A Conversation on Evolution, Altruism and the Greater Good

It started off as a simple and purely scientific question about the accuracy of a comment I made on an earlier post, but quickly developed into something far more interesting. This was the prompt:

  1. […]One of the problems I have with evolution is that it champions the survival of the fittest in nature. How does this tie in with society? Comment by James | July 30, 2008
  2. Society, almost by definition, is not meant to emulate nature. It is meant to better it, by providing a framework for mutually beneficial cooperation and some scope for “humanitarian impulses”. Evolutionary Stable Strategies are strategies that each individual should pursue to maximize their value while minimizing losses. Frequently, you will find that in a society of perfectly cooperating individuals(one which uses some form of the “honor system”), one can use strategies that leave you open for exploitation (and are therefore not ESSs) but result in far greater gains. Of course, since we’re not all perfectly cooperating, you still get burnt if you do this too often.We use the principles of evolution in social sciences only where we admit that the competitive impulse is greater than the cooperative impulse i.e. the desire to make a quick buck is greater than the desire not to hurt other people, such as in typical stock market behaviour. )
    To truly observe the working of evolution we have to look at a species in a state of nature. No one, by the way, is arguing that you should revert to this state. Pretty much all evolutionary biologists(and I’m not one, so forgive the inexactness of my answer) appreciate the comforts that society enables. They just argue that this is the way our original, ancestral instincts would have us behave. And enough people do follow them, as should be increasingly obvious every time you see the news.

    Does this help? I’m really not an expert, so if you’re curious there is a wealth of good literature that would explain this far better than I can. Comment by ramblingperfectionist | July 30, 2008 <!– @ 11:39 am –>

  3. And on the whole eugenics issue, which is probably what you meant in the first place, I can only say that
    a) I don’t know the details, but I’m pretty sure it’s been considered bad science for a while now, and not just because of the moral implications; and even if it wasn’t,
    b) Science is a tool. It advocates no positions. It doesn’t call for absolute obedience. It presents information with which to make choices, which you must combine with information from other sources (empathy towards fellow human beings, for instance. Or, as in Hitler’s case, disgust at (an) entire race(s)) to make “human” decisions. Don’t blame physicists for the atom bomb. Blame those who chose to drop it. Or, for that matter, fund it. Maybe not the best example, but you get my point, I’m sure.

And this is the conversation:

Nikhil:
do me a favour?
Srivats:
?
Nikhil:
go to my blog, the “sort of like indexed” post, and see if my last 2 comments make sense from a biological/evolutionary point of view
Srivats:
put link
new comp
Nikhil:

Srivats:
the second does, the first doesn’t
Nikhil:
thats what i thought, but I’m a little sleepy. explain?
Srivats:
simple… survival of the fittest is the ultimate truth.. I don’t live in society because i have to for the betterment of my species.. i care two hoots for the species.. i only live in society for the betterment of my own life.. the moment this objective seems to be impossible, society can go to hell, for all i care
Nikhil:
true. but meanwhile society provides these benefits by sort of working around it, right? I specifically meant my little example of using not quite ESSs to survive in society
Srivats:
that may be… but if u don’t take ‘undue’ advantage of society, ur an evolutionary fool
Nikhil:
by imposing externalities such as law and prison
lol. but my point is that most people are
and that that’s probably a good thing
Srivats:
no it isnt
i would for once love to see a society in which everyone tries to screw everyone else
that is how evolution works
with no competition, no evolution
Nikhil:
u don’t see the possibility of some middle ground between future idiocracies and cutthroat competition?
Srivats:
no
Nikhil:
🙂 k. i will choose to disagree, if only coz im in a good mood
Srivats:
uh huh
a world which doesn’t move forward, moves backward
same applies for a species
Nikhil:
true. but u can always sacrifice the PACE for carrying more people along
Srivats:
if we dont evolve, we ‘devolve’… the word is frowned upon by biologists, but may be appropriate here
why? how do other people concern me, except insofar they serve as tools for my betterment?
Nikhil:
THAT certainly is a matter of opinion.
u don’t have to go to some new age yogic extent of “we are all connected” to believe in some form of altruistic instinct
Srivats:
not if u live in a evolutionary faithful situation
altruism is crap
Nikhil:
i think i made the point that we were trying not to
Srivats:
it doesn’t exist, as simple as that
anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that there is NO truly unselfish act
ever..
Nikhil:
point I’m trying to make is that u dont have to be entirely selfless to want to help other people
Srivats:
sometimes payback may be subtle, delayed, even… but when we perform an action, we always expect payback
if u want to survive in society as it exists today, you are expected to
and i notice ‘entirely selfless’… implying you are expected to be at least a lil selfless
my point is no compromise, AT ALL
Nikhil:
which is perfectly fine. but would you deny that some people might make choices that limit their gain to avoid someone else’s far greater loss? or to provide far greater gain to someone else.
Srivats:
that is the evolutionarily sound strategy
superficially,maybe
Nikhil:
ok, the perfectly fine was for the “truly unselfish part” bit, not the no compromise bit 🙂
and I’m saying u can BETTER an ESS
Srivats:
my parents do that all the time, it superficially looks unselfish… but do u realise that they are only bettering the chances of their genes being propagated
its not a conscious act, mind
but its there, nonetheless
Nikhil:
what about my grandmother giving money to educate the maid’s son?
Srivats:
loyalty
from the maid
is what is expected.. ergo, she doesn’t have to do work, increases lifespan
Nikhil:
so that’s not entirely unselfish. like i said. but i doubt loyalty from the maid is enough to compensate, at least in her mind. or from a rational point of view
Srivats:
many other compensations, from the benefactee, from society in general may be expected… i don’t say that i can rationalise all actions… i only say whether i can or not, the rationale exists
just because i can’t see it, doesnt mean its not true
Nikhil:
just because you can’t see the altruistic impulse doesn’t mean it’s not there
Srivats:
altruism is not logical, what i said is
there is a world of difference
in the end, pure cold logic prevails
at least in my mind
Nikhil:
but not necessarily elsewhere. and you don’t have to bring in mysticism to explain it, either. simple uncertainty is enough.
but maybe that’s besides the point.

And it ended there, partly because I didn’t know how to continue any further but mostly because the connection got cut. Does anybody have any comments? Specifically, any reasons/motivations for being altruistic that do not depend on religion? I don’t need watertight arguments, just coherent ones. Hopefully, something that depends on some form of logic. Emotional appeals are acceptable only if they are undeniably moving. And I don’t think that will be very easy.

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33 thoughts on “A Conversation on Evolution, Altruism and the Greater Good

  1. I think as you said in your previous comments you consider yourself to be a christian. Surely this is why you are able to marry the science of evolution with the reality of society? Your point must be that God used evolution and we are formed it such a way that we know right from wrong and therefore sometimes act altrusitically. Also your belief in a God gives you a standard by which to judge right from wrong. I am presuming throughout this that the people you were conversing with in the second conversation would consider themselves athiests? I can’t see how an athiest can tie altruism in with evolution because they have no explanation for its existence. Surely, from their point of view, all people with altruistic tendencies would have become extinct ages ago?

  2. Coherent enough, but because my friend is an atheist, and because I have no interest in converting him, and because I’m honestly not that sure (either way; it’s PROBABLY what you said it is, but not by much) whether my point is truly what you said it is, I’d still like to stick to the restrictions. My friend, by the way, is someone who has definite standards by which to judge right and wrong, so a moral compass is not the issue here. Pretty much all the atheists I know and are on good terms with have very well defined ideas of right and wrong.

    The question here is whether one could find an argument for ALTRUISM-expending one’s energy for another’s sake- without recourse to some divine law. Any takers? I think some elementary psychology/motivation theory might be necessary here, and I don’t know enough.

  3. Okay, I’m ready now.

    Let me start with saying, I’m afraid that I can’t really give you any arguments for altruism, or let’s say selfless altruism. [Meaning here: Altruism – doing good things for others. Selfless Altruism – doing good things for others and not expect anything in return.] That’s because I’m more inclined to think that there’s no such thing, just as your friend thinks.

    But I wanted to add a couple of things to the discussion:

    I don’t think that there’s a need for selfless altruism. If I do good, I do good [whatever that may be], my motivation doesn’t matter for the outcome. Whether it’s that I expect some kind of spiritual/religious reward or I expect more earthly things in return or I expect nothing at all [which, as I already said, I think is highly unlikely], I do good. And the person I help will benefit from that, hopefully.
    The motivation only becomes important, when I want to motivate people or myself to do something altruistic [or anything at all, really]. Then it becomes vital to know, what a person needs to get started.

    As for “any reasons/motivations for being altruistic that do not depend on religion”, I think it all comes down to sex and survival, the two big S that determine everything we do.
    We want to survive, so we do anything to not get hit by a bus or something.
    And, secondly, we want the species to survive, more specifically, our genes within the species. In a best case scenario, we even enhance our genes by coupling with the right person. Now, to find the right person, we do all sorts of things, most of which are there to prove that we are a good match for somebody else (intelligence, good character, beauty, …), or only to get noticed.
    And a good way to do just that, is to be altruistic – you impress people by showing what a good person you are, you prove that you can handle situations etc etc. All desirable things to mix your genepool with.
    And altruism also helps with your survival, because if you’re altruistic you can expect people to be as well. So, if you need help to ensure your survival (or comfort, which basically comes down to the same thing), you can (probably) count on the people you helped before.

    This may sound cynic, but that’s okay. I’m on a world wide campaign to prove that cynicism is not so bad, anyway ;).

    I hope that my points are clear… I’ve had too little sleep last night, so I don’t know if I’m all that coherent. If not, let me know, ask, anything!

  4. Sex-selection as motivation for altruistic or “nice guy” behaviour…very interesting, although I’m not really sure that would stand up on a biological basis, because I don’t think nice guy behaviour was considered particularly attractive in ages past. The “support net” theory is ofcourse accepted.

    I don’t need “selfless altruism” to be explained, but surely there are SOME instances where you give of yourself and expect less in return (from all the above points combined: giving a coin to a beggar when nobody you need to impress is watching just so he can get something to eat,for instance) than you are giving? Or is that only because we give what we consider negligible or because we really are spiritual enough to expect some karmic reward?

  5. I guess we would have to ask a (evolutionary) biologist to see if my sex-selection theory proves right, but for me it is logical and fits my general experience of the world.

    And nice guys are seriously underrated (in general perception), and I don’t think that that was any different in ages past, as you put it. You just have to distinguish between the fantasies about all the “asshole”-types (as opposed to the nice guy) and the actual reality. I think that more often than not, you end up with the nice partner and not with the asshole one.
    [Just ask any girl if a guy, who knows how to deal with kids and likes to deal with kids, is attractive.]

    But I think you said the key word already: “but surely there are SOME instances where you give of yourself and expect [em]less[/em] in return”.
    I don’t think that you always expect exactly what you gave to be given back to you, somehow. I think it can be less from time to time. But it’s never nothing.

    As for the example with the beggar: You never know who’s watching ;).
    To tell the truth, I think that usually you give something to people begging, because they make you uncomfortable, because they remind you that not everybody’s doing well and you quell your conscience with what you give. Which is also a reward.
    Whether karma gets involved or not, depends on if you believe in karma. 🙂

  6. Altruism need not entirely be a means of “impressing people” so as to gain an advantage in reproduction though it certainly has a role. IMHO, altruism and societal values will naturally have evolved in any species since it leads to an emergent stability within the species. This requirement of emergent stability can be interpreted as the most raw form of morality you can conceive of, the kind of morality that is independent of any scribblings on paper or voices from the sky – the atheist’s morality.

    Crudely speaking, a caveman would gain maximum individual benefit if he went around killing all the other cavemen in their sleep and later slept with all the other cavewomen. A little thought would reveal that this would lead to less evolutionary productivity (more individuals adapted to the environment). Hence evolution would gradually place a check on that sort of aggresive behaviour – which means an altruistic gene would appear later on. Evolution thus cant always be analysed from the view of an individual. There are non-trivial emergent phenomena.

    Of course, none of this applies to the modern human species. (Go figure) 🙂

  7. Aside: If you’ve got 2 blogs under one username, how do you direct links from your username (lumeno) to the new blog you just made?

  8. @kalafudra
    I’m nice,20 and a virgin. I rest my case.

    @lumeno
    “Emergent stability” seems to make sense, but since evolution takes place only at the “gene” level and not at the individual level(never mind the entire SPECIES, which is what you’re talking about) it doesn’t hold water on its own. I quote, from the same source as the whole conversation:

    “The only reason the caveman doesn’t go around killing random people, is because he’s too busy watching his own back and the equilibrium, instead of being an offensive one, is a defensive one. Ergo, the so called social sense, from which would later spring altruism”

  9. @ramblingperfectionist:
    I’m a nice girl, 23 and it’s been a long time since I could last say that I was a virgin. And I only ever had nice guy boyfriends. 🙂

    @lumeno:
    I don’t think that there is one “atheist’s morality”, and I don’t think that there is a platonic idea of morality either, which is what your atheist’s morality sounds like.

    Not going around to kill other people or do other such things works as long as it benefits me. As soon as it doesn’t anymore, all that keeps me from doing it (if anything keeps me from doing it), is the values and morality that I got taught. I don’t think that there is any such thing as inherent or genetic altruism or morality.

    And the thing is that evolutionary principles do apply to the human species as well as to any other species. I don’t think that humans are some kind of super race, who can exempt themselves from that principle. The only thing that probably makes humans super, is their ability to cover up these principles and make life more complicated. [Which is a good thing, in my opinion. Wouldn’t want it any differently.]

  10. Risking coming off as incoherent, how is the beggar example not a show of altruism? Sure, there are junta who do it to impress others for sex or whatever it is that they want and there are others who do it just because they get queasy around them. But are you saying there isn’t a single person who does it just because he/she wants the person begging to get something to eat and does not expect anything in return?

    Also, the Evolution argument of survival is no doubt true but not all encompassing. We as a species have evolved to a stage where these “rules” of behavior or evolution have been broken. Even something as fundamental as survival. How else would you explain the act of killing oneself(like in a suicide)? They are not very common and neither is “true” altruism but they do very much exist.

  11. @sushi:
    I didn’t say that the beggar example was not altruism. I just support the idea that there’s no such thing as selfless altruism, meaning that you do expect something in return, somehow. Whatever it is you expect, is up to the person giving and may not always be clear, but I’m sure it’s there.

    As for suicide: I don’t think that I can generalise an answer here, but I guess that most people commiting suicide hope to gain something with that, even if it’s “only” an end to their suffering. [And if you think that life is not worth living, why would you want to support survival?]

  12. Sorry to interrupt the conversation.

    I have this discussion frequently with my SO.

    My position is that altruism, in its original definition, does not exist. Humans are wired to either seek pleasure or avoid pain. That regardless of doing something nice for someone else without expectation of reward….we still receive one in the form of that warm fuzzy feeling we get.

    He finally agrees that there s no such thing as selfless altruism (that only took a year), but that there’s such a thing as what he calls “functioning altruism,” which you’ve described above. I think that can easily be explained with the term “generosity,” since altruism is supposed to be, by definition, selfless.

    I think, as humans, we’re uncomfortable with the idea that altruism isn’t real. I think we like and need to believe it exists, and the term generosity somehow just isn’t quite good enough. We’re still arguing. I’ll let you know if we come to any conclusions.

    Just my $.02

  13. Hello, leftcoastlibrul, and thanks for your $0.02. Are u, like everyone else who has commented thus far, someone I have at least a passing acquaintance with? Just checking…anyway, what does SO stand for?

    By the way, I’m quite sure that altruism exists, even to the level of completely dedicating your life to better that of some other people and gaining (or expecting to gain) nothing in return, except that this is usually for some spiritual and/or religious reason. I wanted to find some OTHER motivation for “uncalculated” altruism i.e. for performing an act which you think will give to you far less direct benefit (except the possible “karmic” kind, which I’m dismissing, just because I want to have a complicated argument 🙂 ) than will compensate for the effort that you are putting in. So far, we have religious reasons for “selfless” altruism(1st comment), and several quite sensible reasons for giving of yourself when you expect something approximately equal in return(kalafudra, lumeno), but not exactly what I stated above. Perhaps it doesn’t exist, as so many people contend. But I figure I don’t have to settle it right now 🙂

  14. @kalafudra:
    Maybe I shouldn’t have called it an atheist’s morality. What I meant is the ethical code which is independent of anything a person acquires as he/she grows up. I suspect such a thing does exist and came out of the requirement that populations be stable against the aggressive behaviour of individuals.

    Also, when I said none of this applies to modern man, I wanted to emphasise on “modern”. There is no scope for organic evolution today since there really isnt any struggle for existence. Almost everyone lives to an old age and reproduces. Society ensures this, even in developing nations. Any sort of variation can arise only in demographic trends which indeed suggest only a sort of de-evolution.

  15. Hi, there. No, I don’t believe we know each other. I actually came across your blog while I was tag surfing. 🙂

    I’m not sure we can really point altruism at religion, as I am an atheist and get warm fuzzies when I do things for people (paying the toll for the person behind me, etc). It isn’t about religious feeling. It’s about doing something nice for another person. But there’s still the expectation of that good feeling.

  16. @lumeno:
    I don’t think that there is any such ethical code. Ethics and morale, in my opinion, are completely learned things and not inherent.
    But I guess, we can agree to disagree on that one.

    And it may not be a struggle for existence in the “western world”. But in Mozambique, for example, life expectancy doesn’t even scratch the 40s. I wouldn’t call that old age.

    And what do you mean be de-evolution?

    @rambling…
    Sorry to butt in again on this, I think I made my point before, but I just had to say this.

    You said: “I’m quite sure that altruism exists, even to the level of completely dedicating your life to better that of some other people and gaining (or expecting to gain) nothing in return, except that this is usually for some spiritual and/or religious reason.”

    Spiritual and/or religious reasons usually are the reward, the thing that the people expect in return. Like they want to go to heaven or want to be reborn closer to Nirvana or whatever. That may be not valid reasons for someone, who doesn’t believe in those kind of things, but are very good reasons for someone who does.

  17. It’s an interesting article, but the definition seems different. Per that wiki cite:

    “In the science of ethology (the study of behavior), and more generally in the study of social evolution, altruism refers to behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor.[1].”

    It seems that again, subjective definition of the word “altruism” is what’s most in play.

  18. @kalafudra (@lumeno):
    Actually, since all that really matters for evolution is that u have children and pass on your genes, and since people in the third world actually have more children than in the west, 40 is quite long enough. Most people stop having kids by the time they are 40 anyway.
    (@me):
    People who do, say, missionary work don’t think that their family(who I assume are “good” and religious people) back home have a substantially reduced chance of getting to heaven/nirvana than themselves(I think.) The additional advantage (on the getting to heaven thing) they gain from their work is probably less, for them, than the additional effort they put in. So I think the “warm fuzzies” must be at least partially at play. Which, by the way, I was not considering a reward, simply because it is not a precalculated one. Or is it? I know that spending money on a beggar or time on giving someone who asks directions are usually entirely thoughtless acts for me. Is it different for other people?

    @Kaushik
    Actually, was aware of (most of the contents of) this page, and so was Srivats, I think. At least, the kin selection (whereby you should always sacrifice your life for that of an identical twin with more chance of reproductive success, 2 or more siblings with m.c.o.r.s, etc), reciprocity (support net theory), etc. Which wasn’t what I was referring to, because that involves clear, hard wired rewards. But there seem to be a few examples that can’t be explained so easily. Thanks for the link 🙂

  19. Lol. We didn’t actually settle anything, so if you have some decent explanation (or if you can just make some coherent argument/summary out of the exchange on this page), it’s hardly too late.

  20. @kalafudra:
    What I meant by de-evolution is, I think, already mentioned fleetingly in Nikhil’s post (“future idiocracies”). The average IQ of the world population shows a decreasing trend. One of the reasons may be that people with lower IQs tend to (or decide to) have more children – which in turn leads to a sort of natural selection, but a disadvantageous one.

  21. 😀 Point taken. But the thing is, some people clearly “give” more than others. Is that simply their not understanding how this works, or placing too little/ too much faith in the “support net” theory?

  22. I think that there are no people who continuously give more than they receive. It wouldn’t be feasible. But if they did, it would be more because of placing too much faith in the “support net” theory, wouldn’t it?

  23. Sure there are(the religious people), but we started out by excluding them 🙂 . At least, there are those who give more than they receive, if not more than they expect to receive. Of course, it could also not be an explicitly religious formulation(some sort of Kantian categorical imperative, virtue ethics etc), although it sounds very much like that.

  24. Okay, I can either blow the discussion fully open again [I don’t think that there’s a difference between religious/non-religious people in that regard].
    But I think, I will focus on the discussion that’s still going on about the whole incest thing. 😉

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