mating patterns of many other animals. Yet despite this prolific ability, humans generally operate at significantly lower levels of reproduction than their biology allows.  

    As a result, this creates the unique situation of where an individual can live a major portion of their lives without incurring any biological risk of fitness.  In other words, if a human adult has two children, then their reproductive fitness has already satisfied the base requirement for propagation, yet they are now free to act in whatever manner they choose, and despite not having any more offspring, any act they engage in cannot be said to have a fitness cost.  Fitness is determined in a completely voluntary manner (4).

    Even arguments that would claim this lower level of reproduction is because humans must commit a significant portion of their lives to rearing young, this argument only accounts for a small portion of an individual's total life span, so it doesn't serve to explain much regarding the fact that the majority of one's life has no fitness risk.

    It is therefore, my contention that altruism surfaces under such circumstances, because there is essentially no fitness risk to individuals.  In short, the eusocial nature of human existence already precludes the ability of individuals to survive without the social group, so it follows that the group itself becomes the entity that must survive.  Therefore any loss of individuals, in whatever capacity, still serves to promote the group (5).

    From these we can begin to see that there are two specific elements unique to humans that create a new way of viewing human evolution.  Altruism isn't subject to the same fitness requirements as exists in other animals, and could arguably be considered uniquely applied to the group selection that constitutes human society.  It is therefore incorrect to examine human altruism from the perspective of individual fitness.  It does, however, provide useful insight into why its existence should promote group existence.  

    It is equally important to note that such altruism is not demanded by the group (6).  Many individuals would display strong resistance to the notion that such altruistic behavior should be "expected", and yet we find that there is a subtle kind of expectation within the culture and behavioral ideas that humans express in their society, but nevertheless, altruistic behavior is expected to be completely voluntary.  Coercion invariably compromises the group's survival.

    While many of the precursors to human behavior, regarding cooperation, and even altruism are present in other animal species, the uniqueness of the human evolutionary trajectory of a eusocial grouping has also created unique behaviors relating to reproductive fitness, altruism, and the meaning of group selection.

    By recognizing the role of group selection in human evolution, we find that altruism isn't nearly as mysterious to explain such a success, since it is not dependent on the more traditional Darwinian view of natural selection to explain it's existence.

    ==================================
    (1) Many people balk at such a description because humans still like to engage in the illusion of the "rugged individual".  Even a cursory examination illustrates that such a view is a biological dead-end.  Even if an individual were to be capable of surviving completely by themselves in whatever wilderness environment is envisioned, the first difficulty would occur in finding mates.  From this, raising offspring successfully becomes more difficult, but then the real problem surfaces when one has to find mates for the offspring.  It is this continuous requirement for interaction that demonstrates the inability of individuals to maintain themselves in any biologically viable way.

    (2) This is highly analogous to the role of cells in a multi-cellular organism.  Each cell has fundamentally superceded its right to reproduce to the "higher" organization, even including the necessity of self-sacrifice (apoptosis - cell suicide).  This is one of the primary examples of "altruistic" behaviors occurring among single-celled organisms [by producing a multi-celled organism].
     
    (3) Consider that Isaac Newton contributed no genes into future generations (he had no children), yet it would be impossible to deny his contributions to the social group.

    (4) This isn't to say that some individuals may want children and be unable to conceive, but aside from these medically related issues, human reproduction is largely a completely voluntary process involving only individual choice.

    (5) This isn't intended to trivialize the emotions, attitudes, and feelings that individuals experience when someone close to them dies, but rather it is an attempt to illustrate that such feelings are strictly localized and not reflected in the group at large.

    (6) It is also worth noting that altruism is often naively presumed to be a sacrificial act, instead of recognizing that it may equally be a risky behavioral act.  In many case, the altruist does not expect to sacrifice themselves, so even high risk ventures are entered with the expectation that there is some finite probability of success.  In those cases, success may provide significant benefits to the actor within the social group.  As a result, we must be careful to recognize that merely confining altruism to self-sacrificing acts, misses the greater context in which these may occur.

    Comments

    Great article!

    Brian

    Gerhard Adam
    Thanks.  I appreciate it.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Great piece (I wowed twice reading it!)

    Gerhard Adam
    Well, I will "wow" at least once in reading your compliment.  Thanks
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    Most genetic influences are largely irrelevant in selection of the group's success, because individuals are readily replaced.
    You confuse cultural macro evolution with group selection (something that applies even to the cell-to-multicell organism transition, at least considering the way you describe it here).
    ignore their own biological fitness objectives and voluntarily avoid producing offspring.  To the best of my knowledge this is completely unique to humans and serves to illustrate precisely how far removed human social evolution
    Apart from that we fool ourselves to have "free will", i.e. "voluntarily", there is no difference to the usual integration of systems happening during evolution of complexety. There is nothing uniquely human. Social evolution is not new, but simply evolution as it has always been since the early molecules comming together. Why do I not get children? I simply do not, just like some molecule does what it does. My "voluntarily" and my claiming that it is good for society are mere rationalizations. Rationalization is unique to humans and human social systems (science as rationalization).
    Another factor that supports this view is that humans are among the few animals that do not have regularly visible reproductive cycles.
    Now you start just so stories. ;-)

    To get to the gist: I fully agree with your pointing out that group selection/eusociality/macro evolution etc is more important than an individual sub-unit's illdefined "fitness", but there is nothing uniquely human except our socially evolved hubris that claims being unique (which is no more than an evolved trait that for example makes you fight for your group!). The main problem I see with your analysis is that it is bio-centristic, even animal centristic. We are quite unique animals, but we are totally usual systems, much less impressive in our interactions and division of labor than molecules, cells, or social systems.
    vongehr
    BTW - is it not funny how one gets these "wow, great article" reactions (with no justification being felt necessary) whenever writing that humans are unique? We are quite a bunch of snobish apes. ;-)
    Gerhard Adam
    I understand your point, but in fairness, I don't use unique to mean the same thing as privileged. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Nice work Gerhard.
    We are unique, but only by degree, because as Sascha said we are just evolved animals.
    Which means that all of our qualities can be found in varying degrees in other animals, even altruism. 
    Gerhard Adam
    Of course we're just evolved animals, but uniqueness is not synonymous with privilege.  There is little doubt that humans are unique in many respects regardless of the evolutionary heritage we share with other animals.  The problem is that even acknowledging uniqueness is often construed as somehow being politically incorrect, as if such a view suddenly takes on religious or even creationist overtones.

    One of the primary reasons I bring it up, is that it seems that many of the problems observed in discussing altruism is specifically due to the fact that we want to pretend as if our situation isn't unique among animals.  

    More to your point though, I would agree that every trait we possess has its precursors in other animals, so in that respect we are the evolved result of our ancestors.  Nevertheless, I would argue that we are unique, because for hundreds of thousands of years, humans followed an evolutionary trajectory that paralleled that of virtually every other organism on this planet.  Yet, somehow 10,000+ years ago, a radical change occurred.  We began to move in ways that were vastly different than our ancestors and shifted from the loose collection of individuals in tribal societies, to a social/cultural structure that is unparalleled in any animal's history [including our own].
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    Not sure why I got misunderstood again by you guys, but my point was precisely not about privilege, and as I explicitly wrote, we are unique animals. I did precisely not write that "we are just evolved animals". My point is that we are just evolved systems. Relative to other mammals, we are quite unique because of our social macro evolution, but relative to other systems like even molecules, our macro evolution isn't impressive at all. The only uniqueness is our hubris. Their societies walk around on the moon and write articles on Science 2.0. Our societies hardly belong to the "alive" category yet.
    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry ... you're right.  I think I was reacting to your phrase of "snobbish apes".
    Mundus vult decipi
    Social insects. They are an even more extreme version of group behaviour, and altruism. Ants will sacrifice their lives so the group can cross small streams, and the majority of individuals give up their reproductive ability entirely, plus they fit your definition of eusocial. They also have a strong case for being the most successful animals on the planet. Humans aren't so unique in that way.

    Still, they support your theory of altruism being related to a lack of need for individual natural selection fitness.

    Gerhard Adam
    You're absolutely right, and most of the discussion on this topic has specifically focused on the eusocial insects.  My point was to extend this idea to humans, so the "unique" aspect of it is that they are a mammal species [although I'm aware that there are other eusocial mammals] and the radical nature of the division of labor.

    Another aspect of it, regarding humans, is that this has occurred without the same degree of high-relatedness that occurs in insect colonies.  Again, this is similar to other eusocial mammals like the naked mole rat.  Nevertheless, I don't mean to overstate human uniqueness, but eusociality is unique enough in general.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Amir D. Aczel
    Great article! Fascinating!
    Amir D. Aczel
    Hfarmer
    Yes this is a truly great article Gearhard.  This is something I have seen discussed in the form of trying to explain how the existence of LGBT people could be adaptive rather than a disadvantage. (Which of course ignores that LGBT people sometimes would reproduce biologically while not generally preferring the company of the opposite biological sex.)  They call it the gay uncle theory, the idea being that a 100% exclusively gay male could mitigate his not personally reproducing by helping two nieces or nephews in some critical way.  
    If we think that art and science and creativity are worth something then LGBT folks of all kinds have something to contribute to the groups betterment.  (Sadly for some reason people have the idea that it's somehow unmanly or unwomanly to be interested in such things.  See idiocracy.) 

    As for Newton, well, can we truly rule out that he didn't have some illegitimate offspring somewhere?  With a man like him it can be hard to tell if he really never had any children.  Stories abound of men finding out decades latter that they are in fact a daddy.  
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Gerhard Adam
    Thank you for the kind words.

    Regarding Newton, the point is that it doesn't matter.  Since we don't know, it demonstrates even more clearly how fundamentally immaterial such genetic propagation is with respect to humans.  After all, if his genetic contribution were significant, then any offspring he had would've been noticed.
    Mundus vult decipi
    John Hasenkam
    As for Newton, well, can we truly rule out that he didn't have some illegitimate offspring somewhere?  With a man like him it can be hard to tell if he really never had any children.  Stories abound of men finding out decades latter that they are in fact a daddy.   


    There is evidence to suggests Newton was a homosexual. He was not a christian in the evangelical sense, but an Arian, one who denied the divinity of Christ. So I find it humorous when some suggest science is a product of the christian mindset because the biggest name in science was probably a homosexual and a heretic. 
    UvaE
    In short, while many animal groups depend on individual survival for cohesion of their various social groups, in humans, individual fitness has almost no consequences to the group. 
    This is generally true but not in times of plagues. The individual fitness of the 2/3 of Europe that did not succumb to the plague had important consequences for the group. The survival can probably be attributed to genetic factors because they were living in the same conditions and exposed to the same vectors and bacteria as the one third that was wiped out.


    Similarly, the fact that so few Amerindians were resistant to smallpox had devastating consequences for their group.
    Gerhard Adam
    The individual fitness of the 2/3 of Europe that did not succumb to the plague had important consequences for the group.
    I would not consider your examples as fitness using selection.   In effect, resistance to plague, just like smallpox would NOT have been selected for in the groups you mention.  It would've simply swept through the population with those surviving that either had a "natural" immunity or some element of luck.

    These were not "selection" events as such [the net effect was no different than dropping bombs on Europe].  Now certainly you could argue that Europeans had a better immune system for coping with smallpox [only because it was something they were exposed to over several generations], but even so, it could only be described as a trait still under selection.
    The survival can probably be attributed to genetic factors because they were living in the same conditions and exposed to the same vectors and bacteria as the one third that was wiped out.
    I'm not sure.  Given the role of microbes in the development of the immune system, I'm not complete convinced any more than such "natural" immunity might not simply be the result of the existing microbes being better able to resist the disease in conjunction with the immune system.
    Mundus vult decipi
    John Hasenkam
     Given the role of microbes in the development of the immune system, I'm not complete convinced any more than such "natural" immunity might not simply be the result of the existing microbes being better able to resist the disease in conjunction with the immune system. 

    I regard immune function as an example of group selection. Some mammals appear to choose mates with different immunological profiles to provide the best mix and match for immune function. No single individual can be of such immunological fitness to address all possible contingencies but the spread of immunological function across a population ensures that when the inevitable nasty comes along at least a few will survive. So immunological fitness cannot be said to reside solely in the individual but rather it is the spread of immunological function that ensures species survival.


    Gerhard Adam
    John

    I must've missed this response earlier.  I think it's a great example.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
    Gerhard, perhaps you might consider some ideas I think are complementary to the ones you have expressed here.  
    1. Human altruism as an evolutionary adaptation is a product of both biological evolution and cultural evolution. It is useful to understand these as separate, but parallel, processes because they have very different selection forces. Our biology that motivates altruism is selected for by increased reproductive fitness, our enforced cultural moral standards that advocate altruism are selected for by whatever benefits people find attractive, which may not include reproductive fitness. 

     2. Gene centric and multilevel selection are two accounting schemes describing the same thing. If done correctly, they must come to the same conclusions. The choice of which level of analysis most directly reveals what is going on is a function of the selection forces for that adaptation. As you correctly point out, it is much easier to understand altruism and the benefits of cooperation in groups when understanding biological evolution at the group level. In contrast, gene-centric analysis of the biological evolution of altruism is almost comically convoluted and, as I think Richard Dawkin’s conclusions show, commonly misleading as to the nature of human altruism. 

    You may already concur with these ideas at least in part. I mention them because I see them as foundational to understanding first altruism, but further, social morality as an evolutionary adaptation which is my area of interest.
    Gerhard Adam
    Mark, thanks for your response. 
    Our biology that motivates altruism is selected for by increased reproductive fitness...
    I don't think there's any question about the influence of culture in human society.  However, there are a few problems I have with it.  The concept of reproductive fitness tends to treat this metric as if the entire basis of an organisms existence is for the sole purpose of reproduction.  While there are certainly many organisms that may operate at such a level, humans are not one of them.  Humans generally have far fewer offspring than their biology would allow, so raising the issue of "fitness" becomes suspect in my view.  After all, biology has little or nothing to say about organisms that "voluntarily" choose not to have offspring [i.e. do not fully capitalize on every opportunity]. 

    As a result, it strikes me that the reproductive fitness in question is actually more applicable to the group, than to the individual.  This also tends to run counter to what the gene-centric view would predict, yet nevertheless it is something we see in many social animals.

    The overall problem I have with the gene-centric view is one of correlation versus causation.  In other words, there is no question that genes are replicators and largely responsible for producing the basic organism.  However, the primary assumption of the gene-centric view is that the gene's are the "drivers" of such a condition.  Let's use a loose analogy though to see if I can illustrate the problem.

    Human intellect is responsible for a great many discoveries, inventions, etc. so there is little doubt that our modern society is a direct result of that innate ability.  Furthermore we can also argue that the major achievements are the direct result of a unique human division of labor which further capitalizes on that innate intelligence by ensuring that each individual only has to contribute a small portion towards a final objective.  It would be akin to the biological equivalent of parallel processing in computing systems.  Greater amounts of intellectual power are capable of being wielded rather than depending on individuals as singular sources of such intelligence.

    Now, let's throw in the curve ball.  Much of our human achievement is due to our ability to capitalize on the information of the past.  Through the use of books, etc. we are able to avoid having to rediscover or reinvent everything on which we depend.  This allows us to build on the past.

    Therefore, we can now ask the question of whether human achievement is a result of looking at the right books for knowledge, or whether it is the books themselves that are pushing human achievement. 

    While not a great analogy, it helps illustrate my point regarding the genes.  Suppose that the genes are little more than a "library" that the cell uses to retain "tested" traits that have proven successful in the past?  Is the gene a driver now?  In other words, suppose that the gene, rather than dictating the "future" is actually "remembering" the past?  Would this change the interpretation of gene-centricism?

    So, hopefully I haven't misunderstood your comment too badly, but in response I also wanted to indicate some of my objections to the terminology being used.  In the end, there are many things that will correspond to the observed results and I certainly don't have any objection to the points you have raised.

    While I don't quite know what your ideas are regarding social morality, I do believe that much of it is encoded culturally in humans, and originates in many animals based on the notion of "proper" behavior, which is a necessary ingredient to avoid expending unnecessary energy in unresolvable conflicts.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
    Gerhard, your analogy of our genes as a library of what has worked in the past to increase reproductive fitness seems quite sensible.

    However, I don’t see any necessary implication that the gene-centric view is somehow wrong. Are you arguing that the gene-centric view somehow actually gives wrong answers or that it is a merely inconvenient and confusing viewpoint for analysis compared to the multi-level selection viewpoint when dealing with group level selection forces for biology?

    Obviously, altruistic behaviors of people are not always directed at increasing their gene’s reproductive fitness. That altruism often even decreases their gene’s reproductive fitness. But again, I don’t see any necessary implication that the gene-centric view somehow gives wrong answers. This superficially puzzling behavior is better explained by the cultural evolution of enforced moral standards (that advocate altruism) which were selected for based, not necessarily on reproductive fitness, but on whatever benefits people found attractive.

    To me, these issues are clarified by understanding as parallel evolutionary processes 1) our biology based moral emotions and intuitions that motivate altruism are selected for by increased inclusive reproductive fitness and 2) cultural moral standards that advocate altruism were selected for by whatever benefits people found attractive, and continually reshape our moral intuitions (and motivations) by means of particularly clever bits of our moral biology.

    As I understand it, you are emphasizing the inclusive reproductive fitness explanation(?) of altruism (group biological selection), and I am pointing out that the evolution of enforced cultural moral standards that advocate altruism provides a robust parallel explanation of altruism that has nothing necessarily to do with reproductive fitness.

    My area of interest is in expanding the robust explanatory power and cultural utility of understanding social morality, as a matter of descriptive science, as biological and cultural implementations of altruistic cooperation strategies.
    Gerhard Adam
    I think the gene-centric view creates the wrong impression.  In those cases where specific genes are involved [small enough discrete units] and they are specifically expressed, then they can provide the correct answers because the traits and organism will follow what has been produced.

    However, it fails to address the issues of epigenetics, since the mere presence of a gene tells us nothing about its expression.  The issue of genes isn't addressed at all by the larger element of regulatory mechanisms that are also part of the genome.  This becomes especially important when one considers that the exact same gene [i.e. the same DNA sequence] may produce wildly different results based solely on the regulatory mechanisms and have, literally, nothing to do with the gene specifically.  Of what value is knowledge of the gene?  In other words, if I were to provide you the information about a particular gene's sequence, the reality is that you can tell me nothing about what trait will actually be produced or how it will be manifest.  So, in effect, the gene-centric view is an "after the fact" form of analysis where when we see the result, we go back and say ... "ahhh ... yes.  See ... that's what the genes did".  We can never do it the other way around [except in the case of defects].

    In addition, when this is coupled with the role of the microbiome in "fine-tuning" what genetics has produced, to the point of where certain capabilities don't even exist within the genetic coding, then it makes me question what the value is of using the gene-centric view and what exactly it supposedly predicts.
    Are you arguing that the gene-centric view somehow actually gives wrong answers...
    I'm questioning whether it is capable of providing any answers, except "after the fact".
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
    Gerhard, we certainly agree that “the gene-centric view creates the wrong impression”. Listening to Richard Dawkins talk about altruism provides ample evidence of how misleading this view can be. 
    Fine, I think I understand now that we are in actually in substantial agreement. Just as a suggestion, David Sloan Wilson’s “different accounting systems” as he laid out in simple language in http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sloan-wilson/clash-of-paradigms_b_16... seems to me to be both correct and a good approach for avoiding unproductive arguments. I am not sure where epigenetics fits into multi-level selection theory, but David is a smart guy and I expect he would have no trouble fitting it in. 

    Perhaps at some future appropriate time we can discuss what I see as the common universal source of both our biology that motivates altruism and enforced moral standards that advocate altruism, altruistic cooperation strategies.
    Gerhard Adam
    Actually there's a more fundamental problem here that I'm going to try and address in another post, but basically it comes down to the dependency on an "altruistic" gene being present.

    BTW, I think you've also seen that I have a fundamental problem in the definition of "altruism" as being necessarily self-sacrificing.  Such a definition will invariably fail, which is why I tend to view the "altruistic trait" as more of a "risk-taking trait" where the objective is NOT to sacrifice oneself, but rather to gamble that the risk will result in a "pay-off" that is beneficial.

    Self-sacrificing groups leads to "suicidal" groups.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
    Gerhart, I can’t resist the temptation to comment on the question of a “gene for altruism” from the perspective of a “social morality as a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation (altruistic cooperation strategies)”. Again, I expect there will be much we agree on, but perhaps a different perspective might be useful?
    From the perspective of social morality as a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation, social moralities are sets of biological heuristics that motivate altruism and cultural heuristics (enforced cultural moral standards) that advocate altruism. Your main interest appears to be in the sets of biological heuristics such as empathy, loyalty, guilt, shame, and our moral intuitions (a special case) that motivate altruism.

    The first conclusion is one I expect you share, that the biology underlying empathy and loyalty are the products of innumerable genes going back to the first oxytocin producing biology in our pre-mammalian ancestors and now, due to newer genes, triggered toward non-relatives in some circumstances. 

    What may be less obvious (without insights from altruistic cooperation strategies) is that empathy and loyalty that motivate altruism toward non-kin are not evolutionarily viable (so far as I know) without punishment of people who exploit altruism. That punishment has two biological sources: indignation (motivating external punishment of other’s altruism exploitation) and our moral intuitions or conscience by which we internally punish ourselves for immoral behavior by the emotional experiences of shame and guilt. (Of course, there are also cultural norms that advocate punishing exploiters, but that it is not your focus.) 

    So the genes underlying moral indignation and shame and guilt are evolutionarily necessary for any genes that expand empathy and loyalty to non-kin. 

    Last but not least, we share a remarkable biology that somehow incorporates our experiences, especially concerning cultural moral standards, into our moral intuitions and conscience. The biology that produces that cultural shaping of our moral intuitions can motivate altruism toward someone we will never meet. So the genes that produce the biology responsible for our cultural moral standards being able to shape our moral intuitions are also part of the “genetic basis” of human altruism. 

    I hope I am not stealing too much of your thunder regarding a “gene for altruism”, but I thought commenting only after the fact might be less useful. 

    Regarding altruism, yes, I agree that the both the standard cultural and biological definitions of “altruism” are inadequate in discussions of the science of morality. The cultural definition was proposed in 1853 by the French philosopher Comte as an opposite to egoism and has no basis in science. 

    I find the following definition of altruism useful, “acting with a penalty to one’s self, benefiting others, and without consideration of benefits to one’s self”. Thus someone could believe that consistently following the Golden Rule would benefit them over a lifetime, but as long as a specific act was not based on expectations of benefits, such acts would be “altruistic” by this definition. I see it as simultaneously useful for the science of morality and in its normal cultural and biological usage. Please let me know of any criticisms of this definition or suggestions for a better one.
    Gerhard Adam
    Mark

    First, of all, don't worry about stealing my "thunder", since my objective is simply to have these kinds of discussions, so I welcome the dialogue.

    It seems that much of your focus is on human altruism, so your comment is completely appropriate to the article.  However, when it comes to the definition, we have to be careful to consider that within the much broader biological sense in which it would occur.

    As a result, the biggest problem I see with your definition is that it attempt to attribute motivation.  In my view, such motivation isn't relevant, since it is the act, not the reason for it, that determines whether it is altruistic or not.  In other words, if the same act can be considered altruistic in one situation and not in another, then we have a problem with the definition.

    Why should my risking my life to save someone in a burning building be altruistic only if I don't think of any benefit to myself?  What difference does it make to the beneficiary?  or to the actor?

    One of my main problems is the presumption that an act of altruism must result in a "penalty to one's self".  Why?  If I give of my own resources to help you, why should it matter if I have an abundance of resources?  You derive the benefit of the act, regardless of whether it impacts me or not.

    Moreover, short of self-sacrifice, how does such an act impact fitness on the actor?  Certainly there are situations where someone [or some other animal] may risk their lives to save someone, but they hardly do it with the intent to sacrifice themselves.  In fact, such a sacrifice would generally result in the loss of both of them if it were handled foolishly.

    In humans, someone that takes unwarranted risk is said to have a "death wish", and is generally considered a liability, not an altruist.  This would lead me to conclude that the altruist that has the willingness to risk themselves is valuable only because they don't wish to make that sacrifice and therefore will do their best to avoid it.

    An altruist that willingly sacrifices themselves is simply suicidal and likely experiences no gain for the supposed beneficiary either.

    [NOTE:  I recognize that I've shifted into a kind of motivation in using the term "willingness", so bear with me since it doesn't apply to all animals].

    Instead I find myself thinking that altruism is an unnecessary division/separation of cooperation.  Any cooperative act involves some "sacrifice" and "benefit" between the individuals involved.  This is a necessary condition to maintain the cooperative environment.  In that case, altruism is simply the risk-taking of an individual to ensure the continued survival of the cooperative group.

    Even in the game theory analysis of "Tit for Tat", it is often described as occurring between cooperators or defectors.  However, I will go one step further and argue that the initial act of cooperating is an altruistic one, since that is when the subjects are vulnerable to exploitation and yet they take the risk anyway.

    The net of this is to argue that altruism is a necessary condition from which cooperation arises.  It is only when individuals are prepared to be exploited that they can reach a level of forming cooperative groups.  Certainly the refinements of punishment and retribution can then be used to help shape the nature of such a group, but initially the act must be altruistic.

    Let's also remember that the concept of cooperation is meaningless without a group to which it can be applied, so any organism that has the capacity for cooperation is also dependent on the group for long-term survival.  Again, this would suggest that "altruism" is simply the attribute of taking a risk to provide a benefit to the group.  The argument regarding individual fitness is meaningless since there is no survival for individuals without the group.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
    Gerhard there is a lot to reply to here regarding where we agree and disagree. Rather than go point by point, I would rather focus on the following two points regarding altruism and my slightly modified definition of it. 

    1) Humm, regarding an intent component of altruism, I think my definition of altruism cleverly(?) avoids a necessary attribution of motivation. Repeating it for convenience, “Altruism is acting with a penalty to one’s self, benefiting others, and without consideration of benefits to one’s self”. For example, the biological altruism of cooperating bacteria would fit under this definition since obviously bacteria act without “consideration of benefits to one’s self” and the costs and benefits can be limited to reproductive fitness. 

    Regarding altruism in people where motivation can be critical, if you ran into a building to save someone mainly because you were offered a million dollars to do so, then you might rightly be honored and admired for your bravery and saving the person and justly claim your million dollars, but your action would not be altruistic in any normal sense of the word. You are claiming the act would still be altruistic in what sense? If you are using a non-standard definition of altruism, what is it? 

    My goal in redefining altruism was to thread the needle between the standard cultural definition of altruism and the standard biological definition of altruism and produce a definition that would make sense in both these standard usages, but also not make non-sense of the science of social morality. For example, people who might, based on a standard cultural usage, say the following is nonsense: “I expect that acting altruistically will be in my long term best interests” when it actually is the heart of morality as an evolutionary adaptation. 


    2) Morality understood as an evolutionary adaptation solves a cross-species, universal cooperation-exploitation dilemma that is built into the nature of our physical reality. That dilemma is “How can we gain the synergistic benefits of cooperation when the usual winning short term strategy is to exploit the at least short term altruism that is necessarily part of non-economic cooperation?” 

    Bacteria, meerkats, and wolves overcome this problem and gain the synergistic benefits of cooperation largely through the kin altruism strategy. People have the additional advantage of conscience shaped by culture which can encode all sorts of useful altruistic cooperation strategies, perhaps even some not yet discovered by either biology or game theory. 

    The word “altruistic” in “altruistic cooperation strategies” refers to altruistically refraining from using the winning short term exploitation strategy, even when you think doing so may NOT be in your best long term interests.
    Gerhard Adam
    ...if you ran into a building to save someone mainly because you were offered a million dollars to do so, then you might rightly be honored and admired for your bravery and saving the person and justly claim your million dollars, but your action would not be altruistic in any normal sense of the word.
    I have to disagree.  You are incurring the risk and might not survive.  Therefore the million dollars is irrelevant to the decision to engage in the act.  It is the act which is altruistic, not the motivation of the actor.

    This is significant because we have institutionalized "altruism" in our society in many occupations such as firefighters, police, and even the military.  We expect our citizens to potentially sacrifice themselves for strangers [but members of the same social group].  Do we deny their actions simply because they get paid to do it?  Are their actions any less altruistic because it's their job?

    This was especially evident in looking at the behaviors that occurred on 9/11.  In that regard we can see that the actions of the altruist extend far beyond the simple matter of whether they got paid to do it or not.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
    The million dollars would not be irrelevant to my decision to risk my life. 
    "It is the act which is altruistic, not the motivation of the actor" contradicts the normal cultural meaning of the word altruism. Are you proposing a new definition? I have told you my proposed variation of the standard definition, what is yours?
    Gerhard Adam
    It's not particularly new, it's just that when you use a cultural definition, then it is only applicable to humans.  My point is that it is applicable to biology.  In other words, I don't want to try to infer the motivation in why a particular animal behaves altruistically, since I can never know what the basis for it is.  I can only examine the action to determine if it is altruistic.

    As I've stated before, my definition of altruism involves one organism giving up some of its resources [up to and including self-sacrifice] to benefit another member of the group.  However, in the extreme, I don't believe that altruism is about being sacrificial as much as it is to take risks.  Therefore the altruistic act is often one in which a high risk is taken to gain a corresponding benefit for another [or the group], however it is not necessarily the intent of the actor to sacrifice themselves.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    Mark

    One other problem with altruism is that it requires far too much calculation in the behavior.  While one can rationalize how an "altruistic gene" might work its way through a population, this depends on such a trait having a reasonably predictable behavior [which I don't believe has ever been demonstrated].

    However, the big problem is really for biologists.  After all, according to their definition, altruism only occurs at a fitness cost to the actor for a fitness gain in the beneficiary.  Yet, in order for this to actually make sense [from a quantifiable perspective] one would have to know the entire life history of the organism, as well as recognize/understand the "lost" alternative opportunities and whether they really represented an "opportunity" [unlike humans that routinely don't reproduce at their biological capabilities].  In addition, it's quite reasonable to believe that most of the "higher" animals are more discrete in the frequency of reproduction, so they don't "maximize" their fitness anyway.

    Without that, it's simply a supposition that fitness has been either lost or gained [other than the trivial case of self-sacrifice]. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Gerhard, you said earlier that :-
    Human intellect is responsible for a great many discoveries, inventions, etc. so there is little doubt that our modern society is a direct result of that innate ability.  Furthermore we can also argue that the major achievements are the direct result of a unique human division of labor which further capitalizes on that innate intelligence by ensuring that each individual only has to contribute a small portion towards a final objective.  It would be akin to the biological equivalent of parallel processing in computing systems.  Greater amounts of intellectual power are capable of being wielded rather than depending on individuals as singular sources of such intelligence.
    I don't know what world you are living in but in the world that I live in, the division of labour, contributions and resources is not in any way even and never has been, the rich and the powerful usually exploit the poor and the needy. The division of labour, contributions and resources is also rarely equal between the sexes, nations and economic classes.

    You then went on to discuss the possible mechanism for gene selection of altruistic behaviour or rather the opposite, the fact that many altruistic individuals die, so how do their altruistic genes get a chance to reproduce? Again I think the world current state of affairs and its overall general economic, societal and environmental decline probably correlates nicely with a decline in genetically expressed altruism. For thousands of years altruistic individuals have been discriminated against and exploited and less altruistic, self-serving individuals have benefited from their exploitation and demise. Just look at the wealth that has been stolen from indigenous people the world over and what has happened to their resultant gene pools and economies.

    If the less aggressive, more socially cooperative matriarchal bonobos hadn't been kept apart both geographically and genetically, from the much more aggressive, warring, patriarchal chimpanzees, by the massive, insurpassable stretch of Congo river that has historically separated them, then the bonobos and their altruistic genes would also probably have been wiped out thousands of years ago by the warring chimpanzees. 

    What I find amazing is that there still are these individuals like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, who are still making altruistic stands that reveal the rich and powerful exploitation and murder of the poor and the defenceless, at great personal cost to themselves. But then even now, at least 30,000 years later, there are still Neanderthal genes in the human gene pool, so maybe you are right and our gene pool is like a vast library and as long as the librarians don't throw out the old books or books that just haven't ever been borrowed, to make space for new books, like my local librarians do, then these altruistic genes will hopefully always be around. 

    Interestingly to me anyway, I think that religion can play a very significant role in motivating self-serving, non-altruistic individuals to behave in a manner within society that appears on the surface to be altruistic but is probably just their way of ensuring themselves a place in heaven for eternity (or somewhere equivalent) according to their religious beliefs. This fear of divine judgement and possible retribution probably elicits much overtly altruistic behaviour towards others, in many religious people who might otherwise be altruistically and morally redundant. Could 'fear of divine retribution' also then be a genetic trait? I know that there is an area of the human brain that when it is electrically stimulated will cause the most ardent atheist to suddenly start wondering about the existence of a God, so maybe this is just another gene, a religious gene? 
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    The division of labour is rarely equal between the sexes, nations and economic classes.
    Who said anything about the division of labor being about equality?  The fact that it exists is precisely what has given rise to the society we have. 
    You then went on to discuss the possible mechanism for gene selection of altruistic behaviour or rather the opposite, the fact that many altruistic individuals die, so how do their altruistic genes get a chance to reproduce?
    If you choose to define altruism as being self-sacrifice, then it makes no sense.  Similarly, the requirement that there be an "altruistic gene" is also problematic.

    However, I think you're defining altruism much too narrowly and you're simply presuming that it must apply to all groups and all individuals all the time.  That simply isn't going to be the case.  Altruism is quite significant in our society, even if you don't wish to acknowledge it, but it occurs on a fairly regular basis [in some cases with entire careers/occupations being devoted to it].

    Altruism is NOT a prohibition against aggressiveness nor combativeness.  Altruism typically occurs within groups and is not generally applicable when considering different group interactions. 

    Also, by invoking bonobos, you're simply equating altruism with your perception of peacefulness, which doesn't actually have anything to do with it.  In fact, an altruistic act could be one of extreme violence, so I don't know why you're drawing the opposite conclusions.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Who said anything about the division of labor being about equality?  The fact that it exists is precisely what has given rise to the society we have.   
    Well you said 'humans represent a eusocial mammal that exploits an extreme division of labor, such that it is human society that operates to support human existence, rather than the capabilities of any individual (1)'. You then said later in the comments section :-
     Furthermore we can also argue that the major achievements are the direct result of a unique human division of labor which further capitalizes on that innate intelligence by ensuring that each individual only has to contribute a small portion towards a final objective. 
    I was just pointing out that some people only contribute a small portion but that the majority of people are often exploited and forced to contribute a much larger portion, often at great expense to their own well being and long term survival.
    If you choose to define altruism as being self-sacrifice, then it makes no sense.  Similarly, the requirement that there be an "altruistic gene" is also problematic. 
    Exactly, so why are you trying to argue that it isn't by saying that :-
    Most genetic influences are largely irrelevant in selection of the group's success, because individuals are readily replaced. In the same way that the human body is not compromised by the loss of individual cells, neither is the human society compromised by the loss of individual members (2).This change marks a radical departure from the fitness objectives of most biological species. In short, while many animal groups depend on individual survival for cohesion of their various social groups, in humans, individual fitness has almost no consequences to the group.In this respect one can readily acknowledge that individuals may even choose to ignore their own biological fitness objectives and voluntarily avoid producing offspring.  
    According to Wikipedia 'Altruism (ethics) (also called the ethic of altruism, moralistic altruism, and ethical altruism) is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary, at the sacrifice of self interest.'

    Wikipedia's eusociality describes how 'If adaptive evolution unfolds by differential survival of individuals, how can individuals incapable of passing on their genes possibly evolve and persist? Since they do not breed, we ought to expect any genes causing this condition to be highly unlikely to persist in the population.'

    'In Origin of Species (first edition, Ch. 8), Darwin called this behavior the "one special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my theory."'

    Well I still think that it is fatal to Darwin's theory, I think that altruism is often being selected against in human society and evolution. You say that :-
    It is therefore, my contention that altruism surfaces under such circumstances, because there is essentially no fitness risk to individuals. In short, the eusocial nature of human existence already precludes the ability of individuals to survive without the social group, so it follows that the group itself becomes the entity that must survive. Therefore any loss of individuals, in whatever capacity, still serves to promote the group (5).
    I disagree, there is definitely a 'fitness risk' to a lot of altruistic individuals in human society and the resultant gene pool.
    Altruism isn't subject to the same fitness requirements as exists in other animals, and could arguably be considered uniquely applied to the group selection that constitutes human society.  It is therefore incorrect to examine human altruism from the perspective of individual fitness.  It does, however, provide useful insight into why its existence should promote group existence. 
    So in that case, why did Darwin say that altruism was fatal to his theory of evolution and survival of the fittest? Where is your evidence that he was wrong and that you are right? How can we possibly know whether the percentage of altruistic people in the population is higher or lower now than it was say 10,000 years ago? Maybe when humans lived in small clans, altruism was beneficial to their small groups and societies just as it is for bees in their colonies but nowadays the social structure has changed radically and altruistic, non-reproductive individuals in a mobile, clanless society might well be less fit and consequently altruism and its gene expression could now possibly be in serious decline? Very difficult to measure!
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    I was just pointing out that some people only contribute a small portion but that the majority of people are often exploited and forced to contribute a much larger portion, often at great expense to their own well being and long term survival.
    You're talking about your own view regarding social exploitation, however each individual can still only contribute a small portion towards some objective [from an overall societal perspective].  Clearly some objectives can be handled by individuals, while others require a large number of people.  The net effect remains the same, in that, it is society that is changed by these individual small contributions.  Your point about some equality is meaningless here.  In fact, it doesn't even extend into the animal kingdom, because you're effectively arguing that if you were a "soldier" ant then that's somehow unfair compared to being one that feeds the queen, since their attendant risks and potential sacrifices are different.
    ...an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary, at the sacrifice of self interest.'
    Which is purely cultural and not broadly applicable from a biological perspective.  Since we see altruism in other creatures [including those not capable of cognition], then we must conclude that despite whatever other elements exist in human learning, culture, etc., there is a fundamental component that promotes cooperation and altruism.  While it has been argued that there is therefore an "altruistic" gene, my point is that altruism arises as a consequence of cooperation within a social group and doesn't require any separate genetic component. 

    Despite what you think about human society, the fact of the matter is that even the most selfish individual is dependent absolutely and unequivocally on other people.  There is no option for simply being "by yourself".  So, while you can complain about how unfair society is, or how things aren't equal, or how people are being exploited, but whatever your argument, you can't get around the fact that even this situation requires a major level of cooperation. 
    ...how can individuals incapable of passing on their genes possibly evolve and persist? Since they do not breed, we ought to expect any genes causing this condition to be highly unlikely to persist in the population.'
    I don't think it's a problem, because we already see this behavior among the cells in a multi-celled organism.   Individually, many of them have "given up" the ability to reproduce to promote the existence of the larger animal.  Their "future" is linked exclusively to the germ line and is absolutely dependent on it.  Similarly in eusocial insects, the "germ line" happens to be the queen, but there is no reason to presume that individuals within such a "super-organism" need to compete with each other for reproduction, when their entire existence only has meaning within the context of the group.  It is meaningless to talk about the disposition of a single ant or bee.  It is only within the context of the colony that these creatures potential can surface.

    Even within "higher" animals [such as wolves] we see that there is voluntary constraint against breeding in support of the larger social group.  In these cases, the alpha pair are generally the only breeding pair at any point in time.  So, here we have an animal that is effectively "voluntarily" giving up its "right to reproduce" simply to promote the welfare of the larger group.
    So in that case, why did Darwin say that altruism was fatal to his theory of evolution and survival of the fittest?
    He didn't.  He said that eusociality might be fatal to his theory.
    I disagree, there is definitely a 'fitness risk' to a lot of altruistic individuals in human society and the resultant gene pool.
    In what way?  What group of people are being prevented from reproducing?  Why is it that the group you attribute the exploitation problems to [those with money and power] generally have fewer offspring?  Don't confuse your desire for a different economic model to be treated synonymously with biological selection.
    Well I still think that it is fatal to Darwin's theory, I think that altruism is often being selected against in human society and evolution.
    That statement simply makes no sense.  On the one hand you claim it is fatal to Darwin's theory and then in the next you invoke Darwin's theory to explain it.
    How can we possibly know whether the percentage of altruistic people in the population is higher or lower now than it was say 10,000 years ago?
    We can't, and it doesn't particularly matter.  Again, you seem to be arguing that evolution is supposed to lead to some utopian implementation.  However there is ample evidence that altruism is alive and well in humans and there is no need to worry about it's being "selected out". 

    Of course, if you view altruism solely from the perspective of self-sacrifice and achieving some kind of utopian human society then you'll find all kinds of problems with it, because you're setting it up to define something that doesn't exist. 

    As I said previously.  In my view, altruism is a pre-requisite trait for cooperation to arise, because someone has to be willing to risk being exploited to promote cooperation.  Without that, there is no one to take the "first step".

    In modern human society, our culture also influences our concepts of altruism, whether it be enforced [i.e. like through governments] or whether it is organized [through volunteer organizations] or whether it be between individuals [giving someone some money].  These are all elements of our society and it is pointless to argue about why everyone isn't living as equals.  The latter will never happen, because despite your claims, there are as many poor people that would [and do] exploit others as there are rich.

    Moreover the mistake you're making [as do many others] is in assuming that altruism is a singular trait, so that the individual possessing it must somehow live their entire lives as some kind of "holy person".  Individuals can be selfish and altruistic at any particular point in time, so to claim this as some kind of universal behavior is misleading and simply wrong.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Look, for this discussion to be even vaguely scientific we have to have an agreed definition of what altruism means. You said that :-
    BTW, I think you've also seen that I have a fundamental problem in the definition of "altruism" as being necessarily self-sacrificing.  Such a definition will invariably fail, which is why I tend to view the "altruistic trait" as more of a "risk-taking trait" where the objective is NOT to sacrifice oneself, but rather to gamble that the risk will result in a "pay-off" that is beneficial. 
    If you are just talking about a risk-taking trait then I'm not really interested in this discussion and you should change the title of your blog to say "Group Selection and Risk-Taking'.. 

    Also, on the one hand you are saying the 'altruistic trait' is an essential precursor for cooperation to begin and then elsewhere you are saying that altruism is a product of cooperation, you then say that there is no one altruistic trait. Either you think there is an altruistic trait or there isn't? 

    In my opinion altruism involves self-sacrifice for the benefit of others who are therefore the 'group'. If that 'group' is not strongly genetically representative of the altruistic individual doing the altruistic act of self-sacrifice that results in their demise, then it is genetically and evolutionarily disastrous for that altruistic individual. 

    So its OK and makes genetic evolutionary sense for bees and wolves and even people to sacrifice themselves for their closely linked genetic families and groups but it is not so good for people and their genetic evolution for them to altruistically self-sacrifice just for say the benefit of their country, human society or even for the planet as a whole. In these situations an altruistic trait would surely be genetically selected against and I believe that this is what is happening and has been happening since we stopped living in clans. 


    The altruistic trait when expressed for the benefit of others, who are not directly genetically related to the altruistic individual, is inevitably being selected against and probably dying out, unless your genetic library analogy somehow applies and surely that would contradict Darwin's theory of evolution?

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    In my opinion altruism involves self-sacrifice for the benefit of others who are therefore the 'group'.
    Doesn't work, since reciprocal altruism requires the ability to reciprocate.  That can't happen if the altruist is invariably eliminated.
    Also, on the one hand you are saying the 'altruistic trait' is an essential precursor for cooperation to begin and then elsewhere you are saying that altruism is a product of cooperation, you then say that there is no one altruistic trait. Either you think there is an altruistic trait or there isn't?
    I'm saying that I don't believe that "altruism" is necessarily a separate characteristic from cooperation.  It is merely a degree of difference.  However, to argue that this characteristic is necessarily genetic creates a whole different set of problems.  There is little doubt that cooperation among humans, as a social group, is absolutely pervasive wherever humans live.  Therefore, we can't argue that there is any genetic instance of humans not being social.  As a result, cooperation [or even altruism], such as it is, is fixed in the population.  There is no specific allele which can be selected for so that one parent may be altruistic, while another selfish and the children dependent on which particular allele they inherit.  We simply don't see behaviors like that.

    As I said before, altruism and selfishness are not fixed behaviors that occur consistently in every individual's actions.  This makes it extremely difficult to argue that there's a particular trait that governs that behavior. 

    Within the context of the eusocial insects one may well make that argument that they are "programmed" to be that way by their genes, but then one has to conclude that it is a group adaptation, since it clearly makes no sense to sacrifice yourself for a non-reproducing coworker.  All sacrifices in that situation are for the group only.
    In these situations an altruistic trait would surely be genetically selected against and I believe that this is what is happening and has been happening since we stopped living in clans.
    Based on what?  It is difficult enough to argue that natural selection is very active in humans to begin with.  Yet you want to argue that somehow this particular trait is being actively selected against?  By what means are you assessing that altruists are disproportionately dying out?  What evidence are you citing that suggests that there is any difference in altruism among humans?
    So its OK and makes genetic evolutionary sense for bees and wolves and even people to sacrifice themselves for their closely linked genetic families and groups but it is not so good for people and their genetic evolution for them to altruistically self-sacrifice just for say the benefit of their country, human society or even for the planet as a whole.
    ... and this is where you argument falls apart, because whether you think it is good or not, the truth is that they do it.  Moreover, even the eusocial insects aren't nearly as rigid as you might think.  Bees will accept a new queen if properly handled, so there is no genetic link to the new queen and hive she is now taking over.  Similarly Argentinian ants have linked up colonies that have no genetic relationship and managed to establish cooperative networks.

    However, your argument about kin is precisely what is presented in "kin selection theory", and is problematic in my view.  First it places a firm requirement that there is an "altruistic gene" and correspondingly a "non-altruistic gene" that can be selected based on some arbitrary set of alleles from the parents.  Secondly you have the problem in being able to recognize kin.  It is pointless to claim that altruism can be beneficial if the sacrifice is towards kin, and then be unable to identify kin.  Third, even if you are kin, there is no guarantee that the individuals carry the purported allele.  It depends on too many happy coincidences to be viable.

    NOTE:  Kin selection was extended by inclusive fitness to include non-genetic relatives, and also those in close geographic proximity, which of course renders the entire premise suspect, because unless the gene has already gone to fixation [which it likely has] there's nothing to select for, nor any means to ensure that the altruist isn't simply wasting his time.
    If you are just talking about a risk-taking trait then I'm not really interested in this discussion ...
    Suit yourself, but the point is that taking a risk is what the altruistic act is.  Even in a cooperative model, why should any organism take a potentially lethal risk for anyone or anything else?  That is the nature of altruism.   Aside from the eusocial insects [which I've already stated will sacrifice for the group], what animal specifically engages in self-sacrificial acts?  If you're suggesting that there is such a creature, then how is the action determined?  What simply prevents it from being reckless?  What differentiates it from a creature that is suicidal or has a "death wish"?

    Also ... provide an example of what you mean.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
    Could you clarify what you mean by the “problem” of altruism? Are you saying altruism cannot be motivated by our biology or what? In light of innumerable examples of animal and human altruism, that would be a hard claim to defend.
    Gerhard Adam
    Well, part of the issue is the point regarding self-sacrifice.  Clearly this can't be a requirement otherwise concepts like "reciprocal altruism" become meaningless phrases.

    Therefore, since cooperation already requires "cost" and "benefit" for the participants, then why should we regard altruism as anything more specific?  Essentially I'm arguing that altruism is merely one aspect of general cooperation.  Since self-sacrifice isn't required, then how does one distinguish between the costs/benefits of cooperation and that of altruism?

    Even the words "reciprocal altruism" just sounds like a contrived phrase to describe cooperation.

    If you disagree, perhaps you might describe what you consider the differences to be. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan

    "Reciprocal altruism", now more commonly called direct reciprocity, still makes sense to me as an altruistic cooperation strategy even if risking a cost is involved (a risk of self-sacrifice). 

    What makes it "altruistic" cooperation is the altruistic acceptance of the penalty of not exploiting the other cooperator's vulnerability. 

    One difference between cooperation and direct reciprocity is that not all cooperation strategies risk exploitation as direct reciprocity and other altruistic cooperation strategies do. Economic cooperation and simple coordination (which side to the street to drive on) do not generally require altruism. 
    Gerhard Adam
    Of course they do.  One has to "trust" that the system will work and that those with which you deal can be trusted.  Certainly our society has created an environment where there is a third party enforcement potential, so that we don't have to be quite as "trusting".

    Every act of cooperation requires a "sacrifice" even if it is trivial, since it involves an individual having to give up their freedom to do as they please so that they can work with others.  Even deciding something as to which side of the street you can drive on, presumes that everyone will cooperate and that there is an enforcement arm for those that behave recklessly and don't obey the rules.

    In other words, you cannot choose to do otherwise, and in that respect you have had to give something up.  As I said, it may seem trivial,  but is actually quite deeply ingrained in us.  In fact, it is so fundamental, we take it for granted and don't even think about how dramatic the effect is.

    Each of us is committed to going to school, so that we may eventually choose a career or take a job where we can participate in our "little contribution" towards society.  We even assess people by whether they are useful and contributing members of society.  It is intrinsic.  An individual that doesn't do their part is considered an "outsider" or a "freeloader".
    "Reciprocal altruism", now more commonly called direct reciprocity, still makes sense to me as an altruistic cooperation strategy even if risking a cost is involved (a risk of self-sacrifice).
    Again, I have to disagree.  There is nothing reciprocal about altruism if one party incurs a sacrifice.  It works precisely because we aren't talking about a finite conclusion to the interaction, but rather one that can be repeated over and over again.  That's one of the fundamental premises in game theory, is that individuals must have future encounters, otherwise there is no benefit to the initial act of cooperation.  In other words, "Tit for Tat" only works if there is a second [or greater] set of rounds.

    This is also the entire basis for retribution and punishment, because it requires that future encounters will be impacted by current behavior.
     
    Mundus vult decipi
    UvaE
    Listening to Richard Dawkins talk about altruism provides ample evidence of how misleading this view can be.  
    Stephen Jay Gould is smiling in his grave!

    Mark Sloan
    Enrico, Stephen Jay Gould might be smiling in his grave at Dawkin's attempts to explain altruism and morality. 
    However, I was expecting Gould might be closer to 'spinning' at the thought of social morality being a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation selected for by the benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups and therefore st least "moral means" (altruistic cooperation strategies) being firmly in the domain of science's universal descriptive truths. 

    On the other hand, Gould was a very sharp guy which makes me wonder if I, and others, misunderstood what he meant by non-overlapping magisteria regarding morality and the domain of descriptive science.
    Hank
    If there is a hell, I think it is a place where Stephen Jay Gould and Dawkins talk about biology for eternity.  

    But if I have to choose which of two wrong people to side with, I am choosing Gould - because he was a big baseball fan.
    UvaE
      I am choosing Gould - because he was a big baseball fan. 
    Yeah and even though he was wrong about a few things, he was a superb lecturer, had a spunky side to him, and he wrote a superb essay explaining the extinction of the .400 hitter. 

    Gerhard Adam
    Mark

    Perhaps in defining cooperation and altruism some specific examples might also be helpful.

    In my view, cooperation is defined as any activity engaged in by two or more individuals whereby the objective is intended to benefit them both to varying degrees.  In this case, cooperating in a hunt or some activity where achieving the objective will provide both benefits that they might not otherwise enjoy.

    Altruism, on the other hand, involves one individual having to sacrifice some of their resources to provide a benefit to someone else.  It could be as simple as helping someone build a fence [since the altruist has no reason to engage in this activity, it takes away from their "resources" and they will accrue no benefit].  This generally occurs with an implicit understanding that such help will be reciprocated in the future; hence the idea of reciprocal altruism.

    Of course, in the extreme, sacrifices may be significant and more carefully provided.  In this context, the action will likely be governed by how significant the group is [regarding the individuals involved] and the degree to which its survival is impacted.

    The more important the group is, the greater the sacrifices individuals may be willing to make.  In addition, it also hinges on how real the threat is to the group. 

    As a result, I see altruism as running a range of possible actions, but [as I stated earlier] it is the act itself and not the motivation that determines whether a particular act is altruistic or not.  The mere fact that another individual doesn't HAVE to engage is sufficient to argue that they are "sacrificing" something that they don't need to.

    Also, this doesn't require kinship, but rather simply belonging to a group whose survival is more important than the individuals themselves.  Obviously one of the simplest groups would be family, so it isn't surprising that there is a tendency to gravitate towards kinship as the basis for altruism.  However, other groups may be equally important [at various times] and consequently sacrifices may be incurred that override the significance of these competing interests.

    To Helen's point, the issue then isn't whether or not humans are fundamentally altruistic, but rather whether they belong to identifiable groups that promote such behavior. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
    Gerhard, I find little to disagree with here. 

    I assume our shared goal is to define altruism, cooperation, and altruistic cooperation for maximum usefulness in science of morality discussions (which will, of course, require taking into account their existing meanings and thus will always be a compromise). 

     “Altruistic cooperation” is Herbert Gintis’s phrase describing strategies for overcoming the cross-species universal cooperation-exploitation dilemma that social morality solves. It has been my goal to use definitions of altruism and cooperation that are consistent with Gintis’ usage (or actually the relevant game theory strategies Gintis describes) due to my high confidence that social moralities are, as a matter of science, sets of biological and cultural adaptations selected for by synergistic benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups. 

    If you are not familiar with it, I recommend in the strongest terms his and Samuel Bowles’, recent book “A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution” http://www.amazon.com/Cooperative-Species-Reciprocity-Evolution-ebook/dp...

     I am trying to use altruism and cooperation consistently with morality’s evolutionary function and to clearly distinguish between morally admirable altruistic cooperation and morally neutral cooperation, such as economic cooperation and simple coordination. However, our discussion has made me think it might be time for me to go back and check to be sure. 

    Asking if we are “fundamentally altruistic” or “belong to identifiable groups that promote such behavior” seems to me to be not asking the right question. We are undeniably social animals due to our social biology. Our social biology was selected for by the benefits of association and cooperation in groups. 

    What science brings to this class of questions is the insight into the evolutionary origins and ultimate sources in the nature of physical reality of human altruism and altruistic cooperation, or as it is more commonly known, moral behavior. 

    So, yes we do have biology that, in the right circumstances, can trigger altruism, so we are “fundamentally altruistic” in that biological sense. Yes, we also “belong to identifiable groups that promote such behavior” for excellent evolutionary reasons. But to see it as an issue as to which is “more correct” seems to me to be misunderstanding what morality is as an evolutionary adaptation.
    (2) This is highly analogous to the role of cells in a multi-cellular organism.
    Cells in most multicellular organisms are genetically identical. So genetic continuance is not being sacrificed while being "altruistic". It is 100% helping it.

    (1) Many people balk at such a description because humans still like to engage in the illusion of the "rugged individual". Even a cursory examination illustrates that such a view is a biological dead-end.

    Yet they post as cowboy, the ultimate image of ruggedness.

    The interesting fact is highly evolved organisms reproduce by "sacrificing" their genetic material by mixing it with another.

    Gerhard Adam
    Cells in most multicellular organisms are genetically identical. So genetic continuance is not being sacrificed while being "altruistic". It is 100% helping it.
    That's an argument that has never made any sense.  It's a rationale that has been applied to kin selection, as if somehow an individual is motivated to the preservation of genes, rather than themselves.  There is no evidence that sacrificing yourself is ever genetically more beneficial than preserving yourself. 
    Yet they post as cowboy, the ultimate image of ruggedness.
    The problem isn't the "ruggedness".  The problem is in presuming "individuality".
    Mundus vult decipi