Altruism, Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts, Evolution of Cooperation

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baywax
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Inspired by a book review of:

The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation
by Matt Ridley

Ridley suggests that altruism is instinctual. Cooperation and even self-sacrifice appear to Ridley to have evolved out of a need for and the instinct of survival of the species.

This would put to rest the idea that all of our acts of selflessness are, ultimately, selfish acts - perhaps they are more than that. Perhaps they are instinctual reflexes that, through natural selection, have stayed with us and each of our billions of billions of cells from the dawn of time. What do you make of it?

Perhaps the greatest of the conceptual difficulties that Darwin faced was the phenomenon of altruism. In a world evolved according to natural selection, cooperative behavior is a puzzle. This is because natural selection is inherently selfish, promoting adaptations that serve only the individual. The survival instinct of each individual, Darwin asserted in the Origin of Species, "is good for itself, but has never, as far as we can judge, been produced for the exclusive good of others."[2] In the Origin, where he largely avoided the topic of humans, and later in the Descent of Man, Darwin wrestled with this issue in ways that never fully satisfied him. So great was his acumen on this difficult problem that he nevertheless managed to articulate, in rudimentary form, each of the three most compelling theories extended by his successors during the next century.

.........

Unafraid of confronting difficult problems, Ridley has devoted his latest book to the paradox that so troubled Darwin: If inherited dispositions, which have evolved by natural selection, are always in the service of the individual, then why is cooperation observed in nature? The book is organized on three different levels: genes, social behavior, and theories about social behavior. Ridley begins his story with genes. In higher organisms, he explains, genes have teamed up as chromosomal "parliaments," which in turn have teamed up as cells, which subsequently evolved into creatures with specialized organs. But why have genes—which, according to selfish gene theory, care only about reproducing themselves—entered into such complex cellular alliances?

The answer involves Hamilton's notion of inclusive fitness, along with Adam Smith's insight into the division of labor. Cells, on this view, are to be seen as "close relatives" because they possess identical genes, a circumstance that encourages them to act altruistically whenever cooperative actions enhance their ability to have descendants. The division of labor facilitates this outcome by allowing specialized cells to do their tasks more efficiently than generalist cells. For example, cells that are specialized for digesting food make more efficient use of available nutrients, and well-fed organisms tend to have more offspring.
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/894

Its when we see one species of algae symbiotically benefiting a completely different species and visa versa that Smith's and/or Hamilton's "inclusive fitness" views are challenged.

This is a heady but outragiously fascinating topic. And, I think, a timely one.
 
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  • #2
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For primates as least, it's called reciprocal altruism. We anticipate multiple interactions through our lives with others, so we have a system of tit for tat. This only works if 1. you can distinguish others. 2. you can remember deeds. 3. those who don't return favors are punished.
 
  • #3
baywax
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For primates as least, it's called reciprocal altruism. We anticipate multiple interactions through our lives with others, so we have a system of tit for tat. This only works if 1. you can distinguish others. 2. you can remember deeds. 3. those who don't return favors are punished.
Symbiosis is a state where one species is reliant on another and the other reliant of the first. Its a state or balance that can be anthrocentrically termed "cooperation". If one of the symbiotes discontinues benefiting its symbiote while at the same time continuing to benefit from it, the system soon breaks down and both parties are (in anthropcentric terms) "punished" with death.

Now imagine these sorts of conditions carrying on for 2 or more billion years. By the 4 billionth year there is a more complex situation. Primates have formed a group. The "punishment" for non-reciprocation between members is practically intellectual in nature but does it stem from a naturally selected genetic instinct that demands or, in the least, requires "cooperation" for the continuation of a species?

In other words, is it this sort of "altruistic instinct" that sends a person into a burning building or on to an enemy grenade in order to save people they have never met or don't really know?
 
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  • #4
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The term 'altruism' and 'selfishness' does not mean that the individuals are aware of what they are doing.

There is an interesting documentary dealing with altruism, selfishness and cooperation called Nice Guys Finish First.
 
  • #5
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I cannot edit my earlier post, but Richard Dawkins spoke on the issue of morality at the Beyond Belief meeting, where he brought up four Darwinian accounts for altruism: kinship, reciprocation, reputation and the handicap principle.

http://beyondbelief2006.org/watch/watch.php?Video=Session%207 [Broken]

40:00 ->
 
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  • #6
baywax
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I cannot edit my earlier post, but Richard Dawkins spoke on the issue of morality at the Beyond Belief meeting, where he brought up four Darwinian accounts for altruism: kinship, reciprocation, reputation and the handicap principle.

http://beyondbelief2006.org/watch/watch.php?Video=Session%207 [Broken]

40:00 ->
Yes, I got ya on this. It isn't written in stone that a person is aware of thier altruistic tendencies. I am beginning to think that compassion would have to be genetically encoded for altruism to be a trait.

We do see people who appear to care less than others. This would suggest either of two things:

1. They have less of the "altruistic genetic coding"

2. They have been able to repress the traits of compassion and altruism.

The second point seems to me to be the case because we constantly see people "transending" their instincts in society today. Example: hunger strikes, sky diving, and so on. Conditioning has been taken to new heights in today's societies.
 
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  • #7
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I do not necessarily think that they have been able to repress. There is a good Darwinian explanation as to why we care more about our close family that someone far away in another country.

Also, the genetic precursor for altruism is not the only thing that affect people's behavior. There might be environmental effects beyond genetics and repression an different types of social construction.
 
  • #8
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In other words, is it this sort of "altruistic instinct" that sends a person into a burning building or on to an enemy grenade in order to save people they have never met or don't really know?
The usefulness of the instincts for altruism and 'selfishness' are very much dependent on one other. One just has to look at the 'prisoner's dilemna' to see how this works. Altruism is a losing game with only two people playing, but if a group is involved, it becomes a winning strategy. Humans are social animals.

In this context being selfish is a short term strategy, while altruism is the long term one. Combining the two, or changing strategies can also be of benefit.

People have always tried to codify, moralize, and control this aspect of our nature, with generally poor success, mostly because circumstances change, which means no single strategy will always give the most benefit. We evolved to be flexible, adaptable, which is why we can be so contradictory.
 
  • #9
baywax
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The usefulness of the instincts for altruism and 'selfishness' are very much dependent on one other. One just has to look at the 'prisoner's dilemna' to see how this works. Altruism is a losing game with only two people playing, but if a group is involved, it becomes a winning strategy. Humans are social animals.

In this context being selfish is a short term strategy, while altruism is the long term one. Combining the two, or changing strategies can also be of benefit.

People have always tried to codify, moralize, and control this aspect of our nature, with generally poor success, mostly because circumstances change, which means no single strategy will always give the most benefit. We evolved to be flexible, adaptable, which is why we can be so contradictory.
I contend that an act of altruism, and the cognition that justifies it in the mind of the participant, are ultimately a result of a primal instinct and initiative. Given the split second it takes to decide to run into a burning building to save a screaming 3 year old I don't see any other motivator strong enough to initiate such an act. There may be cognitive qualifiers urging one to act this way but I would guess that these are part of the instinctual mechanism of altruism.
 
  • #10
baywax
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Spite

An indication of the cooperative instinct in Chimps may be displayed in this report from the Max Planck Institute in Germany:

Perceptions of Fairness at Issue

An angry chmpanzee will take revenge but - unlike a human - it will not do so out of spite, according to a study published yesterday (July 16. 2007) that offers insights into how people perceive what is fair.

The study showed chimps would seek retribution when wronged but did not punish others out of spite, for instance if another chimp was better off, said Keith Jensen, an evolutionary biologist with the Max Planck Institute of Germany who led the study. The debate was about whether a sense of fairness and social comparison applied only to humans and the study was an attempt to answer some of the questions Jensen said.

"Like humans, chimps retaliate against personally harmful actions, but unlike humans, they are indifferent to simply personally disadvantageous outcomes and are therefore not spiteful" he and colleagues wrote in a study in the proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.
Reuters
 
  • #11
Astronuc
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The need for and the instinct of survival of the species in not necessarily a matter of selfishness unless the survival precludes the existence or survival of other species.

Selfish - "concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others"

An alternative -

Stewardship - the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially, the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care - does not preclude or exclude the existence of other species.
 
  • #12
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Everything around us works in 'orders' or magnitude. For example, a metre rule is of a higher order than that of a pencil.Similarly, genes are of a lower order than that of the human body and sub-atomic particles have a lower order than that of genes.What is to be noticed is that the combined effect of the lower orders grouped as one always has effect on the higher order because the higher order is in fact composed of these lower orders. Each order, follows a purpose; atoms for stability; genes for survival etc. Survival itself is a consequence of the "purpose" to be stable and all higher level purposes of behaviours stem from lower levels.Similarly, in the order of the body, the certain behaviours exhibited such as selfishness and altruism are a consequence of the lower orders and this helps us to understand the universal structure that we as humans cannot attach feelings to things because we are purely the consequence of lower orders.Altruism is a strategy.It is not "good" or "bad"...these terms are all relative...

If we want to understand why a person would jump into a fire and save a person risking his own life, we have to understand the lower orders; in this case the brain which has evolved to behave in a particular manner oriented from the lower genetic orders which is best to attain stability in terms of atoms in the iterated time axis of the universe.

Like latitude and longitudes are a way to refer to positions on earth, similarly the terms 'good' and 'bad' are relative terms which apply only to humans and their realm..it does not apply to the purely rational universe....
 
  • #13
baywax
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Everything around us works in 'orders' or magnitude. For example, a metre rule is of a higher order than that of a pencil.Similarly, genes are of a lower order than that of the human body and sub-atomic particles have a lower order than that of genes.What is to be noticed is that the combined effect of the lower orders grouped as one always has effect on the higher order because the higher order is in fact composed of these lower orders. Each order, follows a purpose; atoms for stability; genes for survival etc. Survival itself is a consequence of the "purpose" to be stable and all higher level purposes of behaviours stem from lower levels.Similarly, in the order of the body, the certain behaviours exhibited such as selfishness and altruism are a consequence of the lower orders and this helps us to understand the universal structure that we as humans cannot attach feelings to things because we are purely the consequence of lower orders.Altruism is a strategy.It is not "good" or "bad"...these terms are all relative...

If we want to understand why a person would jump into a fire and save a person risking his own life, we have to understand the lower orders; in this case the brain which has evolved to behave in a particular manner oriented from the lower genetic orders which is best to attain stability in terms of atoms in the iterated time axis of the universe.

Like latitude and longitudes are a way to refer to positions on earth, similarly the terms 'good' and 'bad' are relative terms which apply only to humans and their realm..it does not apply to the purely rational universe....
In the event that we've ended up with a genetic predispostion for altruism (this was studied by Darwin, proposed by Matt Ridley and Adam Smith in the opening post of this thread) would that mean there is a universal tendancy toward this behaviour? Is it confined to living organisms or can it apply to objects such as planets, suns, asteroids or other "rational" "non-living" things such as the entire universe.
 
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  • #14
baywax
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From the Yahoo News stream...

Like children who complain "no fair," capuchin monkeys throw fits when their companions get better treats.

In a new study, envy reared its ugly head if capuchins, primates like us, landed slices of cucumber while their cage mates received tasty grapes—considered more desirable.

The recognition of an unfair situation could be critical for maintaining relationships in cooperative societies such as those of capuchins, as well as among humans, the researchers said. The study also suggests the roots of human fairness stretch well back in evolutionary time.

"In a cooperative species, being able to distinguish when one is being treated inequitably is very useful for determining whether or not to continue cooperating with a partner," said psychologist Sarah Brosnan at Georgia State University.
http://news.yahoo.com/s/livescience/monkeysfussoverinequality [Broken]
 
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