Are humans altruistic?

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I read once that humans have individual (selfish) genes that drive humans to seek self preservation directly, and group (collaborative) genes that drive humans to seek group preservation (and thus self preservation indirectly). But to me, both boils down to individual selfishness, because even in collaboration humans are trying to improve the collective benefits of each member, like collaborating in hunting a big game in the age of hunters-gatherers. But are humans altruistic, in the sense that they are willing to do things that have nothing in return for them individually now or in the future? It seems to me that we humans like to think we are nice and we do things out of selflessness, but everything points to selfish behaviors and self-interest. Is this a correct way of seeing things from an evolutionary/sociological point of view?
 
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  • #2
jack action
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What is the selfish gain of caring for infants? One could see them as 'future help', but they can also easily become 'future competition' or even 'future enemy'.

In this case, the selfish part seems to be more on nature's point of view which will do anything to preserve the continuance of life at the expense of each individual.
 
  • #3
jim mcnamara
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Okay. Since nobody posting is aware of work by E O Wilson e.g., 'The Social Conquest of Earth', which is a great answer to this question, we are going to leave the realm of Science and take a trip to the discussion area.

The short answer is altruism wins when social behavior is subject to Natural Selection.
 
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  • #4
Nugatory
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I read once that.....
It would be helpful if you could tell us exactly what you read, as there are more than one theory about the genetic basis of human behavior, and they don't all agree about the answers to the questions you're asking.

Humans do engage in behaviors that seem to provide nothing tangible in return. When I give a panhandler a dollar I'm going to be a dollar poorer, and I get nothing back except maybe a happy twinge in the pleasure centers of my brain or suppression of unhappy twinges in worry/anxiety centers. We can interpret this observation in several different ways:
1) I want the pleasure twinge badly enough to spend a dollar on it, and I wouldn't give the dollar otherwise; therefore my behavior is best interpreted as selfish and self-interested, not altruistic. Do note that the premise before the semicolon cannot be tested experimentally so what comes after the semicolon is an assertion, not an observationally supported scientific conclusion.
2) I gave a dollar away out of the goodness of my heart; obviously that behavior is altruistic and I'm a nice person (or at least I'm acting like one at the moment). Follow this line of thought and you'll find that you've just moved the problem around: Others seem to approve of my altruistic behavior, but is that because they are "naturally good" people or is some sort of self-interest at work with them as in my #1?
3) I am displaying a genetically determined behavior that cannot be meaningfully characterized as "altruistic" or "selfish"; it just is, one of those things like hair color that's just along for a ride in the genome. Presumably the behavior is not terribly maladaptive or it would have been selected out; but that doesn't mean that it has to be adaptive or there "for a reason".
4) I am acting according to genes that have evolved and persisted because their benefits (forming and maintaining communities) exceed their costs (occasionally waste a dollar). From this point of view my giving away the dollar is somewhat analogous to baby monkeys hiding from a cardboard cutout of a hawk as if it were the real thing - "hide from hawk-shaped objects" isn't at a strong selective disadvantage relative to "hide from hawks".

#4 is probably closer to the modern scientific consensus than anything else, but do note that it avoids the question you asked, whether we are "naturally selfish" or "naturally nice"; and also the follow-on question of whether there is morality beyond what is genetically determined.

Google for "Wilson altruism" for more on the subject. "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins is also worth a read, as long as you read the criticisms as well.
 
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  • #5
DennisN
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But are humans altruistic, in the sense that they are willing to do things that have nothing in return for them individually now or in the future?
This is something that I am interested in too.
As far as I know, and as with many of the other personality traits of humans, altruism lies on a spectrum, which means different humans can be all from nonaltruistic (where the extreme would be psychopathic) to extremely altruistic (where the extreme would be codependency, which is dysfunctionally self neglecting for the sake of others).

Edit: I think your question was about humans in general, but nevertheless I wanted to point out that there is a spectrum of altruism.

Humans do engage in behaviors that seem to provide nothing tangible in return. [...]
And I like Nugatorys thorough post. :smile:
I haven't read "The Selfish Gene" but I have heard about it several times. I think I am going to look for an audio book of it.
 
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  • #6
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What is the selfish gain of caring for infants? One could see them as 'future help', but they can also easily become 'future competition' or even 'future enemy'.

In this case, the selfish part seems to be more on nature's point of view which will do anything to preserve the continuance of life at the expense of each individual.

Yes, I meant beyond protecting the process of passing the genes.
 
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The short answer is altruism wins when social behavior is subject to Natural Selection.

Can you elaborate on this, please?
 
  • #8
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It would be helpful if you could tell us exactly what you read, as there are more than one theory about the genetic basis of human behavior, and they don't all agree about the answers to the questions you're asking.
....

I cannot remember the book's title now. It has been a while since I read this. but I remember it talked about individual gene selection vs. group gene selection in the natural selection process. Thanks for the response.
 
  • #9
Nugatory
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I remember it talked about individual gene selection vs. group gene selection in the natural selection process. Thanks for the response.
That makes "The Selfish Gene" by Dawkins a pretty good candidate... be aware that this approach to natural selection is not universally accepted, which is why I suggested looking for some critical reviews.
 
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  • #10
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That makes "The Selfish Gene" by Dawkins a pretty good candidate... be aware that this approach to natural selection is not universally accepted, which is why I suggested looking for some critical reviews.

No. I am fully aware of "The Selfish Gene" because it's on my list to read.
 
  • #11
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That makes "The Selfish Gene" by Dawkins a pretty good candidate... be aware that this approach to natural selection is not universally accepted, which is why I suggested looking for some critical reviews.

How to explain social behaviors then? It seems that socializing is an "instinct" in most people's brains, even if there is no personal tangible return (there is emotional and psychological return, though). How to explain this without the group selection?
 
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Nugatory
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How to explain social behaviors then? It seems that socializing is an "instinct" in most people's brains, even if there is no personal tangible return (there is emotional and psychological return, though). How to explain this without the group selection?
There's no question that selection has been at work. The debate I'm thinking of is over the extent to which selection acts on genes, bundles of genes (traditionally called "individuals"), or groups of individuals carrying related genes. Selection at any of these levels could plausibly lead to the evolution of social behaviors that confer survival and reproductive benefits.

A disclaimer though: It was a long time ago that I was studying this stuff, and in the intervening decades a consensus may have appeared. But back then Dawkins came in for a fair amount of criticism on the grounds that his focus on selection at the level of individual genes was simplistic and incomplete.
 
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This is sociobiology. Assuming there's a gene for altruism, we can explain the behaviors of kin selection, endogamy, revenge, etc.. Kin are more important than non-kin. I remember the phrase: 2 brothers or 4 cousins or 8 nephews, and I think this was what it would be worth to risk your life for or sacrifice your life, based on genes in common, that indicate a common ancestor.
 
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How to explain this without the group selection?
Why should it be explained without group selection?
 
  • #15
pinball1970
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No. I am fully aware of "The Selfish Gene" because it's on my list to read.

I always think this is a great question

Co-operation tends to work better than being a loner in some species particularly social animals like ourselves.

The Selfish Genes has a great section ESS (Evolutionary stable strategies) that gives statistical out comes for loners and co-operators. The terms are different though, Suckers (help everyone) Cheaters ( out for your self.) grudgers (will help but remember if cheated)

Grudgers tend to be the norm in a population and give the best ESS

The other side of the altruistic gene centric view is the amount of genes shared ie familial genes and the more we share the more altruistic we are, it gets more complicated between children and siblings

Trivers did a lot of work on this https://web.archive.org/web/2016030...du/~kms/classes/psy2664/Documents/trivers.pdf

john Maynard Smith on the ESS

Apparent altruism has underlying selfish genes behind the behaviour.

Dawkins also claims in the book (I don't think I have any links on this part) that altruism is merely showing off and a display of dominance (sharing food for instance)
I don't have any studies to post on this though W D Hamilton was one of the first I think to publish on it

Selfish Gene- still an amazing book 43 years on
 
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pinball1970
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How to explain social behaviors then? It seems that socializing is an "instinct" in most people's brains, even if there is no personal tangible return (there is emotional and psychological return, though). How to explain this without the group selection?

Found this PDF on altruism Hamilton
https://majorityrights.com/docs/Hamilton75.pdf - Prisoners dilemma is outlined here too
 
  • #17
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Why should it be explained without group selection?

I thought Nugatory said there is no consensus on group selection, but it seems it was a misunderstanding.
 
  • #18
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...

Dawkins also claims in the book (I don't think I have any links on this part) that altruism is merely showing off and a display of dominance (sharing food for instance)
...

Some people serve the homeless and keep talking about it all the time how selfless they are. But are they? I think they do it to appear good and have a social status. To appear good and nice to be praised. Even if no one knows about it, it makes them feel good about themselves. So, there is always a return. I think even having children is in a sense selfish, because we think of ourselves in terms of/through our children. We think of our children as our extensions.
 
  • #19
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I thought Nugatory said there is no consensus on group selection, but it seems it was a misunderstanding.
Every new idea needs a good thorough scrubbing before it can really shine (or being thrown away, of course). Group selection was 'invented' exactly because the matters what makes this topic are hard to explain on the old way: so even if the idea might be controversial, as long as it is discussed by scientific standards all the concerns will remain valid. What @Nugatory said is not about discarding the idea, but about reading both side of it.
 
  • #20
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Every new idea needs a good thorough scrubbing before it can really shine (or being thrown away, of course). Group selection was 'invented' exactly because the matters what makes this topic are hard to explain on the old way: so even if the idea might be controversial, as long as it is discussed by scientific standards all the concerns will remain valid. What @Nugatory said is not about discarding the idea, but about reading both side of it.

From my readings, I understand that natural selection doesn't have to work at one level only, but it can work on different levels simultaneously. We are selfish. We think of self preservation at first. But we also collaborative and think of our group. But sometimes these contradict each others, and creates inner turmoil in individuals. Natural selection is not consistent all the time.
 
  • #21
DrClaude
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Some people serve the homeless and keep talking about it all the time how selfless they are. But are they? I think they do it to appear good and have a social status. To appear good and nice to be praised. Even if no one knows about it, it makes them feel good about themselves. So, there is always a return. I think even having children is in a sense selfish, because we think of ourselves in terms of/through our children. We think of our children as our extensions.
If feeling good about doing something altruistically means it is not altruistic, then you have defined altruism out of existence.
 
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  • #22
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If feeling good about doing something altruistically means it is not altruistic, then you have defined altruism out of existence.

If the motivation is selfish, that you do it primarily because it feels good to you rather than helping others at the expense of your happiness, can we call this act altruistic?
 
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Thread closed pending moderation.
 
  • #24
Evo
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This thread topic has been discussed here many times and as always, goes nowhere. It has been open long enough, it is now closed.
 
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