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Evolutionary explanation for altruism to unrelated persons?

  1. Oct 5, 2013 #1
    What is the evolutionary explanation for altruism to unrelated persons when social recognition is not expected?


    Suppose, it's a cold night. I was walking by a street. There is nobody else around, except a poor physically disabled kid shivering in cold on the pavement. I thought it would be too bad for me if I was in his place, and decided to give him some money which might help him buy a jacket, though not sufficient to buy one ( yet I gave to him expecting that someone else would give him some more, and he would be able to buy one. )

    Of course, I never did something so generous, but it's not hard to imagine such an incident taking place. And I think it's not so rare of an incident, too.

    Now, the person I gave my money is probably very distantly related.

    I get no social recognition, because nobody else is around, and I didn't tell about my giving to any friends as well. ( Social recognition helps you get more partners to produce offspring. )

    There is possibility that if I try to help whoever I think needs help without thinking who can help me in return as well, there are more chances that I will be helping more people who can help me in return indeed, than if I tried to think who can indeed help me before deciding to help somebody ( in which case I might be making errors in judging who can help me in return, and not helping somebody who could help me indeed. )

    But yet, it was very clear to me that physically disabled kid would never be able to help me in return.

    How do you explain such behaviour which is not very uncommon among us ( a lot of people donate anonymously )?

    Is it simply because I was encouraged to help disabled people by our parents in our childhood ( which in fact does give you social recognition ), and I just keep this idea subconsciously that I would get social recognition ( such as praise of family and friends ) if I help any disabled people I meet, though that might involve helping somebody which wouldn't be known to my family and friends?

    ( A question on my personal feeling. You may ignore this question as this is more related to psychology. If I become aware of the fact that giving makes us feel good only because subconsciously we want social recognition, then it should make me feel good to decide to help those disabled people ONLY whenever my friends and family are around. Yet I would feel bad if I don't help a disabled person when nobody is around. What is the basis of that ''feeling bad?'' Is it because I am afraid that if somebody finds out that I only help when some friend or family member is around, they would think I basically show off? )
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  3. Oct 5, 2013 #2

    jim mcnamara

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    There is an entire book written on the subject -E O Wilson 'The Social Conquest of Earth'. Humans that work cooperatively rather than as loners succeed (in terms of successful) reproduction far better as a group. Cheaters have greater short term rewards.

    Most libraries have the book.
  4. Oct 5, 2013 #3
    Oh, that is group selection theory you're talking about probably. But Wilson, the ant-man, as far as I know, formulated kin selection theory, which is based on showing altruism to not just any member of the society, but only the related ones.
  5. Oct 5, 2013 #4
    Many human traits didn't necessarily appear because of an evolutionary pressure, but appeared as a consequence of a more fundamental trait that got evolutionary pressure. For example, being able to create empathy with other humans is obviously a trait that was naturally selected, because people who can't will have an harder time creating a family and generating offspring. And this trait alone can cause many other traits, such as altruism, so altruism to random strangers wasn't necessarily directly selected.
  6. Oct 8, 2013 #5
    Thank you very much.

    Yet, showing sympathy to those who can show sympathy to you some other time is more profitable.

    I think it was not possible to donate anonymously about a few hundreds of years ago.So, you were sure to get social recognition. For our primitive ancestors, donating to unrelated people may have been a way to give signal to others about your possession which would attract more females.

    In last few centuries of industrial era, people donate anonymously, yet doing so may not give you nothing in return actually, since it's also an era in which virtually everybody in the world is somehow connected to each other economically. You can donate anonymously to earthquake victims in Japan, but you do have advantage in that. If people die in Japan, the cost of products produced in Japan would go high. If you're donating anonymously to tornado victims in your country, you're likely to be benefited, since without them the country's economy would fall down, but that's not what you want.

    Besides, I don't think keeping total anonymity is always done. You may donate anonymously, but you're likely to talk about it with your close friends. That would just make the social bond stronger. Actually, if you don't share your idea of donating, you're basically being more selfish. Because if you say to your friend, ''Hey, let's help the tornado victims'' your friend is more likely to be encouraged and he's more likely to help.

    In my story, I would be more likely to help that kid, if there are chances that I would meet the poor kid again. It does earn you reputation if some another day, when you are walking with your friend, the kid sees you and says ''Hi'' to you.
  7. Oct 17, 2013 #6


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    For the most part of human history, it has been minimally adaptive advantageous to develop a maximum precision tool of recognize who to be benevolent against, and who not.

    We have a kin selection THUMB rule, based on some rough and ready, but certainly not foolproof, method.

    And thank goodness for that!
    I melt at the smile of babies (and for that matter, their cries), and I wouldn't be without that genetic "flaw"
  8. Oct 17, 2013 #7
    lol that's hardly being "altruistic". Why wouldn't you give the person enough for a coat, invite him into your home and assist as one of your own. Your "altruistic gesture" is of little consequence to your well being.

    In other words actually sacrifice resources of some sort, not just pocket change lol.

    Walking out of a grocery story, an older lady in a wheel chair had asked me for change. All i bought at the grocery store was bread so said to her I spent the last of my money on the bread...she reached in a grocery bag she had and pulled out peanut butter offering it to me.

    That kinda of stuff isn't "genetic", it's social. And in my case I wouldn't have been acting altruistic if I had given her change, but her by offering me the peanut butter for my bread I guess was altruistic of her.
  9. Oct 17, 2013 #8


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    "That kinda of stuff isn't "genetic", it's social."
    Your evidence being?
    Is there, for example, a contradiction lurking here? Please point out.
    If not, please quantify the degree to which you assert this to be "social" in contradistinction to "genetic". And, BTW, do refer to evidence.
  10. Oct 19, 2013 #9
  11. Oct 19, 2013 #10


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    I think one has to be careful in discerning cause and effect.

    From the Dartmouth page: "Research suggests that infants as young as three-months-old have innate preferences for altruistic individuals (1)." This would seem to indicate a preference for 'altruistic' individuals, or perhaps rather, individuals who express kindness, tenderness and/or happiness, i.e., individuals who are compassionate and empathetic.

    I think most folks respond positively to acts of kindness and tenderness.

    Perhaps some folks have a genetic predisposition to be warm and empathetic, while some seem anxious, or fearful, or even hostile to others. But how much of a persons personality is genetic as opposed to developed from exposure to others (parents/caretakers, grandparents, aunts/uncles, siblings, cousins, peers, and so on). There's an ongoing debate about nature vs nuture.
  12. Oct 19, 2013 #11


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    Behavior guidelines for uneducated peoples came from wise men that provided ethical teachings. Here are three examples in human history from Confucius, Saint Mathew, and Mohammed:

    • “One word: reciprocity. What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." The Analects of Confucius, Lunyu XV. 24.
    • “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Matthew, Chapter 7, Verse 12
    • “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.” Prophet Muhammad's farewell address delivered on the Plain of Arafat, 9 Dhul-Hijjah 10 H. (632 C.E.)

    The common message contained in these “Golden Rules” is to promote generosity through more cooperation and less conflict. Reciprocity in evolutionary biology refers to mechanisms whereby the evolution of cooperative and altruistic behavior may be favored by the actors understanding the probability of successful future mutual interactions with a corresponding increase in chances for reproductive success.

    Human language evolved with the goal to promote the fitness of individuals so as to improve their chances of eating, surviving, and reproducing. The goal of clear concise communication is that the receiver(s) have no misunderstanding about what was meant to be conveyed. These goals are most likely to be achieved by members of groups that cooperate.

    Game theory has given us a clear example of the benefits of cooperation in “Prisoner’s Dilemma”. Two players can either cooperate or defect and thus receive greater or lesser prison sentences, depending on their choices. When the game is played repeatedly by computer simulations thousands of possibilities can be tested. One strategy called “tit for tat” surprised researchers by both its simplicity and its result. This starts out with the first player’s move is to cooperate and thereafter exactly mirroring their opponents’ move. The results quickly evolve into groups dominated by cooperators. This is known as “direct reciprocity” and is associated with the evolution of social forgiveness.

    A second mechanism that promotes cooperation in human societies is called “network reciprocity” or “spatial selection”. This occurs when neighbors and friends of a social network help one another. This is associated with society members gradually acknowledging the value of selfless behavior.

    An obvious system of forming cooperative groups is through “kin selection” where family members help one another. This includes extended family such as in-laws. The idea here is helping family members may decrease one’s own reproductive fitness, his family genes would be promoted.

    The mechanism of cooperation in a society called “group selection” is where persons help others with selfless actions for the greater good. Their only reward for altruistic behavior is the general benefit the entire tribe receives. This phenomenon was mentioned by Darwin himself in his book “The Descent of Man”.

    Another mechanism that increases cooperation is known as “indirect reciprocity”. In this case, one helps others based on the needy person’s reputation. We help those who help others. The idea is “I’ll help you now, and because my reputation follows me, if I need some help later I will be more likely to get it owing to my good reputation”. Language is the essential mechanism for the communication of information about the behavior of others to members of the group. Thus “gossip” about others is used for transmitting social information within a society. Individuals measure and judge another’s reputation as “good”, i.e., worthy of receiving cooperation or as “bad”, i.e., not deserving of any help or assistance. A person with a “bad” reputation may be a cheater, liar, or a thief. Therefore, denying assistance to the deviant would be considered by the group to be acceptable because it is a form of sanction or punishment for unacceptable behavior.
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