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Altruism or incompetence?

Tom Feilden | 11:22 UK time, Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The "problem" of altruism - at least in terms of evolutionary theory - was obvious even to Charles Darwin.

Writing in The Descent of Man in 1871 Darwin acknowledged that, "he who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature."

It's a puzzle because the logic of natural selection leads us to expect animals to behave in ways that increase their chances of survival and reproductive success - to act selfishly.

Charles DarwinAnd yet altruistic behaviour is common: when a bee stings it sacrifices itself for the good of the colony; vampire bats regularly regurgitate blood for others in the group; and Vervet monkeys scream out warnings of an approaching predator even though the calls give their own position away.

Darwin's own, somewhat tentative theory, was that altruism may have evolved as a result of inter-group rivalry. A tribe that included individuals who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the common good should triumph over its more selfish neighbours, allowing its genes - including those for altruism - to prosper over time.

But the problem with group selection is that it's vulnerable to subversion from within - the Vervet monkey that keeps quiet benefits from the warnings of others while remaining hidden. Genes for Vervet sneakiness should flourish in subsequent generations.

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One way evolutionary biologists test their ideas about altruism, is by getting people to play carefully designed economic games in the lab. These experiments show that humans cooperate much more than naked self-interest demands - even when players are trying to maximise their position.

Proof then that humans are altruistic, preferring to cooperate and for the group to succeed.

Well not according to the Oxford biologist Professor Stuart West, who argues in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that humans are actually no more altruistic than bacteria - it's just that we're really bad at playing games.

"How people behave in economic games, where they can choose to be selfish or cooperative, can be explained more easily by 'mistakes' than wanting others to succeed."

The experiment involved 168 people in a series of four games where they were able to decide how much money to contribute to a public project. Each of the games was designed to reward a different outcome - from fully altruistic to completely selfish.

But the results showed that even when an extreme strategy delivered the best results, competitors still hedged their bets, refusing to commit all their money.

Professor West believes that could be because humans are programmed to mistrust exposed positions, or it could be because we're just very bad at assessing the consequences of our actions.

"This could derive from a psychology that avoids extreme behaviours, which could be very costly if they go wrong, or indicate that the sort of simple everyday rules of thumb we use to make these judgements misfire".

Either way it's not altruism.


  • Comment number 1.

    Writing in The Descent of Man, Darwin acknowledged that, "he who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature."
    Maybe the brain, the heart, the soul understands that we are all one, united in our travails and our successses.
    Quote: “Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…” from Meditation 17 by John Donne)
    When a bee stings it sacrifices itself for the good of the colony; vampire bats regularly regurgitate blood for others in the group… but I would call these behaviors instinct – neither altruistic, nor selfish – just instinctual behavior that ensures the survival of the pack, the hive, tribe….
    As for the Verbet Monkey, trust me - Vervet monkies do not think like himan beings; they do not sit and judge: “quiet will benefit me, and I can benefit from the warning of others”. I doubt that altruistic beings see their actions as a loss. Most altruistic beings are not capable of cost-benefit analysis.
    The question: has altruism, be it kindness or cooperation, played a role in evolution? These are only difficult questions for persons held captive by the ideology of individualism, selfishness, ego, power, greed…
    How did life begin?
    Life began when complex molecules came together in cooperation, to perform mutually beneficial functions. So it’s no puzzle to me that our genes are characterized by cooperation. In fact, cooperation therefore preceded evolution. How socially/psychologically blind do you have to be to overlook cooperation as a factor in evolution, a factor that entered our DNA with our genes?
    Herbert Gintis, an American behavioral scientist, educator, and author, is noted for his foundational views on Altruism, Cooperation, as well as Epistemic Game Theory, and Gene-culture Coevolution, has said: “the genetics of social behavior is for the most part unknown.”
    Altruism became a problem only when a place could not be found for it in the established foundation of evolution. Maybe, just maybe, that means that “evolution” is wrong, “survival of the fittest is wrong”, the “selfish gene” is wrong…and the best theory (for now) is Maslow:
    When a person’s basic needs are met, his higher needs emerge, and among the higher needs are self-actualization, becoming what one is intended to be, the flowering of the seed (if you will). From basically satisfied people, we see the fullest (and healthiest) creativity. Since, in our society, basically satisfied people are the exception (and mostly found in the western world), how can we know about self-actualization or altruism?

  • Comment number 2.

    I am afraid this article joins the growing ranks of "Bad Darwinism", closer to Disney in its anthropomorphising than to the theory of genetic evolution.

    Genes are neither selfish nor altruistic. They are simply coding devices for reproduction. Their variation is not planned - they are not in any sense sentient, knowing nothing even of the organism they map let alone the environment it inhabits - and their "success" is as much down to chance as to fitness.

    There is nothing difficult about organisms behaving in an apparently altruistic way once you get the canard of a selfish controlling gene out of the way. Your bee stings because it is attacked. It does not "sacrifice its life". It dies. Had it lived it was statistically unlikely to father any progeny anyway. But the evolution of bees means that the hive is more likely to survive by this conduct. So bees survive. The Vervet may place itself at risk by screaming but its chances of survival without its tribe are remote so the scream is a relatively good device. It works a lot of the time. What it is not is a conscious, still less a genetic, choice of altruism over selfishness. Neither concept has any validity in either context.

    It's much the same with people, whose social, parental and group protective traits developed before humans existed as a species. Humans and their immediate ancestors were vulnerable, particularly when rearing young. Protecting the group protected most of the individuals which meant that the individuals with a propensity to this behaviour tended to survive to reproduce. Some human traits are also "selfish" in character. As long as they didn't compromise the survival of the group, those traits could also be passed on. But here we are talking about wired conduct. The altruism that appears to be the subject of this latest "research" seems more likely to be culturally influenced higher brain activity, not the product of genetic predisposition.

    As Professor Tallis has been saying (over and over and, oh dear, over again) we seem to be in an epidemic of Darwinitis, in which those with a little understanding seek credibility by attempting to hook their rather vapid little theories to the name of the reluctant hero of natural selection (who, himself, admitted to not understanding much of it).

    Ah, if only Richard Dawkins would give up tilting at the windmills of religion for long enough to attend to refuting the talibans of evolutionism.

  • Comment number 3.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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