Re: There is No Altruism

Date: Wed Mar 23 2005 - 20:58:34 MST

On Wed, 23 Mar 2005, Keith Henson wrote:

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

It doesn't look like altruism, it is altruism.

> 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.)

The math is being very over simplified here. The number of identical
versions of genes we share with someone does not fall off at this rate. Self
sacrifice to save some reasonably number small of humans picked at random,
will still tend to favor the propogation of your genes, because amongst
that random sample will be multiple copies of your particular versions of

We end up with two competing curves:

1) How many of your versions of a gene can be duplicated by helping
    someone else.

2) How many of your versions of a gene can be duplicated by pushing
    them out of the way to make room for more relatives.

In both cases altruism is involved, in the first of a nice variety and
in the second of a not so nice variety. Going to war rarely benefits those
who do the fighting personally, and has a high risk of death and severe

The intersection of these curves is the point between 'nice' and 'nasty'
altruism, cooperation vs. war. Of course we arn't just gene carriers,
we are meme carriers as well, the difference between a cave man and a
modern human is memes, and these can be quickly transfered far beyond
boundaries of close genetic relations.

> 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.

There are no unrelated people. There is only the balance I mention above,
a competition resources played off against the fact that we are all related
to each other to varying extents.

This goes beyond humans even, lets say you where the last human alive,
space aliens gave you a choice. You could live out the rest of your
natural life, but they would destroy all non human life. Or you could die
and they would spare all non human life. Sacrificing yourself is the only
way to keep some of your genes in the gene pool, since you share them to
an extent with other earthly life forms. I believe most peoples instinct
would be to sacrifice themselves for the sake of non human earth based

> 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.

No quite the opposite. We are on the verge of expanding into space.
Because of this curve #1 above dominates over #2, however our instincts
are leading us to put much more effort into fighting over earths resources
than into getting human habitation established in space.

> 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 anyway.)
> 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.

I think your still trying too hard to make altruism not real. The simple
fact that we die makes altruism rather than self interest our primary
driving instinct. However this is not always a nice instinct, there is
always a tension between 'nice' and 'nasty' altruism. Do you help someone,
thus helping to propagate genes/memes you share with them, or do you bump
them off and try to replace them with someone who shares more genes/memes
with you.

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