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Difficult time understanding altruism

  1. Jun 5, 2014 #1
    I am having a difficult time understanding altruism because when I think through the concept "cheaters" would be adapted to exploit the altruist. Though, do altruists often die for their efforts? Thus, leaving fewer offspring...

    Any help would be great thank you pf!
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  3. Jun 6, 2014 #2


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    I think there is still a fair amount of debate about this. You might want to pick up a copy of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, as it goes into a fair amount of detail on this topic.

    Personally I think the answer boils down to the fact that behaviour is generally not encoded by a single gene.
  4. Jun 6, 2014 #3


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    And, as George Costanza memorably said, "We're trying to have a society here!"

    If everyone operated strictly on the impulse of what benefited himself and everyone else can go to hell, it would be a very cold, uncaring manner in which to live.

    Yes, altruists sometimes tragically die for their efforts. Trying to rescue someone from drowning or carrying someone from a burning building has risks. Yes, there unfortunately are people who will try to exploit altruistic impulses of others, but down thru the ages, many different societies and cultures have made the decision that it is better to cultivate the altruistic impulse than not because over time, I think, it causes the members of the society to think and live in unselfish ways. This behavior is codified in different ways, like the Golden Rule in the west, or the concept of karma in eastern religions.

    Which type of society would you prefer to live in?
  5. Jun 6, 2014 #4
    IN general Humans have survived better in groups - so we are coded to get along. But all behavior of individuals in a group is distributed, there are those that are "good to a fault" - where they are so dedicated to those around them they neglect themselves, and conversely those that are so dedicated to self they can not take part in society.
    I would put true altruism into an intellectual category - where a person though logic and thought sees how their actions are helpful, however it is very easily argued that the behavior comes first and the logic is just a biological rationalization - to justify the behavior or their desire. This point easily becomes a circular argument / discussion.
  6. Jun 6, 2014 #5
    A million times this, I'm about halfway through. If I understand correctly, altruistic behavior is a necessity to explain the continued survival of many species up until now, and is a hereditary trait. "Cheaters" do not significantly perpetuate the whole species, otherwise you'd expect to find most individuals of a species to be ruthlessly selfish which observationally is not the case.

    I still am not sure what is meant when it is said that altruism is "hereditary", is it actually a gene or several genes or is it something that is learned through environment/fellow animals? Might've glossed over that.
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2014
  7. Jun 6, 2014 #6


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    You have a couple things here:

    1) cheaters would be adapted to exploit altruists
    2) altruists dying for their efforts
    3) leaving fewer offspring

    3) depends on whether the altruist has produced viable offspring or not yet. Altruism is more of a population thing, like homosexuality. Having some degree of it helps the population as a whole produce viable offspring (gay uncle theory) so the genes will get passed down through generations but will seldom be expressed. For example, you could carry a gene for blues eyes and not express it (have brown eyes). So that should clear up 2), hopefully.

    1) Is a matter of competition. There will always be cheaters and there will always be cheat detection methods and they will co-evolve and you will have members of a species that make better victims to cheaters than others. Similarly, male and females compete in species: sometimes something that is better for the reproduction of the species can be worse for a whole gender of the species in terms of both comfort and longevity.
  8. Jun 6, 2014 #7
    My thinking is that altruists are generally better company, and have less trouble attracting mates.
  9. Jun 6, 2014 #8
    This is a human trait (being highly social improving reproductive chances). Doesn't apply to plenty of other animals. Some show altruistic behavior even outside the boundaries of their own kin, mating pool, and even species in some instances.
  10. Jun 6, 2014 #9
    One is not altruistic nor a cheater all of the time, so it cannot be essentially split up into 2 distinct classes of behavior. In fact if an individual is born 100% innately altruistic, the chance of their survival is limited from the day they were born, by giving away ALL of their resources either willingly to another who seems less fortunate or by being slyly convinced that another is less fortunate, and would probably thus not live to reproductive age, their genes would not survive. ( In addition, it is the altruistic behavior of the mother/father that keeps a demanding newborn alive. ) A 100% born cheater - also not likely - they could live to reproductive age, but being 100% a cheater, they would also have to by definition cheat their own offspring out of necessary resources, and the genes would not survive.

    That is only assumng that altruistic/cheater is only a gene thing. How many young children have to be asked or told to share with others? Or a kid comes home from school complaining about friend Sally taking all the red Smarties. So some learning is also involved through parental and peer pressure.

    Speaking of the value of learning, as an example, if I have some surplus food, and since I like sharing, I may decide to share some surplus with the hungry you. If you decide to rather than wait for my offer, cheat me out of food for me and my family, I may become angry and bop you one on the head, giving you a cognitive appreciation of the implications of bald faced cheating. Since my level of trust in you is now curtailed, you may find that the sharing part of my altruistic behavior has dropped considerably, and as a cheater you will find yourself more hungry than before. So I learn to be less altruistic and you learn to be less cheating.

    I think that falls in line with what Pythagorean stated.
  11. Jun 7, 2014 #10
    Thank you all for your input i greatly appreciate all of your thoughts! But continuing from what Pythagorean and 256bits stated......The issue that i come across is in how Pythagorean answered my question, in that 2) and 3) are together when i read about them in my bio book. It states that "altruist often die for their efforts, leaving fewer offspring". But as lavabug pointed out "'Cheaters' do not significantly perpetuate the whole species, otherwise you'd expect to find most individuals of a species to be ruthlessly selfish which observationally is not the case." So the question remains...but after reading all of your comments i think when 2) and 3) are together it is (in general) a false statement or we would find many selfish individuals among species. agree or disagree? thanks pf!
  12. Jun 9, 2014 #11
    What about being "altruist" means:
    -"altruist" to kin and not related members of herd with which actually exchanges favours
    -not very good at distinguishing who is who and is doing small favours often as chance of starting cooperation. The gains from cooperation are high enough to justify wasting favours on some untrustworthy individuals. (anyway, when after a while learns that someone cheats then stops being nice)
  13. Jun 25, 2014 #12
    Look up "Tit for tat" in Wiki. It is a simple and effective strategem in game theory for balancing cooperation (altruism) with retaliation (being cheated).
  14. Jul 12, 2014 #13
    Altruism to me is an adult trait, that comes from (and follows) having got something you desired but now don't because you're curiosity has been assuaged by getting it.

    Another point is that while selfishness (greed) might lead you to covet something (male trait), where would the world be without altruism, to put something back into the system (female trait)?
  15. Aug 15, 2014 #14
    That altruism lies within the gene(s), that it is "altruistic" between the parties involved, but selfish of the gene to perpetuate me to be altruistic. (which it truly isn't as it's in the interest of the gene pool) If I remember right that's the book, been a long time since I've read it though.

    Steamking seems to mention cultural norms ect, which I think comes after what the book speaks too.
  16. Dec 9, 2014 #15
    For my part I like to look at it as being part of a scale on which we can somewhere place ourselves.
    I don't think that a human can truly be a 24hr altruist. I think true altruism is more useful for things like A.I. development.

    Oops, didn't realize this was an older thread.
  17. Dec 9, 2014 #16
    For AI development? Isn't AI a little broad to suggest "True Altruism is more useful for things like A.I. development.", and on that note what on Earth does that sentence even mean?

    My calculator is AI, and is 100% altruistic and darn well better stay that way!

    Also I have to be an individual before I can be altruistic...that's kinda implicit...And you maybe too tight with your definition of altruistic, seeing it's polar to what we all are inherently, but not genetically. We can employe Individualism ideals in society and help out the less fortunate with no consideration (transactional) at the same time and many of the best societies do.
  18. Dec 10, 2014 #17
    That's my point actually.

    Nothing about human emotions is black or white (Altruistic or not Altruistic) all of the time. There is a little of each behaviour in all of us, that's why I placed them on a scale as opposites. From Wikipedia:
    "Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance and advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group"

    Grant it, current definitions of Individualism seem to be juxtaposing the individual over a group rather than in relation to other individuals.
  19. Dec 10, 2014 #18
    Ah I see, Those concerns are for an imagined scenario, and a little too sci-fi for my understanding of current tech. I find Hawkins recent publicized comments on AI kinda laughable. As of now and for the foreseeable future, our brains are just magically things that can produce seemingly random accelerations...iow a "Will". If AI is to emulate that, I'd guess it too would have to have the Strong Emergence property of "will". Which, while I'm just playing semantics, is not possible by definition.

    I didn't even imply human emotion is black and white, nor do I think emotion has anything to do with it, and do to the variability why consider it as having a role. We're examing the actions, and had posited the "cause" is genetic. Again altruism is a disadvantage for the individual, but a gain for the genetics as a whole. The Gene is "Selfish". Whether the "Altruism Gene" also induces "positive" emotion in me but not you is moot to the action having been done.

    Hmm...I didn't think "Individualism" is so strictly about individual ideals...funny enough. I defined it as being a culture. In the same sense that in "western" cultures individualism is implicit through ideals like "What I work for is mine." and that's protected by the state, which is employed the citizens as a whole. That is individualism, but is good for the whole group. From that not only do I subscribe to not stealing peoples stuff (altruistic if I don't opportune when I wouldn't be caught), but subscribe to donations to the less fortunate.It is individualism that allows me to be altruistic. (opps I see your last comment touches on this, which is weird cause it nullifies the former part of your post imo)

    In other words, you can't make Altruism & individualism polar cause one "needs" the other to be defined. Selfish is a word you could put opposite to Altruism. Note me doing an action and benefiting, and you benefiting from that too is not "aultruistic" of me, though it could be selfish.

    Lastly we are human, of course can be raised to be more "Altruistic" then not...on that I'd bet dimes to dollars that poor people (not desperately poor) are more aultruistic than those from old wealth. Due to differences in socioeconomic culture between the classes.
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2014
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