Re: There is No Altruism

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed Mar 23 2005 - 18:35:59 MST

At 02:26 PM 23/03/05 -0500, you wrote:

>It has been interesting to see the chats concerning the self-proclaimed
>altruism of Eleizer and the differing view proposed by Robert Ettinger
>(originator of the Cryonics Organization in Michigan).


I am surprised that the responses to the original post don't mention
William Hamilton's inclusive fitness or evolutionary psychology.

The root of what looks like altruism is selfish genes, evolved to do the
best the can with whatever nastiness nature deals out.

The classic example is that we have evolved to make the ultimate sacrifice
of dying if it will save relatives from dying. In particular, over the
eons we have evolved to give up our lives doing so would save more than two
sibs, more than 4 half sibs or more than 8 cousins. (Or some mix of
relatives where you rate sibs as being worth 1/2 of your own value, half
sibs as 1/4 etc.)

Of course, humans didn't come with genetic analysis kits during the stone
age, so our ancestors had to do with such information as they had at hand,
valuing those they grew up with as somewhere between sibs and half sibs and
the rest of the tribe as between cousins and second cousins (on average).

Thus to save the rest of the human race (which maxes out "relatives") Robin
and I would be willing to make an ultimate sacrifice. It's simply the way
our genes have built our psychological traits.

Altruism between unrelated people can be considered a misfiring of the
evolved psychological traits. We just don't live in related tribes to the
extent we did in the stone age so we treat others better than their
relatedness to us would justify in gene terms.

Another aspect of what is sometimes called altruism is "reciprocal
altruism." The best non primate example of this is vampire bats.

Then there is status "altruism." People are strongly wired up by genes to
strive for social status. We are largely descended from people (men
mostly) who obtained attention and high status by killing large animals
and the whole tribe feasting off their kills. The high status got them a
wife (or second/third wife). Bill Gates gives away money even though he
doesn't convert doing so into more offspring. (Well, not that I know about

To the extent "pure" altruism exists, it is a misfiring of psychological
mechanisms that usually worked to enhance "inclusive fitness" in our hunter
gatherer past.

It's really not a mystery.

Keith Henson

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